To the Top of the World

Hello there! As we prepare for some lovely travel experiences this year, we would love to share a short tale of our trip to, well, not the top of the world, but to the second highest peak in the state of Virginia. Whitetop Mountain, that colossus who thrusts his mighty peak up to a whopping 5,520 feet above the Commonwealth of Virginia, offers multiple hiking trails, nice picnic areas and photo opportunities, and an astounding view of three states. The view alone includes a good chunk of the Blue Ridge Mountains, beautiful farm land and mountainous wonder as far as the eye can see, and brings the sky so close you feel you could reach out and touch it. Whether you want to see Virginia, Tennessee, or North Carolina, you are in luck on Whitetop Mountain.

We started our journey, as many would, coming in off Interstate 81 at the edge of Chilhowie and driving past some beautiful farmland, climbing ever higher on state maintained roads until we reached the gravel turnoff to our destination. Immediately the thick forest closed in on the road and we rolled down the windows to breathe in the fresh air that, honestly, brings me so much joy I can never get over it. The higher we climbed, the rougher the road became, but we made it over the worst of the conditions and finally broke free of the forest to see the first of the vast views the site has to offer. Looking out over the farms and forest that surround nearby Grayson Highlands State Park (a visit for the near future we hope) we felt the awe of the height we had achieved already.

The main parking area, just short of the peak, was our destination, so we carried on up the mountain, watching as the view just got better and better. Once we reached the parking area, we were eager to get out and get our adventure moving. Despite the warm weather the air was obviously much cooler at such a high elevation, which probably helped some in the long run.

Right away we made note of just how close the sky looked to us, how intense and beautiful the clouds were, and how far we could see thanks to the clarity of the day. Amanda and I, no stranger to mountain and forest hiking, made our way through a short forest path that gave us some lovely views of the flora and fauna of the high elevation, with thick pine and brilliant green ferns galore, it was like falling into an ancient wilderness. As multiple signs will tell you on your way up the mountain, Whitetop is really its own ecosystem. There was no shortage of lovely flowers, brilliant colors, and the scent of deep forest air to enjoy high above the nearby towns and cities. As we trekked our of the forest again, we saw our immediate destination in a rock and grassy outcropping a little further down from the peak.

It was a relatively easy hike down, the shin-high mountain grass blowing gently in the cool breeze with giant cottony clouds floating just out of reach overhead. The sun played on the grass and stone as we approached our area of interest. We could see for miles, the gorgeous haze of the Blue Ridge Mountains standing broad in the distance. The clouds sent enormous shadows scurrying over the land below as they played across the bright blue sky, the colors of the world around us shining in mesmerizing clarity as we snapped pictures at first, and then just paused to admire the beauty. We explored the outcropping for a while, sidling through the tall grass, climbing stones for better views, and just breathing in the air high above the every day world.

The hike back to the vehicle was a bit exhausting once we were ready to leave. We quickly got a bit warm as the breeze died down. Thicker, darker clouds moved mercifully over the sun as we climbed back up the mountain and got closer to our return to reality. With what seemed to be a potential for a nice summer storm, a lot of the people who had been enjoying the mountain’s sublime beauty began flocking to the parking lot as we were. Many people were leaving as we reached our vehicle, taking one last look at the scenery and getting one last breath of fresh air before we started our return to the lowlands.

In short, Whitetop Mountain is an incredible destination for anyone with a passion for beautiful scenery. It can be a bit of a daunting drive, sitting at around 40 minutes outside of Chilhowie with some pretty quick changes in elevation, but it is absolutely worth the wait. While there aren’t attractions per se, there are several places to rest and take in the beauty of the natural world around you, which is honestly something we could all stand to do every now and again. We would highly recommend this trip, and hope if you all take the time to go here you will share your experiences as well. A word of caution we can offer is to remember to take account that however far you hike down the mountain, you have to come back up! It’s easy to become enraptured by the beauty of this incredible place, but don’t exhaust yourself to the point of misery. That’s no good for anyone!

With warm weather hopefully here to stay, we hope to have plenty more adventures to enjoy and share with you all, so keep your eyes open for the future posts. If you have a suggestion for a place we can go or an adventure we can leap into, share them with us! Check The Mathews Experience out on social media for more pictures and some videos of our adventures!

