I like watching birds in the rain. I’ve a good view of some crows now as a steady patter falls and splatters over the Appalachian Mountains on a chilly, wet, dreary, mid-October afternoon. The rain fell heavy in the early morning, but, now the water lingers as a cool, constant drizzle. Still, the ground is sodden as clouds cast a thick blanket over the Earth. The grass appears as a deep lush green, though the emerging bright colors of autumn are now muted against a low-hanging charcoal sky. Standing in a Greenville, Tennessee, field next to Buffalo Trail Orchard, I watch a murder of crows take shelter in the colorful limbs of a shedding maple tree. Though the delicate foliage is an attractive bright yellow with splotches of red and bits of decay, the crows are almost invisible as they hug their refuge on the interior of the tree. This microhabitat is dry, warm, and stable – everything a passerine needs to lock their feet and perch at rest. As they perch, the crows puff their feathers to prevent their body heat from escaping.
These crows, like many birds, are very adaptable to the weather. The murder talks back and forth, as they watch all of us humans piddle around the orchard. I’m with family today. We thought the boy and his cousins would enjoy running through the chaotic twists of apple producing boughs. Though meticulously pruned, the orchard appears beautiful in an eerie wildness – a wildness aesthetic obviously enhanced by the weather and spooky feeling of the season. The neat rows, broad and gnarly, have produced full, sweet, and even tart apples. Autumn’s jubilation of color – bright yellow, stained red, and phantom purple – among pink, red, and green apples, pop when juxtaposed near dark skies, carob brown mud, and clear, fresh rain. Chaos and order spring from carefully laid seeds.
The crows caw and click as we walk with our children. Our youthful kids laugh and giggle with one another, chirping away without a care in the day. We stop between rows as they fill their bags with a variety of apples. I feel a tug at my hand.
“Hey, boy, having fun?” I ask my young son as he smiles back at me.
“I want that one, Dad.” My freckle faced boy has a cracked grin as he eyeballs a big green Granny Smith atop a tree, “Can you help me reach it?”
The boy and I share a chuckle together as I hoist him towards the smoky sky. Rain falls on our faces as I set him on my shoulder. Pitter patters fall all around and remind me of the slight sound his little feet made years ago when he was just a mere pup excited in the mornings. How our human lives move so fast.
We move into the tree, leaves crinkling and pouring water, his little hand latches around the apple, the limb bends, and I hear a small pluck before the leaves rustle away.
“I got it! Thanks, Dad!”
“No problem at all, my boy.”
I smile as the child, beaming from ear to ear, runs to show his cousins his freshest pick. At the end of the row of Granny Smith, I turn toward the red apple trees of autumn. The lush skin shimmers against the green, across the brown, among the brilliance of battered leaves, inviting one to tear, to pierce, to taste their sweetness as the world around prepares for dormancy.
The sweet smell of apple is accented by the earthy aroma of the day. The air is scented, iron laden, a classic petrichor after weeks of dry autumn sunshine on this day. As the water falls on these mountains, the pleasant smell of mythical blood is all around. Littering the orchard are fallen apples in various stages of decay. Their skin broken, fungi, microbes, and soil biota feed on the rotting flesh. The sweet sugars in decay let loose a woodsy, cidery, cloy fragrance. Brown spots, shriveling skin, decomposing life accent the falling leaves as we approach Halloween. The aroma is everywhere – saccharine and tart, puckery and astringent, rancid and pulpy – and warns the human among all the life-producing energy in this orchard, that death and decay are at one with the orchard, too. Isn’t such a realization so autumnal? The season is a time of celebration, reflection, harvest, and feast among altars of sacrifice, eternal rest, and decay.
The wind picks up, and, with the lifting breeze, a fresh torrent of splashing rain falls from weeping clouds. In the distance, I hear a ruse of hoarse coos, clicks, and then a thundering clapping of caws as the murder of crows takes off from the maple. The birds fly in synchronous motion towards evergreens a field away. Taking their cue, we holler goodbyes to our party, and run, apple bags in hand, to our trusty family wagon to make the short drive to a small rental cabin in Hot Springs, North Carolina that we’re calling home for the weekend.
The drive is easy, beautiful. The pastoral orchard of Greenville soon gives way to an Appalachian forest that leaves behind summer’s green for autumn’s senescence. Summer is only a memory in the mountains, as the dogwoods and maples dazzle, the oaks showcase a deep red or brown, the hemlocks an eternal green. Flowers still pepper the forest, especially in these waning days of golden rod – their demise almost assured in the sun’s absence. Clouds hang low like a smoky quilt that hugs the forest closely and appear as a tide descending upon mountain slopes. Whips of transpiration appear as puffs of pipe smoke across an ancient land, and creeks run like dark shadows among their stone.
In roughly fifteen minutes or so, the family and I cruise into our favorite vacation town. The community of Hot Springs sits in the mountains of western North Carolina and earns its name from the natural hot mineral waters heated within the thermal veins of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The mighty French Broad River flows through town, as well as a smaller tributary named Spring Creek. A sidewalk that moves through the center of town is marked with the Appalachian Trail insignia, as the famous trail flattens for a gentle hike down the main road.
