Guided by The Pilot, for 50 years

By Stephen Harris - For The Tribune
Stephen Harris Back In The Hometown -

I had made it to The Pilot. A tall, wooden, rickety, white wooden staircase clung to a side of the big rock. I so wanted to follow the men up the stairs to the top of the commanding monadnock but Mom wouldn’t let me. Too dangerous, she felt, though I wonder if the 25-cent charge had something to do with it.

So I had to watch Dad and Uncle and some cousins ascend up to the heavens.

I never had another chance to climb The Pilot.

That first trip of mine to Pilot Mountain was circa 1960. I took one young-boyhood trip before North Carolina made the most prominent peak in the hometown area a state park, in 1968.

One of the first things that the park folks did after taking over from private ownership and exhibition was to tear down those old, uncertain stairs up the side of the 200-foot-tall quartzite capstone, which as a kid I called The Biscuit. Still do.

Next, the park folks closed off The Biscuit to protect the sensitive environment up there, as they explained at the time. They protect a raven breeding ground and five types of rare plants.

So I’ve never even seen photos taken from the top, adding to the Big Pinnacle’s mystery. Instead, photos of The Pilot — and they have been countless — show views from the upper parking lot or from the trail around the base, or they show panoramic views from the valley below.

All my life I’ve had to admire The Pilot from afar. There’s a spot just down the road from the house where on a clear day I can get a glimpse of him through a small break in some woods. The sight always delights me.

Traveling up Highway 52 out of Winston-Salem I look for The Pilot, and when I spot him I know I’m gettin’ close to home. I also look for him after leaving Mountain Park en route to Dobson. The Pilot jumps up over the horizon as I approach the middle school.

My beloved Boston Terrier, dying of cancer, took his last camping trip with us to The Pilot, in 1982.

Closer to home, Stone Mountain near Traphill is tucked away at the foot of the Blue Ridge and for the most part is hidden from view except for one good look from above at Air Bellows Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Shy Stone Mountain makes us work to find him.

But The Pilot stands out there big and bold, inviting all to see and admire, from the west end of the little Sauratown Mountain range. He’s frequently popping up on the horizon to the east as we drive around the hometown area.

They say that Indians were guided by the Pilot. The local Saura Indians called it Great Guide, translated as Pilot by Europeans.

It served as the area’s first tourist attraction. Before the Revolutionary War, pioneers traveling on the Great Wagon Road and descending the mountain from present-day Roanoke, Virginia, were advised to look for it.

In school they sold us students health insurance from Pilot Life, a company out of Greensboro. During Pilot Life’s heyday in the ’60s, it aired commercials with a catchy theme song during ACC basketball games on TV that featured a pilot at the wheel of a sailing ship. But those commercials always prompted me to remember our mountain, not the sea.

“Cold Mountain” novelist and Asheville native Charles Frazier in 1997 mentioned The Pilot, though not by name, in his popular Civil War tale.

They’re throwing a big shindig at Pilot Mountain State Park next Tuesday in observance of the park’s 50th anniversary. (I await to see what they’ll do for Stone Mountain State Park’s 50th anniversary next year.)

Good for them. The highlight will be a reenactment of opening day in 1968.

Also, Wake Forest University will be flying drones. If they won’t let me climb up on top of The Biscuit, maybe at least they’ll show me a bird’s eye view. That would be great. I’ll be expecting to fly their drone, since my stepson won’t let me near his.

Happy 50th birthday, Mr. Pilot. We’re glad that you’re being looked after quite well by the fine North Carolina park system.

May you continue your watch over us Here in the Hometown, and may you continue to guide us, continue as our Pilot, for many more generations.

Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.

Stephen Harris Back In The Hometown Harris Back In The Hometown

By Stephen Harris

For The Tribune