A Supposedly Fun Thing I Just Might Do Again
There was something about Primland that made Emily Nunn see red—a lavish and expensive outdoor Xanadu situated near her beloved Virginia hometown. Then she went there and had... a pretty good time. Blame the trout stream and the 400-thread-count linens.
As the country begins to reopen, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.
It was a glorious chamber of commerce day in July when I pulled up to the north gatehouse of a mysterious place called Primland resort: eggshell-blue skies, Crayola-green hills. In the distance, I saw fields dotted with those enormous rolled hay bales that made it all look like the set for a Broadway musical.
“Well hey,” said a woman with a sleepy southwest Virginia accent. Dressed like a ranger at Jellystone Park, she was the official gatekeeper for this private, Bermuda-size, European-style, rusto-luxe outdoor play space. Primland, which covers 12,000 acres, is located 3,000 feet up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, on a former land grant where Cherokee Indians once roamed. Now it’s a boutique getaway with big-ticket prices. For example: 18 holes of golf costs $235 per person, a guided nature hike is $60 an hour, and a half-day of fly-fishing for two with a guide is $180 per angler.
The entire scene was so Technicolor that I honestly thought the guard might start singing. Instead she said, “Have a grayt tahm!” Then she handed me a map and waved me onto a steep gravel road lined with lush rhododendrons dripping their pale pink petals everywhere. “Right,” I muttered to myself. “Give me a fucking break.”
I should say right now that I’m absolutely the most ridiculous person in the world. Here I was, griping on my way to a virtual fairyland, where lucky people while away their days amid the glories of nature, truly secluded from the rest of the planet’s stupid, boring problems, playing tennis, fly-fishing, shooting clays (and deer and turkeys and pheasants), throwing tomahawks, climbing trees (with a trained assistant), “forest bathing” (walking in the woods), horseback riding, rowing down a river, golfing on a first-class Donald Steel course, and being rich.
They also sleep in luxurious rooms, and treehouses that dangle over gorges, and cottages that cost more than most hotel rooms in New York City or Chicago—the two places I’d lived most of my adult life before returning to the rural South, where I’d been living very unluxuriously, on a budget, in a barn, while I finished writing a book.
And yet, despite all the alluring fanciness that awaited me, I was being a pill, weighed down by exquisite psychic turmoil. Even though I’d never set foot on the grounds of Primland before, I’d been furious at the place since it opened a luxurious lodge back in 2009—close to the end of the Great Recession, which had temporarily sent the rich into hiding and a lot of us home from our jobs. I took its mere existence very personally. It burned me up.
Primland is located just 45 miles from my hometown of Galax, Virginia, population 6,625. Galax was once a magical place, too, a kind of Cheever-esque version of a southern hamlet, where thriving furniture factories—a couple of which were started by my Russian Jewish great-grandfather—had given just about everyone who lived there a reason to be.
When I was growing up, the streets of Galax were lined with Cadillac and Oldsmobile dealerships, department stores, a five-and-dime, a corner drugstore with a great lunch counter, a movie theater, banks, hardware and furniture and shoe stores, and a stately post office. We were able to enjoy most of the things that Primland has turned into pricey recreational commodities. We hiked, we rode horses, we golfed (only nine holes, but still). We climbed trees, rowed, fished, threw tomahawks (maybe they were hatchets). Our lives weren’t nearly as elevated as what you experience at Primland—when we stargazed, it was not from a world-class observatory with a Celestron 14-inch deep-space telescope able to detect images 50 million light-years away—but we had fun.
I mention these things to highlight the fact that Primland sits in an area that has been struggling economically. In Galax, all but one of the factories have been closed for years, along with the golf club and almost every upscale store. My little town—like so many small manufacturing hubs felled by globalism and greed—has seen much better days. But it’s still beautiful to us. It’s still our home.
So, fairly or not, I went in with a grudge against Primland and its founder, a suave-looking French oil billionaire named Didier Primat, who bought the land in the 1970s and originally used it for logging. Primat died in 2008, at 64, leaving his eight grown children to complete his vision for an eco-conscious resort. So I couldn’t ask him who exactly Primland was for. Nor could I ask him what the hell he wanted from my people and our mountains.
