Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Crowders Mountain and Fish Camp

This is for all the folks new to the Charlotte area. As a Californian who grew up near the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, one of the first things I try to do if I move to a new place is find the best hiking trails nearby. I lived in both Los Angeles and San Diego and the hiking wasn't much. I mean, it was better than nothing, but it was usually hot and dry and rocky with very few trees. I certainly missed the giant Sequoias, the back-country lakes and streams and wildlife. So, the other day I was introduced to Crowders Mountain State Park. The park is located just outside of Gastonia, NC; about 45 minutes drive from Charlotte.

I was pretty excited about having a state park practically in my backyard so, last Sunday, after church my wife and I ate a quick lunch, packed some snacks and fruit and headed down the Interstate toward the park. At the trail head, located next to the visitor's center, we glanced over the map, choosing the Crowders Trail to start with and then eventually switching to the Ridgetop Trail that winds across soft level ground giving way to steeper climbs leading to the top. The peak of the mountain is craggy with rock formations that jut upward like a saw blade offering views of the vast surrounding countryside. Unfortunately though, without leaves on the trees you also get views of the creeping "progress" of housing developments and warehouse structures scattered throughout. I did my best to ignore that part and also the amount of dogs people brought out onto the trail.

view from one of the peaks on Crowders Mountain

I love dogs, my parents have a dog, she's great, but I've always had a problem with hikers bringing their dogs hiking with them. In my opinion, it breaks the serenity and beauty of the place when you watch two leashed dogs approach each other on the trail as their owners do their best to reign them in, they sniff behinds (the dogs do), and then commence to snarling as the owners reprimand them.

We found ourselves on the trail following a couple who had a great big dog that I thought I heard them call "Horse" and it was almost comical watching them lift this poor dog up through the trail's rock formations. The man would try to lift the dog's front legs up to the next step as the woman, who was standing higher up on the rock tried to pull the dog up to her level. The man then tried lifting Horse's hind end as the his back paws clumsily scratched at the rock trying to get a firm hold. When that didn't work the man tried to set him up on the rocks by hoisting the dog up from it's middle. He kept squirming, his back legs jabbing out like a jack-rabbit, obviously not understanding what his owners were trying to do with him. When Horse finally did get to a spot where he could stand comfortably his back legs shook like crazy, probably terrified by the whole ordeal. I stood back and watched this canine lifting ceremony wondering why they hadn't just walked their dog in the city park that morning instead of subjecting him to Crowders Mountain and then further wondered why they didn't lead the poor beast down the lower path, one that circumvented the rocky part of this trail completely, but ended up at the same place.

lichen--Crowders Mountain

Anyway, I'm not trying to get off subject. I just don't understand it. Back to the beauty and splendor of the trail.

The thing that I do appreciate about North Carolina hiking is the extreme changes in scenery during the seasons. California's mountains may have giant trees and massive peaks, but they don't have the variety of changes in the foliage. In spring, North Carolina wilderness is bursting with energy and shaking off hibernation, in summer the thick trees display deep green leaves, in fall everything turns gold and orange and red; and in winter the forest becomes cold and gray. There is a melancholy feeling in the woods during the winter. The infrequent bird calls can cut through the stillness, echoing in this sparse landscape like a hammer striking an anvil. The trees are bare and their trunks come out of the dense leaf compost like concrete columns.

lower section of the Crowders Trail

We ate our apples and energy bars at the top and took a few pictures then hiked back down a trail stairway along the Backside Trail, eventually rejoining the Crowders Trail. By the time we reached the visitor's center we calculated that we had covered about 4 1/2 miles, not bad for a little afternoon hike.

My wife and I at the top of Crowders Mountain. A note to all my Carlsbad friends: If you look closely you'll see I'm sporting my Pollos Maria hat* (see footnote).

A company store building, built in 1890, found just outside of the Crowders Mountain State Park.

Hunger was now setting in. My wife, who has the metabolism of a hummingbird, was starving. Earlier, while driving through Gastonia we had spotted signs for a fish restaurant called "The Captain's Cap". It was a fish camp:

Now let me pause here and explain a few things to my west coast brethren about "fish camp". A few years ago my wife had tried, unsuccessfully, to explain what her people call "fish camps". I had NO idea what that was. She laid out in perfect detail the decor of fish camps, the type of food served at fish camps, the candy shelves next to the cash register, the fishing nets and trophy catches on the walls, the rustic wooden booth seats or tables aged to look like they had been gleaned from a torn down wharf. Sometimes there was a fisherman statue carved out of wood, painted and standing outside to greet customers. The only guess I could come up with was Long John Silver. She laughed. I tried Red Lobster. She shook her head. When I visited Memphis awhile back (before moving to North Carolina), I called her convinced I had finally understood what a fish camp was. I said, "Is it like Captain D's?" More laughter. I've come to realize now that fish camps are very, very rare in California and when Californians see one they sure don't call it a fish camp. Now that I think back--no longer a fish camp green-horn--I seem to recall eating at a restaurant that fit the above description on the coast of Oregon somewhere.

The Captain's Cap sign outside the restaurant

So the Captain's Cap billboards led us to smaller signs which directed us along winding back roads. "Make a left at the old church," one sign read. It seemed like we were out in the middle of nowhere with nothing around us except this old church and a vacant trailer park. But sure enough as we rounded a curve and came over a hill, there nestled in a little valley was The Captain's Cap.

It was a true fish camp. The menu featured several different combinations of fried fish and sides. I chose the catfish and flounder combo with onion rings. My wife went with her favorite, popcorn shrimp. We shared an order of hushpuppies between us and drank water to counteract the effects of the fried food. The staff was fast and very friendly and the fish was gooood. The average age of the patrons was probably about 65 and most were white-haired. One group was celebrating a birthday. The birthday boy who was probably about 70 received a giant, brightly colored birthday card and every time he or someone else opened the card, the card would "sing" out, "Cel-e-brate good times! C'mon!.....Celebrate good times!.........Celebrate good.......Celebrate good....."

fish camp

When we were done feeding like hungry sharks, we pulled ourselves up out of the booth and slowly moved toward the cashier. In true fish camp fashion the cash register sat right next to the candy shelves, with gum and candy bars for sale and tiny complimentary calendars reading "Captain's Cap'' with monthly pages you can tear off. My wife was in fish-camp-nostalgia heaven as we added a couple of peppermint patties to our bill.

We walked back to our car through a little maze of GM made vehicles and driving past the old church and the trailer park, in a heavy fried fish stupor, we got back out to the highway and headed home to Charlotte.

*Pollos Maria is a Mexican restaurant in Carlsbad, CA that specializes in serving char-broiled chicken. One day, while I was at Pollos Maria ordering food, I asked the cashier if they were selling the hats that the employees were wearing. He said yes, but that he thought there was only one left and it was for sale for $2. Two dollars? That's it? So I reached in my pocket pulled out the cash and handed him the money. He reached behind the counter and gave me the hat. The first thing I noticed about it was that it was slightly stained with grease. No big deal. I figured I would use the hat for hiking or working in the yard anyway. Then discovered that someone had written the name "Faustino Danger" under the bill. Still, no big deal. But when I walked away from the counter, I saw printed on the receipt for my order, the cashier's name-- Faustino.

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