We’ve been out here in Virginia for over a year. We’ve traveled to some beautiful places and seen some powerful sights, but until Labor Day we had not yet visited my home afar. Bilbo’s was the Shire. Mine’s Sylva. I confess, since the day I learned there was a possibility of moving to the east coast, I’ve felt a gentle—but firm—spirit urging me back to the hills of western North Carolina, the home of my maternal grandparents.
We spent Easter at the Melonakos home, and that trip brought back a thousand memories. We didn’t have time to visit Sylva then; I wanted the trip to be intentional, and not an afterthought. Accordingly, we made the journey during Labor Day weekend.
There are two ways to get from Alexandria to Sylva. The first route turns immediately south, runs through Richmond, takes a hard right at Raleigh, and it’s straight on till morning. The second route stretches due west, hits the Appalachians, and hugs them on their southwesterly course directly to Sylva. The latter is gorgeously scenic and thoroughly rural, and thus we traveled.
We stopped for lunch in Roanoke, one of those rusting rail-hub towns that dot the interior of the country. We ate at Thelma’s, an upscale diner in the middle of the town. Thelma’s is famous for its fried chicken and waffles. By chicken and waffles I mean chicken and waffles: they’re eaten together, no separation on the plate. It’s an entree that—prior to the east coast move—I would not have imagined, much less ordered in a restaurant. If I may borrow the eloquence of Ferris Bueller, “It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.” Thelma’s slogan, printed on the menu, is “Run Tell Dat.” Consider yourself told.
We drove the rest of the day and made camp—literally—in Franklin, a short distance from Sylva. We built a fire, threw some tinfoil dinners on the coals, set up the tent, and read a bit from The Hobbit by firelight before chowing down.
Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.
With full stomachs and fading firelight, we turned our gaze to the sky, noting that the stars had multiplied since we last saw them. Those guys. Wait’ll those baby stars have to go to college.
Morning came, chilly and dewy, and we breakfasted on oatmeal and sausages. After eating, we broke camp and drove to Cherokee, home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. If you haven’t studied Native American history, go do it. The Cherokee, in particular, have a rich culture and a tragic tale. I took Rachel to the Oconaluftee Indian Village, an interactive replica of a traditional Cherokee village. As a boy, the village fascinated me, and it has remained much the same since that time. We toured the various stations (pottery, beadwork, basketry, weaponry, etc.), listened to a short lecture in a council hut, and participated in a friendship dance. Okay, I participated in the dance; Rachel’s not one for ancient diplomatic rituals.
In the afternoon, Rachel and I went tubing on the Oconaluftee River. The weather was perfect and the water was cool. After all the driving we’d been doing, it was nice to spend a couple hours just drifting downriver. The river was a little low, so occasionally our tubes got snagged on rocks and we had to push off each other to continue our drift. Or worse, the rocks would miss our tubes and bump our rears, as they protruded out the bottom of the tubes. We soon developed a lookout system, calling “BOTTOMS UP!” when we saw rocks ahead. It was quite effective and quite ridiculous.
The evening was spent at Lake Junaluska, where the Smoky Mountain Folk Festival was in full swing. Or, as much in-swing as octogenarians can get. Aside from the performers, we were easily the youngest people there, by about forty years. The music was spectacular. Americana, folk, bluegrass, and country. Banjo, fiddle, dulcimer, and washtub bass. We were mesmerized by a world-champion flatpicking guitarist blazing through song after song, his equally talented banjo-playing brother matching him bar for bar. Cloggers took the stage between sets and whooped and hollered and stomped and twirled. I sat back in my chair and marveled at America.
On the way to our AirBnb that night, we stopped for dinner at Bojangles for fried chicken and Cheerwine. Rachel had never had Cheerwine. Don’t worry, Hal and Rosanne. It’s not wine. But it sure is delicious.
Our AirBnb was a lovely, clean, cozy space above a converted garage, tucked away deep in the mountains. Our hostess was warm and accommodating. We fell asleep almost instantly.
