Thursday, August 9, 2007

You know what's fuckin' awesome? America. Part II

So I'm riding shotgun as Hollywood Squared (you remember him from the PCH, right?) and I are driving down the Blue Ridge Parkway (pictured, above), curving through the western mountains of North Carolina, and I can't help but be reminded of our last road trip (the aforementioned PCH ride). Here I am again, marveling at the beauty I see on either side of the road. No Pacific Ocean this time, but the mountains on one side and the valleys on the other certainly qualify as "Shit y'all gotta see sometime." Ever see Last of the Mohicans? Remember the last shot, of the beautiful Smoky Mountains?


Yeah, it looks like that.

As anyone who loves New York as much as I do knows, it's always great to get the hell out, even for a weekend. A nice 11-hour drive to Banner Elk, North Carolina (just outside of Boone, home of Appalachian State University, defending Division II football champs!), seemed the perfect idea, and boy is it turning out great.

We check into our hotel and, since neither of us know where the hell we are, decide we might as well take a drive. See the area. Maybe check out one of those amazing scenic overlooks to view what would surely be an amazing sunset. You know, something like this:

On our way there, though, something appears.

"Whoa! Check out that chick in the red tank top!" I say, subtly.

She walks on the opposite side of the road and turns, heading up some road we can't see since we've just driven past her. As I think of the Michelangelo-esque painting I will someday draw of her from memory, the other side of road -- which had previously just been thick woods -- suddenly opens up into a clearing, revealing a large pond and an even bigger open area. It is filled with tents and lawn chairs and tables and all kinds of genteel-looking Southerners. And is that a stage? But before we know it, the thick woods return, and we can't see a thing.

"What was that?" says H-Squared.

"I dunno. But we're going," I respond.

"Absolutely."

We quickly turn around and head back to where we saw the gorgeous red-tank-top girl entering. We turn in and weave our way through a tiny paved road which, upon straightening out, reveals a security guard at his gate. We slow down and notice a sign to the right describing some event we've (obviously) never heard of, but the kicker is: "Tickets required."

"Just go, man," I say.

We go. The guard, an elderly gent whose few remaining strands of pure white hair stick out beneath his standard security-guard hat, raises his hand. We stop. He approaches my window.

"Where can we get tickets?" I ask, before he can question us.

"Y'all don't have tickets yet?" he says, with a smirk. It is clear that by not having tickets, there's no way in hell we should be here. But then, he looks out toward the pond, now slightly visible a few hundred feet away through the thinning trees. He looks back at us and says something marvelous.

"Just go on ahead, see if y'all can get in."

We thank him and do as he says. As we continue, the woods disappear, and we can see the whole scene. And then I hear it.

"Is that an orchestra?" I ask, as we roll the windows back down.

Sure enough, there is a full 90-piece orchestra on the stage we saw earlier. And what are they playing? Struass's "Thus Spake Zarathustra." You know, the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Or Ric Flair's entrance music, for you wrestling fans.) Perhaps this evening could be...interesting

"Where the hell are we?" H-Squared asks, smiling the kind of grin you can only get when you know you're about to dive in head-first with a fuck-the-consequences attitude.

But we still don't know where the hell we are, who the hell these people are, or what the hell this "event" thing is. We manage to drive on past the next wave of security, which apparently thinks we must have tickets, having gotten this far. So we park and get out and start walking around. Everywhere we look, there are people of all ages walking around. There's a bunch of big tents set up, each with food or trinkets or something underneath -- whether they're for sale or what, we don't know -- but it seems like you have to know someone to get something, know what I mean? We walk along a path along the rear of the celebration-type-thing. In front of us are the tents, then the large open area -- now filled with people on their lawn chairs listening to the orchestra, about 200 feet farther ahead -- and the pond to our right, near where we drove in.

What should we do? Get drinks. Now.

We spot a tent which displays all sorts of beer and liquor (and a cash bar, apparently), so we march over and buy a few Michelob Lights. We walk down a small hill in the direction of the orchestra and find a small patch of open grass, and sit down.

It's beautiful. About 7 o'clock or so in the evening, a few clouds in the sky, the sun beginning to set, a nice breeze, beautiful symphonic music playing, and about 1,000 people there who we don't know. We look around, and no one seems to think we're intruders (despite our blatant underdressing). But wait -- there's one person who smells something fishy. A 12-year-old girl is eyeing us from about 10 feet away. No one else seems to even notice us, but the look on her face is clear: What the hell are you two frauds doing here?

Coincidentally, we are just finishing up our beers, so we decide to get up (and run away). I don't look over at the little girl, but I can feel her icy stare as we hurry off, trying to be discrete. We get back to the first path we were on, when it becomes clear to me.

"Okay. Time to score some free booze."

At all the tents, wine is being served. There are bottles everywhere. At a huge gathering like this, which local businesses have clearly sponsored (hence all the tents serving food and hawking products, etc.), you just have to know someone and you can get a drink, right? At this point, H-Squared and I wish we were John and Jeremy from Wedding Crashers. They'd be drinking with the town mayor in an hour, for Christ's sake. Whereas we...stand there, clueless.

H-Squared has an idea. We go back to the car and retrieve from the trunk two lawn chairs that we can carry in bags over our shoulders. This way, we can "fit in," right? But we momentarily debate whether these props will ruin our "mystique," as up to this point we have clearly looked like a few oddballs -- and drawn some unlikely stares from several young beauties. We decide that fitting in is better for getting booze, and that is the priority ("Sorry, ladies!"), so we go get the chairs and head back to the party.

