For a while I lived in the mountains. I took a long hike across several mountain ranges with my excellent friend David Brill for 5 months as we walked from north Georgia to Maine, and then I moved to western North Carolina – to Madison County, on the Tennessee line north and west of Asheville.
Early in our hike we walked into Hot Springs, NC, primarily in search of the first ABC (liquor) store we had yet encountered in the dry counties of the rural South. Hikers along the Appalachian Trail pass on information via trail registers – little notebooks that are placed in shelters by volunteers. We had learned of the ABC store in this way, by notes left by southbound hikers, and with visions of a gin and tonic in our minds we hurried down into town. We did not know that what we’d find there was much richer and more life-changing than a cold drink and a mild buzz.
If there is one thing that is more appealing than a cold beverage on a long walk in the woods, it is food. We had also heard on the trail register grapevine of a rustic inn in Hot Springs that offered gourmet vegetarian meals, so determined to make a resort experience out of our foray into this town, we went to see Elmer Hall. Elmer had converted an old Victorian house to an Inn, primarily to entice his many friends from Duke University in Durham to come visit him up in the mountains. Hot Springs was a strange sight – a tiny town with big historic houses. It was at one time a resort destination for wealthy families from Charleston, who would take the train to summer here in large homes overlooking the French Broad River and the hot spring spa that gave the town its name. Falling out of favor over the years with its wealthy patrons, Hot Springs survived as a tiny community in a remote county, staying afloat economically by selling liquor in a dry county (don’t ask), and entertaining a few hikers and river-rafters in the spring and summer. The hotel and spa that surrounded the hot springs near the river had burned to the ground long ago.
Elmer not only fed us in exquisite style, but convinced us to stay at the Inn overnight before we continued the hike. He and his neighbor and friend Randall Lanier talked with us late into the night. Randall, who lived on an idyllic small farm just west of town with his cat, cow, dog and horse, entertained us with some enthusiastic if not virtuoso fiddling, and before we realized it we were washing dishes and making beds at the Inn, and raking and cultivating at Randall’s farm for a couple of weeks in exchange for room and board, determined to extend this experience as long as we could. Upon finally leaving to continue our trek north, Elmer told us both to come back if, after completing our hike, we had nothing more pressing to do.
I found my way back to the Inn later that fall. Dave had returned to his family’s home in Cincinnati and I was left pondering the next change of direction I was to take, and it seemed returning to this place that felt so much like home was right for the moment.
Living at the Inn introduced me to the rhythm of the year in the southern mountains. In preparation for the coming winter we collected and split a large amount of dead-and-down firewood, which we had collected from the hillsides of the nearby Pisgah National Forest. As the weather became cold I helped harvest and mill Randall’s cash crop, a field full of sorghum. The canes grow tall and are cut down and milled through a milling machine operated by Bill, Randall’s horse, who walked steadily in circles as we fed the canes into the mill. The juice resulting from the milling of the canes drained into a large, tin-lined tray, under which a substantial fire had been built. Like maple syrup, the creation of sorghum molasses involves an all-night boiling of the raw sorghum juice until it takes on a syrup-like texture. As the night grew cold and clear and we warmed ourselves with mason jars of a certain distillate often associated with these hills, the stories grew more fantastic among us around the fire, and the laughter grew louder as our hair and clothes became sticky in the steam rising from the boiling juice. The stars above the steam rising from the boiling were startlingly bright.
I did not live at the Inn long – I moved out in the late fall when the leaves had fallen, revealing the structure of the landscape beneath the forest. I moved into what had to be the coldest house in Madison County, at a place called Belva (pronounced “bell-vee”) at the confluence of the Laurel River and Shelton Laurel Branch, where the wind blew unhindered up the creek valley into the house. The house was sturdy but had only planks nailed directly to studs uncovered on the inside, offering scant protection from the weather. My heat source was a Taiwanese knock-off of a Swedish wood heater, and it was marvelous, burning logs like a cigarette from front to back. It could effectively heat only two rooms in the house, though, so my bedroom remained unheated, and on the coldest nights there would be ice in the toilet. But sitting next to the stove in a chair listening to the radio, I spent many comfortable winter nights with a lapful of cats (I had 9 of them at that point), who would intertwine making it difficult to tell where one cat started and the other stopped, and we’d all stay very comfortable as the wind blew periodically through the planks on the front of the old house.
Though cold, the house was located at the base of a ridge, behind which was a faint trail to a rock outcrop where I could sit and overlook the Shelton and Sodom Laurel Valleys. I can still remember on a cold snowy morning marveling at the almost white branches of the trees with their even whiter coating of snow contrasting with the deep blue of the clear winter sky. In the mountains, these things are revealed without distraction in a way that allows a more patient, more thorough look. It is, perhaps, why these memories are so vivid for me.
During this time away from the Inn, on my own in the cold house in Belva, I grew to be part of a community of friends that became the benchmark by which all my friendships hence have been measured. Some of these people were, like me, migrants who took root for a short time in these mountains, attracted to the lifestyle, or the climate, or the music. Others were young adults born and raised in Madison County, who had left to attend college and returned to try to build a life in a hardscrabble place of great beauty and scant incomes. There were architects and back-to-the-land-ers, carpenters and nurses, schoolteachers and farmers, and me. By that time I was working as a harpsichord maker’s apprentice (the stuff of another story). The thing that unified us all, as it has for so long in these mountains, was music. There is a long tradition of folk music in the southern Appalachians, nowhere more rich than Madison County, where an a capella ballad-singing tradition stretches back 7 generations here in the North Carolina mountains and even further in the Scottish and Irish lands from which these people came. One of the scions of that ballad-singing tradition was part of my circle of friends – she eventually crafted a living from preserving and performing this music. For most of us, a Friday evening meant a 40-minute drive somewhere across the county on a winding road to someone’s house for a potluck supper and an evening of playing guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and singing the traditional old-time tunes that ultimately evolved into bluegrass and country music when they descended out of the hills to the cities.
