We are are hiking our way through North Carolina for our holidays, freelancing some adventure after veering away from a few COVID outbreaks. The past week has seen five family members across three households and two states come down with COVID, all of whom are thankfully now feeling much better.

With the important stuff in hand, our course adjustments felt familiar from prior outdoor trips. We kicked off our impromptu week with a hike up the back side of Looking Glass Rock, near Brevard. The views were stellar, the trail was interesting, and we didn’t see many people. It was a nice transition from our city plans, a chance to work a bit for a great view. Detours to the mountains are hardly a sacrifice.

Next up, we visited Moses H Cone Memorial Park, off of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Blowing Rock. It fit some key criteria for us: it was on the way, it promised an easier day than Looking Glass, and we’d never heard of it.

The park’s Flat Top Manor has quite a bit of history. It was built by Moses and Bertha Cone in 1899-1901. Moses Cone was a textile tycoon (the “Denim King”), and the Cones wanted a summer home in the style of the Biltmore in nearby Asheville. The resulting Flat Top estate was on 3,600 acres with 25 miles of carriage roads. Moses intended to use it to showcase “scientific farming” during his retirement years. There was a large mansion, a dairy, orchards, cattle, sheep, and two stocked lakes for fishing. Oh, and a bowling alley (what’s a scientific farm without bowling?).

Moses Cone died young in 1908, so his plans to retire at Flat Top Manor never really materialized. Bertha embraced her new reality, though, and carried on the vision. For the next four decades, she demonstrated acumen for most every aspect of the business, and she and her sisters Clementine and Sophie turned Flat Top Manor into a major economic force. She also played a role in founding Appalachian State University, and was a long time proponent of higher education for all. Her accomplishments would be notable in any era, but she started at a time when women couldn’t even vote (!).

Bertha died in 1947, and she left Flat Top Manor and the surrounding land for all to enjoy–fulfilling a life-long interest in conservation. Today the estate is owned by the National Park Service and offers hiking trails, horseback riding, fishing, and tours of the mansion (in season).

We arrived for our hike to find the Blue Ridge Parkway closed due to snow, another opportunity for impromptu adventure. We parked near the gate and headed up the icy road on foot. In a mile or so, we peeled away onto a carriage road for a few miles to the summit of Flat Top and the fire tower (built in 1954). There were a few patches of snow, but our poles, gaiters, and heavy boots were total overkill.

On the way down, we made a stop at the family cemetery to pay our respects to both Bertha and Moses, as well as Bertha’s sisters Clementine and Sophie.

Car to car, our hike was about six miles and 700 feet of vertical. It was a lovely stroll, even with the extra mileage tacked on (maybe even because of that, as we didn’t see many people). The Cone family left quite a legacy; they had a hand in countless adventures over the past century, including ours.

I wish I could have spent more time with family this week–but a change of plans is a small thing, especially with so many people in the world dealing with big stuff. In time, this year’s holiday will be a footnote (if that). But history will certainly remember the pandemic. COVID has had a profound impact on so many of us, and I’ve learned a lot about important things like health, family, and friends. Maybe I could have gained that perspective in some other way, I dunno.

The gifts of the season took longer to unwrap this year, but I appreciate them. Here’s to good health for all in 2023. That’s a sentiment that would fit in any era. I’m lucky I got to carry it with me on a few more hikes.

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