At this point, the orchestra starts playing the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I love it. H-Squared isn't quite as familiar with it, but if you know the movie well, then you remember those key five notes that were so important, right? We walk around for awhile, unsure how to act. It's the South, right? So who knows? As the great Stanley Rothenstein

once said, "The laws are medieval down here."

The orchestra wraps up its first set. During intermission, we walk around "casing the place." There is clearly free booze to be had, we just have to find a way to get it. As we stand there pondering our options, a woman approaches us.

"Excuse me, but will you take a picture with my niece?" she says. H-Squared and I look down, and there's an 11-year-old girl smiling up at us. The older woman who approached us continues, "She thinks you guys are cute, but she's embarrassed to ask."

"Sure!" I say. And this adorable girl in a cute little white dress comes over and stands between us. We bend down and her aunt takes the picture, and the girl prances away giggling. All you can say when something like that happens is, "Awwwww..."

CRACK! Thunder strikes. Out of nowhere, dark gray clouds start closing in. A man gets up on stage and announces, "The next set will be starting momentarily! Please don't say the 'R' word!" ('R' for rain, in case I was unclear.) But no one seems to care. People start packing up their lawn chairs and heading for cover.

This is perfect. In the chaos of everyone moving around so suddenly, I simply walk over to a tent where I see ample bottles of red and white, and I ask for a glass of red. The woman whom I ask -- who may or may not have worked at the tent -- clearly just saw us getting our picture taken with the darling little girl, and simply says, "Help yourself, hon." So I do. Two very tall glasses for me, two for H-Squared. Now, not only do we have drinks, we have an "in" at that tent. As I said, perfect. Finally, free booze!

Now with drinks, we once again wonder, "Where the hell are we?" Smiling, we start to walk, cutting straight in front of the stage with the intent to head back up to the path, when -- without any sort of further announcement -- the orchestra starts up again. And what do they start with?

The "Imperial March" from The Empire Strikes Back, one of the most badass pieces of music ever. Hell, it's Ramon Castro's entrance music when he goes to bat! Immediately, we decide to sit down and listen. Thank God we brought those lawn chairs! And hey, why not sit right smack in the middle of everything, right?

So there we sit, drinking our hard-won free booze, sitting on our lawn chairs, as this orchestra goes through a whole series of amazing pieces of music. And throughout, some distance away, we can hear thunder. As was hinted at by the earlier Close Encounters piece, the conductor eventually announced he was a good friend of John Williams. Whether or not you know him by name, you know his music (every Spielberg movie you ever seen). We go from "Imperial March," into the theme from Superman, into some Mozart (he's good, too), into Star Trek IV. This is all pretty goddamn amazing. Meanwhile, far back behind the stage, seemingly across the far-away street, we see a few guys with flashlights fiddling with something. We have no idea what this is. (HINT -- this will come back later.)

Finally, the conductor announces that this next piece will be the finale. And what is it? More Star Wars! First the Princess Leia theme (eh), but then we get the grand overture from Episode IV, the one that always opens every installment as the crawl plays.

Then God enters.

Just as the orchestra begins playing, literally right over the stage, lightning explodes. (It's a bit off in the distance, I don't mean to imply it hit the stage or anything.) Imagine this with me -- sitting there right in front of a giant orchestra playing a hugely dramatic piece you're totally familiar with and love, and BAM! BAM! BAM! Freakin' lighting provides a perfectly natural pyrotechnic show.

The orchestra finishes, and H-Squared and I stand up immediately -- unintentionally leading the crowd in a standing ovation. After the applause dies down, we start to pack up our chairs when some guy comes on stage and announces something rather...interesting.

"Thank you all for coming. Please stick around for a bit longer and enjoy the fireworks!"

We're both out of booze now, and not particular eager to watch some meager redneck fireworks show that lasts all of five minutes. I mean, we live in New York City. Ever seen the Fourth of July display on the East River? But we decide to sit back down and give it chance. Who knows?

BOOM!

BOOM BOOM BOOM!

Wow. This is off to a helluva start. But nothing I haven't seen before. As I said, I'm from New York -- I know what a real fireworks show is. However, it turns out those guys we saw with the flashlights were setting up the real finale.

The show resumes, and just keeps getting better. Every time I think they've done their best, they up the ante. Fireworks are innately amazing, as Chuck has pointed out, and once they start, it's impossible to look away. But this show is starting to blow me away. They literally do everything I've ever seen at the big New York Fourth of July extravaganza, and then they pull something out that I haven't seen before.

They shoot up about seven or eight in a row, which each end in a huge eruption of sound, but you can't really see them -- they don't have the typical huge explosion of light -- but the little POOF and spark leave behind a huge, growing smoke trail as it slowly falls to the ground. Now, individually this would not be impressive, but when all eight smoke trails slowly begin to merge and flow with each other, it's transfixing.

It becomes not eight different smoke trails, but one beautiful, ever-changing "smoke being" (or something). First it's a palm tree; then a multi-headed snake monster; then an octopus; then a weeping willow tree; then, as it fades, it becomes whatever you want it to be. It's like your own personal skyborne Rorschach Test. For the first time tonight, I really wish I was tripping on some serious mushrooms.

This incredible display finally ends after 20 minutes of pure amazement. After another standing ovation, we pack up our lawn chairs and start to leave with the crowd, feeling more fulfilled than we could possibly have imagined back when we were simply looking for a sunset and spotted some girl in a red tank top.

After all that, I once again ask, "Where the hell are we?"

3 comments:

Jason / Yankel said...

Next time any of you fools are in NC, give a holler. Glad you enjoyed your time though and y'all come back now. There's a bunch fo wine/beer/music/bbq (and various combos) festivals all over the state and good times had by all.

Side Bar said...

not that it detracts from the story at all, but is this true?

Open Bar said...

Yes.