What I remember most about the mountains, and probably the reason I have chosen to write this nostalgic story today, is spring. The southern Appalachians are the most biologically diverse environment on the continent. Plants native to both places further south and north thrive here, as well as thousands of plant species native here and many found nowhere else on earth.
Where I now watch for the emergence of perhaps 5 or 6 species of wildflower in the woods near my home here in Raleigh, I would track the progress of 50 in the mountains in the springtime. We’d write bloom dates on our calendars as we came across things while walking in the woods. Microclimates created by creeks, hillsides shaded in the morning or in the afternoon, different elevations and soils create habitats for an extraordinary variety of things to grow, and we could mark the progress of the season without looking at the calendar. We knew that the advent of spring appeared on the mountain when the white serviceberry bloomed high on the hills when all the trees were still bare, followed by the bullet-shaped pale green of leaves emerging on the tops of the tulip poplars. One after another, blooms of the signature plants decorated the woods as the season progressed: Trilliums in April, the flame azalea in May, rhododendron and mountain laurel in June. Strange and extravagant orchids like the lady’s slippers and rare half-hidden discoveries like the showy orchis or the whorled pogonia were happy surprises along the trail and we took every opportunity to walk in the woods in the spring. Climbing to the firetower on the top of Rich Mountain or up onto Max Patch Mountain, we’d breathe heavily from the exertion and the elevation, experiencing the heady fragrance of the many things blooming, but also sucking in pollen from the widest variety of vegetation on the Eastern Seaboard. Many, including me, experienced heretofore-unknown allergies – a small price to pay for witness to this spectacle.
As spring turned to summer, the cool nights counterpunched the warm days, and no amount of atmospheric heat could turn the Laurel River warm – its swimming holes remained a respite for the hottest times. The consistently cool nights would make every morning a mystery. It would invariably be overcast early, as the coolness condensed the humidity in the air, and by 10 am the sun would either have burned off the low overcast and we’d have a typical sunny summer day, or it would rain. It was springtime when I moved from Belva to a smaller but warmer house on Snowbird Branch, the $75 per month rent covering a 4-room house with spring-fed piped water, 30 acres, a pear tree and the best potato patch in Madison County. The house was divided into 4 equal-sized rooms, so I had a very small living room and a commodious bathroom. People used what was available nearby when they built these small houses, and on this one they used a rot-resistant local wood for siding, walnut, which everywhere else is a prized and expensive furniture wood. By June my bottomland garden produced broad-shouldered tomato plants and too many zucchini, potatoes and raspberries and way more weeds than I could keep up with. In August my neighbor Tommy would harvest his cash crop, drive to Florida and come back with a new 4-wheel-drive pickup.
In fall we’d begin to think about firewood again, and sometimes in mid-week we’d choose not to work, and drive a winding gravel road to see the leaves from the open bald on Max Patch Mountain. Max Patch is a classic Southern Appalachian bald, a grassy ridgeline with dramatic views of the Great Smoky Mountains to the west, and when the season’s colorful leaf display was at its peak there was no better vantage. Mornings became clear and cold and people became scarce as they spent a good bit of their time preparing for winter again – insulating, gathering firewood, making that run into Asheville for an extra blanket from K-Mart. The sourwood was always the first tree to turn color in the fall. As it did, the confidence that the rest of the forest would be not far behind motivated us all to respect the season, to prepare once again for the white-clad bare branches of a snowy winter. The maples owned a deserved popular reputation as the color kings of the season, but I always enjoyed the small surprises, the dazzling orange-red of the sassafras, the brilliance of sumac on the roadside, leaving its berries after the show for us to enjoy in the winter, the bright orange berries of the mountain ash at the highest elevations, the surprising bloom of the witch hazel, when everything else has given up on blooming for the year.
But spring! Spring is the time when I think about the mountains and the trilliums and the new green of the tulip poplars while conveniently forgetting about the sneezing and nose-blowing. Spring is when I first set foot in the southern mountains and felt a strange connection, as if my ancestors had lived there. And maybe they did. My father did some genealogy research about my great-grandmother’s family. He had traced them east from her home in central Missouri to somewhere in North or South Carolina before the trail went cold. She was Irish, and I choose to believe her people were mountain people.
Whether she was or not, I believe that I am, and in this season I listen to traditional music and pine for the old hills of home – my adopted home – even as I tend my tamer, more common flowers around the yard. But I keep a few natives of the mountains, flowers with funny mountain names that remind me of the spectacle in the high country – “hearts-a-bustin”, “coral bells” and “lily-of-the-valley”. I miss this land, forgetting conveniently about the allergies, the bitter cold in the winter, the loneliness that has inspired the “high, lonesome sound” of mountain music, and what others have called the “chillingly desperate and vividly beautiful” life people lead here. I am just fortunate to be able to have been part of it for a short time.