When I want to escape the madness, I head for my secluded mountain cabin - er, pink brick ranch house - where every day on the mountain is different. Very different.
There are stands of old-growth trees in the surrounding forest.
You are nothing but an overrated, feathered noisemaker, Mr. Nighthawk, Nightjar, Goatsucker, or whatever you call yourself. I’m going to pluck you and roll you in cornmeal and flour, then deep fry your obnoxious avian behind. My sleep is like a rejuvenating concert and you are the loud, stoned jerk in the balcony with the joy maker. There is no joy though, at 1:30 a.m., 3 a.m., and 5:30 a.m. The whole forest is with me on this, Mr. Whippoorwill, Caprimulgus vociferus. You must die!
Up here in the mountains, noises can take forever to wash up through the hollows to the tops of the ridges and back again. Locals call it “the mountain” and “the holler”; the latter is where my cabin is located. It’s really not a cabin but a pink brick ranch house that looks like it was dropped by a tornado into the middle of the lush Cherokee National Forest in East Tennessee. It’s as out of place as a poodle at a dog fight. I bought it fourteen years ago because I love untouched wild places where I can hike and be left alone. It’s my retreat, my relief valve, and I’m sure it has saved me a fortune in psychotherapy fees. It’s not close to any established vacation spots like Blowing Rock, Lake Lure, or Lake Toxaway. It is what these towns once were: raw, undeveloped Southern Appalachian forest with hardscrabble mountain farms and a genuine, gritty, working-class town. This suits me just fine.
I bought the house from a friend who bought it from the son of the man who built it. The man grew up poor in an old farmhouse without plumbing. When he made enough money, in the 1970s, he bought all the land in this hollow and built this ordinary ranch house. To him it represented a dream, a house like all those he’d seen in town, with plumbing, hot and cold water, electric heaters, modern appliances, and fancy wood paneling. I would have preferred a farmhouse, but when you grow up chopping wood, toting water, and using an outdoor privy, this is the modern American dream home.
I’ve spent the last decade deconstructing his dream, tearing out ceilings, knocking down walls, adding windows and skylights. I’ve completely wrapped the house with decks made from locust wood, which is naturally disease- and rot-resistant. I’ve let the grass around the house go wild except for a narrow strip that I keep mowed. I’ve embraced the forest, made it part of the house. Every summer I tackle some huge project that needs to be done to keep the house from being swallowed up. I’ve replaced the roof, fixed the septic tank, added outbuildings. There’s lumber and tools lying all over the place. I have big plans to tear off the roof and take the place up a story and build my wife the Barbie dream house she wants, complete with a luxury bathroom. For now, though, between me and you, I am very happy with my GI Joe fort.
This summer my urgent project is to dry out the leaky basement. Water accumulates in one corner, and recently efflorescence has appeared on the walls, left behind by evaporating water. I need to fix it before it turns into a major problem. First, I fixed the rain gutters. Then I replaced all the faucets in the bathrooms and kitchens, plus the P traps under all the sinks. I have to do all the work myself, because up here it is impossible to find a tradesman. I can’t even get one to return a phone call. I think they are all busy in Blowing Rock.
It is a mistake, though, to drive all the way up here and just hang around the house. One hundred yards from my back door (latch is broken, needs repair) is a 3,500-acre Wildlife Management Area. It climbs 2,000 feet to the top of Stone Mountain, where Tennessee and North Carolina meet. This is a wilderness lover’s paradise. I have hiked this mountain in every kind of weather condition: when the leaves are blazing red and yellow in the fall, leaning into icy winds in winter’s knee-deep snow, in the spring before the leaves bud and the mountain is shades of brown and gray and the ridges and creeks and rocks are still visible, and the summer, when the forest is at its most primordial—lush, thick with leaves, bathed in humidity, and glowing with every shade of green the Earth can conjure.
This forest is healthy because it has been left alone since it was last logged in the late 1940s. It encompasses a complete water system, a series of five or six branches that begin as little seeps out of the side of the mountain. The water is fresh and cold and some of the purest on Earth. Even during torrential rains the water stays clear, because the forest is doing its job.
Every day on the mountain is different, every hike its own. Just when I think I have seen it all I make a new discovery. One day it’s a patch of pink lady slipper, Cypripedium acaule, a rare native orchid. Another day it’s a scarlet tanager Piranga olivacea, a medium-size, neotropical song bird that turns bright red—twice as intense as a cardinal—when mating in summer. It’s a big place filled with tiny microhabitats. A few years ago I started to venture off the old logging roads over onto ridges and into high hollows, where I found several stands of old-growth trees. These are places that have never been touched by the ax. The trees are enormous, and the forest wide open and airy. These Southern Appalachians are a treasure that I’m not sure most people around here comprehend. A broad-leafed deciduous forest untouched by glaciers, this area is home to more than 200 species of wild flowers, 2,000 species of mushrooms, more species of trees than anywhere else in North America, and it’s a vital place for neotropical birds.
