By Lynn R. Mitchell
Mountain Lake Lodge sits on 2,600 acres surrounded by the Jefferson National Forest in Giles County high in the mountains, a huge, rustic stone building with an historic background (see History of Mountain Lake Lodge) that overlooks what was once a large, well, mountain lake. It has practically dried up the past few years — the mystery surrounding that is a story in itself because it has drained and refilled over the centuries (see History of rise and fall of Mountain Lake) — but the resort remains as a hideaway for those who want to spend time in the cooler mountain temps with lots of outdoor recreational activities available, except swimming and boating.
Sunday’s Washington Post featured an article about Mountain Lake by Food and Travel writer Becky Krystal (see Returning to Mountain Lake, minus the lake) who spent time there as a child. She and her husband, kids, and parents returned to revisit the place of her youth and she noted the differences now that the disappearing lake is no longer an integral part of the experience. Reading about their adventure reminded of a visit to the lake over 30 years ago.
It was August 1977. My father has passed away two years earlier, on August 3, 1975, leaving a 46-year-old widow and three daughters. Mom gathered us together two years later for a few days away, and so we drove from our home in Richmond to Mountain Lake in southwestern Virginia, staying in one of the cottages that overlooked the lake. In those days, the 50-acre lake was vibrant and brimming to the edge with water, and featured a white sand beach and lifeguard chair along with rowboats and paddle boats — and the place was packed with vacationers.
There was a hiking trail we tackled that followed a mountain stream that was later rumored to be the location in the movie “Dirty Dancing” where Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey were dancing on the log over the stream. It would be another 10 years before that movie was filmed there and released. A little research seemed to disprove the rumor, however, and suggested the scene was instead filmed at the other production location in Lake Lure, NC.
During the week, my sisters and I entertained ourselves by strolling to the gazebo built out over the lake with water visible through the floor boards. We found games in the lodge entertainment room, and hung out on the front porch, rocking while watching swimmers on the crowded beach, the smell of suntan lotion drifting up to where we sat.
In our cottage a short walk from the lodge, we played games — Boggle, Scrabble — while Mom, who had taken time off from her hectic job as a moving company sales rep and consultant in Richmond, read and relaxed while enjoying the soft, fragrant mountain breeze. Even when it rained, it was cozy sitting on the porch safely out of the downpour while watching water run off the roof and form a riverlet that ran downhill toward the lake.
I can still remember that it was loud near the lake with many children laughing and shrieking and yelling to one another as they played and splashed in the water. Lounge chairs on the beach were filled with sun worshipers. All around we were surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains … trees along the lake’s edge at the far end as well as clouds reflected on the water’s surface. It was peaceful, beautiful, and perfect.
I remember the exact date because that is where we were when we heard that Elvis Presley had died — August 16, 1977. Mom and the girls and I had piled into the car to drive somewhere and when we turned on the radio, they were playing Elvis songs and the DJ was talking solemnly about him. Someone in the car observed that it sounded almost as if Elvis had died. It didn’t take long before the DJ made that announcement as they played songs in memory of the Memphis singer. To this day, the annual remembrance of his death reminds of Mountain Lake and that summer many years ago when, still grieving the loss of our dad and husband, we took off for the mountains to enjoy a few days together in the beautiful surroundings of Giles County, Virginia, at Mountain Lake.