The headlight from the giant locomotive illuminated ominously through the foggy abyss as dusk settled into darkness. The steam billowing out of the valves and the black smoke huffing out of the smokestack only contributed to its abstract, melancholy appearance. The shrill of the airbrakes synchronized with the low-pitch whine of the whistle. The clanging of the bell was the only optimistic percussion that this mechanical beast seemed to produce. The locomotive was grimy and exhausted from its long climb up the mountain, winding through too many curves and tunnels. It was relieved to finally slow down and stop. Each wheel of the rolling stock slowly ground to a halt. The violent momentous chugging now was reduced to the calm, rhythmic heartbeat of the air pump and the steady whir of the dynamo.
Bowen watched as the weary and infirm troops filed out of the coaches and onto the platform. The porters assisted with their luggage. The conductor assisted however he could, the soft light of the lantern swinging and glowing in the mist. The engineer tended to his beast, ensuring the tender took on plenty of water for the rest of the trip into Tennessee. Bowen was a man of conviction. When faced between patriotism and the health and safety of his guests, he had quite a predicament on his hands.
Bowen already started taking precautions. He ordered his staff to wear cloth masks at all times they were around anyone else. Health experts advised this was the best precaution. “It covers both the mouth and the nose. Otherwise, it’s worthless. If you still want a job here, you will learn how to wear it,” he would repeat whenever he saw their masks pulled down to their chins or their nostrils haphazardly exposed. His guests were less receptive to the order. They traveled to the inn to get away from the mundane order of the real world, not to recreate it. Some flat out refused to wear them.
Even though Alta Pass Inn was advertised as a place of healing and recovery with its crisp, clean Blue Ridge Mountain air, it was not equipped to accommodate or treat any serious illness. Tubercular and other respiratory patients were banned. Bowen oversaw its construction three years back, envisioning it as a lavish resort for lowland aristocrats who wanted to overcome ailments such as the humidity of the piedmont and the stress of ordering up a round of mint juleps, not serious diseases that were infectious and perhaps deadly. The telegram from the veteran soldier’s hospital in Tennessee assured that the veterans fresh from the Western Front would be leaving on the next train to Johnson City come next morning. Bowen caught himself when he thought of protesting the arrival of his new guests. After all, these were American heroes of the Great War, plus many sacrifices were made in wartime, and his business couldn’t risk being labeled as un-American.
Snow started to trickle out of the fog as the last soldier disembarked from the train. The bell clanged repetitively. The conductor made his final inspection, hopped on the back of the last car, leaned outward holding onto the railing, and waved his lantern to signal “all clear.” The engineer pulled the rope that made the whistle hoot and then pulled back on the Johnson bar. The valve gear creaked forward, and the train started its slow acceleration. The fireman used his shovel to stoke more coal into the firebox. The engine huffed and chugged, disappearing into a fog-draped tunnel.
Bowen peered over at the line of disheveled soldiers aching and hobbling their way up the steep hill to the inn. What was left of their patriotic fervor and youthful exuberance as passengers on the same railroad headed opposite way down to Fort Jackson three years ago was now gone. Sure, they defeated the Hun, and France, Belgium, and England were no longer America’s responsibility. But shellshock and trench life had turned these doughboys’ glossy, impressionable eyes into pale, ghastly remnants of their former selves. The last hero filed into the inn.
Reluctantly, Bowen started to make the ascent up the hill to oversee the hospitality towards the veterans. The warm, yellow glow from the inn’s windows amidst the fog had a soothing and rejuvenating nature. The light spoke of many nights of ballroom swaying, orchestral notes, the laughing and banter of inn guests who were comforted by the stillness of the Blue Ridge Mountain landscape. Nights of entertainment after a day filled with a round of golf on the inn’s 9-hole course or a hike up to a fresh mountain spring, or perhaps a round of trap shooting. The inn was fully intended to be a place to reconnect with nature and to forget about the woes of city life—a place where the mountains were dominant, not the grim reality of a relentless society.