Celebrating Christmas in the Smokies

Hello everyone! I hope 2021 has been a great adventure for everyone so far. One thing we want to be able to do with our travel and lifestyle series here at The Mathews Experience is discuss some of the great adventures and fun times we get to have. Of course, with the current climate, work, the seasons, and general lack of time, travel just hasn’t happened much so far this year. So, to remedy that, we want to take some time to talk about some of our past adventures. The most recent one we had took us to one of our favorite places in the world; the Great Smoky Mountains!

Amanda and I left from our mountain home around the middle of December and went to our mountain home away from home to celebrate the Christmas season and get a nice break from everyday life. The trip began with a fantastic drive, with plenty of great holiday music and fun conversation. Once we arrived in the Smokies we were immersed in the season, with lights on every available space they could be strung or placed, and holiday music coming from every speaker in existence. Despite not having a fresh blanket of snow on every surface we looked at, it was a Winter Wonderland.

While on this trip we found ourselves staying on the Gatlinburg parkway, so close to most of the attractions we were interested in we didn’t even move our vehicle to get to most places. Walking on the parkway was an enjoyable experience. There was quite a crowd most of the time, but the vast majority of people we saw were wearing their masks and making at least some effort to maintain distance from anyone they weren’t with. From the smells of food coming from every restaurant, to the sounds of Christmas, and the decorations surrounding us, we were definitely greeted by that mountain holiday feeling we were looking for.

While trying to cram as much Smokies experience as we could in our short trip, we decided to go to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies and see the fish and fun there. We managed to arrive at a time when the aquarium was almost empty, and were one of the few customers wandering the aquatic wonderland. The whole place was decked out in holiday decorations, with ornaments and lights everywhere, even in several displays. It was very easy to take our time and look at all the various exhibits without being rushed – or being held back by crowds. This was, perhaps, one of the most peaceful aquarium trips either of us had ever experienced. The only down side being that we did not get to see the beautiful Green Sea Turtle, Sally, despite making our way through the Shark Tunnel twice. No matter! We saw plenty of awesome sea life, including a couple of baby Bonnethead sharks, so our trip was a great one.

Not to play favorites among the Ripley’s attractions nestled into the foothills of the Smokies, we also made our way to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum to see the wonderous exhibits there. This attraction also did not disappoint. Though a little more crowded, most everyone in attendance was sure to maintain a respectful distance and be cautious with their masks, which is something you really can’t be too careful with during such a time. The displays, however, were a little surprising in that some of the interactive ones were still uncovered and in working order. Some of the more hands-on ones were, of course, roped off or closed to the public, but there were several exhibits that had a button or switch you could use to turn this light on or uncover that bizarre fact, etc.. and several of them were nowhere near a sanitizing station. We also did not notice many employees coming by to clean as often as we would have expected, but we were more than prepared with our own wipes and sanitizers. None of that took away from our trip, but it was worth noting. The entire museum was enjoyable to us, particularly the large matchstick model of Hogwarts, and (for me at least) the shrunken head exhibits and the Devil and the Damsel rotating statue, based on the German epic poem, Faust.

The highlight of our trip, and reason behind it, was Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas. The day started with a nice breakfast at Crockett’s Breakfast Camp and such a massive amount of food that much of it went home with us. The quality of the meal was very good, and the environment, made to look like a novelty lumber camp of the 1800s, was quite appealing to me. From there we made our way to the park to bask in the down-home holiday traditions of those amazing mountains. From the second we got to the entrance to the park we felt the spirit of the holidays and the happiness of the park everywhere. Despite the cold, we were in awe at the millions of lights and fun displays that adorned the buildings and trees, filled the windows, and lit the park with every color imaginable. We started our Dollywood experience with a classic ride through the mountains on the Dollywood Express. Once a free for all, now the conductor requires tickets to board the train, which you can get from an employee for pretty much any scheduled time through the day. We felt this was a definite benefit and a way to, hopefully, help people maintain distance by limiting the amount of people who climb aboard the old passenger train.

