A Deep and Dazzling Darkness

You know the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau is the home to unique, not-to-be-missed natural wonders – the waterfalls springing from nearly every rocky feature, the astonishing botanical diversity, and, if we’re going to get granular, the variety of salamanders wriggling through the underbrush.

But there’s one feature, nearly unparalleled in the Southeast, you’ll find here that’s ignored by way too many people. And you don’t have to wander deep into the brush or clamber up a rocky escarpment to enjoy this natural wonder. 

All you have to do is wait until sunset, tilt your head back, and enjoy the sight. Directly over your head is a spectacle as dazzling and pristine as anything you’d see on a 4D HD Television, a show now in its 4.5 billionth season. Plateau skies are not compromised by particulates in the air, or heat inversions, or, most damaging of all, light pollution. 

Of course, it’s possible that your home is near a streetlight, or perhaps your neighbors have bright security lights that inhibit your sky-watching potential. 

If that’s the case, consider these wonderful viewing sites – close by, panoramic, and black as a mineshaft at midnight. 

If you live in Cashiers, it doesn’t get much easier than heading to The Village Green. The Commons area is perfect for stargazing. You can spread out a blanket, enjoy a late night snack or beverage, and lie on your back. It’s a languid way to enjoy the evening, unchanged since the Babylonian astronomer/priests of 5,000 B.C.E.

In Highlands, you can visit Sunset Rock, across from the Highlands Nature Center. Park your vehicle across from the Nature Center, and hike the gentle road to the summit. Naturally, bring a flashlight. The road is slowly eroding and you can twist your ankle if you’re not careful. 

That flashlight will come in handy at the top, to ensure that you don’t plummet to your death. Plus, you don’t want to stumble (as I have) over a couple who are apparently enjoying one another more than the celestial view. That’s only happened to me once, though I’ve enjoyed the stars there dozens of times.

If, on the off chance that you don’t relish the idea of a speedy though relatively painless death, or you choose not to share your evening with hidden clusters of adults making out, really making out, consider Highlands Memorial Park, located on Highlands Memorial Park Road, just off of US 64. 

This is a beautiful setting and offers a stunning view of the sky, all the way to the horizon. I’ve occasionally run into others enjoying the spectacle, but they’ve always been hushed and respectful. 

Once you’ve settled in to your spot, you’ll be astonished at the sheer depth of the display. The Milky Way reveals itself as the faint band she’s always been, having all but vanished from most of the United States. 

If you’re not sure what you’re gazing at, there are some splendid star map apps you can install on your phone. I’ve enjoyed Sky Map, although SkyView has an eerie soundtrack that can really enhance the star-watching experience. 

And if the naked-eye experience just isn’t enough for you and you really want to take advantage of the pristine, black-velvet night, you may want to check out an 8-inch Orion Telescope from Albert Carlton-Cashiers Community Library. It’s available free of charge to anyone with a valid library card.  Using this lightweight instrument, I’ve been able to clearly see Jupiter and its moons, Mars and its ice caps, and the Orion Nebula. If you really want to get lost amidst the stars, this is the tool for you.

If you’re still not sure that lying on your back in the middle of nature is for you, let me make an offer. 

On the evening of June 10, the enormous planet Jupiter will be at its closest approach to Earth. It will be brighter than any other time of the year and will be visible all night long. If you have a medium-sized telescope, like the one you can check out from Cashiers Library, you’ll be able to see the orange and butterscotch bands that ring this gas giant. Even a pair of binoculars will net a view of Jupiter’s four largest moons, silently orbiting either side of this most majestic planet.

Watch this show with open eyes, an open mind and an open heart, and I promise you’ll be hooked. 

If not, well, enjoy the rest of this issue of Laurel and be grateful that at least you didn’t fall off a cliff or stumble over some irate lovers.

