Appalachian Reunion

Twenty years after moving to the Appalachians and eighteen years after leaving them, I had the chance to visit for Thanksgiving with my cousins. All the beauty, charm and isolation came rushing back … with none of the loneliness. I recalled the closeness to nature I felt during my two and a half years in Buladean, a tiny hamlet in Mitchell County.

Excerpt from Making Home: from the Sticks to LaLa-Land

What I got in exchange for isolation was nature’s abundant beauty. Perched on the edge of the Pisgah National Forest, we were happy witnesses to many creatures I had never seen before. My grandma Mary had taught me to identify birds during a trip to Florida’s Sanibel Island when I was ten. Since my first exciting sightings of Great Blue Heron, Little Green Heron, Ibis, and Cormorants on that trip, I took mental note of any new bird I saw.  The mountains held many. I watched black-capped chickadees flit from branch to branch in their light-hearted manner. Red-headed woodpeckers stopped their rapid-fire beaks periodically to give sideways glances into the holes they made for insects. Tufted titmice graced the porch rails like musical notes—their gray head feathers pulling upward in crescendo.

The most unique animals we saw were a host of Southern flying squirrels which surprised us one night by coming to eat out of a bowl of bird seed we put out on the deck. They came back every night after, and we watched them through the living room’s sliding glass doors. Chipmunk-like but fatter, they held the seeds in both front paws, hunched over them in a ball and looked at us with enormous black eyes. A black stripe ran from each hand down their gray sides, its rippling line straightening out as they skittered across the deck. The black edge was a flap of skin connecting wrist to ankle, which let them glide in a flying manner from tree to tree.

Wooly Worms emerged by the thousands each fall in search of a place to cocoon. They were fluffy brown caterpillars with one thick black stripe through their middle. Each was about two inches long and as fat as my finger. I saw them most often crossing the mountain roads, at least a dozen every hundred feet, and I cringed on my drive to work as many became victims to my commute. The annual Wooly Worm Festival in nearby Banner Elk each October celebrated all things Wooly Worm, complete with wooly worm races and predictions of winter weather based on the thickness of their stripes.

And of course there were deer. Beautiful, bounding white-tailed deer appeared regularly along the sides of the road and down the hill from our house. They stepped out from behind the trees in groups of three or four, and stood as elegantly poised statues when they heard us. Flashes of white preceded the sounds of crushed leaves on every hike we took in those mountains. They were a calming presence.

My favorite sighting was the enormous Pileated Woodpecker. That this bird existed at all surprised me, and I was fascinated to learn it had once been common enough to inspire that famous cartoon chuckler, Woody Woodpecker. Its bold-patterned black and white wingspan flashed through the forest behind the red flame of its feathered head … its striped face and sharp call both majestic and distinct.

The immersion in nature wasn’t all singing birds and chubby flying squirrels and bounding deer. I had too many unnerving incidents with wildlife to count.

We never had the resources to seal the basement and make it truly habitable for guests or ourselves. The downstairs room and bathroom went mostly unused. Once, I braved the basement’s dim light and dank smell to pry off a few warped faux-wood panels. I was unscrewing the switch plates and outlet covers when I took one off to reveal an electrified mouse frozen mid-bite to the wiring.

“Ah!” I blurted, as I jumped back from the wall. My heart pounded and I shivered at the thought of what that mouse had been through. And then, I shuddered at the thought of what the rest of our walls looked like inside.

I left it for days until I could muster the courage to remove the poor thing and put the cover back. I was left unhinged and wholly deterred from refinishing the basement.

I debated with myself the least frightening path to the basement laundry room. The open wooden stairs leading down into the dark from the kitchen were steep enough to cause vertigo, but the route around the outside of the house led me past enormous spiders clinging to the siding around the door frame, freaking me out as I passed through. There were black bears in those mountains, and my ex-husband loved telling stories of his uncles hunting wild boar, side-stepping the charging creatures as they tried to gore the men with large tusks. All of these things haunted my thoughts and kept me from enjoying leisurely hikes outside.

Being out of sight or earshot of our closest neighbors began to weigh on me, and I missed the security I had felt in my houses full of room-mates and having next-door neighbors within earshot. I felt claustrophobic in the little house, completely hemmed in by the wild.