Following along behind that old steam engine, we got to see the massive park from all angles, catching glimpses of rides in progress, lights on display, even the newer developments that are almost always happening these days. It was a great, if frigid, way to start our Dollywood day. Most of the rides we wanted to go on were either down due to the weather, or had some very long lines, but we were able to cover nearly every inch of the park – and I’ve got the photos and video to show it! We were very impressed by the level of professionalism shown by the in-park retail locations and restaurants, many of which seemed to have one door designated as an entrance and another as an exit only, which kept the lines of customers flowing in one solid direction for the most part. We stayed in the park from opening (around 2) until after dark, loving the lights and the holiday celebration, but absolutely wore ourselves out walking around the park. Between grabbing a bite to eats at Red’s Drive-In and finishing our day by buying a little Dolly-approved merchandise, the park was absolutely fantastic. With the changes that take place from one year to the next, I think we will be happy to return year after year to see the wonderful Christmas displays and experience the warm Christmas spirit.

One of the last things I must mention about this trip was our great dinner at Dolly Parton’s Stampede. It had been years since either of us had ever been, but the show did not disappoint. This was one of the few places we ran into people who were a little reluctant to follow mask regulations, but it did not ruin our experience by any means. With a fantastic four-course Southern meal and a heart-warming show filled with positive messages and good, fun comedy, it was a great night for us. Overall, the trip was one that we will not soon forget and will hopefully only improve upon as years go by.

January is nearly over, which means we will hopefully have some warm weather to travel by soon, so keep your eyes open for more content. Follow our social media pages, and see the flashbacks of our past trips continue to roll out as we prepare for plenty of new adventures. In the meantime, feel free to share any great experiences you all have, or places you suggest we add to our list!

Starting the Year Strong

Happy Monday, everyone! I hope January has been a good start to a new year for everyone. I know the world is still going through quite a difficult time right now, and we are seriously adjusting to what may remain the new norm for a very long time.

Personally I have found the year already has a lot to offer, and I have had a pretty amazing couple of weeks. As I have announced in earlier posts, I recently published my novel, Moonlight, (buy it here) and it has already been moving pretty well. Several copies have been purchased from all over the place and reviews are starting to come in, making me very happy.

For everyone who has read the book and left reviews, thank you. Reviews are one thing that breathe life into the work of an indie author. So many platforms that allow indies to host their works use algorithms that are based on reviews to promote works. If work A has 300 reviews, but work B only has 100, work A will be promoted to a much broader audience. Even if the reviews are worse for work A. It’s not the most helpful, by any means. I know a lot of people may not be interested in providing online reviews and feedback about the books they read, whether they liked it or not, but it is a very important step in today’s digital world. That being said, if you have read the book, please leave a review either on Amazon, as linked earlier, or on Goodreads here.

Saturday I actually had my first book signing event of the year, at a local store opened by some college friends. Appalachian Books, in lovely Norton, Va., hosted the event and held a live stream where I read a sample of the book and had a chance to answer some questions about my work and my methods. You can view that video here. It was an incredibly humbling experience, and an honor like no other. To be able to present and introduce my work in a local shop, so close to where the idea for Moonlight originated was nothing short of awesome.

I can’t thank everyone who attended, either digitally or in person, enough. You are all simply awesome. It makes me feel like I’ve done some good work when people are interested in getting their hands on it, and that is something that makes an author absolutely giddy. And to Appalachian Books, I can’t thank you all enough for hosting the event on my behalf, and for giving my books a local home where readers can come and get a little slice of Appalachian literature. Thank you to everyone over the years, from my mother and other family members, to my friends, to professors and mentors, who have all given me words of encouragement and bits of advice.

Most of all, I want to give a huge shoutout to my amazing wife, who has been supporting me and encouraging me to get this book out to the world for more than a year. She was right by my side when I took the book through another edit, worked out glitches and problems with my formatting, obsessed over my cover, my marketing and every other little detail I could possibly freak out about. Most importantly, she was there with me during the whole event Saturday, cheering me on and sharing the news every day leading up to it. Thank you so much, Amanda, for helping keep me grounded and keeping me confident in myself. Thank you for everything you do for me. I truly don’t know what I would do without you.

As 2021 rolls on, I hope to have more works released, and certainly will have more works finished, and I hope you will all remain on board for the ride. This week I have a few news interviews about my works, and I have some plans to hopefully bring one of my projects to a close before the end of the month as well. Again, I can’t be more thankful and appreciative of the support system I have. It means the world to me. Anyone with questions or comments, feel free to reach out, as always. Until next time, keep creating, keep reading, and keep your heads up.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!!

