Buck and I went to the movies this afternoon. There was a message on our phone when we got home from my friend, Aileen Rice, in the Beaverdam community near Canton, North Carolina. She wanted to let me know she had gotten the copy of The Emerald Coast Review that I sent her and Jack, and that they had both read my story, “The Way Home,” several times.
“Everybody’s heard about it,” she said, “and everybody wants to read it. So it’s getting passed all around.”
The story is stitched together from blog posts on Switched At Birth way back in late 2003, when blogging was in its infancy, seasoned with the passage of time and then reconstituted into a complete reflection of our sojourn in North Carolina. Some of you pioneers on the blogosphere trail like Fred First at Fragments From Floyd, Marie Freeman at Blue Ridge Blog, Dave Bonta at Via Negativa, David St. Lawrence at Making Ripples, Jim Fletcher at Smokies Light, Leslee at 3rd House Journal, Whiskey at Whiskey River, Andy Borrows at Older But No Wiser, Lorianne DiSabato at Hoarded Ordinaries and Trish at Traveler Trish may remember bits and pieces of the Rice Cove stories.
I have a grateful heart for the folks in Rice Cove, for the generous pioneers of our kindly version of bloggery — really quite a small neighborhood — and for the continual discovery of new folks to participate in our own virtual writer’s group and who share in our remarkable common humanity.
Note: Since the original publication, I enlisted Lisa Ohlen Harris, nonfiction author, editor and teacher, to help me rewrite and improve this heartfelt, tangled-up, hodgepodge. The new version will have a new life sometime in the future. For now, here’s the original for the archive:
The Way Home.
If you are a lover of straight lines and tidy endings, be forewarned. This is not a straightforward drive from point A to point B. It will meander and ramble in an untidy way.
I flew the terrain in my mind’s eye as a hawk might, swooping in to assuage my sharp hunger with live and tender bits, soaring from the flatland piney woods of northwest Florida to the dusky mountain peaks of Western North Carolina. But in the end, the crude map I drew with the pen moving and my eyes closed, was of my own heart. It is bisected with a fault line down the middle: one chamber is Rice Cove, near Canton, North Carolina; the other is Cantonment, near Pensacola, Florida.
This is a memoir.
Colonies of “ Florida people” flock to the cool air of Western North Carolina each summer. Many 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.
My husband, Buck, and I are Florida people, too, but we were after something different, something more.
The first time I saw Buck Cove Mountain in Rice Cove, it was a late afternoon in May of 1996. Rice Cove is in the Beaverdam Community near Canton, in Western North Carolinabetween Asheville and Maggie Valley.
Buck and I found a log to sit on.
“I’m in love,” I said, drinking in the view from near the ridge top.
“Me, too,” he 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. Like a grandmother’s feather bed, we sank into it, surrendering.
By September of that year, 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.
By July of 1997, a 600 foot deep water well had been drilled, and we moved in.
The well went dry the very next day.
The fellow who sold us the land recommended that we hire a dowser to find a good vein of water. We found an 83-year-old part time water witch who agreed to come out for a $75 fee. He was a hard shell Baptist preacher on Sundays.
The preacher found water, a new well was drilled, and eventually all the noise-making machines went away. We were alone at last in our sunrise sanctuary.
Mountain coves are level areas sheltered by a horseshoe of mountains. The nearly unusable, almost vertical slopes are valuable as real estate to sell to crazy people from Florida who have lived on flat ground so long they feel like they are getting the ground itch.
“Everwhat,” as our neighbors here might have said in the cove’s verbal dyslexia that had charmed us from the get-go, we were dazzled by the view of distant mountains, the nearby valley, the little steepled Beaverdam Methodist Church, and Mr. Best’s cows in the pasture just below us.
The slope up to the ridge top behind the house 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 in the spring time I could always find densely sweet tiny wild strawberries.
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 back slope.
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 always kept me on my feet.
I learned, in time, that other hidden dangers lurked on the ridge top.
The local folks build their own homes in the valley areas, where they can grow hay, corn, and tobacco, and where the winter is more hospitable, preferring to raise their eyes unto the hills. Most of them are generations deep in Beaverdam and the Cove. This is a place where neighbors still help each other bring in the hay, and bind each other’s wounds as best they can. 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 downward, 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 is the heart of Rice Cove. They had chimes set on a timer. In the late afternoon the quavering bell sounds would float up to reach our ears, 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 awhile, someone, usually Mr. Bell in the choir, will speak up 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 generous 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.”
Those folks taught me a lot about courage and grace.
░ ░ ░ ░
The first Sunday of November in 2003 was our last Sunday in Rice Cove before returning to our cabin in the pine woods of Cantonment, 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 know about what happened up here one month ago, and have been sensitive enough to pretty much leave us to our grief.
I knew 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, his face telling the whole story. We wrapped our arms around each other and silently walked to the car.
