The grandest corner of God’s creation

STONE MOUNTAIN — I made a point to drop by the park visitor’s center yet again to have another look around. But this time I stopped with purpose.

The center is a fine office and museum with a wood-frame design that fits in well with the magnificent natural surroundings here at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The slate-blue, two-story center would fit in well among the vacation homes in Blowing Rock. It’s extra-large wooden deck with a sliver of a view of Stone Mountain begs for some rocking chairs.

It surprised me when they told me the center is not yet 20 years old. Time flies.

And then I tried to imagine a new visitor’s center, planned next door.

It’s included in a $2.85 billion bond package that the governor is pushing. We await to see if the legislature will go along and put the package on the ballot for required voter approval.

Bonds, by the way, are the way that governments borrow money for building projects like a new visitor’s center, somewhat like the way you or I might borrow money for a mortgage or a car.

They had grand plans for Stone Mountain and the environs when they created the park back in 1969. What the state got at the beginning was a very large rock, lots of woodland, the upper reaches of Roaring River and tributaries, and one rough dirt road.

They’ve done a good job with the place over the years. Not too much development (think Stone Mountain in Georgia) and not too little.

I remember that back in the beginning they talked about building a lake here. It’s fine by me that they never did it. There are plenty of lakes elsewhere. I like the thought of the mountain streams flowing free.

But they did pave most of the road through the park, built trails and added accoutrements like the fine staircase beside Stone Mountain Falls. It was a nice touch to get Junior Johnson to build a little, model moonshine still in the visitor’s center.

From the proposed state bond package, all we’re set to get here in the Tri-Counties is a new visitor’s center here with a price tag of nearly $1.8 million. And another visitor’s center, visitor’s shuttle and parking improvements with a price tag of nearly $6 million at Pilot Mountain State Park in eastern Surry County.

The plans are centennial projects for the park system’s 100th anniversary in 2016, Pilot Mountain park Superintendent Matt Windsor told me in an e-mail.

Frankly, other areas of the state are to get a whole lot more.

They pack a lot into the little, upper-floor visitor’s center here. A big, stuffed black bear stands sentinel over Johnson’s still, a hand loom, an interesting display of mountain life with stories and a collection of implements, an aquarium with one lonely trout, a rack of T-shirts and other gift items for sale, and an art room where a pretty quilt hangs and, when I was here, one super butterfly collection.

Plans call for turning the current visitor’s center into a community center and classrooms for school groups.

A new center’ll be nice, I’m sure. For that price, it should be.

But let’s face it. Nobody comes here for a fancy visitor’s center.

Man cannot build anything that can compare to the 600-foot-plus granite dome and the crystal-clear trout streams and the scent left by the rain that fell just prior to my morning arrival and the waves of Yellow Swallowtail butterflies that fluttered all over the place.

The outdoors keep me coming back to this gorgeous place. The 15 minutes I spent inside the visitor’s center were 15 minutes I did not get to spend outside in the hometown area’s grandest corner of God’s creation.

No, I wanted to be outdoors in the warm, late-spring sunshine and the fresh air and the cool, shaded forest and the beauty that enveloped me.

I think that’s what folks come for. As proof I saw plenty of folks around.

For instance, during this trip I:

* was treated to a flock of Yellow Swallowtails feasting on a dried pool of yellow pollen at the low end of the trailhead parking lot. Fascinating. I wasn’t the only one taking photos.

* came upon a black snake crossing the pavement. He looked me over for about 30 seconds and then just slid along his merry way, in no hurry despite my hovering over him, perhaps headed for a drink in Roaring River or maybe to have some fun with some kids fishing nearby. Maybe it was my imagination, but I like to think that the ol’ black snake got a kick out of my whipping out my pocket camera and shooting video.

* propped one foot on an oak and another foot on what may have been a young hickory tree and closed my eyes and relaxed in my canvas chair while being sang to a doze by a bubbling Stone Mountain Creek.

How can you improve upon that? It would take more than $1.8 million.

Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.

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