I assumed that whatever he had in mind involved a feeling of superiority, which we’d been exposed to by Yankees who’d moved into the area in the seventies and treated us like quaint hillbilly elves they’d found living under a mushroom. In an early report written by Primland’s first general manager, I saw a reference to the local workers who were busy building the place.
“These are the people of southern Virginia, underestimated and misunderstood by generations of Americans,” he wrote. “I came to see in their Appalachian faces a strength and sophistication as great as any I’ve witnessed anywhere and to appreciate their unbelievable resilience. … If someone ‘fell off a mountain’ down into a ravine, got lost in the woods … I can tell you from experience these were the only people you could count on.”
Blech. (P.S. He’s wrong: I wouldn’t give him air if he were in a jar, as we say in southwest Virginia.)
But as much as Primland rankled me, it also intrigued me—in much the same way that a rich, handsome, unmarried Republican who tells sexist jokes at a dinner party might. That’s where the psychic turmoil came in.
Maybe I could make it work. But how would I feel about myself?
On one hand, I’m a person shocked by our nation’s growing income gap. On the other, I had read that Primland’s toiletries are supplied by Bulgari (my favorite) and its linens by Frette. So I was willing to put on hold what might be plain old liberal bias. Until I’d really given the place a chance, how could I judge?
This is what I told myself when I jumped at a publicist’s completely random invitation to visit Primland last year. My sly idea was that I’d blow the lid off its pretensions while also experiencing spa treatments that incorporate “Native American healing rituals.” And take home all the Bulgari swag I could fit in my suitcase.
My ambling drive to the lodge up Didier Primat Parkway—Primland’s only paved road, which features several breathtaking overlooks and many grumpy wild turkeys—took almost half an hour. I saw a sign for a cottage called Black Bear, and a black bear actually came frolicking out of the woods onto a patch of dappled grass. It felt so fake! As if someone were up in a control room: “Ms. Nunn is here. Cue the medium-size bear in three, two, one.” I rolled down my car window and yelled at the bear: “Hey!” It ignored me.
I half expected to be met by a character from the J. Peterman catalog, offering me a peacock with a diamond leash. Instead, when I finally arrived at the enormous stone lodge, which had what looked like a metal rocket ship attached to one side (the observatory), an adorable young man in a polo shirt, who’d gone to high school in the next town over from Galax, took my bags, led me to the door, and parked my car.
He was so nice. I felt confused.
It was already late afternoon, so I ran through the lobby and straight up to my suite, where my entitled Republican cousin Toni—a former Goldman Sachs banker who now works in the travel industry—was waiting.
I’d invited Toni because she’s so much fun, but also because I felt that she would balance me out, since we’d be coming at Primland from totally different angles. Mine was that of a neurotic, irrational person with an extremely personal, long-festering grudge, who had lately become inscrutably tired all the time—I mean, absolutely exhausted—and got winded going up the steps to the post office. Hers was that of a professional in the travel industry, who goes to those boot camps where they make you carry heavy weights over your head while running laps, is game for anything, suffers from very little useless angst, and appreciates the comforts of a well-appointed hotel.
“Look,” Toni said when I arrived, gesturing like Vanna White around the room, which seemed to have been designed by a heterosexual man. The drapes were operated by remote, and there were four different sets of pocket doors that reconfigured the space, including the bathroom, so you could bathe and pee privately or do it with the doors wide open and everyone watching you from the sitting room. The lighting was controlled by labeled switches: All On, Make-Up, Relax, Nightlight, All Off.
“Pig candy,” Toni said, picking up a julep cup full of thick-cut candied bacon that had been left for us. “Have some,” I said. She frowned. “I’m not eating that.”
Toni hopped into the enormous bathtub and struck a pose. I told her a story about a mutual friend’s elderly mother-in-law, who’d visited Primland years ago and had to get the concierge to come show her where the bathroom was. Toni grabbed the remote and opened the drapes, revealing a pretty apricot-colored space. A second set of drapes unveiled a stunning panorama: my very favorite mountains, the Blue Ridge.