Merry Christmas, everyone!! I know this year has been difficult, and the holidays can sometimes be stressful, but I hope you will all take the time to cherish the good things today and every day for the rest of this year – no matter what holidays you celebrate (or don’t).

Personally, I have had an excellent Christmas with my wife here in our snowy mountain home. I am beyond ecstatic that our first Christmas as husband and wife has been a white one and a happy one. All things considered, the blessings we have been able to enjoy this year have given me so much to be thankful for.

Our Christmas adventure has shown us a lot of excitement, a lot of smiles, and a lot of joy- and it isn’t over yet! Tomorrow will be yet another happy day of celebration for us. I know a lot of people haven’t been able to celebrate with their loved ones this year, and many traditions have been put on hold or altered to meet the current state of affairs, but I hope everyone has been able to draw a bit of joy from the holiday. With luck next year will bring a return to the things we have enjoyed in the past, hopefully with an added sense of appreciation and love for those traditions.

Whatever your holiday brought to you, however you were able to celebrate, I sincerely hope love and peace met each and every one of you. Do your best to enjoy the rest of this day and this last week of 2020!

Lord of the Mountain

Hey there, friends and fans! We’re almost through the second month of 2020 and life goes on. As always, I’m devouring new literary material as much as possible, and I recently got to read a book that is incredible to me for a few reasons.
The book in question, Lord of the Mountain, by Ronald Kidd, is a tale that takes place during and after the famous Bristol Sessions. The Bristol Sessions is the two-week recording event that took place on State Street in Bristol, Tennessee that launched country music to the nation. Ralph Peer came to the Twin Cities with the dream of finding the music that had long been passed down among mountain families – and what he found changed the face of recorded music. 

Kidd’s book deals with a young boy who lives on the outskirts of Bristol, a city divided right down the middle by the Tennessee/Virginia state line, and his fascination with science and music, despite his father’s preaching, which includes a violent opposition to music. Nate, the narrator of our tale, finds himself in the middle of inner turmoil as he struggles to find his place in the world. He is facing either a life in his father’s world, where music is the devil and the voice of God can be heard in every whisper, or a world where he is free to pursue music and science and live in whatever way he pleases. Nate finds himself attending the Bristol Sessions, and helping the world famous Carter Family as they sing the songs of the mountains for Ralph Peer’s recording machines. He later even finds himself traveling with A.P. Carter and gathering songs from other mountain folks for a time. 

I found this book to be absolutely enthralling, from the very first line, to the very last period. I yearned to learn more about Nate and his struggle. Kidd is able to capture the feel of Appalachia in a way that some authors I’ve read have not. Living less than 20 miles from the place all this happened, I loved his use of local landmarks (and it didn’t hurt that he used Bristol Public Library, my place of work, as a hub for some of his research) to help tell his story. 

Nate’s struggle and internal displacement run rampant throughout this book, leading him to often compare himself to State Street, “torn right down the middle.” Nate, a 13 year-old living in a time when the world was a very different place, often broke my heart with these statements. Kidd gave Nate a huge heart, and a huge interest in what basically put this area on the map, and I loved every word. I’ve long been interested in the history of the region and its culture, although I admittedly have a love/hate relationship with country music. Appalachian life is a fascination and a lifestyle that I am very proud to uphold, and this book does a fantastic job of celebrating that. 

I found myself write down pages and pages of quotes from the book, as I do, and I think Kidd’s writing style is amazing as well. As he travels farther away from the tent his father preaches in and deeper into the mountain songs that call to him, Nate finally sees clearly what he wants. This quote, to me, speaks volumes of his struggle and his purpose. 

“I had a new life now, or a glimpse of one. It sparkled in the distance, like the silver microphone.”

The microphone Nate speaks of here is Peer’s microphone, where so many mountain songs were sung, recording the history and soul of the region in a way that never before had been done. 

Kidd, a resident of Nashville, Tn., brought forth a tale of  heartache, soul-searching, heritage, and culture that I think anyone with a familiarity with the Bristol region will love, and anyone who isn’t familiar with the area can still definitely enjoy. Nate’s story is one that we can all relate to, having sought our own place in the world both in relation to and away from our families and those things familiar to us. I highly recommend this book and plan to read it again and again. It’s really that good. 

*Featured image: front cover of the book, Lord of the Mountain, By Ronald Kidd. I own no rights to this image.