Mornings like this in the misty mountains have made the vision of roots deep in the pine forest possible.
Ambivalence is when your realtor calls you on Sunday evening to say the house you listed with him has sold.
Good news. It’s what we wanted. But we had the idea the house wouldn’t sell right away, maybe not even until next year. We had looked forward to spending one last summer there.
But the new owners want to close and move in on July 1.
We’ll drive up this weekend, scratch our heads and begin to figure out what we’re going to do with that house full of furniture. It will go here eventually, but Buck and I are still drawing lines on paper to fill in the details of our new dream, which is an expansion of our cabin in the woods. We estimate the building project will take about nine months.
For the past seven years, I have been coming and going between the pine woods of Florida and the mountains of western North Carolina, roughly six months in one and six in the other. It has been a remarkable time in our lives and, I think, responsible for major personal growth, both individually and in our relationship that might well have never occurred had we not taken this bold step.
Buck and I retired from working for others or having employees in mid-1997. He was 59. I was 46. He gave notice of his decision to retire, I sold my television news clipping service, we sold several other small businesses, bought a piece of land in the mountains near Asheville and started to build.
The mountain place became a “relationship” house — a great place for family and friends to gather. It also gave us an opportunity to hike the mountains, and live at 4,000 above sea level in a setting of blinding beauty. Most of the time we were there alone, the nurturing silence broken only by the cries of juvenile hawks as their parents tutored them in the hawkly art of fierce screaming, the mournful spiraling calls of screech owls, or me at the piano playing a Chopin Nocturne or another composition written by some other genius.
We eventually sold our larger home near Pensacola and built a one-bedroom “cabin in the woods” there on a piece of forested land we’ve owned for many years.
And so, in late Spring, when the “hot flats” begin to sizzle a bit, we pack up the car and the truck and head for higher ground near Asheville. I forward the mail, stop things in one place, start them in another, and try to stuff the houseplants in somewhere, along with zippered bags of herbs and spices, a canvas bag full of books and music, and whatever else I can’t live without in either place.
Then in mid-November, when all the leaves have fallen and our neighbors houses down the mountain have become visible, we repeat the process in reverse, and return to Florida.
We wanted to create two wondrous places to be at home together, so good that we would always feel longing for the one and nostalgia for the other. That’s exactly what happened. I feel a pang each time we close and lock the gate to leave the flatlands, and another stab each time we winterize the North Carolina home and head down, down, down the mountain.
I can almost sympathize with the bigamist who, truly in love, marries persons in different states.
Something I have noticed is that folks who have known us in Pensacola believe we have moved away. And to our North Carolina neighbors, we will always be “that nice Florida couple.” Presuming myself to be quite insular, I didn’t think that mattered. And for a long time it didn’t.
But now, the love of one place, that love of one’s true home, the place where I want to be digging in the dirt and growing flowers and trees when I am a very old lady, and the place where we both want to nurture the forest and provide a place of sanctuary for our family, has won out.
And so, since we cannot live parallel lives, but must make choices which take us down a particular path, Buck and I have made another bold decision — both painful and joyous: we have put our North Carolina home up for sale, and have set about dreaming a new dream in this place of deepening roots.
I am packed to leave for Pensacola. The refrigerator in its emptiness looks so sad. Buck and I talked last night and decided to wait to go until Saturday morning. That will give us enough time to have my car checked, give Maggie a bath, and visit with a few friends here that we have sorely neglected recently. Time to close a few loops. This migration is not like a trip with a plane ticket. No one will cancel our ticket. We come and go when we’re good and ready. My kind of travel.
A dramatic transition is coming. I feel it in my bones. The weather report signals it, too. Today: warm, in the 70’s, low about 47; but after midnight, 35-40 mile per hour winds will begin to blow, taking every remaining leaf off this mountain top. We may hear the cracking of trees, like rifle fire. It will be a northerly wind. Tonight’s low temperature will be tomorrow’s high.
Come let us mock at the great
That had such burdens on the mind
And toiled so hard and late
To leave some monument behind,
Nor thought of the leveling wind.
From Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen, by William Butler Yeats
When Buck and I leave the North Carolina mountains to return to northwest Florida’s pine woods for the winter, I usually throw a nightgown and my favorite kitchen knife in a bag, along with canvas satchels of books and sheet music I can’t live without, plus a few herb plants that can make the transition.
But this time, I’m cleaning closets before we go. Memories make it slow work. I am not a pack rat, except when it comes to books, magazines and journals, but neither am I one who follows the dictates of “closet planners” who decree that “if you haven’t worn a garment in more than a year, be ruthless: get rid of it.”
I could tell you that I haven’t written much in the last day or so because I have been on an archaeological dig. True, in a way. In the same way that physical or emotional scars are sometimes a badge of courage and survival, proudly worn, so I have respect for some of my old clothes. From one of the boxes, I pulled out a pair of pants with the left knee ripped. It happened on that scary July 4, 2001 when I climbed to the top of the Shining Rocks (near Cold Mountain) and then fell on my face on the way down, bashing my chin on the rocks, severely contusing ribs, tearing a rotator cuff, gouging holes in my left leg, jamming a wrist and generally scaring hell out of my hiking buddies. The six of us finally walked out of the woods about eight o’clock that night. No, those pants are part of my history. They stay. I need to look at them from time to time to remind myself not to sing, dance, talk and run in the rain while hiking on a steep trail with loose rocks.
There’s a stupid blue sweatshirt, the proceeds of some corporate staff meeting Buck went to years ago. It says: “The situation is hopeless, but not serious.” It just bugs me somehow. What does it mean? Why can’t I get it? Maybe someday I will. It stays.
Those “dress for success” silk blouses and tailored skirts, souvenirs of a past life, will go to the local shelter for abused women. I like to think of someone wearing one of those outfits to a job interview, perhaps a new day in a new life. Pollyanna-ish, maybe, but I can dream.
The jungle green string bikini. Probably ought to put it in a glass display case for posterity. Takes me right back to sunsets on Pensacola Bay, watching pelicans feeding from the fly bridge of our old boat, the Almond Joy. That boat had a small cuddy cabin and a strong anchor.
The battered t-shirts and shorts are just what I need for gardening. They all stay, ready to go to work.
And that old button jar. Don’t we all have one? Most of the garments to which those buttons belong have long since been recycled in some form or fashion. But I can’t let go of them. They have stories to tell, and a peculiar charm.
Cleaning closets. It’s a process, not a project: a sorting and sifting to identify the useful or meaningful, and let the rest go.
Daylight Savings Time ended at two this morning, and as if on cue, a more wintry weather pattern moved in. It is mid-morning, but the house is still dark and quiet: Buck at his writing desk, me at mine, and Maggie stretched out in between us, alternating snores with dog dream yips, one paw quivering. At 3800 feet above sea level, it feels like we’re adrift in a fog-enshrouded sail boat. Rain has targeted the remaining leaves, and by morning the sleeping doves will be exposed in their tree house just off the deck.
Time to pack up for our winter migration back to the flatlands.
The rain, fog and cool front blowing in reminded me of an early November drive we took in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a few years ago.
It was extraordinary in so many ways. A strong cold front was sweeping in. The day began with rain, but it soon stopped and the heavy clouds simply blew away, leaving a blue, cold sky.
We drove through Cherokee, letting the Blue Ridge Parkway be our guide. Along the way, the Nantalaha River ran beside the road. We stopped to walk down an embankment to admire the water, dry crisp leaves swishing and crackling around our legs. It was not as cold as I had expected and very clear. Since that time, we have rafted the Nantalaha’s white water many times.
The park was almost empty of people that day. A few days past the leaf lookers and their RVs, it was almost a private show. There was basic splendor all along the way. But close to Newfound Gap, when Buck spotted ice on trees all down the side of a gorge, the excitement of a really unique experience began to increase. It was only November 13, but all of a sudden I felt Christmas, inside and out. At Newfound Gap there were hundreds of trees with bare branches, decorated by nature for us with thick, white layers of soft-looking ice.