“The rapture of the spectator is really indescribable,” Thomas Jefferson once said of Natural Bridge, one of his most treasured spots in this range. In that spirit, I won’t try to describe them except to say that they seem to stretch to infinity and have been around for hundreds of millions of years; the Blue Ridge is one of the oldest sets of peaks on the planet. As the world gets smaller, more polluted, and worse than ever, they seem permanent, unchanging.
These mountains temporarily tamed me. Plus, it was almost time for supper.
I decided to chillax and enjoy a lavish meal at the resort’s restaurant, Elements. Aside from a golf-clubby pub and a converted stable-saloon (featuring a Thursday-night southern dinner and a weekend country buffet), there’s really nowhere else to eat while you’re at Primland, and there are no restaurants outside the compound for miles and miles. It can feel a little lonely around here in general. There are only 26 guest rooms in the enormous lodge, and it seemed undercrowded. Even though we’d arrived right before the Fourth of July holiday, we didn’t meet another person who wasn’t an employee. Which turned out to be more than fine.
They seated us dead center in a cavernous space—sparsely populated with well-heeled couples, a father and son (both absorbed in their iPads), and groups of golfers—in front of one of those snazzy glass-encased freestanding fireplaces. Golden early-evening sunlight poured onto our table.
It was nice; it was. But that didn’t stop me from finding things to pick on. The menu featured lots of “southern” drinks and moonshine. (Don’t get me started on how moonshine sold in a restaurant is not moonshine.) But when you say “upscale southern hospitality”—as the publicist had described Primland’s overall ethos—I think of foods like quail with bacon, farm eggs, anything flavored with country ham, deviled eggs, spoon bread, fat red tomatoes heavy with juice, and fresh grilled trout. None of that was on the lineup, which according to the website “showcases the natural abundance of the Virginia Highlands” with “local, organic, and sustainable” fare. So I ordered a $65 lobster and Toni ordered the $46 scallops. Because that’s what locals grow and eat here in the mountains.
“We’re getting a dessert no matter what,” Toni said after we’d handed back the menus.
Toni, who knows good wine, tasted a few before settling on a glass that made her happy. I ordered a nonalcoholic drink. When it arrived, it looked like some enormous thing you’d get on a cruise ship and practically screamed: I’m in AA! (Which I am.) Toni started laughing so hard that tears spilled from her giant blue eyes. From then on, we referred to this concoction as Hi, My Name Is Emily.
I’ve written about food for decades and have never really liked doing reviews, because they seemed to fly in the face of what I’d been taught as a southerner: smile and say thank you. But let me point out that Toni’s $14 heirloom-tomato salad came with a bar-code label still attached to one of two pale slices—in July, peak tomato season. My grilled-peach salad was also a bit of a mess, consisting of firm peach chunks and candied nuts atop limp greens.
Toni thought I was being mean, but I’d noticed during dinner that she wasn’t allowing the waiter to take away her half-finished and quite delicious pork-belly bun before he arrived with our entrees. “I’m keeping it as backup, in case there’s nothing else I like,” she admitted.
That night, as we got ready for bed, Toni and I went over our schedule: fly-fishing, ATV tour, and stargazing on day one, followed on the next morning by a golf lesson and a two-hour session of “forest bathing,” led by the spa director.
It was a lot for a day and a half. So greedy. But I needed it. Despite my country childhood, I’d become a bit of a Woody Allen character, daunted by my natural surroundings after decades in big cities. In addition to my ill humor, I had very little energy lately; maybe an immersive experience would kick-start me.
We fell asleep on 400-thread-count linens, smelling like expensive bath products, and as I drifted off I felt both excited by the idea of my shameless backsliding and guilty about my lurid desires. When I got up in the middle of the night to adjust the air-conditioning, I accidentally banged my face on a pocket door that had slid closed between the bedroom and hallway. I tried not to read too much into that.
