It is Sunday morning, and I’m sitting at a conference-sized table with an almost-done Ravensburger 1,000-piece puzzle centered on its wooden surface. As I sit here guests — sleepy and waiting for breakfast at 8 — stop and spend a minute or two trying to find a piece (of the puzzle) that fits.
The table is just beyond a sofa that faces a stone hearth large enough to completely embrace a Honda Fit. And within that huge space is an actual, well-tended, early-morning fire.
The stone fireplace was built by Cherokee stonemasons in 1922. The Chestnut paneling giving this large room its warm, secure feeling was installed by Amos and Lillian Frye in 1923. And for many years thereafter Amos and Lillian tended to small town bankers, Southern business people and the occasional celebrity (Bill Tilden) who somehow made their way to the Fryemont Inn located above Bryson City, N.C.
I’m sitting in this pleasant room with 15 other early-risers who have come for their complimentary coffee. They are here because there are no coffee machines in the rooms. Nor are there televisions, refrigerators or air conditioners in the rooms. The guest rooms are free of electronics or connection with the Internet. The fireplace, conversation and coffee are all here in the lobby — and it is the lobby where one gravitates, and then lingers, while staying at the Fryemont.
My wife, my son and I found the Fryemont Inn 35 years ago. We came seeking serious hiking trails and some respite from Beaufort’s relentless heat. We found nearby (almost vertical) trails; and Mt. Leconte; and the mysterious Alum Caves on the way to the top of Leconte.
And then we found Deep Creek.
My son, Zach, was 8 or 9, and I wanted something beyond Jungle Golf at Myrtle Beach; or a fiberglass “log flume” at Carowinds; or an inverted roller coaster at Busch Gardens. In those long gone days I was looking for excitement; a way to bond with my son; and wanted an organic alternative to Space Mountain at Disneyland.
I wanted speed — and, yes, a little bit of danger — and found these things plunging down a frigid, boulder-strewn mountain stream (Deep Creek) in an inner tube.
But there was something else.
At the Fryemont, dinner and breakfast are included in the price of the room. Dinner is usually some variation on trout; breakfast is not your rushed, abbreviated afterthought involving cold cereal, yogurt and make-your-own-waffles.
Because the meals are paid-for, one finds their way to the dining room (it also comes with a Honda-sized fireplace) and re-lives the day’s outdoor experience. This is the moment to relax, have that second Merlot, and embellish the boulder-bouncing ride down Deep Creek. Or expand and lend detail to the hand-over-hand, cable-assisted climb up to the Alum Caves.
In order to enhance these story-sharing opportunities there are several large, 12- to 14-place tables that can seat an entire family.
One often sees the arthritic, slightly annoyed patriarch at the head of the table — he has paid the tab for his extended family — listening to his son-in-law frame that day’s hike in a way that underscores the boy’s exaggerated self-importance. He will never understand why his daughter married this boring, self-centered boy.
The Fryemont is not for everyone. And there are small problems like missing soap and the abrupt failure of the hot water mid-shower. But this place is a rare opportunity to linger over an actual, often used checkerboard; to engage a complete stranger in conversation; to revisit an era when hotels did not come with minibars, big screen monitors and internet connection that isolate people in their guest rooms.
As I sit here this morning my eyes wander over to a Skittle box (“Skittles is a noisy game. Please play only between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. Thank You!”) and remember my son spinning the wooden top trying to knock-down the wooden pins as the top spun from compartment to compartment. I wonder whether this is the same box that he used 35 years ago?
I see him standing there in my mind’s eye, and I wonder whether he remembers this darkly paneled room? If he remembers the evenings we spent talking and laughing over pecan-crusted trout? I wonder if he still carries those memories with him as he wanders the world?
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at email@example.com.