Ascending another 1400 or so feet to Clingman’s Dome took us above the marvelous, fast-moving clouds to a clear area of absolute, bright cold — and a 30-40 mph wind, too.
I was well-bundled into my new thinsulate parka with hood drawn tight and gloves, but the vicious wind drove us quickly back into the car.
We stopped again at Newfound Gap to gawk at the ice sculpture garden.
As the sun was beginning to set, we were still hovering around 5,000 feet elevation . We drove in the clouds for about an hour, thoroughly enveloped. One particular cloud moved toward us. It stopped in front of the windshield and curved upward — like a beaconing finger — very inspiring, not scary. We both felt it.
Continuing on toward our dinner destination in Dillard, Georgia, neither of us could shake the feeling that something mystical and life changing had happened. Looking back, I know it did. That day was shortly before we made the decision to buy land and build the home where I am now writing.
About five o’clock yesterday we hopped in the old black truck to head down the mountain, past Miss Sarah’s place and the hundred year old barn, past the brown dog that lays in the middle of the road, down, down, down past the Beaverdam Methodist Church parking lot and on to the Ingles Grocery.
Grabbed up a plain pizza and enough onions, peppers, mushrooms and stuff to make it good, plus some ice cream bars and a bottle of bust-head. (I believe this was Cabernet Sauvignon bust-head rather than Chianti, Merlot or Shiraz bust-head).
As we drove back up the mountain, I noticed the church parking lot had a few cars pulling in. Ah. Wednesday. Bible study and choir practice.
We turn on the one-track road that takes us home. A neighbor’s red mini-SUV meets us coming down. We pull over on the grass to let them by. I can’t help giggling. I know those folks, and they were on their way to join the others at the church for Bible study. Here they are, descending the mountain, going lower and lower to learn about getting higher with their higher power. Here were we, heading higher and higher to the top of the mountain, planing to get a little higher yet with our pizza and bottle of bust-head.
This piece is a revised version of my nonfiction piece, “The Way Home,” published in the West Florida Literary Federation’s Emerald Coast Review, Volume XIV (2008). Some of you may have read this before, but I’m in a nostalgic frame of mind on this September afternoon, and am going to indulge myself by re-posting it. The events recounted here took place in late 2003 and were so horrific I no longer know the exact day they occurred, so I stuck an arbitrary date of 10-13-2003 on. Other posts around that date seem as though nothing had happened. Was I in shock? I know we both cried for days. Thinking about it still makes me cry.
Colonies of “Florida people” flock to the cool air of Western North Carolina each summer. They congregate in gated communities where their neighbors are fellow Floridians. All are fleeing the flatland heat and humidity. They enjoy life on the fairways: days filled with golf and dinner at the club. They are a thoroughly homogeneous society of walking success stories, happiest when clustered together.
My husband, Buck, and I are “Florida people,” too. Like so many others, we went through a “North Carolina mountains” phase, but we were after something different, something more. We wanted to spend our summers in splendid isolation in a pristine aerie, with command of the hill, no next-door neighbors, and a view to die for.
Even now, some eight years since we returned to Florida to live year-round, I think about those seven summers spent in North Carolina, and what happened there, almost every day.
I fly the terrain in my mind’s eye as a red-shouldered hawk, swooping in to assuage my sharp hunger with live and tender bits, as any hungry predator might. I soar from the flatland piney woods of northwest Florida to the dusky mountain peaks of Western North Carolina, resting at last in my favorite nesting spot in Rice Cove, near Asheville.
It was a cool afternoon in late spring the first time I saw the Cove. A real estate agent took Buck and me there to see a 14-acre tract of land that started mid-pasture and went all the way to the wooded mountain peak.
After a while, we sent the realtor on his way and found a log to sit on. “I’m in love,” I said, drinking in the view from near the ridge top.
“Me, too,” Buck replied. We sat there until it was dark enough to find Orion. Except for the soft soughing sound of wind moving around between valley and peak, there was an absence of sound somehow deeper than mere silence. It felt downy soft, like some grandmother’s feather bed. We just sank into the quiet.
