Essay: Hello, From Up Here

A news anchor discovers purpose in the mountains
JONATHAN BURTON PHOTOGRAPHY
In autumn, we escape the city for scenes like this, taken from a meadow north of Boone near the state line, just a short drive from Charlotte.

When I went to work as a news anchor at WBTV in 1970, the station manager told me, “In this TV market, viewers will decide in a hurry if they like you or not. If they don’t like you right off the bat, they never will. But if they do like you, they’ll like you more the longer you stay.” Apparently, I passed the test, and I stayed for 26 years.

A few years later, I had an offer to anchor the news in a larger market. The station manager said, “If you want to work in a major market, sit still. It’ll come to you.” He was right. Charlotte thrived economically and culturally. Major league sports came to town. The modest city I knew in 1970 became the dynamo it is today, and I had one of the best seats in the house.

There’s a great deal to recommend in Charlotte, but one of the things I find so special is its geography—four hours or less from the beach, two hours from the mountains. There are beach people and there are mountain people, but I suspect all are looking for the same thing: a refuge, a place to unwind and recharge and take stock. A place you can see in the rearview mirror after a visit and think, “My soul is rested.”

Our family enjoys the beach, but we’re essentially mountain people. Since 1988 we’ve spent a good deal of time along the New River near Boone, a little more than a two-hour drive from Charlotte. It is a modest, comfortable log home, perched on the lee side of a ridge with a view of the New River valley below. It’s in a quieter area of Watauga County, where much of the land has belonged to the same families for many generations. That’s changing—land is sold, houses are built where farms and Christmas-tree fields used to be—but we still don’t see many lights from our back porch at night. It is a place where our souls rest.

When I was anchoring the news, I would finish the Friday late-evening newscast, get in my car, and head for Boone. I listened to AM radio stations from places far away—St. Louis, New Orleans, Nashville—as they played boogie music and the kind of commercials you would hear only at one o’clock in the morning: Send five dollars for your lucky charm you put in your shoe to ward off evil spirits. I would arrive at our place around two. When I walked in the door, the smell of pine and cedar, the reassuring feel of the place, made me feel lighter, even joyous. In the beginning, it was the perfect antidote to the hectic life of TV journalism, and over the years it has become an essential part of who I am.

I believe that one thing that makes the beach or the mountains special is the presence of things larger, impressive examples of nature—an ocean, a towering tree-covered rock. I suppose to some folks, the mere sweep of it can be intimidating. For me, it brings a sense of belonging: My creation is at one with all this? Then I must matter.

There’s something about water and the sound of water in the night that’s both soothing and intriguing.

There’s the grandeur of physical space, and there’s also nature’s living things. Above the mountain desk where I make up things and put them on paper, there’s a copy of Wendell Berry’s lovely poem The Peace of Wild Things, which says in part, “When despair for the world grows in me … I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things …”

The wild things abound: fish, turkeys, deer, foxes, squirrels, pheasants, ducks, herons, lots of small birds we attract with feeders. The deer search for delicacies in a grassy area just below the house, paying us little attention. In the spring, mama turkeys parade across the clearing, flocks of chirping chicks at their heels. It is the wild things’ place, always will be, but they’ve made room for us.

One of the best things about our special place is the river. There’s something about water and the sound of water in the night that’s both soothing and intriguing. A river is a living, dynamic thing, the same but ever changing. I grew up in a river town in Alabama, so it’s familiar territory to me. As kids, we skinny-dipped and fished and skimmed rocks, all the things kids will find to do at a river. It was an essential part of our young lives and the life of our town. Sometimes the river got angry and jumped its banks—like our mountain river does—but we knew it would settle down again. Another of life’s cycles. We float down our river now on inner tubes, letting the current hold and guide us, basking in the quiet, watching the heron fishing stilt-legged at water’s edge, taking our ease.

And then there are the people—those who come for the day to see the October leaves, the Floridians who come in April or May and flee in November, those who teach and learn at Appalachian State University, the old-timers from town, the old-timers from the country, and folks like us, flatlanders who’ve adopted the mountains. Among the best of them are the guys who went off into harm’s way in strange places in World War II and, when the war was over, felt the mountains drawing them back home. They settled in the valleys (only the flatlanders build on the ridges where the wind howls) and made lives and raised families. It wasn’t a cushy existence. One neighbor told us of trapping muskrats along the river in the years after the war to get money for his children’s Christmas gifts.

But it was home, and he and the others endured. Those boys are mostly gone now, but they left some enduring things with us—their friendship, their love and respect for the land, the closeness of their families. The muskrat trapper said, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” If you spend some time in the mountains and don’t find something spiritual, you’ve missed the essence of it.

As a fellow who writes for a living, I depend profoundly on the mountains. At our flatland home, I can’t spend a whole lot of time at one stretch on my scribbling. There are too many distractions, too many things tugging at me—the abiding feeling that there’s too much to do and never enough time to do it. But in the mountains, time seems to stretch. I can dive into a story and come up for air hours later, amazed at how the time has passed. And the blessed peace of the place and its wild things invite contemplation and imagination, that essential staring-out-the-window time when characters and stories bubble up from some hidden place and take over. When I look back over the work I’ve scribbled there—books, articles, movies, stage plays—I’m astonished at the texture that the mountains seem to help weave into a story.

I love Charlotte. It has been good to me. I’ve worked with some great folks at WBTV, met a lot of impressive people in the community. Charlotte educated our children well. As a journalist, I saw how people invested themselves in the city, paid their civic rent, insisted on progressive and clean government, worked through challenges, contributed to the cultural life. It is a fascinating city, and I’m glad I’ve been here to watch it grow into what it is today and will be in the future.

But as I grow older, I appreciate more and more the majesty and serenity of the mountains. Sometimes I do nothing more exciting than sit on a rock, keep my mouth shut and my mind open, expecting nothing but finding much. And every time I leave, I hear the strains of the old hymn: “It is well with my soul.”

Robert Inman is a former WBTV news anchor and the author of five novels, including The Governor’s Lady,  published in September.  He and his wife live in Conover and Boone.

Categories: Feature