This is the 14th story in our "Open Road" summer series. Look for it every Tuesday.
BEECH MOUNTAIN -- When you drive up the steep, winding roads of this small town, past its ski slopes and under a bright green bridge, you'll see an old white farmhouse and a massive pair of ruby slippers. Suddenly, you know you're not in Kansas anymore.
At its debut in 1970, this was a cutting-edge theme park built in part to keep ski workers employed from June through October. The Land of Oz has been closed 30 years and is a desolate remnant of the magical retreat it was.
But the park makes an annual comeback during the first weekend of October, when several thousand flock to the Autumn at Oz party. The two-day event started 17 years ago as a small reunion for former park employees such as Andy Harkins, 57, who was a Tin Man in 1971. It grew to more than 8,500 last year.
"It was a great place for people to come and be taken away by fantasy," said Harkins. "The fall event is great, because a lot of Ozzies get to come up and see each other."
Next month's party will celebrate the park's 40th anniversary. But Cindy Keller, Oz's keeper for the past 17 years, said she's selling only 7,000 tickets, and close to 1,000 of those have already sold.
With the help of Billy Ferguson, an Oz fanatic who makes costumes, some of the park's original characters will return to this year's festivities. Water in the Fountain of Youth will be dyed green, and vendors will sell Oz dogs, Oz treats and face painting for children.
"It holds a special place for a lot of people," Keller said.
That's true of Harkins, who met his wife Kay at Oz. She dressed up as Dorothy in 1976. They still have a black terrier named Toto and a daughter who has played Dorothy in Oz stage productions at Barter Theater in Abingdon, Va., the state theater of Virginia and one of the oldest in the country.
Dean and P.J. Nixon of Johnson City, Tenn., married and spent their honeymoon at the park. They'll return to play Dorothy and the Tin Man at the autumn party.
The desolation of Oz
When Oz opened, its main attractions were a ski-lift transformed into a hot-air balloon ride and interactive characters that gave tours and performed. Grover Robbins, who leased the park, died three months before it opened. After a promising start, attendance gradually declined, and a lack of interest forced Oz to close in 1980. It was abandoned for a decade before the land's owner decided to restore parts of the park.
A fire in 1976 destroyed the Emerald City, the end of the Yellow Brick Road where many artifacts were stored. Some historic Oz memorabilia, such as the dress worn by Dorothy in the original film, also were lost in the blaze.
The hot-air balloon ride has been dismantled. And a few of the 44,000 bricks that made up the Yellow Brick Road are missing. Keller said the road had to be excavated from under several feet of compost in the early 1990s.
What visitors see now
At Autumn at Oz, the Yellow Brick Road still leads visitors through the Enchanted Forest, poppy fields and Munchkin Land, picking up the Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man along the way.
The farmhouse, a replica of Dorothy's, still makes you feel as if you've been through a twister. The main floor seems normal, but a stairway takes visitors through a dark room with strobe lights - the tornado - and into a basement laid out as the exact house, only the walls and floors are slanted and the furniture scattered. The Wicked Witch's legs stick out from beneath the back patio, which leads to the Yellow Brick Road.
In the park's museum are a few costumes from the movie, dozens of figurines and post cards from the park's opening.
Keller says the park never will be what it was, but she's committed to maintaining its artifacts. Proceeds from Autumn at Oz and park rentals help pay for maintenance and restoration.
Dorothy's house can be rented for $135 to about $250 a night, depending on the time of year. The park also can be rented for private parties and weddings. Last year, Keller presided as the mayor of Munchkin Land as a couple renewed their wedding vows. Next year, Oz will host the convention of the International Wizard of Oz Club, an organization comprising hundreds of Oz fans across the world, of which Ferguson, the costume maker, is a member.
"We just love Oz," he said. "And what's not to love?"