“You ladies afraid of snakes?” asked Cole Stewart, our 23-year-old, floppy-haired fishing guide. It was 8:30 A.M. on another perfectly beautiful sunny day. He’d driven us down the steep side of a mountain until the gravel and dirt road ended near a rock face. We put on our waders and wended our way along a sloping trail into the gorge, across the rushing water of the Dan River, through dreamy fern and mushroom woods, then back across the Dan to find a spot where wild trout lurked.
The snake question made me realize that lately I seemed afraid of everything. But it felt like a weird time to bring it up, or the fact that I rarely slept through the night, and that if I did I woke up sweating. I just figured: I’m in my fifties. This is normal. I needed to be a better person and work out harder, push myself. I needed to stop being so cranky all the goddamn time. Onward!
Incidentally I’m 100 percent terrified of snakes, but I didn’t mention it, because it became insignificant the second we started fishing. Cole was as quiet as a yogi while he read the seams of the water’s riffles and runs, moving us up and down the river. And while we might see snakes and more black bears and turkeys and deer, we were otherwise completely alone in this giant green wilderness. “Nah, you won’t be running into other folks down here,” Cole said. “This stretch isn’t even accessible from anywhere but Primland.”
The Dan is about 200 million years old. It starts just north of Primland, in the high eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge, and runs easterly for more than 200 miles through Virginia and North Carolina, then back into the Old Dominion before emptying into a 50,000-acre reservoir near Clarksville. It was once a main source of life for Native Americans, of course, and during the early 19th century it became the primary mode of transport for locals, staying that way until the late 1800s.
As I stood casting in the waist-high water, a lush forest of oak, hickory, maple, poplar, pine, and black gum trees rose behind me. In front, a wall of rhododendrons and mountain laurels bloomed all the way down to the river’s edge, their petaled branches dipping into the swirling water. It was so beautiful my eyes filled with tears.
Therefore I didn’t mind that over the next few hours I caught exactly one trout, barely larger than a can of sardines, which Cole held out for me to photograph, trying to mask a disappointed expression on his face. I also fell down a lot, because I couldn’t get any traction on the rocky bottom in my waders.
Fine—I kept going; I’m a trooper! But I noticed that Toni wasn’t sweating, nor was she having any problem walking. In fact, she looked like a model for a sexy version of the Orvis catalog, with her perfect casting form, giant smile, and swingy blond hair. She caught three good-sized fish and almost a fourth—which she still talks about to this day, but never mind—and clearly was making Cole a lot happier than I was.
While they chatted and laughed and caught fish, I was downstream in my own world, adoring the river. It smelled like heaven, and when I got so hot that my glasses fogged up, I simply dipped my wrists into the cold water for relief. When I got so tired that I desperately wanted to sit down, instead I closed my eyes, stood still, and meditated, listening to the water and the birds.
Truth is, while I felt pretty terrible physically, I’m not sure I’ve ever been happier.
I began to warm up to the idea of having rich foreigners run this fine piece of land for private use. It was so much better than, say, Duke Energy, a nefarious North Carolina utility that spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan in 2014, one of the largest disasters of its kind in U.S. history.
In fact, at this point something hard and angry—or maybe it was actually something sad, something that may have been there for years that I’d buried and had very little to do with Primland—started to soften in me.
As we climbed back up the mountain in our heavy, soaked waders, neither Toni nor Cole, who were practically sprinting, knew about what had just happened to my soul. On the ride back to the outdoor activity center, Cole talked to us about the medicinal properties of some of the plants we were passing. “This place has everything I love—fishing, hunting, golf,” he added. “I just love the mountains.”
“So do we,” Toni said with a sigh.
The outdoor-activity center is a place full of testosterone and taxidermy, where many of the men look like Wilford Brimley playing a forest ranger at various stages in life. After Toni finished shopping for a pastel-colored Primland windbreaker, we had club sandwiches with Carl McDaniel, Primland’s hunting and outdoor-activities director, who’d started working for Primat more than 30 years ago. This meeting had been arranged by the publicist, so I expected a boring pitch. Instead, it was like having an impromptu lunch with Jack London.