Bowen couldn’t help but feel proud of his handiwork when walking up the steps. The inn was three stories and had a large vestibule that could host a wide array of gatherings. The columns that supported the sturdy roof had a commanding presence and gave the guests a sense of groundedness as they were perched atop the hard quartz and mica of the Blue Ridge. Guests may come and go, but these mountains were here to stay.
As Bowen entered the inn, his blood started to heat up as he saw his establishment deteriorate into a makeshift Spanish flu sanatorium. Beds were brought into the ballroom and quickly filled up with pale-faced soldiers hacking and coughing. Local women who worked at the inn - mountain women accustomed to hard times, turmoil, and affliction - were recruited and trained on the spot as nurses. They were scurrying around making beds and taking temperatures. When they needed help or had questions, they looked up to Mrs. Holman, who had watched over the sick, infirm, and injured up in these hills for years. She came down from Philadelphia some time ago on a mission to better the lives of the Carolina mountain folk. When the railroad was built, railroad workers mangled on the job were rushed to Mrs. Holman’s house and treated unconditionally with the utmost compassion. Mrs. Holman was said to be sent down by heaven’s angels.
“Everything will be alright.” Mrs. Holman said as she placed her hand upon Bowman’s shoulder as he glanced around in dismay at what had become of his grand resort. A few of the inn’s paying guests glared in disgust at the motley assortment of sick soldiers, makeshift nurses, and field doctors. They turned and walked back to their rooms to absorb as much manufactured fantasy as they could before they had to return to the main thoroughfare of the inn. Upon seeing the infirm soldiers, the guests were finally convinced to wear masks and cover both mouth and nose.
“What if they won’t be able to leave the inn tomorrow morning?” Bowen asked Mrs. Holman, nervously taking comfort from the light touch on his shoulder from this resilient and capable woman.
“If the veteran soldier’s hospital in Johnson City can’t take them all at the same time, we will make room up across the creek,” she reassured, referring to her own mountain clinic on the opposite ridge. She would have taken all of the men there tonight, but they were too many in number, and her place had sparse room. Bowen felt a sigh of relief that the soldiers would not be staying at his inn for an extended period of time.
The next morning, the fog lifted slowly from the Blue Ridge. A soft blanket of snow had christened the landscape, and as Bowen walked out onto the front vestibule of the inn, he could see a subtle plume of smoke coming from the stovepipe chimney of the train station. It was a quaint wooden building, yet it was placed in such a strange spot directly over the creek. Bowen mused over this choice of placement and how just one good rain could send that ramshackle little building downstream, up and over the ridge, and barrelling down into the valley below. Just like how taking in sick soldiers for the sake of patriotic duty could send well-paying guests to another resort.
Off in the distance, the whistle of the northbound passenger train whistled with increasing intensity. The cold air thickened the steam spewing from every cavity of the locomotive as it pulled into the station. The veterans filed out of the inn, one by one and down the long hill to the station platform. Some were still bedridden, and the makeshift nurses from the night before assisted with rolling these men down the hill carefully and safely. The railroad had anticipated that this would take a while, so they sent a dispatch to delay the next southbound freight until they could get the passenger train rolling to Johnson City.
“We’re leaving as well,” the guests from the night before gruffly stated; golf club bags hastily shouldered and suitcases stuffed as they scurried down the hill to purchase first-class tickets, well away from the soldiers. Bowen thought to offer them an apology but then remembered that it was his duty to provide those soldiers refuge for the night. He headed back inside and looked around at the remnants of what had happened the night before. The staff picked up bedding and pillows, folded up cots, pushed everything back into place, and tidied up. Outside, the whistle sounded for northbound departure.
“Mr. Bowen, may I say something?”
Bowen turned around to look at who was addressing him.
“Your mask, sir. It kindly goes over both the mouth and the nose.”
“Right,” Bowen replied to the bellhop, pulling up his mask.