The American Woody:The first generation of depot hacks boasted open bodies constructed of wagon-style solid planking. But by the mid-1910s, closed station wagon bodies became more common and lighter construction was required. The rib-and-panel style that is familiar today made its first appearance on these vehicles and allowed for the first partially enclosed wooden station wagons with side curtains, two or more rows of seats, and side doors. These new wagons could still be considered depot hacks, but were now called Suburbans, Combinations and Country Clubs. (Versions of these names still appear today.) The lower halves of these wagonette bodies resembled the earlier versions and were now combined with a flat roof. These designs found favor with non-commercial customers, and an increasing number of firms began building them. Major manufacturers such as Ford started offering woodies through dealerships, although independent body builders performed the actual construction. The Martin Truck and Body Corp. in York, Pennsylvania, made so many bodies for Ford, Dodge and others during the 1910s and 1920s that they billed themselves as "The Largest Commercial Car Builder in the World." The golden age of the custom wood body maker ended during the Depression, as many of the small independent firms went out of business. Some reorganized and diversified, like the Kentucky Wagon Manufacturing Company, which stopped making wood Ford Model T and Model A bodies (and its own line of automobiles as the Dixie Motor Car Company) and started manufacturing truck trailers. The company is still in business today as Kentucky Trailer. The major automobile manufacturers acquired many others at fire-sale prices during this time. The fortunes of Martin Truck and Body, who called themselves "The Largest Commercial Car Builder in the World," changed dramatically during the Depression. After merging with failed carmaker Parry in 1919, Martin Truck and Body was acquired by Chevrolet in 1930 and became its first in-house commercial truck body division. Ford, with its vast timber operations near Lake Superior, was gaining experience in woody manufacturing. That experience would be put into practice in 1936 when a plant opened at Iron Mountain that built complete wood wagon bodies that were then shipped to Ford plants around the country for final assembly. While Ford was the only manufacturer building woodies from the ground up, there were still coachbuilt versions available based on GM, Chrysler, Packard, Willys, Hupmobile, Graham, Hudson, Studebaker and even American Bantam chassis. The trend toward luxury continued through the 1930s, although woody amenities lagged far behind those in production automobiles. Pontiac, for instance, did not offer full glazing until 1939. As the country began to recover economically, woodies were increasingly perceived as upscale vehicles and sales rose accordingly. Ford easily maintained its dominance, selling almost 10,000 redesigned Standard and DeLuxe station wagons in 1940 alone. Chrysler introduced its first truly car-quality woody, the Town & Country, in March of the following year. It boasted an all-steel roof and a white ash and mahogany body by Pekin Wood Products of Helena, Arkansas. With Willys, Buick, Pontiac and Plymouth all getting serious about passenger comfort in their woodies, things were about to heat up when the manufacturers were told to cease production of passenger cars and contribute to the war effort. A trickle of cars continued for a brief time, but all domestic automobile production had ended by March of 1942. Ford continued to produce a small number of Ford and Mercury woody sedans and ambulances used during the war. We reach Crystal Cove and its landmark Shake Shack and pull in to switch drivers. Remembering the earlier starting difficulty, we leave the Ford idling while photographer Joseph Puhy shoots some images. Little do we know, the ethanol-laced modern gas blend is busy vaporizing in the fuel line, a common Ford flathead V-8 problem. It happens on the uphill leaving the Shake Shack, the woodie chugging slower and slower, until it can’t chug anymore. Now we’re stranded beside the Coast Highway, with Audis and Acuras zipping past at speed. Bad scene. With no luck re-firing the engine, I resort to bump-starting it backward downhill. This works, and the ’34 has just enough power to get us turned around and find safe haven in a nearby park. But the woodie’s day is over. “I think this has cured me of wanting an old car!” Dean says, laughing. Oddly enough, another “Surf City” lyric has portended our current situation: “And if my woodie breaks down on me somewhere on the surf route/Surf City, here we come/I’ll strap my board to my back and hitch a ride in my wetsuit.” With the photo and video teams close behind, our rescue isn’t quite that dramatic, and we all safely return to the museum in modern cars, leaving the generous McPherson and his beautiful ’34 awaiting Hagerty Plus Roadside Service. The last great year of the woody was, by some accounts, 1949. Handcrafting complicated and maintenance-intensive wood frames and panels was becoming very difficult to justify in the red-hot, new-car market. The epochal Chrysler Town & Country switched to Dinoc vinyl (still available in aftermarket "wallpaper woody" kits today) with ornamental ash framing, and the 1949 Ford used all-steel construction with experimental plywood-like panels that underwent a dramatically high rate of failure. General Motors abandoned wood framing after 1948, and from 1948 through 1951, Packard produced station wagons with window framing and ornamental wood door trim by Briggs Manufacturing. The few coachbuilders that survived the Depression and World War II were again in jeopardy during the 1950s. Despite efforts to make the transition to more modern products such as hearses and other steel bodies, the wood-body manufacturers, steeped in old-world hand craftsmanship, were almost all gone by the end of the decade. Car design and manufacture, as well as the tastes of the car-buying public, were undergoing radical changes and the woody, redolent of 1930s and 1940s country clubs, fell from favor. The Chrysler Town & Country was discontinued in 1951, and while Fords continued to sell well, they now increasingly used vinyl and paint instead of real wood. The 1953 Buick wagons were the last real woodies from any major American manufacturer. Various wallpaper woodies or "vinylies" are still offered by Detroit to this day, but the age of the real woody ended in 1953. Fiberglass would come to substitute for ash and Dinoc for mahogany. It was a slow death, and the last real wood exterior trim of any kind on an American vehicle appeared on the Dodge Adventurer 150 "Li'l Red Express Truck" option available in 1978 and 1979.By the time I had my summer epiphany in San Diego, woodies were already in their second incarnation as an American icon. Furniture makers constructed the first of them on truck frames in the late 1920s. The car replaced the horse-drawn vehicles–jitneys or hacks–that had hauled passengers from train depots to hotels. Woodies were, literally, “station wagons,” and you’ll see them turn up. In Southern California, the place to see any style in wood cars is the annual Wavecrest meeting, held every September at Moonlight Beach near San Diego. Trophies are given for Best 1960s Surfing Woodie and Best Hot Rod Woodie. There are big-money restorations and Model A’s with rotting wood, Buick Estate Wagons with fewer than 50,000 miles on the odometer and more Town and Country wagons than Pasadena’s Rose Parade. Lovely as these ghosts are, there’s nothing that can duplicate your first time. Nearly 40 years ago, on the afternoon when I saw that first woodie in a San Diego gas station, I was just way to my part-time job in a suit and tie. What I watched from across the street was a preview of another kind of life, one that was raw and vital, one where a whole world was spread out along the coast waiting to be discovered. It was a moment that changed my life–because that day I quit my job and started surfing.