We bought the land, hired a contractor, and by September, the silence was broken by earth moving equipment. “You-uns is lucky,” we were told by the operator. “No hard pan. We won’t have to dynamite.”
Dynamite: my first real clue that a building project in the mountains was a world away from constructing a home on a scraped off lot in Florida.
The house was ready for us the next summer, and we moved in. Buck and I were dazzled by everything: the view of distant mountains, the nearby valley, the little steepled Beaverdam Methodist Church, and our neighbor’s cows in the pasture just below us. We would sit out on the open deck late on starry nights, holding hands and listening to the high pitched yips of coyote song on distant ridges and the tremulous downward spiraling wail of nearby screech owls.
Over the years, Rice Cove became much more than a summer place, and we stretched the seasonal margins at both ends, often arriving in April and not returning to Florida until late in October.
The summer landscape was an impressionist’s dream of wildflowers, a cascading vision of lush ferns, wood violets, and bright yellow sunspots. A large colony of white may-apples up in the back corner was a landmark for me, because close to it I could always find densely sweet tiny wild strawberries. Our chocolate Labrador retriever, Maggie, accompanied me on these expeditions. Maggie learned to pull her lips back so she could grasp summer-ripe blackberries without getting stuck by their sharp thorns.
The indomitable purple bull thistles, often smothered in blue swallowtail butterflies, raised their ugly, spiky stems to meet me at eye level whenever I would half climb, half walk up the steep incline of the back yard.
Rock piles stacked by tenant farmers from earlier generations stood as mute testimony to their efforts to scratch out a spot in the humus-rich earth to plant corn and other vegetables. I would think about resting for a moment on the rocks, but thoughts of coral snakes in the crevices always kept me on my feet.
Toward the end of our last full summer in the Cove, Buck, Maggie, and I drove to St. Louis, Missouri to pick up a much-anticipated 12-week-old black Lab pup. It was a joy to see the older dog and the pup bond. Our small family circle expanded, and the new baby was welcomed into the Cove.
The slope up to the ridge at the back of our house was an eyeful of seasonal perfection, but goldenrod, vetch, dark purple berries and snakeroot had grown thick and high. It wasn’t safe for a small pup, so we no longer wandered up that way.
I learned, shortly, that other hidden dangers lurked on the ridge top.
The local folk, generations deep in the Cove, built their own homes in the valley areas, where they could grow hay, corn, and tobacco, and where the winter was more hospitable. The valley areas suited their natural humility. In Rice Cove, neighbors still helped each other bring in the hay, and bound each other’s wounds as best they could. They shared secret berry picking spots, and revealed their private turnip patches to us, the Florida people. Sometimes, returning from an afternoon in nearby Asheville, we would find a generous watermelon waiting for us on the porch, round and full of juice.
The view from our deck was one of the highest spots in Rice Cove, about 4200 feet above sea level. Looking down, toward the southeast, I could see the little Methodist Church in the valley, only a few miles away. At night, twin lights on either side of the steeple provided a line of sight beacon.
That church was the heart of Rice Cove. Chimes set on a timer floated their quavering bells up the mountain every day at twilight, perfecting the day and drawing us into their orbit
The Beaverdam United Methodist Church is like many other rural churches dotting the countryside. Its congregation is rapidly aging, but not growing. Membership in the adjacent community cemetery is larger than that of the church. Grown children have left to find work in cities.
These good-hearted, somewhat shy folk know each other so well. In their Sunday morning service, they speak up to share their sorrows, concerns and joys. When Buck and I have been gone for a while, someone, usually the tall, thin old World War II Marine, Ed Bell, will speak up from the choir loft to say what a joy it is to see our lights up on the mountain at night, that it just makes him happy to see them. Many are too frail to even stand during the hymns. Those who are able bring in lush bouquets of freshly gathered flowers from their gardens to adorn the small sanctuary.
They count on the power of prayer. They don’t hold their hands up in the air or speak in tongues, but their faith is palpable through the sunbeams shooting sparks into the cool air as the choir sings, “Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.”