“I came here as a forester,” he told us, explaining the evolution of Primland from logging to a kind of rustic hunting and fishing operation to the present resort. He talked about the logic of the deer-season calendar. He described the habits of screech owls, barn owls, whippoorwills, and turkeys. He explained how plantings near the road and golf course were done to protect and feed wildlife. He was Charming with a capital C, and my grudge seemed to loosen more, along with a modicum of my reverse snobbery.
Our next guide, Marcus Heath—neat beard, dark sunglasses, disarming southwest Virginia accent—asked us what we had planned after the ATV tour he was taking us on. When we told him “nothing—dinner,” adding that we’d wanted to try the spa, he picked up the wall phone underneath a giant stuffed pheasant, put one hand on his hip, and made a call. “I have Ms. Nunn and Ms. Nunn here, and we would like to see about getting them in for a massage or a facial.”
He covered the phone with a hand: “Does five sound OK?” He pointed out that we had plenty of time to shoot a few clays, too, if we didn’t mind cutting the ATV tour short. “Yes!” we said, practically in unison.
Toni and I donned enormous helmets, and Marcus installed us in separate Polaris Ranger 4x4s. After a quick zoom around a flat lot to make sure we weren’t total idiots, Marcus took off and we followed. Once we got on the trail, I never really knew exactly where we were, because the dazzling property is so enormous. I got completely lost, and I loved it.
Marcus was quite the hot rod, and I had to focus to keep up as we bounced over steep hills, charging past scenic overlooks, taking super-sharp turns, and splashing through puddles. I couldn’t stop laughing and kept trying to turn around to see if Toni felt as exhilarated as I did. When we stopped, I had to scrape dirt off my teeth because I’d been smiling so much. “I wish we’d been in the same vehicle!” Toni said, taking the words out of my mouth.
We then ditched our ATVs and took golf carts over to the clay stands near the outdoor-activity center. Shooting was a blast (ha ha), and I don’t think it’s bragging for me to point out that I was quite good at hitting clay pigeons. Toni was a sharp shot, too. “Darn,” she said after only her second pull.
“No, you hit that, Ms. Nunn,” Marcus said.
“I did?” she replied before destroying a half-dozen more like a pro.
But the best thing about being around Marcus was just being around Marcus. My favorite moment of the trip came when we were loading up to head back to the lodge and I mentioned how pretty a particular stand of trees was.
“Those two pecan trees are on a farm once owned by ol’ Hardan Bowman, before Mr. Primat purchased this land,” Marcus said. “His house actually sat right over there, and he had a lot of different varieties of apples—every old-timer used to have apples from early June all the way through to November.”
So does Marcus, who’s only 47. “I’ve got one apple tree that has four different varieties. A guy who works here, Junior, who is 72 years old, helped with the grafting. He used to have an orchard, so I picked his brain throughout the years, and he showed me how to graft them. I have 14 or 15 apple trees, eight or so yellow and white peach trees.”
Marcus also grows white grapes. Like his parents and grandparents before him, he preserves food—beans, other vegetables, meat. “You ladies want to pick some wild raspberries?” he said out of nowhere.
Why yes, we do. Pinned like rubies to the branches of low bushes growing beneath a stand of trees on Hardon Bowman’s old farm, the small, tart berries stained our hands and clothes as we picked and ate. It echoed all the times that Toni and I had picked wild blackberries together as kids. The moment seemed rare and magical to me, and I felt lucky to be on this earth.
The spa we went to later was absolutely gorgeous, but I realized I would have rather stayed outside. And I barely recall what I had for dinner. However, there was one indoor pursuit that ranked far above its outdoor counterpart: stargazing from the amazing observatory. Lauren Peery, a resident astronomer—who found the job in our hometown newspaper, the Galax Gazette—opened the observatory and took us far from the planet, showing us the Whirlpool Galaxy (23 million light years away) and the Hercules globular star cluster (25,000 light years away). At the end of her short and fascinating talk, she invited us to look through a smaller Celestron deep-space telescope. When we did, what we saw was an incredible, vivid glimpse of Saturn’s beautiful rings.
