What’s new on the plateau

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Patrick Taylor – Highlands Mayor

Thanksgiving was a different holiday with changes and adjustments due to COVID-19.  I have looked back at past pandemics and have noticed some parallels.

Boccaccio wrote the Decameron in reaction to the Black Death that swept Europe in 1348.  The story is about seven young women and three young men from the upper merchant class of Florence who flee the plague-filled city to a county villa in nearby Fiesole.  Their hope was that they could escape the Black Death by retreating to the mountainous country area just outside the city. I am struck by how we are witnessing a similar exodus during the current pandemic.

The Highlands Plateau has been full of visitors this fall, many of them young professionals from surrounding metropolitan areas.  Many visit relatives, some stay in hotels and others do VRBO. Some are purchasing homes here.  Whether they will live here year around, become seasonal residents or view their new homes as VRBO investments remains to be seen.  Nevertheless, major demographic shifts are happening in Western North Carolina and in Highlands. There will be positives, negatives and challenges with these changes.

Sallie and I had our own Decameron moment on Thanksgiving day by backpacking and camping in Panthertown.  It was a way of escaping the bustling little town of Highlands for a moment of reflection and meditation.  We saw about six hikers on our way to our campsite next to the headwaters of the Tuckasegee River.  We pitched our new teepee tent and cooked a great meal of Brunswick stew and sausage.  

Similar to the characters in the Decameron, we sat around the campfire that night and recalled family stories, talked about our future and what lies ahead for Highlands, as well as the region.  After a surprisingly cold night we broke camp the next morning and hit the trail.  As we reached a panoramic peak, I looked over the vast wilderness of Panthertown and thought how much of Western North Carolina is untouched and remains in a natural state.  I’m glad we took time to reconnect with what brought us here in the first place.

My concern is that these beautiful natural places will be under growing stress and pressure as folks flock to Western Carolina.   I recently read in The Asheville Citizen-Times that waterfall areas are being visited by massive numbers of tourists.  Experts are concerned that these vast numbers will alter the landscape and ecology that make these waterfalls so beautiful. 

We can see one aspect of the problem close at hand on the Franklin Road. There are recurring serious traffic backlogs at the entrance to Dry Falls.  The state patrol is aware of the situation, as well as the U.S. Forest Service, but a solution isn’t simple, if at all.  The Forest Service  just received billions of dollars to upgrade and repair their existing venues.  I will lobby for funds to go to improvements at Bridal Veil and Dry Falls.

A positive perspective is the economic impact that visitors bring.  The negative is the pressure vast numbers of tourist bring to these beautiful, natural areas.  The solution to some degree will be in wise planning.

Oh yes, what about that other pandemic, the 1918 Spanish Flu?  Health officials back then also encouraged folks to wear masks to curtail the flu.  There were even attempts to create a vaccine.  As like now there were some who resisted wearing masks.  I am glad to see that the vast majority of people in Highlands do wear masks.  Mask wearing is a sign that we are a caring community.  

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