I Left My Heart in Appalachia

I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be.

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

Gee Haw Whimmy Diddle

No, I’m not speaking in tongues.

No, I’m not speaking in tongues. This is the name of an Appalachian folk toy that, based on this video, was very easy to make, and didn’t cost a dime. That last was an important criterium for all things Appalachian, as it was and still is one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the country.

The Whimmy Diddle went by other names as well, including Whammy Doodle, Hoodoo Stick, Ouija Windmill, Hooey Stick and VooDoo Stick. It consists of a notched stick with a propeller on the end. When you rub the notches with another stick and put pressure on the notched stick with your thumb or forefinger, the propeller will spin right or left (“gee” or “haw” respectively, if you were herding cattle or oxen in those mountains). It’s a pretty neat trick, and according to this article, it may date back as far as ancient China.

Having grown up rather poor myself, I have always admired the innovation of poor people. They learn how to entertain themselves with practically nothing. That’s an impressive skill that really ought to be marketable. But then you have to also jump over the hurdle of living in a remote area with very little opportunity. This country really should tap into this resource more often.

I wouldn’t have learned about this little toy were it not for having read the book by Kim Michele Richardson called The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. It’s about the packhorse librarians of Kentucky, whom I’ve blogged about here, as well as the Blue Fugates, whom I’ve long wished to learn more about, so naturally when I came across this title I had to read it. And I highly recommend it. It teaches you a lot about the hardscrabble life of the mountain people in this area of the country. It’s a fascinating read.

I don’t know about you, but I’m just happy to live in a world where something called the Gee Haw Whimmy Diddle exists.

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Mid-Month Marvels: Greenagers

The entire country could benefit from this fantastic idea.

A recurring theme in this blog is the celebration of people and/or organizations that have a positive impact on their communities. What they do is not easy, but it’s inspirational, and we don’t hear enough about them. So I’ve decided to commit to singing their praises at least once a month. I’ll be calling it Mid-Month Marvels. If you have any suggestions for the focus of this monthly spotlight, let me know in the comments below!

I’ve blogged about my teen participation in the Youth Conservation Corps before. It was a very life-changing part of my growing up, and it gave me skills that I employ to this day. It used to be a federal program, and I truly believe that when Reagan did away with it, the country didn’t quite realize what it was giving up in terms of teaching the nation’s youth how to be strong, capable, confident and hard working adults.

So imagine my joy when I stumbled upon an organization called Greenagers. The only fault I can find with this amazing program is that it is only in the Berkshires and a small part of New York State. I think this entire country could benefit from this fantastic idea.

According to their website, “Greenagers provides employment and volunteer opportunities for teens and young adults in the fields of conservation, sustainable farming, and environmental leadership.”

They have several programs. They help maintain the Appalachian trails in the area, work with local farmers, and install front yard gardens for area families. They work on public lands to build trails, remove invasive species, and construct kiosks and benches. They also have a river walk stewardship program, and a climate action program to educate students in middle school.

There are so many benefits to Greenagers that there is not enough space in this blog to count them all. Not only does it provide youth with gainful employment, but it educates them about the environment and provides them with tools to maintain this planet in a way that we should have been doing all along. It also teaches them teamwork and gives them skills in collaboration. It shows them how to work with their hands, and it gets them off the couch and into the great outdoors for actual exercise. It gives them an amazing work ethic and it instills confidence and keeps them out of trouble.

Currently, this organization is raising funds to acquire the April Hill Education and Conservation Center, a 100 acre plot that includes a farmhouse that was built in 1744, a barn, and several outbuildings, not far from the Appalachian Trail. This will allow them to expand this incredible program and increase their opportunities to educate and uplift the community. Check out this amazing video, and please join me in supporting this great cause.


An attitude of gratitude is what you need to get along. Read my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Packhorse Librarians

Librarians have always been my heroes. They preserve and impart knowledge and literacy. They inspire curiosity. At a time when “intellectual” seems to have become a dirty word, they are keepers of the flame. Call me a geek if you want to. I think librarians rock.

Recently, I was thrilled to discover something about the history of librarians that I never knew. During the Great Depression, in the rugged and remote Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky, the Works Progress Administration funded the Pack Horse Library Project, and the vast majority of librarians involved in it were women.