“It’s a good way to gain some cosmic perspective about where we are in space,” Peery said. This seemed inordinately significant and relevant to me.
The next morning, I was pretty tired and Toni was not, but we were both running on blissed-out electricity left over from the previous day. After breakfast, and after Toni had looked at practically every single cute golf outfit in the pro shop (“I’m not shopping,” she kept saying), we had a quick lesson at the driving range with Brian Alley, another young local, who was adorable. I was thrilled to find my swing still intact and to discover that Toni could really smack the ball herself, which I’d never known.
It was beginning to dawn on me that practically all the employees were locals; in fact, I later found out that Primland employs 200 to 300 staff during peak season. So by the time we’d left, I was a little ashamed of my attitude. And the fact that I’d been putting “forest bathing” in ridiculing quotation marks.
The spa director at the time, a Native American named Angela Avellino, took us on a two-hour hike that became a meditation on life and our relationship to nature. We made our way through woods north of the lodge, overlooking the gorge that contained the spectacularly pointy Pinnacles of Dan. She asked us to notice, really notice, what was going on around us, our heartbeat, and how grounded and heavy our footsteps felt the farther we got into the forest, with its dense canopy, mossy floor, and acorn scent. “Yessss!” Toni said again and again, acknowledging these subtle, wonderful changes. One of the final things Angela said to us was: “Pay attention to how your body responds to nature.”
Back home it occurred to me that I went to Primland with two kinds of bad attitude. I showed up looking for things that would confirm my notion that it was bad for the area and no good for the locals. And I blamed my surly disposition on the idea that I just wasn’t trying hard enough to stay in shape—that how I’d been feeling for a very long time was my own fault.
I was wrong on both counts. After my trip, I found a 2013 online post about Primland that described more of what Steve Helms, the resort’s vice president, had touched on when he sat down with Toni and me during lunch on our last day. Helms, who grew up in the area, talked about the eco-conscious aspects of Primland, which had been built into the design plan approved before Didier Primat died. Its attention to the environment is pretty extensive. As Scott Klopfer, director of the Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech, once said in an interview: “There are few places left like Primland, where large tracts of private land are managed in a natural state.”
So: The lodge’s roof tiles were not slate, as I’d assumed, but recycled tire material. Some of the wormy chestnut, walnut, oak, and pine used inside is reclaimed and recycled wood. The physical plant includes a conservation-minded wastewater-treatment system. There’s minimal paving on the grounds. The stone and brick are either from regional quarries or recycled. Housekeeping uses green cleaning products. The laundry uses solar heat. The pool in the spa uses bromine instead of chlorine. And the golf course is a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.
After reading this, I felt like I owed Primland an apology.
And just a few weeks later, I felt like I owed myself an apology, too. I ended up in the hospital in Atlanta while visiting Toni. It turned out that rather than being tired or lazy or out of shape or any of the other things I’d criticized myself for, I was extremely sick with a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma—which I found out when fatigue and abdominal pain finally sent me to the emergency room. Various blood counts were so bad that I had to have transfusions before I could even start chemotherapy, and when people visited me during my three-week hospital stay, they had to wear gloves and masks to keep me safe. I’m doing well now, notwithstanding my stupidity. And I was lucky to have good friends around me, including Toni, who brought me oatmeal in the morning once I could eat and visited me again after she finished work at night.
The moral to my story is this: I have always had a tendency to trust the things I want to believe so much that I overlook a lot of truth. I’m still a little mad at Primland, mainly because I want it to serve legit southern food and because, quite honestly, I’ll never be able to afford the place again unless I marry a rich Republican. But it’s definitely saving a very large piece of the earth in a part of the country that’s dear to me. And not only did Primland make me realize how much I missed truly embracing nature, by wearing me out on the river and the trails, but it kind of saved my life.
Primland woke me up, in the way Robert Frost meant when he wrote: “Nature is always hinting at us. It hints over and over again. And suddenly we take the hint.”