It’s hard to come to Boone and not be told you are in God’s country. It’s harder still not to leave believing it. Especially if it happens to be a fall Saturday when the leaves are changing and the air is crisping and—most especially—when the Mountaineers are playing football.
The great Marcus King might have sung “Don’t let your women move up to Boone,” but you can’t exactly blame them if they do. There’s something different about the place, and it isn’t just the altitude. It isn’t just the mountains either, though they are all around you. It isn’t just the bike trails at Rocky Knob or the pastries at Stick Boy Bread Company or the way the deer along the Greenway appear perfectly content to share the paved paths with the rollerbladers and the folks swishing by in teal tracksuits. It’s that Boone—at least to me—embodies the best of the South. To walk down King Street is to pass by both a Pride flag and a memorial to veterans who gave their lives for our country. It’s to pass both Mast General Store, whose origins date to 1897, and F.A.R.M. Cafe, a restaurant where “everybody eats, regardless of means.” It’s to pass street buskers and old-time mountain men shoulder-to-shoulder with college students ducking in and out of tattoo shops and tourists up to see the fall foliage. It’s a place where everyone seems welcome. And never is that more evident than on a fall Saturday outside Kidd Brewer Stadium.
I’ve always felt a little out of place: an eccentric kid growing up in the small-town South, a literature professor who loves contact sports, an English major at the Citadel for goodness’ sake. These things don’t fit our easy assumptions, and maybe that’s what I love most about Boone: It’s perfectly content to be its own thing. A hard-working mountain town with great coffee—yes. A hippie town with a serious football problem—absolutely.
Take a stroll through the tailgaters outside a game if you need proof. You’ll find the decadent tableclothed spreads of wine and charcuterie alongside the card tables of Bud and barbecue. They’ll invite you over, and you might as well have a bite or a drink. But while you visit, you might notice something different too: Are those skateboarders sluicing down Stadium Drive, and are they wearing black-and-gold striped bib overalls? (Yes and yes.) And down by the marching band, is the spread on that grill vegan? (Quite possibly yes.) Boone is full of folks who—with apologies to our excellent marching band—move to the beat of their own drummers. Some come for the outdoors: the skiing, the hiking, the climbing in Linville Gorge. Some come for the university: You might have seen our solar car, or maybe you’ve got tickets for Yola or Mavis Staples?
Some are born here and never leave. Like so many desirable places, in recent years Boone has gotten more expensive and more crowded. But there aren’t many towns where you can camp on the banks of the New River one night and listen to an acclaimed poet read from her work the next. Or eat ham biscuits at the Dan’l Boone Inn for Sunday dinner and then drive over to Appalachian Mountain Brewery for a cold one. In the summer I take my children tubing down the Watauga River and then we jump off Trash Can Falls, a local swimming hole that might be the only thing that rivals a football tailgate for inclusivity.
And then there’s the football itself: the giant killers from the prettiest little town you’ve ever seen. Ask Michigan about that. Ask Texas A&M or UNC or USC. Ask the fans at Penn State, who in 2018, after watching their 17th ranked Nittany Lions narrowly hold off App State in overtime, stood and applauded the Mountaineers as they left the field. The football is thrilling, and lately has been particularly so. When ESPN asked head coach Shawn Clark about the Mountaineers’ recent last-second Hail Mary win over Troy, he just shook his head. He didn’t know how to explain it, except to say, “I guess God is a Mountaineer.” I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I plan on sticking around to find out.
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If you come to visit, and you should, I’ve got a few recommendations.
Start your day with coffee and a homemade donut at the Local Lion. With some fuel in your belly, drive toward Blowing Rock and Moses Cone Manor off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Walk a loop around Bass Lake or, if you are feeling particularly spry, make the 2.5-mile trek up to the Flat Top lookout tower with its seemingly endless views.
For lunch, you might consider the Come Back Shack with its Nutella milkshakes along with a Watauga burger, possibly a double, topped with fried green tomatoes and house-made pimento cheese. If you find yourself on King Street, you might stop by Our Daily Bread for one of its heavenly sandwiches—I’m partial to the smoked turkey press—or Lost Province Brewing Company, where the wood-fired pizza selection changes with the seasons.
After lunch, stroll the downtown. There are boutiques and T-shirt shops, Watsonatta Western World, and the Nthº Gallery & Studios. Visit Mast General Store and the Mountain Running Company as you wander from Vidalia restaurant—which focuses on local farm ingredients—on one end of town to Foggy Pine Books and the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts on the other. If you need a break, have a drink on the rooftop of the Horton Hotel or the fish and chips at Boone Saloon. Benchmark Provisions has supplies aplenty for your tailgate. Take your time, linger, and don’t forget to have your photo taken with the Doc Watson “Man of the People” statue at the corner of North Depot and West King. In winter you’ll find him wearing a scarf. When it gets cold enough, a hat too.
Come evening, check out what’s happening at the Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts or the newly renovated Appalachian Theatre (it might be classic films one night, banjos and mandolins the next). As for dinner, I’d suggest a proper Southern meal at—where else?—Proper. I love the fried catfish, and don’t get me started on the dessert case.