Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (15/19) — Chapter Fifteen, Rhododendron (1/3)

AT OUR RUTHERWOOD HOUSE, one of our big rhododendron bushes finally bloomed last week and stayed beautiful despite four straight days of thunderstorms and heavy rains.


MORGANTON, N.C. (May 24, 2020) – I’d been wondering about all the rhododendron bushes already in bloom. Here in the Morganton area, the big pink, purple or red balls of blossoms have been showing off for the past several weeks. The rhododendron at the lower corner of our Rutherwood house finally blossomed nicely before this past week’s four-day deluge started, but two others are still only budding.

A huge rhododendron in our side yard—actually several bushes that have a flame azalea, two regular azaleas and a jack-in-the-pulpit growing within them—was broken down in an ice storm two winters ago by a tree that fell from a neighbor’s property. Another shrub at the basement door that we have for years mistakenly called punctatum, or Carolina rhododendron, is actually mountain laurel, like in hell.

That’s what laurel thickets in our mountains are called—laurel hells. Back in my youthful backpacking days, I had to literally crawl through one or two of them after I wandered off trails in the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area. They’re called laurel hells because that’s what it’s like to get through them, especially when something large is crunching the dry leaves behind you, and you’d just seen a bear sanctuary sign.

And you say “oh, hell” a lot until you find the trail again—like, “Was that a bear I just heard? Oh, hell.”

OUR PURPLE RHODY is in bloom now, though our mountain laurel (to the right of the rhododendron) probably won’t blossom for at least two or three more weeks.

But that’s beside the point—which is that both our huge rhododendron and our mountain laurel haven’t started blooming yet. They’re covered with buds, but neither usually blossoms until later in the spring, most years in mid to late June. That’s like the Roan Mountain Rhododendron Festival across the state line from us in Tennessee. Since 1947, it has been held in late June. This year it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of Timberley’s Facebook friends—a man who resides in Blowing Rock and knows much about all sorts of mountain topics, from politics to plants—noted that all of these early-blooming rhododendrons are hybrids, while the “late bloomers” are native shrubs. Actually, they aren’t late; they’re right on time. We just have to be patient and let nature’s beauty unfurl on its own inimitable schedule. Just be patient.

It’s like stock car racing. NASCAR. Or what was called the Winston Cup Series for over 30 years until its name started changing so often that I can’t tell you now what it’s called. I’ll find out tonight, I guess, when the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte comes on TV. It’s entirely appropriate that NASCAR racing—the most commercial of all sports—was first to return to competition with last Sunday’s race at Darlington.

Darlington Raceway is near and dear to my heart for a few reasons. I attended my first race there—the Heinz Southern 500 on Sept. 1, 1991, won by Harry Gant in his #33 Skoal Bandit Olds. On Labor Day weekend in ’92, we saw Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, driving his #17 Western Auto Chevy, score his last victory in the rain-shortened Mountain Dew Southern 500. Same race, different sponsor.

And then there was that other “score” we witnessed one Sunday at Darlington—out in the parking lot.

For 10 years in the late ’80s and ’90s, Timberley and I lived at the beach, as I’ve noted elsewhere. We’d come home to Morganton at least once or twice each year, usually around big holidays and infrequent vacations from our jobs at The Brunswick Beacon in Shallotte, N.C., which was part of what was called the South Brunswick Islands, beach communities between Wilmington, N.C., and Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Darlington, S.C., was on our usual route between Morganton and Shallotte, and the highway we took ran right past the historic speedway, called The Lady in Black and The Track Too Tough to Tame. The Southern 500 was NASCAR’s first superspeedway race, and it’s still notorious for its difficulty and for giving all daring drivers who brush the wall on the egg-shaped, high-banked oval a “Darlington stripe.”

DALE EARNHARDT SR. (#3) and Handsome Harry Gant duel at either Darlington or Rockingham. (Photo by Rahn Adams, who didn’t label his photos back then)

Anyway, Timberley and I usually returned to the beach from Morganton on Sunday afternoons so that we could spend as much time as possible with our family and friends in the mountains before reporting back to work on Monday morning. After five hours in the car—remember, this was back before faster roads and bypasses—we’d usually be bleary eyed and road weary long before we reached Darlington.

Ordinarily, I’d glance to the right across the unpaved parking area toward the back of the tall grandstand at the start-finish line, and remark about wishing we had time to stop and look around, maybe even visit the Darlington Raceway Stock Car Museum, where two of the most popular exhibits now are the 1991 Tide Chevy that Waltrip had demolished at Daytona and illegal equipment called “Your Cheatin’ Parts.”

We never, repeat never, drove past Darlington Raceway on a race weekend unless we were attending the race ourselves. So the vast parking lot was always empty—except for one warm Sunday afternoon when I noticed a single car parked about halfway between the grandstand and the highway. The driver-side door stood wide open, and on the ground outside it was a couple just going at it. Without a doubt.