It is a difficult place to photograph because the forest is so thick. I have boxes of forest shots, but none of them have any wild animals. I always hike with a dog, so I might see a few deer, grouse, or raccoon. I do find a lot of scat—that’s animal poop. Last year I found more than the usual piles of bear scat laden with wild cherry pits, and then I was finding rather large piles of what appeared to be feline scat, with light-colored hair and mangled rodent skeletons in it. I’ve always thought that this habitat could sustain a mountain lion, which, according to wildlife officials, have totally disappeared from the East Coast, except for the Florida panther. A lot of locals claim to have seen “painters,” as they say it, around here. I’m convinced there are several cougars running around, and, it being their nature to stay clear of man, they remain unseen. So I started a new photo project: my search for the Stone Mountain painter. I bought some motion-controlled infrared cameras. They are housed in plastic and strapped to trees. If an animal or human walks by, the camera detects the motion and heat and shoots a couple of frames. I set mine up where I found a lot of scat, and waited a few weeks. Right away I came up with shots of deer, raccoon, and squirrels. The next time I found one of the cameras lying at the base of a tree. Something had tried to rip it to pieces. There were several beautiful shots of bobcats, raccoons, and to my surprise numerous coyote. Just as I suspected, the place was teaming with wildlife.
No panther, though.
All the hardware and plumbing stores close early on Saturdays, so I get up early and drive into town for supplies, which are cheaper than in Charlotte. Gas is twenty cents cheaper, too.
The drive into Mountain City, population 2,800, takes about twenty minutes. It starts on an unimproved road that passes small farms and a few extended family settlements with raggedy trailers parked at random amid piles of steel, abandoned cars, plastic, paper, and smoldering mounds of garbage emitting a thick, foul-smelling black smoke. Kids with buzz cuts and dirty faces play in the muck under car engines hanging from chains. Three-legged, one-eyed dogs and chickens chase my car. Adults with shrunken heads and sloped shoulders sit in the doorways, a TV flickering behind them. One of them slowly holds up her right hand and leaves it there like she’s swearing on the Bible. She’s waving. I wave back.
On the paved road I slowly pass by small farms with old well-maintained houses. Healthy, broad-shouldered folks sit on their porches in swings and rocking chairs. They wave. I wave. Drivers coming from the opposite direction wave. Either a full-armed wave or a symbolic flick of the index finger. Waving is important mountain etiquette. People up here live on roads named after their granddaddies, daddies, or themselves with names like: Arnold, Bunton, Dugger, Snyder, or Stout. Family cemeteries dot the hillsides, like little Zen gardens.1
My favorite part of this drive is the Neva Valley and the beautiful views of Stone Mountain, which rides the length of this long, green, fertile valley like a cresting wave. I’m not sure locals understand just how beautiful this valley is; if they did they would take better care of it. Every time I drive through I see new distressing scars. An ATV racetrack, giant metal buildings replacing old wooden barns, and bulldozers. People around here love bulldozers.
Mountain City is a small town with fourteen Baptist churches, two Methodist, two Presbyterian, two nondenominational, one Apostolic, one Catholic, one Assembly of God, one Seventh-Day Adventist, and one Mennonite. The town is not worthy of a post card, although it does have a cool, struggling Mayberryesque downtown, and the people are friendly enough in a quiet, suspicious, mountain-folk kind of way. The per capita income is $17,300, with a lot of people getting government assistance—27 percent live below the poverty level. Many companies have passed through town: Timberland, Levi Strauss, Sara Lee, but they always leave.
Despite the fact that it is located near pristine wilderness, unspoiled ridge tops, a lush and fertile valley, and beautiful Watauga Lake, and has access to the Appalachian Trail, it’s a gritty, depressed town. A backwater. But with proper leadership, it could become a tourist destination. Recently the town made a wise decision when it agreed to foot the bill for a sewage and water system in the swanky, upscale golfing resort community of RedTail Mountain. Cottages start in the high $300s. Places like these can provide good jobs, and have less environmental impact, than the recently proposed, potentially disastrous, large-scale factory farms. One of them was proposed by a local company, Maymead, to be located in the Neva Valley—690 cows—along the banks of Roan Creek. At first it was rubber stamped by local politicians, but an interesting group of local citizens—small dairy farmers, environmentalists, retirees, and real estate professionals—banded together to fight it. It’s on hold for now. The same company owns a huge asphalt business and a quarry. It removed the top of a mountain at the end of town, right across from Red Tail Mountain. Tourists don’t want to visit places that stink like cow manure or offer views of scarred mountainsides and army barracks-inspired architecture. They come for the unspoiled landscapes, history, culture, and the simple life. This place has all that, but it is on the verge of being ruined.
