I left Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains late in the summer of 1978, my car pointed south toward my freshman year of college. I didn’t know it then but the date signaled more than a transition to adulthood. It also marked the start of a changed geographic life for me, a gorgeous one spent in the midlands of South Carolina for the better part of forty years. It surprises me now to realize how much of my life has been lived where the land is flat and piney, where long, straight two-lanes are dotted by the quintessential small towns that color so much of southern literature. Spend a hot minute here and you’ll see heat rise; feel the fields buzz; smell the ice cold of a pop pulled from deep inside a roadside cooler, the landscape itself summoning a vision of summer youngsters whistling down a country road. It’s a lovely if romantic notion, a south built of short stories and old movies and grandmothers’ memories. And it’s a place I settled yet somehow—for two-thirds of my earthly existence—felt I was passing through.
Last year, though, I returned to the mountains. My husband made good on a sweet wedding promise to someday get me back to the landscape I love most. We’ve bought a weekend place high in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and while it’s not my beloved Southwest Virginia, as the crow flies it’s not so far. We come as often as we can, stay as long as we can, and with each visit I spend a ridiculous amount of time sitting on the deck or standing by the big picture windows doing nothing more than watching, taking it all in. Light moves across the ridges and I am captivated by the kaleidoscope, colors shifting, day moving on. I am fascinated by the tall trees and deep forests, the streams that rush and tumble, the life hidden within. It’s all valleys and peaks, hollows and rocky ledges, light and weather ever-changing, moment-to-moment a world anew.
There is a difference here, and I know it in my bones. Geography itself is the point and the show.
The first time we climbed this mountain it was late November. We’d spent four years searching for the perfect combination of altitude, acreage and accessibility, plus a simple requirement the house have a decent wood-burning fireplace. (Finding the latter proved more difficult, to take a phrase from my Great Granddaddy Kennedy, than you might damn suppose.) Up, and up, and up we went. The route was unpaved but decent, and the view through the late autumn forests was spectacular, the canopies largely bare and the floors a thick layer of oak, maple, birch. Here and there the deep green of pine layered in with the thousand shades of gray/brown/copper—how could there be so many colors, and each its own perfect part of this glorious monochrome? Shadows of long arm branches lay flat across the road ahead; we drove on, our view to the next curve, then the next.
We bought the place in January. That night, over a celebratory glass of wine (or two), we up and decided to leave early the next morning for our first official visit. We could only stay one night and knew it was a ridiculous thing to do for so many reasons, not the least of which was, well, January, at 5,000 feet. Still we pressed on.
I lay in bed that night atop that mountain and thought for the very first time how unprepared we are for this different way of life. This territory is wild and rugged, and our house is remote. Winter is harsh; night comes and wind whips and coyotes howl and I am reminded whose world this is. Spring’s thaw will arrive, of course–but with it the rattlers and black bears and all manner of critters who know this land in a way I never will. We are miles and miles and miles from milk and coffee and 911 service. We don’t own a gun.
Eventually I sleep and the next morning wake to the sun rising behind the Black Mountains. The sky is brilliant in orange and red and gold, clouds streaking across it and contrails up and over and down. Then a line of white outlines the top of Celo Knob, then gold, then sun, its rays pushing pushing until our entire meadow is washed in a brilliant copper light. It is stunning, breathtaking really, a Hollywood filter meant to intensify a majestic landscape. The good Lord’s heralding of the great news: Another day has come.
Over the past year, we’ve carved out more time to spend here than I ever imagined we could. We never grow tired of those early mornings, climbing out from under the covers in the dark each day. The house is positioned such that, rather miraculously, you need only look left to see the sun rise. For the next ten to fourteen hours it traverses the sky throwing spectacular and changing shadows across the ridges in front of you: Potato Hill, Big Tom, Mount Craig. At day’s end, from the same spot, simply look right for the orb’s magical sinking into the trees toward Asheville. It’s one of the things I love most about being here, this show, the coordinated work of mountains and sun with their absolute intention that you pay attention, that you literally watch time move on. You can’t help but take stock, acknowledging the insistence of the spectacular bookends: a day has passed.
This, too, I love. Each visit offers something new. The surprise of early wildflowers. A hundred soft greens in spring. The wait wait wait of a rhododendron mass that in a single moment bursts into bloom. Bumblebees buzzing. Butterflies bouncing. Blueberries and blackberries and black bears. Summer rainbows, and dense carpet ridges, and the turn to autumn so soon. Goldenrod. Migrating birds and hunting dogs. Winter storms, and cold deep snow, the light of new year. A slow thaw. And then it begins again. We begin again.
I feel at home here, in this place. It’s something I realized—then said out loud—for the first time this morning. I feel at peace. Why is that, I wonder now? What makes it so?
There is legacy, of course, and my Southwest Virginia roots. Generations go back on my mother’s side; my people are mountain people. But I believe there is more to it than that, more than coming to roost in the place of one’s birth. There is geography, a kind of gravity that pulls you to a place and holds you close to the ground when you are there. It’s a force meant to keep us from the bobbling orbit we are all prone to, I believe, we humans who figuratively and quite literally spend our lives trying to find our way in this too-big world. Home is the place that settles you down, tidies the ravel of frayed ends, whispers gentle in your ear You belong here. It’s soul connection, I think, person-to-place and place-to-person in a manner that allows the great grand grace of exhaling. It’s forgetting, for a moment, the daily work of making your way and for a time, simply being.
This is not my mountain. It is an inalienable truth Mother Nature (in her many forms) makes sure I never forget. I can’t help but feel, though, I am part of it, just as the juncos and flame azalea and speckled trout. All of us but pieces of a beautiful, complicated puzzle, all nevertheless helping make a whole.