Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.
We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.
It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. You can find the first post in the series here, and a link to the next post in the series, when it becomes available, below.
I am always surprised, upon entering Appalachia, to discover that I can breathe. Actually, the surprise is realizing that I’ve been going months and years without truly breathing, and haven’t noticed. It’s not an allergy thing. It’s just… I feel like I’m home. I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be.
I have no idea why this is the case, because I wasn’t even born in the area. But this overwhelming feeling of familiarity always overtakes me. If past lives are actually a thing, then I suspect that I’ve been roaming these mountains for hundreds of years.
I love the lush greenery and the seasonal changes. I love the boulders and the stonework on the houses. I love the fungus growing on the trees. I love seeing wild turkeys roaming on city streets. I love coming across places called things like Wiggle Worm Drive and Snickersville Turnpike.
I love that you can taste the rich, healthy soil in the mountain water. I love the crickets and the fireflies. I love dulcimer music. I love the quilts and the crafts and the creativity. I love the cows and the horses and the chipmunks and the woodpeckers. I love hearing the owls in the distance. I love how the greens close up fade into blues faraway. I love that Virginia is for lovers, but I think all of Appalachia is, really.
Upon returning to this place, the very trees seem to be saying, “Well, it’s about time! Where have you been?” as the mountains cradle me in their arms. So you can imagine my joy, knowing that I was to spend three whole days in this spiritual home of mine.
First, we left Georgia and headed to Eastern Tennessee, to visit my dear friend Carole. I met her thanks to this blog. Even on days when this blog overwhelms me, I realize that it’s facts like that that make the whole thing worth it. We were fast friends before I passed through this area on my way to Seattle seven years ago, and we met for lunch. Now we were meeting for lunch again, this time at her home deep in the Smoky Mountains.
As we rode through the winding woods, we were flagged down by a woman standing on her front porch steps. She said her cows had gotten out and she was afraid we might hit one while going around a curve. We said we’d keep an eye out. Even though we were still several miles from Carole’s house, we asked if she knew her. She said yes of course. She told us she was x number of driveways down, and with a hint of envy in her voice, she allowed that Carole’s driveway was paved.
As we approached Carole’s compound, we were extremely impressed by the two houses that she and her husband had built with their own two hands. There was also a man made catfish pond and a little cabin called Tranquility Base. It was all very cozy.
It was such a delight to see my friend again, especially now that everything was working out in my life. She finally got to meet Dear Husband and they got along like a house afire, as they say hereabouts. She was kind enough to give us a tour, and also to make us lunch. As we talked, she would casually say things like, “Oh, yes, I chinked all these logs myself,” and “We had to clear all the trees down to the road before we could have the driveway put in,” and “I did this stone floor myself.” We were awestruck.
Sadly, we couldn’t stay long, as we were renting a cabin in Fairview, North Carolina, and we didn’t want to approach it for the first time in the dark. I must confess that I shed a few tears as we drove away, because I don’t know when or if I’ll see Carole face to face again, and that always hits me hard. She gave me some keepsakes to remember her by, and I’ll cherish them always.
Okay. Hoo. Something in my eye…
Anyway, after that we drove on into Western North Carolina. As much as I love the Smoky Mountains, I love the Blue Ridge Mountains even more. This is truly where my heart and soul reside. Before going to the cabin, we passed through Asheville to pick up DH ’s wayward laptop from the FedEx, and here’s some of the amazing public art we saw in the area.
From there, it was on to Fairview, a little town I had never visited before. We found the Log Gap Cabin on Airbnb, and it proved to be even more amazing than we had anticipated. They aren’t kidding when they say you need an all wheel drive to get there, though. The steepest part of the road had me convinced for a minute there that we’d have to abandon all hope and lug our suitcases the rest of the way on foot. I’m glad I wasn’t doing the driving. After a few attempts, we made it, and settled in for two nights.
This place was amazing. It’s deep enough in the woods that we could pretend we had the entire planet to ourselves. There was a hot tub of which we took full advantage. The balcony was a lovely place to sit and read and listen to the sounds of woodpeckers echoing in the forest. At night, we slept through a chorus of crickets, and woke up to the sounds of deer crashing through the underbrush. I always feel rejuvenated after a night in these mountains.
