25: NOC, inevitable change, and devolution of an ideal

For anyone following this Blog Cabin saga, lulls in construction may test their patience. That is, if anyone reads this narrative, anyhow.

Without logs with which to construct walls, I remain at a standstill. I'll take drastic steps soon, if I can't find a way to fell some poplars. But in the meanwhile, random thoughts and side-stories, digressions that may or may not interest, will be spun herein.

Early days
This weekend, Sloan and I took 5-year-old Abel and 1.5-year-old Angus to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). It's a special place, whose (yes -- an appropriate anthropomorphic pronoun) history and mine intertwine. I recall first seeing it in its early years, sometime in the late 70's, from the Appalachian Trail, parking at the Center with my Dad, crossing the old, metal bridge on foot with packs, and climbing away on the infamous "Jumpup" toward Cheoah Bald. Later, in Boy Scouts and with the Greenville, SC paddling club, I would learn to kayak on the frigid Nantahala River, always spending time in the creaky old NOC outfitter's store, crammed with maps, gear that wouldn't be available for online shopping for decades, cool hippie experts, ice cream, books, hiking supplies, and a big iron wood stove. It was a unique, long building that looked like it wanted to fall into river right. I'd eat Sherpa Rice at River's End restaurant, an equally grungy, tradition-setting establishment behind the store. These places belonged, as if they evolved specifically for this Gorge habitat.

Working there in the 80's
Later, funded by the Boy Scout Camp where I worked in 1984, I'd take a swiftwater rescue clinic from Slim Ray, well before he broke his back on the Green and really not long after the Chattooga accident that inspired him (a good friend of mine swam under another rock a few feet downstream this month, but that's another story). While I worked at Perception Kayaks in the 80's, I moved onto bigger, steeper, harder rivers, but the gorge remained an oasis of sorts. Then, I started working there in 1988 as a river guide. I completed the ACA instructor certification course alongside Greystoke, Slim, Bob Hathcock, and Andrew Punsel. Although I never moved into instruction, I learned much from fellow students as well as from training instructors, finally "checking out" after working as an assistant for Chris Spelius and then Tom Decuir. Although I pulled stints on the Ocoee and on the Chattooga, I remained tied to the main center, living at Hellards # 9 with extraordinary river photographer Chris Smith and eventually getting pulled to full-time trip leading on the Nantahala by 1992. Finally, NOC and I will forever be linked in serendipity because of the people I met or got to know.

Here I am, leaving home to work at NOC in 1988:

The people
It used to be you couldn't walk around the center without bumping into larger-than-life people. Watching a massive 72' Olympian (Angus Morrison) walk around in the yard barefoot and throw three thwart rafts onto a bus by himself. Seeing founder and official resident philosopher Payson Kennedy around the parking lot and working on trips led by him, his daughter Kathy, or Jim Holcombe, or Horace Holden. Learning life lessons from elder statesman Ray Mcleod. Checking out on the Chattooga with BR and Beaz (I didn't check out the day I flipped BR in 7 Foot Falls). Spending most of my paycheck on paddling stuff and Patagucci clothing in the NOC store and hanging out with passionate gear-heads and experts like James Jackson and John Dolbare, the summer before his tragic death on the Meadow.  I still miss that guy.  Meeting literature and food lover and amateur naturalist Kevin Padgett and cementing a long friendship initially built around a common passion for cycling. Co-leading a domestic adventure travel bike trip on the Natchez Trace parkway with world-class adventure racer Julie Dauphine, or just taking a kids mountain bike clinic next door to Tsali for the day. Trying to keep up with legendary Rand Perkins on the Whittier ride. Climbing the Road to Nowhere or the Winding Stairs on my bike, with Kevin, my friend and NOC facilities genius Lance Ingram, or later with bike industry insider Kent Cranford. Hanging out with college student guides, full-timer older friends, boaters, cyclists, climbers, hikers. Environmentalists. Activists. Creative, free-thinkers. Self-described "fun hogs." Beautiful people too -- carved multi-sport athletes working or training on the river, carefree, Teva-wearing, clean-living, educated, eclectic, independent, interesting folks from all over sporting polypropelyne couture. Lots of folk had "dropped out" of mainstream, urban, corporate lifestyles, but they had done so on their own terms, without a complete disconnect but with enough distance to create a unique community that set its own standards and values.

Ultimately, NOC impacts my present life because I met my future wife, Sloan, while training a new TL, Robin Pilley, who would become head guide in future years. Robin was in charge and in control, as would be the case for years to come. As the silent trip leader, I paddled sweep and had time to talk to the guests -- Sloan was a lively, beautiful, Lake Junaluska camper sitting on my left, and we were married three years later. It may not be rational, but I feel indebted to NOC, always. Robin remembers that trip and how we met to this day, which somehow validates the memory. Sometimes fairy tales do come true, and I can prove it this time.

Here we are, 8 weeks after we met in August 1992, when I took Sloan and her brother Slade to go rafting on maybe our third date. The 4 women in front were guests. Angus actually put me to work leading the trip that day...

It may still be a great place to raft, paddle, or hang out, but...
Since we very intentionally moved back here to the WNC mountains, I've renewed some contacts and we occasionally visit the center. I've noticed things -- at first, long-time employees, people whose names have been component parts of the community that for me defined the center, for various reasons: not there. Nor does their type seem as dominant, although that's merely my perception and opinion, partly colored in nostalgia and partially based in subjective observation. The center of the Center is slowly becoming hollow, like a still beautiful, outwardly stalwart but aging tree. Admittedly, now, I'm looking in from the outside. The campus just feels like less of a ground-up, employee-driven culture and more like a management-run environment focused more on profit. Garish, cheap-looking brightly-colored signs instead of natural-looking wood crafted ones. It's true that things seem to run efficiently, but efficiency isn't everything. We heard yesterday while dining at River's End that the staff meal plan may be a thing of the past because of in part the low profit margin it generated or the costs it created -- perhaps I was naive, but I perceived that profit was never an objective when it came to feeding or housing staff, back in the day. And in my work, in higher education, common dining experiences have always been a part of creating intellectual and vibrant communities. NOC may be throwing more away than they know.

Nevertheless, NOC will remain an important place, one that we'll visit and where I'd love for my boys to work. Granted, it'll never again be like the place described in this tribute by Charlie Walbridge, and that might even be a good thing. But now there are cell phones and Wi-Fi that work in this previously dark corner, corporate-style management, and seemingly less tolerance for disparate opinions about mission, liability-taunting antics, or other irregular attitudes. If you read the latest and hunt for the old vibe, it's a bit obscured by the priorities of selling stuff and marketing theme-park-style fun. NOC is generally becoming a bigger place in a smaller world instead of a refuge from a big one, so it wouldn't be my experience that they would live -- but some sense of history and culture will survive, and working on the river will still be cool. Maybe they'll meet a pretty girl; maybe they'll develop some new skills; or, maybe, they'll still grow to love it as I did.

Here's a screen shot with an excerpt and a metaphoric sunset logo from NOC's website. It says nothing that isn't or hasn't been true. I just hope the statement about quality of life, staff, and the community survives in a corporate atmosphere among other priorities in the 21st Century. These things don't create immediate profit, but they certainly are core principles at the NOC that I know:

Follow-up articles:

1 comment:

  1. Postscript: I understand that the staff meal plan is no more.


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I use this blog to chronicle certain aspects of my life near the Smokies. I'm building a cabin. I kayak. Sometimes I bike.