Based on this vacation photo of me from when I was two, I guess you could say I have been going to Montreat for well over 55 years. And this is a place that is very special to my siblings and me.
To get to this special place, we had to drive through this gate…
…which today looks like this. Montreat is still only approached through this one archway—the only way in since the town is nestled up against the Black Mountain range.
When we were growing up, it was the Presbyterian conference grounds (today, it is an incorporated town) and in order to pass through the gate, you had to be registered for the conference (thus the reason for the gate). That was why we went there almost every summer—our dad was a Presbyterian minister. Each summer that I can remember, he would attend a weeklong church conference in Montreat and we would tag along. And each time we would drive through the narrow gate, I would worry that we would crash into the side since it was so tight.
(Later in life, I would get to drive myself through the gate and still feel that childhood nervousness.)
While I know, based on these old photos, my first visit was when I was two; my earliest memory of this place was this house where we would rent a room for the week. And while my dad was at the conference, we were free to wander and explore and play. I guess you could describe it as a fun summer camp where there were no organized activities; you just did whatever you wanted to do for as long as you wanted.
In the center of the conference grounds, there was (and sill is) a lake fed by a gurgling mountain stream.
Getting to swim is one of those fun summertime activities that all kids love to do. But this lake was so cold, that even in August you couldn’t stay in for very long without turning blue from the cold.
A better activity we found than swimming was to go rock hopping on the stream. That way you only got wet if you slipped off a rock and landed in the stream. We would rock hop up the stream as far as we could go, and then get out and walk down the road back to the lake. I remember one time walking past a sign that read “Danger, entering the Montreat Watershed.” I had no idea what that meant but I just hoped we wouldn’t get into trouble.
There were also lots of places to hike in Montreat but our favorite was to climb Look Out Mountain.
This was a challenging up hill climb but for us kids it was easy (As an adult, I have since found it a bit more challenging). From the top, we had a fantastic view of Montreat and the surrounding mountains.
We did also have access to making crafts. One of my favorite activities when we were young was hammering out ash trays from soft, colored aluminum on hard plastic dies (no one in our family smoked so I don’t know what our mother did with all of those ash trays). We could also make crafts with leather and I recall hammering a belt with Indian heads on it. When we were older, there was a studio where we could paint and fire ceramics.
When we got hungry, we would always want to eat at the grill on the top floor of the Moore Center, overlooking the waterfall. My favorite food then (and still now) was a hamburger and those burgers were just the tastiest sitting on the porch, listening to the waterfall. They also had Biltmore ice cream and an ice cream cone was often our dessert afterwards.
On the floor below the grill was the bookstore. Since this was the Presbyterian Conference grounds, most of the books were of a religious nature but there were some kids books too.
After finding a book to peruse, we would sit out on the balcony in their rocking chairs, listening to the waterfall and having a wonderfully glorious time just rocking and reading.
I was never that interested in fishing but since there was a lake, you could get a day’s fishing license and fish for rainbow trout. My Dad was a lifelong fisherman and my younger brother enjoyed fishing as well. I would tag along some of the time but I usually got bored fairly quickly waiting on the fish to bite (even a nibble was a welcome break). However, I certainly didn’t mind eating the fish that was caught which my mother would batter and fry for us just hours out of the lake.
I don’t remember how old I was when we first start camping rather than renting a room but this was another great kid adventure. The camp grounds were right next to that cold mountain stream that fed Lake Susan and everywhere in the campgrounds, you could here the rushing water. It rained a lot in Montreat and so the trails in the campgrounds were often muddy—but all the more fun for kids. There was also a spot we called the mica mine (not sure if it ever was a mine) where we could easily dig up small mica rocks. I remember being amazed at how many thin layers of translucent film I could continue to peel off of the small rock.
After we got older, our parents would rent a house and invite all of us to come up for the week. The first one was the Kennedy house. It was certainly more comfortable than camping out but it didn’t have a great mountain view.
At some point, my parents found another cabin to rent that did have a great view, Cloud 9. I don’t know how many years my parents rented that cabin but when we first started going there, our kids were small and my wife worried they would fall off the second floor balcony.
My parents were still going there even when our kids were in high school and college. In fact, one of the last gifts our dad left us—unintentionally since he died that spring—was renting Cloud 9 for a week in August.
It was bitter sweet to return that year just a few months after his death to Montreat and to the cabin our parents had shared with us on so many family vacations.
I remember looking over at the rocker where our mom and dad would sit in that front room and thinking how different it was without either of them there. I have only been back to Cloud 9 once since then, five years after our dad died when all my siblings and their families decided to get together in Montreat. It still felt sad without them present in that house and I haven’t been back to Cloud 9 since.
In 2010, I decided to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP), which passes within 30 miles of Montreat. I interrupted my drive of the BRP to visit all of the places in Montreat we went growing up and recall some fond memories.
It has been a number of years since my last trip to Montreat and I would say I am way over due. I don’t know when my next visit will be, but I know a new thrill I will enjoy in Montreat will be getting to introduce the fourth generation of my family to Montreat, my own grandchildren.
And I suspect this will give me a chance to relive all of those old childhood memories while making some wonderful new ones.