I’m talking in flagrante delicto, baby. “So,” I said to Timberley, “will the kid’s name be Dale or Kyle, ya think?”

I mean, this was in broad daylight, a stone’s throw from one of the busiest roads between Independence Boulevard in Charlotte and Highway 17 through Shallotte. I’m not sure, but I think the guy’s car was a Chevrolet. And I didn’t see any beer cans, picnic basket or even a blanket on the ground outside the car. Just two cheatin’ hearts a-pumpin’ on hallowed ground. I guess they, too, just couldn’t wait to get home.

By the time we got to our house on Ocean Isle Beach maybe 90 minutes later, we were still amazed by what we’d seen in Darlington but much too tired to care. I would have rather seen Dale and Kyle—any two drivers with those particular names—going at it for real on the speedway. I still remember how my chest felt—the vibration that hit me—the first time I saw two lines of Winston Cup cars circle the track. And the smell of burnt rubber on a hot summer afternoon—it smelled like … racing. And money.

The spring and fall Darlington races, in particular, were popular among race fans in Brunswick County due to their proximity. The two Rockingham races at North Carolina Motor Speedway weren’t quite as well attended by our Shallotte area neighbors, but it wasn’t unusual to run into home folks at The Rock. For several years we attended races at both venues—and one year at the Daytona 500—mainly to meet up with Timberley’s father, Nat, who worked with Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s #3 Goodwrench Chevrolet team.

A SMILING DALE EARNHARDT signs a Western Steer Racing cap for Timberley before either a Darlington or Rockingham race. (Photo by Nat Gilliam, who didn’t label his photos either — like father-in-law, like son-in-law, I guess)

On paper, Nat Gilliam was director of advertising services at Western Steer-Mom ‘n’ Pop’s, Inc., which was headquartered in Claremont, N.C., and was Dale Earnhardt’s third sponsor for a number of years—or at least that was the job title printed on the business cards that Nat passed out. In practice, though, he spent most weekends taking race pictures and keeping the #3 Goodwrench hauler’s fridge well stocked with Mom ‘n’ Pop’s breakfast biscuits. He did such a good job that the pit crew appeared to gain weight.

I don’t have much room to talk, though, because probably my favorite part of going to Darlington was eating breakfast and lunch in the infield grill. Those low-country ladies sure could cook—vats of eggs, stacks of crisp bacon, mounds of flaky biscuits, pots of hot gravy, silver urns of steaming, black coffee. I didn’t need much encouragement to visit the grill anytime during a race day, but it was the place to be to warm up on crisp Sunday mornings at the spring race or to cool off during steamy, sun-scorched race afternoons in the fall.

We never sat in the grandstands at Darlington and Rockingham; Nat always parked his custom van in the infield and used it as home base for his forays to the garage and pit areas. He usually had no trouble getting us pit passes, though once Dale’s gasman, Danny “Chocolate” Myers, had only one extra pass to spare, and it went to—you guessed it—Timberley, not me. I got to hang out in the van while Timberley and Nat hobnobbed on pit road with Dale, Richard Petty, Kyle Petty, and future president Bill Clinton.

But I usually got to roam the pit area with my own camera, and Nat did teach me how to take stock car race pictures and not get run over (again … because, remember, I had been run over by a real stock car, an Olds, when I was eight). Also from our racing days I remember seeing a kid gluing lug nuts on spare tires before one Darlington race. “Who’s that?” I asked, figuring that must have been the lowest job on the race team leader pole. Nat shrugged and said, “Him? That’s Dale’s boy.” That’s right. It was Dale Jr.

TIMBERLEY, NAT AND I stand with Dale in Victory Lane at Rockingham after his win there on Oct. 23, 1994. I said, “Great race, Dale.” He replied, and I quote, “Hummpft.”

After Nat died of cancer in 1999 and then Dale Sr. died on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001, we followed NASCAR Cup Series racing less and less, rooting for Dale Jr. and at first getting a kick out of hearing Darrell Waltrip yell, “Boogity, boogity, boogity, let’s go racing, boys!” at the start of Cup Series races but drifting away if Dale Jr. wasn’t on the lead lap. His retirement in 2017 retired us as race fans.

I gave NASCAR another chance at this year’s Daytona 500 but turned it off for the remainder of the spring after Ryan Newman’s horrible crash that somehow didn’t kill him. I decided that watching men—and women sometimes—tempt fate isn’t the best entertainment. I had mixed feelings about watching Darlington last week and now don’t think I should watch what was once called the World 600 in Charlotte tonight.

We should cherish the lives that we and our fellowmen are given. And we shouldn’t allow our impatient and self-centered natures to keep ourselves or our neighbors from living life, however mean those lives may be, to the fullest extent possible. Someday everyone in this wide world will die of something, and there’s no way we can change that. But like the native rhododendron’s beauty, everything—even death—should come on the right watch, no sooner than the sun, nature’s own timepiece, allows.