Driving through the Neva Valley on my way back from the plumbing store,2 I spot fresh produce. There’s always good local produce someplace, but I have to drive around at the beginning of summer to find it. This year it’s an old storefront that is sometimes a gas station, sometimes a place that just sells cigarettes, chewing tobacco, milk, and eggs. Out front is a display of fresh tomatoes, pole beans, cantaloupes, watermelons, and other good-looking produce. This is a fine development, and only ten minutes from home. As I’m selecting a melon, I hear a voice behind me.
“Buddy.” It is not shouted, just spoken. Inside a rusted Chevy Cavalier, a guy with greasy hair, burnt skin, and an arm full of tattoos leans over a woman who smokes a long cigarette and asks, “Kin you tale me how to git to Industrial Way?”
“Industrial Way? Hmm.” I don’t give good directions. “Well that would have to be back in Mountain City, because there is nothing industrial out here, this is rural.
But, then again, around here you never know…”
“They tol’ us thar, it was on 67 ’tween Mountain City ’n’ Butler.”
“Well this is 167—67 is on the other side. You should ask inside the store. They’ll know. I don’t live here.”
He shakes his head, heaves himself up and out of the car and says, “Yeah, I kin tale by yer ax cent.”
I have an accent? I have been coming up here for fourteen years and I’m still considered an outsider. My neighbor was born and raised one county over and moved here in 1985 but is still considered an outsider. The local paper The Tomahawk just ran a story on the friction between locals and outsiders. Locals don’t trust outsiders, who are mostly summer people from Florida and retirees from the Northeast bringing their money, higher taxes, and expectations. Outsiders complain about the spotty service and lack of work ethic among local contractors and tradesmen. I’d complain but I can’t even get a tradesman on the phone.
Inside the store I ask where the tomatoes were grown. The woman behind the counter says she doesn’t know. A handwritten menu on the wall says: FROG LEGS. I ask if the frog legs are good. Oh yes they’re really good. What do they look like? Like little men. I ask her if they’re local. She turns and looks at the other woman behind the counter, a look that tells me they’d rather not say. “I don’t know whar he gits ’em.” I order some.
The plate comes with four pairs of frog legs fried in a light batter of corn meal and flour. The legs are connected by hips and look like the lower backsides of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime. Broad hips and rounded glutes—little butts—and tight thighs with knotted, well-defined calves. The only thing missing is a little pair of Speedos.
Suddenly this has taken a homoerotic and slightly cannibalistic turn. They are presented on the plate over a bed of french fries and giant wedges of toast drenched in butter. There’s a side of cole slaw and a small bowl of banana pudding. I’ve never eaten frog legs so there is a sense of discovery about the meal. You grab a pair of legs and rip them apart at the hip then eat it like a chicken leg. The flavor is a blend of the freshest free-range chicken and fresh-caught wild trout. There is something aquatic in the flavor, not fishy though. The meat is light, fat free, and absolutely delicious. The bones are small and delicate like tooth picks. When I asked for a sauce all I got was a blank stare. I was tempted to go back in the kitchen and melt some butter, add some fresh tarragon, lemon juice, a dash of white wine, and a dollop of plain yogurt. Instead I doused them in Texas Pete, which was just fine. I may have to take up frog gigging.
The whippoorwill woke me up at 5:30 a.m. I was anticipating his call because he is now in my dreams, in my subconscious. I drink strong coffee on the deck as the sky pales into day. The mountain is bathed in a white mist. The branch runs strong and sounds like falling rain. My last camera shots show more coyote, bobcat, deer, raccoon, a big bear walking away from the camera and a shot of an adolescent bear staring, close up, into the camera. Still no panther.
After I harvest the film and reset the camera, I explore the surrounding area. I’ve always meant to explore this place more thoroughly, because there are six gigantic wild cherry trees. These trees are coveted, even poached because they fetch a high price. The wood is used for veneer. I climb the nearby ridge and work myself up into a steep, lush, fern-laden ravine with large, moss-covered boulders and umbrella magnolia trees. They look like something from a Dr. Seuss book; each leaf measures twelve inches long and seven inches wide. I scan the area with binoculars, looking for different tree species. To my surprise, growing on each side of the ravine are groves of black cherry trees. I count twenty-two. The bears will be feasting when they ripen in August — a good place to put my cameras.
Van Miller is a Charlotte photographer and writer. His column, Van's World, appears on these pages every other month. The other months, he writes about wine.