The first Sunday of November was our last Sunday in Rice Cove before returning to Florida. We had to go to the little church and say good-bye to our neighbors. Remembering it now, I feel a rock in my belly like it was yesterday, and I am right back there in the middle of my thoughts that morning. . .
They all knew about what happened up here one month ago, and have been sensitive enough to pretty much leave us to our grief.
Last week was too soon to face their sympathy, but Buck and I both thought by today we would be able to compartmentalize our feelings and get through it with a minimum of emotional shrapnel.
The church members were celebrating something called “All Saints’ Sunday.” Small votive candles adorned the altar, and their flames were lit to commemorate the lives of all the loved ones in the church family who had died during the past year. The church bell tolled once for each name read.
Later, Pastor Naomi announced they were doing something new in the afternoon: a Blessing of the Animals service. She invited everyone to bring their pets. I couldn’t meet a single eye. Buck and I sat like stones.
After the service, Buck declined invitations to the soup and sandwich lunch in the basement dining hall, and no one pressed. I slipped out the front door, the shock of cold air a bracing tonic. Most of the congregation went straight for the soup line, and so I walked along the sidewalk, head down, towards the car. Buck was still escaping compassionate entanglements inside the church. Looking up, I saw one of the men of the church standing in my path, working up to say something as he hitched up his worn brown corduroy pants.
“Heard the coyotes got your pup,” he said solemnly, looking me full in the face. “Reckon we’re all too blest with them around here.”
I felt dizzy, and couldn’t say a word. He dipped his head in a respectful motion, and turned toward the dining hall.
I watched Buck descend the stone steps alone. We wrapped our arms around each other and silently walked to the car.
The coyotes on the ridge top had reminded me that we were strangers here. The night it happened, Buck and I allowed Maggie and the pup to go down the stairs of our deck and around the pavement of the driveway to a downstairs entrance, a journey of moments. We ran down to open the door for them, but they were gone. We hollered ourselves hoarse into the black night. Finally, an exhausted Maggie returned without the pup. She wasn’t seriously hurt, but looked like she had been in a fight. At first light, Buck went up to the ridge top. He found our mutilated pup, and brought her remains back to bury.
Buck and I returned to our Florida home with troubled spirits and pictures in our minds that wouldn’t go away. Our flat pine woods with their long vistas seemed suddenly the best place in the world to be. We built a fence around the back yard for Maggie, and put the North Carolina home up for sale.
We returned to Rice Cove the next spring to prepare the house for sale. Our neighbors and friends at the Beaverdam Methodist Church greeted us like sorely missed family members.
The mountain folk here in the cove are uncommonly kind. Bare-bones gentility infuses their manner. Most of them came up hard. They have backs straight from pride, hands gnarly from hard work, and eyes – often that faded country blue –accented by fine lines starting at the corners and traveling into their mostly gray hair.
These folks are accustomed to bad news. They absorb it with seeming equanimity.
They pray often, and on their knees. It shows in their rocking gaits, dipping and swaying as they walk on worn out knees and hips.
Their prayers are of thanks, mostly, for the recent rain, the mild winter, the flowers – always the flowers – and prayers of intercession for their families, and neighbors, and our soldiers fighting in foreign lands, and their enemies, the family whose baby died, and the old couple still so much in love both in and out of the hospital staggering together to stand at the altar rail, past kneeling.
And for the nice couple from Florida, living in our midst six months out of each year for these past seven years; give them peace, Lord, and comfort in their continuing grief and distress over the death of their pup last October.
I think in some way our good neighbors in the cove felt responsible that we were leaving, that they failed to protect us and ours. It’s unfair, and untrue.
We got word that since our departure in November, and before dawn of the first day of the new year, ten coyotes in the area were hunted down and killed.
The beautiful glass house sold quickly. With everything packed up, we went down the mountain for a final perfect June morning Sunday service at Beaverdam Methodist.