░ ░ ░ ░ ░
An irrevocable switch had been thrown, and the pictures now in my mind caused me to long desperately for the flat vistas of home. We put the mountain house up for sale. Before locking up and leaving for Florida, I wrote these words on a page. . . .
The North Carolina mountains are stunning, burnt autumn colors turning the
cove into a fiery bowl,
But I am missing you.
A full moon bright on the mountain bounced off the church
spire in the valley, shattering the sky into a glittering show.
But I am missing you.
The slopes are an eyeful of seasonal perfection: goldenrod,
Joe Pye weed, white snakeroot and staghorn sumac interspersed
with beauty berries and the ubiquitous clusters of dark-purple pokeweed.
But coyotes on the ridge top have reminded me that I am a stranger here.
Did, I wonder, the giant sunflowers whose seeds I pressed into the earth last summer bloom?
And have the newly planted baby pines thrived during Pensacola’s rainy summer? Will the climbing rose by the gate have bloomed out before I return?
The sacrifice demanded by this pristine aerie has been high, and I need the healing softness of your flat dirt roads.
░ ░ ░ ░ ░ ░
We returned to Rice Cove in the early spring of 2004 and prepared 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 – which are 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 when the marauders came down from the ridge top, swooped down on a full moon night when an innocent was only briefly outdoors and their big chocolate Labrador retriever Maggie valiantly tried to stand in the breach, her size and maturity saving her life.
░ ░ ░ ░ ░ ░ ░
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 2004, ten coyotes in the area were hunted down and killed.
I must accept this for what I believe it to be: the mountain way; a fierce gift.
░ ░ ░ ░ ░ ░ ░ ░
Our last Sunday in Rice Cove came the first week of June, 2004.
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 harder than either Buck or I thought it would be. Bidding farewell to our Rice Cove friends at the Beaverdam Methodist church was rough.
One of the luxuries of our home there was a big tile shower with twin shower heads. Over the years, when anyone asked about it, we would try to keep a straight face as we explained the necessity of checking each other carefully for ticks after hiking in the woods. V-e-r-y carefully.
In the shower that Sunday morning, Buck said, “If you haven’t already, you had better be thinking about what you’re going to say this morning.”
We knew this Sunday was our last in the Cove, and that it would have been rude not to go down the hill and share communion with these kind Methodists who had taken us in over the past seven years whenever we showed up.
“Me?” I yelped. “I’ve spoken before. I think everyone would enjoy hearing from you.”
“Can’t do it,” he said. “You’ve got to do it. You’re stronger than me.” This, coming from the toughest person I have ever known.
Flabbergasted, I accidentally snorted soap bubbles up my nose.
“And be sure to stand up when you speak.”
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 others’ 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. The service began with its usual order and the hymn after the call to worship, “Oh God, Our Help In Ages Past,” was especially poignant.
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.”
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 my small speech, turning to look at everyone, primarily thanking them for opening their hearts to us, the summer sojourners. In a fumbling, emotional way, I tried to convey how they have 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 all 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. It was flat-out, eye to eye, heart to heart pure love from the people of the Beaverdam United Methodist Church.
It was a moment of vulnerability and openness to the moment in which there was briefly no space between life and the living of it.
░ ░ ░ ░ ░ ░ ░ ░ ░
These days, several years later, most mornings I wake up about 5 and lay quietly on soft yellow cotton knit sheets listening to Morning Edition on National Public Radio via the tiny bud in my left ear. Trying not to awaken Buck, I leave our bed around 6, slipping between his murmured inhalations and exhalations.
It’s easy to slip into my shorts and tank top while brushing my teeth and grinding coffee beans. Jogging shoes and socks are by the door.
I keep a good whistle on a lanyard on a hook near the door and grab it on the way out, just in case the lure of a distant squirrel is too much for Maggie. Two blasts on the whistle and a dog biscuit in my pocket ensure her rapid return to my side.
There is an hour in the morning when the smell of the earth reminds me of fresh-baked bread. It is when the dew and sunshine combine to steam the surface of the woods, distilling the various elements into a complex, sweet fragrance.
I think out loud as I walk, verbalizing my thoughts to Maggie – surely one of the world great listeners.
Home is not Home because it has the most pleasant climate or the grandest views. Here in the piney woods Florida flatlands, this patch of ground is Home. Here there is lightness in my step, energy, and belongingness that I cannot recall ever feeling before. For most years of my adult life, I was a rootless anchorite; now I am a tree and have put down a long taproot.
Living for seven summers in Western North Carolina’s magnificent mountains, in Rice Cove among folks who really know something about love, became the fulcrum upon which my spiritual and emotional development turned; the rainwater and sun to the seed which is me. My time there led me to dream of Home, to long for Home and to recognize it for the first time.
Rice Cove was not Home, but it was the way Home.