The whole time in the cabin I was able to just… be. The proprietors left some homemade banana bread on the kitchen counter for us with a nice note. We never turned on the TV. I got to read and nap and hot tub and read and nap some more. I was home. (And when I found out how much this cabin sold for last time around, I was thrilled to discover it was much less than the last house I bought here in the Seattle area. So there is hope for retirement after all.
While in the area, we did venture out to ride along the Blue Ridge Parkway and visit the Folk Art Center and Warren Wilson College, where I spent my Freshman year. (I have spent the rest of my life regretting that I transferred elsewhere after that.)
I was deep in the throes of nostalgia when we got on the parkway. I could almost see my seventeen-year-old self just out of the corner of my eye. I think she’d be happy about how I turned out. I remembered friends long gone and dreams never quite realized. I remember having legs of pure steel because of all the climbing. Those legs are long gone, but even so, I keep coming back to this place. It’s where I’m tethered.
The Blue Ridge Parkway wends its way through North Carolina and Virginia for 469 beautiful miles. It’s definitely not the road you want to take if you’re in a hurry. There are too many places along the way that will make you want to linger.
The part I’m most familiar with are mileposts 365 to 385. That’s the stretch from Asheville, North Carolina to Craggy Gardens. Right near the Asheville entrance, you’ll find the Folk Art Center, which is my favorite shop on the entire planet, although I’ve never been able to afford to buy much there. I’ve probably visited this place 100 times in the past 40 years, and it never disappoints.
You won’t find anything made in China at the Folk Art Center. In fact, all it features is traditional and contemporary crafts from the Southern Appalachians. I particularly love the quilts and the woodwork. I have often dreamed of having a cabin in these hills that is decorated with nothing but things from this center.
You are told not to take pictures in this place, and I’ve always done my best to comply. But this time the visit was bittersweet because I don’t know if I’ll ever get to pass this way again, so I must confess I cheated. It was the only way I could think of to carry it with me aside from those memories that I’ll always keep close to my heart. I hope I can be forgiven for a few errant photos after all these years.
From there, we drove north(ish) on the parkway, stopping at many of the overlooks and breathing deeply of the mountain air. We were hoping that the leaves would be changing to their glorious reds and oranges and purples and golds by now, since it was late October, but that transformation was only just starting. That is a pity. Thanks, global warming. I’ve seen this place in all 4 seasons, and it’s always gorgeous, but Autumn is by far my favorite time of year.
On the way north(ish), we saw a lot of emergency vehicles pulled over in one spot, and they were lowering a gurney down the mountainside. This never bodes well. I tried to find a story about that particular tragedy while writing this post, and discovered a hair-raising number of accidents, murders and fatalities in this area over the years, but none for that particular day. I hope that means that whoever it was managed to survive.
Finally, we reached the Craggy Gardens Visitors Center. I still maintain that this is the most beautiful place in the world. Ever since I laid eyes on it for the first time, I’ve said I would like some of my ashes scattered here. But now I’m far away, and I’ve decided that cremation is not the most environmentally friendly way to go, so there will be no ashes to scatter. Compost, maybe. We’ll see. But I’ve also been introduced to some other gorgeous places, like Sedona and the Painted Desert and Yellowstone and the badlands of South Dakota, so I’m beginning to think that it would be much nicer to have little remnants of me all over the place, even in places I didn’t get a chance to see in this life. Travel is, after all, my reason for being, and what a glorious world we live in.
Whether a physical piece of me ever winds up in Craggy Gardens remains to be seen, but I know, as sure as I’m writing this, that I leave my heart there every time I go. I can feel its pull even from across the continent. The connection is strong. Craggy Gardens is my happy place.
Unfortunately, time was limited, and I still wanted DH to see Warren Wilson College. I may have only been there for a year, but I still consider it more of an alma mater, or “nourishing mother” than any of the institutions from which I obtained a degree. It shaped me in fundamental ways.
It’s always poignant, visiting someplace you knew and loved decades ago. Often much is the same, and much has changed. Hopefully the changes are for the better, and in this case they were, but it also means that the place you once knew so intimately is gone. The best thing to do in these situations, I’ve found, is to glory in the remnants and try not to be too jealous about not having had the opportunity to experience the improvements.