I have said “goodbye” to people, places, and jobs or businesses many times. Even to one husband. More often than not, it has been with a profound sense of relief. I’m more likely to go around humming Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover” or Carol Bayer Sager’s old cabaret tune, “I’d Rather Leave While I’m In love.” Being upset about it is not my usual style. But that Sunday was different.
The small parking lot was almost full when we arrived. We walked in with Charlotte, one of the grand ladies of the church. The varnish on her wooden cane had been rubbed off under the hand hold. It had seen a lot of use, and clashed with Charlotte’s always elegant dress.
“Bill teases me about this old cane, but it was my mother’s,” she said, noticing my inquiring look. I asked Buck to take our picture. We stood together, arms around each other’s waists.
Walking on in, she explained that she didn’t usually like having her picture taken anymore since Bell’s palsy had paralyzed part of her face and stolen her smile. I said, “Charlotte, you don’t have to worry about that. We all know you’re smiling on the inside.”
We had arrived early enough to say our hellos and goodbyes, dispensing and receiving hugs and well wishes. By the time we walked in to find a seat, the congregation was on the third verse of their opening hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.”
“When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.”
It came time for the congregation to speak up with their concerns and their joys. Several had specific prayer requests. Our friend and neighbor, Jack, sitting in the pew behind us, spoke up and said, “This is a sad day. Buck and Beth are leaving the Cove to go back to Florida for good.”
Then his dear wife, Aileen, who had been such a “mama” to me, spoke up and said, “But oh my, it’s been such a joy, too, that they have been amongst us, so it’s both a sorrow and a joy.”
Charlotte, in the pew just in front of us, reached her arm back toward me, and said, “Beth told me something coming in the church today that will stay with me for a long time,” and then she recounted what I had said about her smiling on the inside.
Buck was already clutching one of my tissues in a death grip, and so with a lump in my throat, I stood up and delivered a small speech, turning to look at everyone, thanking them for opening their hearts to us, the summer sojourners. In a fumbling, emotional way, I tried to convey how they had gotten under our skins and into our hearts.
Sitting back down hard on the bench seat, I looked up to find Pastor Naomi’s eyes damp, too. She smiled, and asked if it would be okay for her to offer a prayer of “sending off” for us. We nodded. It was a surprise when she then asked us to come to the front, and invited everyone who would like to or could to come and surround us there, and to lay a hand on us.
We didn’t dare look at one another, but walked to the front. Naomi put one hand on Buck’s shoulder and one on mine. We faced the church folk as they slowly moved toward us, most limping or seeming to move painfully, reaching out to touch us. Everyone came who could manage it, so many there in that small space that the pastor told them if they couldn’t reach us, to touch the person in front of them, to make the connection that way. Dave, the organist, reached out and grasped my right hand. Buck’s arm as I glanced down looked like he had a line of human sticky notes attached, wrapped with all those sweet fingers.
Pastor Naomi prayed, and we ebbed back to our seats.
In our own ways, Buck and I both have spent a lifetime imagining we are in control. That Sunday, we were in control of nothing. Something had a hold of us.
The great hawk shuddered from her perch, feathers lifting and rearranging themselves for flight. She flew from the ridge top to the valley, preternaturally sharp eyes taking it all in: the lively little creek running along the road, where it converged with a rising river at the bottom; the old tobacco barn and neat bales of hay in the pasture nearby; and the carefully tended cemetery beside the church. She circled once more, then dipped her strong wings and found the glide path home.
Almost midnight; jazz in the headset, Buck reading beside me in the Cloud, the bedroom fireplace glowing, Richard and Adele upstairs; Andie, Alex and Julia bedded down in “The Kid’s Clubhouse — and all is right with my world here in Asheville, big time. Lucky me, to have married a young granddad back in 1984. I wanted kids (boy did I) but it was not to be. Now I’m a step-grandmother to seven.
The kids drove in from Pensacola and arrived at 8. We ate lasagna, salad, red wine and a brownie. There’s hardly anything more wonderful than a big hug from a little kid.
We had an early Halloween party with worm guts and witch’s fingers.
"He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life." ...James Joyce
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