Our Kind of Place

A Little North Carolina Town’s Big Green Heart

In an idyllic park in Valle Crucis, time, alas, doesn’t quite stand still

A mountainscape

Photo: Lauren Bell / Getty Images

Valley views in Valle Crucis, North Carolina.

The first time I saw Valle Crucis, in 2015, I was speechless, which had nothing to do with not knowing how to pronounce the name. My wife and I were riding with a friend down the twisting ribbon of Highway 194 out of Banner Elk, North Carolina, when a sweep of green opened below us. “This,” our friend told us, “is the loveliest part of the High Country.”

I read the sign as we passed.

Vail Crucis?”

“You say it ‘valley.’ No idea why they spell it like that.”

Bermuda shoreline
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I would later learn that it was Latin for “Vale of the Cross,” named, according to legend, nearly two hundred years ago by the North Carolina bishop Levi Silliman Ives for the three streams that converged and brought to mind a Saint Andrew’s cross. My friend didn’t know that at the time, but he was right about Valle Crucis being the loveliest part of the High Country, and by the time 194 intersected Broadstone Road, I was smitten.

photo: Lauren Bell / Getty Images
The community in the early 1970s.

An unincorporated community of fewer than five hundred souls, Valle Crucis spreads over a gentle shelf of bottomland threaded by the swift waters of the Watauga River. It looks like a postcard from another era, and what it lacks in population it makes up for in character. Here is the original Mast General Store, the elegant Mast Farm Inn, and chef Andy Long’s dazzling Over Yonder restaurant. It’s also—and this would come to matter a great deal to us—home to the Valle Crucis Community Park.

My wife and I grew up in the mountains of South Carolina but had spent the last two decades moving. We’d lived in Charleston and Connecticut and done stints in Europe and Mexico. We were living in Florida at the time and eager to get closer to family, to the white pines, to the mountains. The way the slopes appear as velvet in the hazy distance—we were hungry for that, and bought a house two ridges over from Valle Crucis, in Sugar Grove. As soon as we’d settled, we drove our children to the park and promptly fell in love.

The community park consists of twenty-eight acres of playgrounds, walking trails, and open spaces that stretch along the Watauga, mostly supported by donations and the generosity of the Friends of the Park. During the summer, children squeal on swing sets and drift in inner tubes, and folks fly fish or swish by, power walking in teal wind suits.

photo: Courtesy of Mast General Store
Inside Valle Crucis’s original Mast General Store.

Wednesday mornings, the High Country Audubon Society holds a bird walk there. Our son was and remains an avid bird-watcher, so we began taking him when he was seven for what I came to think of as “birding with the elderly.” I’d shunt him into the herd and then jog around the paved track, each time encountering the group staring into some treetop, having hardly advanced since my last lap. Occasionally, I’d even find my son with a pair of two-thousand-dollar binoculars strung around his neck, courtesy of a generous older birder, something that always got my heart racing more than the running. He’d bird while our daughter rode her bike, my hand hovering near the seat. We went nearly every day, and I thought I couldn’t possibly love the park more.

Then I heard about Music in the Valle. My friend Jimmy Davidson, a local musician, told me that every Friday from late May to early September, the park puts on a concert from six till dusk. It’s free and you don’t need a ticket. (A donation is appreciated but not required.) The music ranges from bluegrass to reggae, and pretty much everyone comes.

We went that first May evening and never stopped, seeing for ourselves the beauty of spring turning to summer in the mountains. The sky begins eggshell blue and then, around late afternoon, the day softens, goldens. Come evening the light goes gauzy, and then the fireflies start to wink and shudder, not in the woolly humidity of so much of the South, but in the airiness of elevation, the lazy sureness of a climate that has nothing to prove.

Those Fridays quickly became my favorite part of summer. I thought at first it was because Music in the Valle is what we might call “a doing.” Appalachian State students in sandals and bathing suits stand beside women dressed for a mountain cocktail party, barefoot and Empire-waisted on the greenest grass. Everywhere dogs. Everywhere children on bicycles, helmeted and laughing and waving as they wheel past. Folks spread quilts or fight with complex folding tables, then lay out cheese and prosciutto and wine in stainless-steel canteens. I like to bring a small cooler and visit the food trucks near the stage—the double burger from the Cardinal, a hot dog from Doggin’ It—while the music drifts by.

It took me a while to realize that for all that, I love Valle Crucis for a deeper reason: My wife and I have measured our lives in that park, on those Fridays. That seven-year-old I kept nervously checking on while he glassed eastern bluebirds now fills in and leads birding walks himself. That daughter who needed me to hold the back of her bicycle has long since pedaled away.

One September evening not too long ago, I sat beside a friend as a V of Canada geese squawked overhead, flying south. It was the last concert of the season, and he nudged me.

“There goes our summer,” he said.

I looked for my children to point it out to them. When I realized they were off with friends, it came to me like a blow that summer wasn’t the only thing passing. But my God, how lucky we were, to sit in so beautiful a place, to mark time in the evening cool and the first blush of dark, on a blanket surrounded by people we love.