My beloved barns and mountains and fields and church were still there. A lot of the buildings I knew and loved were still standing. Even my mailbox, that I used to run to daily with high hopes of contact from loved ones, still stands. My dormitory has long since burned to the ground and been replaced by a different building of the same name. And they now have something called the “Center for Gender and Relationships”, and that’s an exciting improvement. There’s more artwork everywhere, and the cafeteria has been vastly improved although much of the food still comes from the college’s farm and gardens.
There are also more cozy gathering places in front of the cafeteria. I wish they had been there in my day. At the time, there was just a stark bridgeway to the entrance, and all the intimidating jocks used to sit on the railings on both sides, so it was like running a gauntlet of sexual harassment just to eat a meal. Many of us girls would take the long way, down the hill and through a side door on the lower level, to avoid their intent stares.
There is also now a pedestrian walkway above the highway that bisects the campus. I would have been grateful for that. When going from class to dorm, we used to have to climb down one hillside, cross the highway at a dangerous curve, and then climb up the next hillside. Hence my legs of steel. This walkway is a vast improvement. The campus hosts 650 students now, instead of 500, and they have several more dormitories, most of which seem to have been built with an eco-friendly agenda. Yay. The room where we used to dance is now a vegan eatery called the Cowpie Cafe.
I was sad to discover that the bookstore was closed on that day, because I saw a lot of cool t-shirts in the window that I would have bought. And, to be frank, the shirts that the subcontractors sell online are ugly, monochrome, and don’t really reflect the WWC vibe. They could make a lot more money for the school if they changed that.
I really enjoyed wandering around the WWC campus and showing DH one of the places where I think I was most happy. If my heart is in Craggy Gardens, my soul is on Dogwood Ridge at WWC. I was glad to see that most of the students were the same kind of liberal hippies who inhabited the place back in the 1980’s. I keep trying to convince the young people in my life to study there, and I’m always shocked when I don’t succeed. This college is everything.
After all our wandering, we came across a tiny little sign that said the campus is currently closed to all outside guests, including community members who do not live on campus. Whoops. Well, at least we were wearing masks, and only entered one building. We saw the rest from the car. My only piece of advice for WWC would be to fix their rotting signs. I know they can do better than that, especially since all the work crews that run the college are comprised of enthusiastic students.
This love letter to my college, and to Appalachia in general, is very sincere, and it will last my whole life long. It’s always gut-wrenching when I take my leave of the place, but life has its own agenda. This time around, it was that we were headed to Washington DC to explore its many wonders. You’ll be able to read about that in subsequent posts.
The ultimate form of recycling: Buy my book, read it, and then donate it to your local public library or your neighborhood little free library! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5
7 thoughts on “I Left My Heart in Appalachia”
I am always humbled by you. I so thoroughly enjoyed Your visit and meeting Cris. I think of how much I gained in my life, when I jumped at the chance to meet you when you were making your move across country into the unknown. In the seven years since that meeting, I’ve traveled the world, attended Master Classes in life, laughed, cried, gnashed my teeth, and clapped my hands gleefully. I’ve done much soul searching my personal, professional, political, moral compass. I have taken 3 steps forward and 50 steps back, fallen, and gotten back up. You were on there to give me the courage to rise above every negative situation, and keep a steady path. All the while, taking me to all the places I’ve wanted to go, meeting the most wonderful people from all walks of life, and brought me true friendship. I love traveling with you. Who, Knows, maybe there is one trip left in this Old Girl, and I’ll see you both again.
I hope so, Carole! You’re always welcome in my home and in my life, both virtual and actual. Nothing but love for you. 🙂
My father’s family is from Eastern Tennessee between Athens and Decatur, if you know it. They built Highway 75 over my grandmother’s house. They left the old oak tree that stood outside of it, though. I’ve many fond memories of the Great Smokies and the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was fun reading your travelogue of your visit. It brought some things back.
Interstates are so destructive. I’m glad you got to experience that beautiful area. There’s nothing quite like it. I suspected you came from good stock! 🙂 Something to urge you back to the states?
I’ve thought about retiring to Appalachia. It does feel like home to me. But, my life of international intrigue or at least teaching makes it complicated.
I’ve had the same thought. And the nice thing about living in outrageously expensive Seattle is that I could pretty much retire anywhere in the country and save a small fortune. Time will tell…