These women would ride an average of 120 miles a week, two weeks out of every month, in the rain and snow, through the mud, along cliffs, and up icy creeks, to bring books to people who otherwise would not have access to them. They promoted literacy and education, and improved people’s chances for employment. They’d often read to families themselves. These women risked their very lives to spread knowledge. Not only did they have to tackle rough terrain and inclement weather, but they also had to gain the trust of communities that generally viewed outsiders as highly suspect. I can’t imagine a more noble pursuit.

Their funds were quite limited, so they also had to ask for book donations, and they got creative in other ways as well. They made Christmas cards into bookmarks, and license plates into book ends. They also made books of their own. They created recipe books and quilt pattern books from information gleaned from the community. They did their best to get to know their patrons and provide them with books that would spark their interest.

I’d like to imagine that if I were alive in that time and that place that I’d have been a Packhorse Librarian; a bringer of information, a messenger for truth and art and literature. It was a hard life, no doubt. But I bet at the end of the day, they took pride in this honest work. That makes life worthwhile.

Now those same communities are served by bookmobiles. This, too, is noble. I hope the librarians in those vans, with their dry feet and their warm hands, take a moment each day to think about those intrepid women who paved the way for them. And I hope they keep up the good work, because, I’ll say it again, librarians rock.


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If You Could Do Anything…

If money, time, responsibilities, age, and health were no object, what would you do right now? If there were no barriers in your way, what dreams would you pursue? What goals would you try to achieve?

I think about this quite a bit. As I’ve said, I have a very long bucket list. I dream big. Even so, my “one thing” seems to be different depending on which month or year you ask me.

Today, at this moment, what I’d love to do more than anything else is pursue a Master of Fine Arts at my alma mater, Warren Wilson College. Many very talented writers have gone through that MFA program, and have gone on to win National Endowments for the Arts; Guggenheim, Radcliffe, Stegner and Hodder fellowships; the Rome Prize from the Academy of American Letters; Whiting Awards; the NAACP Image award; The Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award; the Kate Tufts Discovery Award;  the Juniper Prize for Fiction; the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry; the Kenyon Review Fellowship; the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy; The Howard Frank Moser Short Fiction Prize; and on and on. Even more have gone on to be published through highly acclaimed publishing houses. I genuinely think this program would push my writing to the next level.

It is a low residency program, which means I could remain in my beloved Seattle most of the time. But twice a year I would experience the delight of Western North Carolina and its Blue Ridge Mountains. And there’s something magical about the WWC campus. It is one of the most environmental and liberal campuses in the country, and it influences you. It gets into your bloodstream. You can’t go there without leaving as a more amazing you. I’ve tried to get many people to attend this fine institution. One day I hope someone will actually listen to me, because this place is a gift.

So what is holding me back? Money, first and foremost. That always seems to be my biggest hurdle. The bills won’t stop coming simply because I would prefer that my focus be elsewhere. And then of course there’s the question of time. An MFA is not a trivial pursuit. It’s not something I could squeeze in between my bridge openings at work. And unfortunately, that work is what keeps the dogs in kibble.

So unless I happen to stub my toe on the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, I’ll simply have to keep dreaming of a path in life that I most likely will never have a chance to take. Somewhere in an alternate universe, another me is sitting under a tree in the heart of an alternate Appalachia, learning how to be the most incredible writer she can be.

Oh, and she’s younger, thinner, in a loving relationship, and impervious to cold. Why not? Given my active imagination, I can almost content myself with that. Almost.

So now it’s your turn. What would you do, if you could do anything?


I may not have an MFA, but I still wrote a book! http://amzn.to/2cCHgUu

My Jacksonville to Seattle Odyssey—Part 2

It was really hard saying goodbye to my sister this morning. I don’t know why. It’s not like we’ll lose touch. But it was kind of comforting, knowing she only lived 4 hours away. And I probably won’t see her for a year and a half. So it was hard. Still, off I went, just me and the dogs, who got right down to the business of sleeping.

We officially traded cars, and now I’m driving a 2000 Dodge Caravan with a whole host of quirks. The windshield wipers forget to work sometimes, and have to be reminded. When you hit a bump in the road, the radio turns to CD mode, which means the music stops. And the CD player doesn’t work. The air conditioner doesn’t really work in stop and go traffic. All of these are things I can live with and be rather grateful for, because without this quirky car, I’d be in deep trouble. And as I drove along I thought that if I were on one of those dating websites, I’d come off as the human equivalent to this vehicle. Quirky, but I can make it from point A to point B, and in the end, that’s all that matters, right?