It was night when we reached the AirBnb; in the morning I took one look out the window and was transfixed at the vista that greeted me—that famous, phantasmagoric smoke rolling over the green Appalachian range. We admired it all along our winding drive to church. I asked Rachel to google why the Smoky Mountains smoked, and we learned *fun fact for the day* that the smoke effect is not meteorological, as I had originally suspected, but ecological. Here’s Wikipedia:
The name “Smoky” comes from the natural fog that often hangs over the range and presents as large smoke plumes from a distance. This fog is caused by the vegetation exhaling volatile organic compounds, chemicals that have a high vapor pressure and easily form vapors at normal temperature and pressure.
The plants are breathing. How cool is that!?
The LDS meetinghouse for the region is located on a bluff in Cherokee. It’s the same meetinghouse my grandparents attended from Sylva, the same meetinghouse I attended in my boyhood visits. I have three primary memories from that meetinghouse.
- Being introduced to a real-live Indian leader by my grandfather.
- Finding a snake slithering in the rocks outside after church.
- Having a crush on a little Cherokee girl in my Sunday School class.
These, of course, are memories that can’t be recreated twenty years later. People have moved on and snakes have passed away. Still, the hardy members of that little ward remembered my grandparents and my mom with fondness, and, with hope in their eyes, asked if we were there to stay. Oh, how I wish I could have said yes! The reality of life is, as Fantine laments, that “there are dreams that cannot be.” This is one of those dreams.
When dealing with impossible dreams, there’s no remedy quite as effective as rich southern food. Look it up. It’s in the book. We got ours for lunch at the Jarrett House, a historic hotel in the area. The fried chicken, buttered mashed potatoes, and candied apples were tasty, but my stars! Thunder ‘n’ lightening! Blue blazes! The biscuits were the best I’ve ever had! Rachel and I have vowed that if we ever find ourselves at the Jarrett House in the future, we’ll just order plate after plate of hot, fresh, perfect biscuits, and nothing else.
Having finished lunch, we embarked on the ultimate leg of our trip—to Sylva, and specifically, to Grandfather’s mountain. A quick note here: I’m not being pretentious when I refer to my grandfather as “Grandfather” instead of “Grandpa.” That was what he insisted we call him. He was, is, and always will be, “Grandfather.” Another quick note: Grandfather’s mountain was not, geologically speaking, a mountain. It was a very steep, wooded hill in a mountainous region. To a six year-old it was an Everest.
Passing through the town of Sylva brought flashes of memories, but not so many that I felt confident turning off Google Maps. Then, in one sudden, overwhelming wave I knew exactly where I was. The force of recall was so strong and so compelling that I nearly turned into oncoming traffic. Rachel yelped, and I hastily corrected and apologized. To our left, dividing the schoolyard and the cemetery, was the road leading home.
As an afterthought, it was a symbolic juxtaposition of properties: the road home separating the world of the quick from the realm of the dead.
Our Chevy Malibu hadn’t taken well to the Appalachian hills, so we parked it on the road at the base of the steep driveway and began the hike up. Weeds had grown in the cracks in the asphalt and the driveway was flanked by a bank of red earth on one one side and tall grass on the other. Back in the day, my brothers and I would try to run or skate down the hill, invariably bailing out in the grass as our torsos overtook our legs. I felt the same rush two decades later, only this time I was walking uphill with my wife.
We reached the crest of the driveway. There it was.
Houses change over the years; it would be unrealistic to expect otherwise. But I hadn’t expected this. The dismal view at the top of the hill wrenched my spirit. The main house was boarded up; the beautiful picture window was completed hidden behind the dense and wild brush that had completely overtaken the property; the railings to the guest house were rusted over. I stood in disbelief. I turned away, forcing my gaze to the mountain view, the sky, the asphalt, anything but the house. Rachel gave me a hug and I broke down, sobbing in her embrace.
Grandfather had been meticulous in his landscaping and dogged in property maintenance. It was a testament to his character. Grandma had made the house warm and inviting. It was a reflection of her soul.
In the days leading up to the trip I had imagined myself at this point. I would ring the doorbell, introduce myself, and get just a peek inside. Now I stood on the porch of the guest house, which, of the two, looked more inhabited, and lifted my hand to knock. Rachel protested and I saw her wisdom. Why seek ye the living among the dead?
It was a melancholic departure, but as we drove back through Sylva my mood was considerably lightened by the sight of the courthouse and library, one of the earliest libraries I can remember. That was a happy thought. Libraries are glorious things.
We returned to Virginia the next day, finishing Where the Red Fern Grows on audio book.
If you would, Mr. Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.