We always rent ourselves a primitive cabin – cabin number one to be exact – from the resort and spa here during the middle of October. The boy is on fall break; so are my wife and I, as the college affords a few days for students and faculty this time of year. We take leisure to visit the one-hundred-acre wood of the resort, leave our phones unplugged, disconnect from all the noise, lay around in hammocks, cook over campfire, read, hike, stargaze, and play.
I also take my extended weekend to drink beer. One of my favorite watering holes is in this town: The Spring Creek Tavern. Music always lingers in the air at the tavern. Painted Grateful Dead bears dance across the windows and walls and chatter resounds from all the people. I’ve come to recognize these locals and tourists like me who add to the welcoming spirit of the building year after year. So, on this rainy afternoon, as my wife and son snuggle in for puzzles and books in our small cabin, I excuse myself for a few pints and an obligatory order of mozzarella sticks (best I’ve ever had) down at the tavern.
The tavern is an easy five-minute walk from our primitive space. Though the rain is falling steady and the sky darkens as night approaches, my poncho is enough to keep me dry on the short jaunt. I smile faintly as I approach the two-story building, knowing good food and ales await. Plus, every October, the bar is thoroughly decorated for Halloween. This year is no different.
I enter the building and see the Dead bears dancing all around. Hanging from the ceiling are floating phantoms and ghosts, skeletons and ghouls. Bloody handprints smear and splatter the windows and walls, all the classics. Faintly in the background, adding to the ambience, the familiar cowbell and guitar riff from the last stanza of Blue Oyster Cult’s, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” hums across the tavern as I remove my poncho.
“I like the colors on your ‘rug,’” a kind but coarse voice says to me.
I look up as a tattooed man approaches me with a smile and a menu. I recognize him as one of the owners.
“Thank you!” I respond as I pat my Baja. “I picked this up in Mexico.”
“Want to dine inside or out on the patio?”
“Actually, patio sounds kind of nice.”
Though the rain is still steady, the Spring Creek building has a covered side patio overlooking the creek that bears the tavern’s name. I find the waters relaxing and want to sit by them.
“Care if I ask your name?” I inquire.
“Tim Arnett. Nice to meet you. Follow me.” Tim guides me through the tavern toward a backside door that leads to the patio, then follows up, “And your name?”
“Grant. Nice to meet you, too. Been coming here every October for years now. I love this place.”
As I follow Tim, I take in all the decorations and especially note one that is present every year – a life-sized skeleton standing at the bar. This year the bones are dressed in a blue flannel shirt, complete with mother of pearl snaps. Before exiting the barroom, I stop and snap a picture of the skeleton.
This building is over one-hundred years old and holds an interesting history. Before the tavern was here in the 1920s, the building was a switchboard that held the only phone for the entire town. The person operating the switchboard would hold the phone and holler out the window if a local had to take a call. When the switchboard fell into disrepair, the building became a number of different businesses over the years – a haunted house for Halloween, a bistro, a café, and numerous others over its century long history. Tim and his wife, Amanda Arnett, took ownership of the building some seven years ago.
Tim seats me at a small wooden table next to the creek. He takes my order and passes it off to an employee who delivers my beer shortly after. The pale sheen and light hop bitterness of a White Zombie (appropriate for the season) Belgian Witbier is accented perfectly with a slice of orange. I relax watching the waters roll by, littered with colorful leaf detritus that has already abscised from trees, shrubs, and vines. The tavern traffic is steady, but not near as busy as I’ve seen it on other days. Fine by me. I’ll relax in the mellow atmosphere as the rain keeps folks indoors.
As I sip on my beer, Tim comes out to the patio to make sure everything is going well.
“Everything’s great,” I tell him happily.
“Good to hear,” the owner says, then questions, “So just in town for the weekend?”
“A little longer, actually. My wife and I are from Knoxville. We’re professors at a community college there and it’s our fall break. We have a boy who’s on break as well, so we’ll be here until midweek.”
With a soft laugh, Tim responds, “Ah, I’m sure you will enjoy the family time.”
I take another pull from my beer. “We always do. Love this town, and I really like this bar a lot. Great how you all decorate for Halloween.”
“Yeah, we put a lot of work into this place. I’m a huge Grateful Dead fan, so the dancing bears and ‘Skull and Roses’ art is a year-round placement, but we like adding all the ghosts and zombies . . .” Tim pauses for a moment, as if hesitant to continue, before proceeding, “and Bob, of course.”
“Bob?” I inquire as Tim has sparked my curiosity.
“You’ve been coming here long enough to notice him.” Tim rubs his fingers through his hair as he talks, “He’s the skeleton at the bar.”
“Here you go, sir!” My young server announces as she excitedly approaches the table and places down a piping hot platter of cheese sticks with marinara sauce. “Can I get you anything else?”
“I think I am good for now thank you!”
As the young woman walks away, Tim points to my beer,
“You’re almost done with that. I’ll get you another. You’ll want it for what I am about to tell you.”
** What tale is Grant about to hear? Find out Thursday in part two of “The Haunting of Spring Creek Tavern.”
*** Featured Image: photograph provided by Grant Mincy