So I headed up into the Appalachian Mountains, where my soul has always resided. It felt strange knowing that I’d be driving right on through them, because usually when I head this direction it’s to stay a while. If I could live anywhere in the country, it would be here. (With the exception of Butts County, Georgia. Sorry, but there are limits.) Maybe some day.

But I did have the distinct pleasure of stopping for lunch in Chattanooga, Tennessee. You can’t be in Tennessee and not sample the bar-b-cue, so I went to Sugar’s Ribs. My friend Carole joined me. What a blessing this blog is. If it weren’t for this, I’d have never met her. And yet here we were, having lunch. And she drove an hour and a half to do so. We got along like a house afire, but I knew we would.

A strange thing happened when we left the restaurant, though. I had parked the van on a dark shady side street with the windows open. It was 75 degrees out and overcast. And my car was now flanked by two Chattanooga Police cruisers. Uh…

The officer said he thought the car had been abandoned with the dogs inside. We had been gone for 20 minutes. The car is in excellent condition, full of my possessions, and the dogs had water and food and the windows were open in full shade. They were fine. He said he assumed someone had walked off into the woods and shot himself. (Seriously? Isn’t that a bit of a leap?) But he was nice enough. He said if I hadn’t come right then, he’d have confiscated the dogs, though. That would have ruined the trip, to say the least. Believe me, I’d never leave my dogs in a hot car, and I’m tempted to kill any human who does.

After that, I headed North again, through the comforting, cozy mountains with their solid, reassuring rock outcroppings, and mildly disturbing fireworks emporiums, but somehow my GPS led me briefly back into Georgia, which had me worried for a second there. I’ll have to look at a map and work out how that happened, but before I knew it, I was back in Tennessee and then on into the rolling green hills and grasslands of Kentucky. I got this huge surge of pure joy when I crossed into this state, because it’s the first part of my journey that is parts unknown for me. I have officially crossed out of charted territory. If my travel experiences were an old map, this part would say, “Here there be dragons.” How exciting!

I passed several signs of fascinating places that I would have loved to have checked out, but traveling with dogs limits one. And of course time and money play a factor, too. Instead I’ve opted to hibernate in a hotel in Paducah, Kentucky.

A note about Paducah: It has always sounded to me like a small boy’s slang for defecation. A friend says it sounds to him like a teenage boy’s slang for his naughty bits. Either way, it makes it awfully hard to take this town seriously. But if it weren’t for the dogs, I’d be out exploring it right now. It’s got a waterfront art district, an historic district, and a National Quilting Museum! How can I resist? Alas…I’m off to bed.

Next stop, my niece’s house in St. Joseph, Missouri!

Check out part 3 here!

PisforPaducah! cover

The Bunyip and his Cousins

Behold the fearsome Bunyip. This mythological creature was much feared among the Aboriginal people of Australia. Until recently I had never heard of this beast, but it intrigues me because it seems to be so far from even the mainstream creepy folk creature as to be unrecognizable.


bunyip 2 bunyip stamp 

As you can see from the various artists’ renderings, no one can agree on what this monster was supposed to have looked like, and therefore one can only speculate as to what animal the Ancient Aboriginal Peoples could have seen that appears to have scared them silly. I think a combination of that country’s vastness and isolation and the fact that it’s already a land that is inhabited by some of the strangest animals on the planet all played a part in creating this extremely bizarre imagery.

It seems as though every culture has its bunyip. The boogeyman. The thing hiding under your bed or in your closet. Apparently all humans have a need to conjure up creatures out of their free-floating anxieties.

Below are just a few of the many.


The Chupacabra of Latin America


The Mothman of the Appalachians

ebu gogo

The Ebu Gogo of Flores


The Aswang of the Philippines

 Brosno Dragon

The Brosno Dragon of Russia


The Canvey Island Monster of England


The Taniwha of New Zealand


The Grootslang of South Africa


The Yeren of China


The Jersey Devil of New Jersey


The Peluda of France


The Mongolian Death Worm of the Gobi Desert


The Ropen of Papua New Guinea

It’s a very big world that we live in, full of isolated and uncharted places. It’s also full of people with wild imaginations. But if even one of these creatures were to exist? That’s the reason they are so disturbing to us. We can never be quite sure. Shudder.

Happy Halloween.