A couple of weeks ago, a longtime friend I hadn’t seen in a long while seemed to instinctively know I needed a little geographic escape. A break away, even if just for a day. You’d think that time limit would keep us pretty close to home.
But Kevin (Davis) took me on a wonderful trip down memory lane, by way of the Yellow Brick Road. We went over the rainbow and off to see the Wizard. Oh, we stopped by a Kansas farm on the way, met a wicked witch, a good witch, a runaway-turned-storm-refugee named Dorothy, and a tin woodsman, a scarecrow, and a lion, all of whom were prone to singing and dancing in apparent attempts to make their wishes come true.
If you’re near my age, give or take five to 10 years, and from this region, you’ve probably guessed Kevin had whisked me through the town of Roan Mountain and into North Carolina, gaining elevation until we reached Beech Mountain. And we visited the former Land of Oz theme park (1970-1980).
We were able to do so only because it was the first weekend (of three) of the annual Autumn at Oz Festival, which offers tours of a now impressively restored portion of the theme park to a limited number of ticket holders and with timed entries to keep crowds at a minimum.
I hadn’t been to the event in years. When I first started going around 1999 or 2000, it was a far less structured event. If I remember correctly, you paid $5 to get to walk up the hill from the bottom of the ski slopes and tour the Gale farmhouse, walk the Yellow Brick Road, see some folks dressed in character for different roles in the movie, and visit several vendors in a meadow. Oh, for a few years there was an actual surviving actor who had portrayed the Munchkin Coroner in “The Wizard of Oz” film.
Within a few years prices began to rise, and crowds were crushing. Vicki Cooper Trammell and I ceased our excursions to the event. We nearly froze to death one year anyway.
But that’s not the memory lane Kevin took me down. Since my last visit to an Oz weekend, the event’s organizers have pulled out all the stops. The whole experience took me back to childhood trips to the then-flourishing theme park. One of my favorite pictures of myself as a child with my dad is the two of us standing on the Yellow Brick Road at the Land of Oz. It’s probably the first or second year the park was open.
In the summer of 1970, I’d have been 7 years old. In 1971, 8. And so on. I don’t remember us going much, if any, after about 1973 and certainly not after 1974. I still remember what it was like to see the Land of Oz through a child’s eyes. A child who looked forward to the once-a-year television broadcast of “The Wizard of Oz,” starring Judy Garland. I remember riding with my siblings (in the middle of course) in the backseat of the family car, a 1967 Army green Dodge Dart. Only the aforementioned photo makes me remember Mom making me wear dress shorts, shirt tucked in, socks and dress shoes.
Land of Oz memories always bring to mind Dad and one of his best Army buddies from his service in Korea. Dad and Chuck Smith remained close the rest of their lives. Earlier this year I wrote about the loss of Chuck’s wife, Doris, with whom Mom had maintained a close friendship. One of our early 1970s trips to Oz included the Smiths, along with daughter, Barbara Ann, and son, Mark.
I had no plans of attending Autumn at Oz this year. It wasn’t even on my radar. Until Kevin shot me a text message on Saturday the 11th asking if I had any plans the next day.
He had purchased tickets as soon as they went on sale and wanted to know if I was interested in going. I said I was avoiding crowds, but yes, I wanted to go.
Kevin explained the event runs like clockwork now, with a limited number of reserved tickets sold for specific timeframes throughout each day. You can’t get on a shuttle bus or hop on the chair lift until your color-coded wristband meant it was your time slot for entering the event.
We got to Beech Mountain about an hour early and spent the time browsing and shopping in Fred’s General Mercantile. That alone is an adventure and good time. I somehow spent $50 or so on three issues of Our State magazine, a couple of Beech Mountain decals, and a dream come true: finally someone compiled a picture book on the Land of Oz (“The Land of Oz,” by Tim Hollis, an entry in Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of Modern America” series, $22.99).
Kevin had purchased VIP tickets, with an add-on to give us access to an overlook at the crest of Beech Mountain. We were supposed to ride a bus up. I offered to at least pay the extra money to get us on the chair lift. That ride up and back down was such fun we both agreed we’d have made the trip just for it. Below us were people playing disc golf and others flying downhill on mountain bikes along trails (with jumps and high turns) designed for that purpose.
Once we reached the top, we began to see portions of the old theme park, with lots of banners and posters placed along the path leading to the first stop, the gazebo that once housed a bronze bust of Judy Garland dressed as Dorothy in MGM’s classic 1939 film.
The next stop was Uncle Henry and Auntie Em’s farm, where guests enjoy: a live show featuring a rousing song-and-dance number by the farmhands; Dorothy arriving home seeking help preventing Miss Gulch from taking Toto away, singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” running away and meeting Professor Marvel, then heading home as a storm is coming. (Socially distanced) guests then are permitted into the farmhouse, head to the cellar, emerge into the crash-landed house and out the door to Munchkinland, the Wicked Witch, Glinda, and the Yellow Brick Road.
Eventually we reached the gate to the Emerald City.
And I had a longtime wish come true. I got to be the one to ring the bell, then knock, to gain entry to the city after some verbal sparring with the gatekeeper.
We walked up to a recent, if not brand new, wooden platform at the peak of Beech Mountain. Taking a break two-thirds of the way up, we made quick friends with Leann Pate, of Elizabethton, who was as tuckered out as we were. But like us, she couldn’t have been happier or having a better time. We made some small talk once we all reached the platform, which offered an outstanding view of mountain ranges miles, perhaps states, away.
By the time Kevin and I made our way to the performance area for the grand finale, when Dorothy and her friends would confront the Wizard, I was watching the clock because we’d been warned the chair lift closed at 5:30. We got seats right behind Pate and exchanged more pleasantries and shared enthusiasm for what a great experience Autumn at Oz had been. It turns out Pate’s children had brought her to the event as a surprise for her birthday. They’d told her only they had to take a drive and didn’t tell her the destination until they reached Beech Mountain. She was beyond delighted.
We made the chair lift down before it stopped running and began to discuss where to eat. We made it to Roan Mountain and I asked if we could check another item off my wish list. I’ve driven by Bob’s Dairyland countless times over the years and always have thought “that looks like a good place to try, but I’m not hungry.”
I was hungry after trekking down the Yellow Brick Road.
I had the pork BBQ platter ($9.50) and Kevin opted for the smoked chicken platter ($10). It was a lot of food. Good food. I loved it. I will go back.
I was gone from home roughly eight hours. It was a perfect day. I’m grateful Kevin had the foresight to buy tickets early and the generosity to share them with me. Autumn at Oz 2021 ends today. If you’re interested in going next year, you’ll want to monitor the website for details: www.landofoznc.com.
A cost/value breakdown: general admission $55; VIP admission $67.50; overlook add-on $5; chair lift ride to the top of the mountain and back, $12. Dinner, including sodas and tip, $30. Spending a day “over the rainbow” with an old friend: priceless.
Today marks eight years “absent from the body, in the presence of the Lord” for Dad. I think I’ll read my Land of Oz book and use that Yellow Brick Road photo of Dad and me as a bookmark.