Grammy drop puts the "pi(e)" in Pilot Mountain once-over

J. H. Osborne • Aug 27, 2017 at 1:33 PM

MOUNT AIRY, N.C. — For nearly 40 years, members of my family and I have routinely driven back and forth past the very distinctive Pilot Mountain, located a few miles south of Mount Airy, on our way to and from Greensboro and Raleigh. Most of us had never stopped for a closer look until this year. My mother, brother Keith and sister-in-law Kim didn’t know that Pilot Mountain State Park, located within yards of an exit we’ve all passed countless times, was a treasure hiding in plain sight until earlier this month.

From the park’s website: “Pilot Mountain is capped by two prominent pinnacles. Big Pinnacle, with walls of bare rock and a rounded top covered by vegetation, rises 1,400 feet above the valley floor, the knob jutting skyward more than 200 feet from its base. Big Pinnacle is connected to Little Pinnacle by a narrow saddle. Visitors have easy access to the top of Little Pinnacle, where the view encompasses hundreds of square miles of the Piedmont and the nearby mountains of North Carolina and Virginia.”

Mount Airy — considered by many to be the real-life “Mayberry” — is what we’ve long considered the halfway point between Kingsport and my brother’s home in Raleigh. These days, we sometimes meet there to hand off Mom in a two-step relay race as we shuttle her to Raleigh and back for visits with his family. I asked Keith to meet me at Pilot Mountain rather than our typical meeting spot (a McDonald’s on the outskirts of Mount Airy) for the latest “Grammy drop.” At first, he balked at the suggestion because he imagined the park as a small, rustic roadside nature area, possibly with little or no amenities. I told him I had stopped at the park a few months ago and its amenities were very nice. But I didn’t push the issue. Then my sister, Pamela, got involved.

Because Mom’s 84th birthday fell mid-week while she was to be in Raleigh, Pamela and I would not be able to be celebrate with her then. Pamela decided to make the trip with me to Mount Airy to deliver Mom to Keith and Kim. That way, we three siblings would be able to at least share part of a day together with Mom during “birthday week.” So Sunday before last, Pam got up bright and early at her home in Knoxville, packed a delightful picnic reminiscent of those we enjoyed at roadside picnic areas during childhood trips (right down to a tablecloth embroidered by our grandmother decades ago) and joined Mom and me in Kingsport for the trip to Pilot Mountain.

Pam and her husband, Larry, were the original reason my parents, Keith and I started making regular trips across Fancy Gap, through Mount Airy and past Pilot Mountain. They moved to Greensboro on New Year’s Eve 1978. I would have been barely 16 and licensed to drive and a sophomore at Dobyns-Bennett. Keith, four years ahead of me, was at ETSU. The family car was a 1978 Chrysler LeBaron sedan (Medallion Edition) that Dad had custom ordered from Terry’s Chrysler in Rogersville. He had let me pick the colors (white exterior, gold interior) and trim package (wire wheel covers, velour seats, top-of-the-line stereo OK’d, but he nixed my plea for a sunroof and power windows). Typically, I went to Greensboro with just my parents. I don’t think we paid much mind to Pilot Mountain because it was usually dark when we passed it. We left Kingsport after Dad’s workday ended on Thursday or Friday and didn’t head home unitl late on Sunday. Our destination then was Pam and Larry’s home in Greensboro. And our diversions, especially my own, were there as well: The Four Seasons Mall (with Ivey’s, Jordan Marsh, Thalhimer’s, Frankenberger’s, and way more); Peach’s records; this secret place I found called TJ Maxx; and “Superflea” one weekend a month at the coliseum. The latter is also where I saw one of my first concerts: the Jackson Five, Sister Sledge, and Foxy.

A few times Keith and I made the trip alone. It was dark then as well. Most anyone who’s frequented the trip up Interstate 81, then down I-77, over through Fancy Gap and Mount Airy into Winston-Salem can attest to the sometimes dangerously thick fog one can encounter anywhere between Wytheville and Mount Airy. One of my clearest memories of those trips is of being at the wheel with Keith riding shotgun and nodding off. We hit fog. Thick fog. I couldn’t see anything but the taillights of the car ahead of us. So I followed those — right up an exit ramp I didn’t know I was on until the car ahead reached the stop sign. My abrupt braking roused Keith and he asked what I was doing.

 “Uh, I was hoping there was a gas station,” I lied. “I need to pee (not as much of a lie, because I nearly peed my pants when the driver ahead had stopped). Keith drove the rest of the way.

By the mid 1980s, Pam and Larry had returned to Tennessee and settled in Knoxville. But a few years later, Keith, Kim and their children moved to Raleigh, and once again Fancy Gap, Mount Airy and Pilot Mountain became routine scenes in our lives.

 We shared these and other memories during our meet-up atop Pilot Mountain’s “Little Pinnacle,” which is easily accessible by car and offers ample picnic spots, spectacular views and plenty of hiking trails. There are also restrooms, an information center and a campground in the park. It’s about 160 miles from Kingsport.

We were about to part ways when Kim casually told Pam and me since we were going back past Mount Airy we should go through its downtown and find “the pie shop.” She couldn’t remember the name, but promised we’d find pie heaven. She was sure they had about a hundred flavors of handmade pie. As we left the park, Pam’s online search directed us to “Miss Angel’s Heavenly Pies Inc.”  at 153 N. Main St. To our delight, it was open.

We were getting close to downtown Mount Airy, about 14 miles toward home from Pilot Mountain — thinking Mom, Kieth and Kim were well on their way toward WInston-Salem in the other direction — when Pam got a simple text from Kim: “We are going to the pie store, too.” Lesson: Never say, “They’ve got about a hundred kinds of pie” in front of Grammy unless you’re planning to take her there to see for herself. So, we got one last distraction as a group and sat around a quiet table in a pie shop in Mayberry ... uh, Mount Airy, before finally parting ways. In addition to pies of all kinds, the shop had muffins, cookie bars and multiple flavors of brownies. There’s an ice cream parlor next door. The pie shop had one cake on display, and that’s what I went for: peach spice cake. It was rich and delicious.

J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times-News. Email him at [email protected]