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.
"He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life." ...James Joyce
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