When my family moved from Raleigh to outside the tiny town of Sylva nearly thirty years ago, my four-year-old mind was astounded by and more than a little wary of the fact that there were conspicuously few traffic lights. One of my mother’s surefire ways to get me to take a nap had been to put me in my stroller and push me around the Crabtree Valley Mall. Being suddenly thrust into the middle of nowhere was not my idea of fun.
As an only child living in a community with houses far enough apart that one couldn’t see a neighbor, I spent a fair amount of time playing by myself. My swing set was where Mom could keep an eye or an ear on me while she was doing laundry or working in the kitchen. Settling in to mountain life, I adapted. We set up a fire circle made of red clay stained rocks, and from time-to-time we’d sit around the fire and roast hotdogs and marshmallows as a family when the season was right for catching fireflies. More often, Dad would set up the charcoal grill on the front deck, and we would feast on barbecued chicken or cheeseburgers. It was common to see bunnies hiding in the grass and squirrels scurrying through the trees. Every now and then something really interesting would pass through—a flock of wild turkeys, a fox or raccoon, an eagle.
Beyond the confines of the yard, informal as it was, the woods were what I loved most. Behind the house, at the base of the mountain, a stream ran cold and clear. Nothing made me happier than managing what I deemed my little section of waterway. I’d clear leaves and twigs to encourage the water to flow, seek out salamanders and the occasional crawfish, and daydream while staring at the streambed glittering with mica dust. I knew every nook and cranny of the stream from where it pooled in the remains of an ancient periwinkle covered springhouse—a stacking of rocks recognizable only to those familiar with early mountain ways—all the way down to the pond harboring frogs and turtles at the bottom of the hill. I learned to identify the various flora from tulip poplars accompanied by trilliums to the soft evergreen hemlocks and wild mushrooms. The rule was that I wasn’t allowed any farther away than I could hear my mother’s whistle—one of those powerful, fingers in the mouth whistles that meant, “Come home now.” It was the same rule her mother had given her as a child. Sure I occasionally arrived a little dirty, briar scratched, and dotted with green pods of beggar’s lice, but my disheveled state was never more than a bath could overcome, and I was infinitely happy.
Nonetheless, I yearned for something bigger. As time came to begin looking at colleges, I wouldn’t even consider anywhere local or in another small town. It came down to the University of Georgia-Athens or the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Athens was too damned humid, and I’d always wanted to be a Tar Heel, so back to the Piedmont I went. In Chapel Hill, crosswalks had a purpose; busses were easier to use than it was to find car parking; stores stayed open past 5 p.m.
It was months before I returned home to the mountains. I caught a ride with a friend from high school, and we blasted up I-40 West. It was around Black Mountain that the enormity of the landscape began to dawn on me. Crossing Balsam Mountain, passing the Blue Ridge Parkway entrance nearest Waterrock Knob and heading down into the valley, I imagined the mountains as giant sleeping dinosaurs. At home, in my childhood bedroom, my third-story windows looked out not at an asphalt parking lot but at the treetops. I awoke not to leaf blowers and sirens but to dappled sunlight and songbirds. Only then did I realize how much I missed the respite of mountain life, that despite my big city dreams, I was a mountain girl.
Years later, working in a small town in Lowcountry South Carolina, I turned down a job at the Washington Post. When a job came open at a regional newspaper back in the mountains, I took it. That was nine years ago. The mountains may not necessarily be where I’m from, but they’re where I found to be home.
This issue of Smoky Mountain Living is about finding things—hidden uses for old stuff; family histories; spiritual enlightenment. What is it that you seek? What is it that you find?