Sunday, November 21, 2010

North Carolina Musings

(This is my auxiliary North Carolina post. Be sure to read Pam's official post for North Carolina Day.)

My family is not from Cold Mountain, North Carolina, nor had the book or film been thought of during the many summer days I spent on what I called the "family mountain" on the edges of the Smoky Mountains. Our mountain -- known in the family as Scorpion Knob and to the U.S. Geological Survey as Poison Cove Top -- is located in the rural outskirts of Canton, North Carolina, just two miles across the East Fork of the Pigeon River from the now-famous mountain to the south.

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I never lived on Scorpion Knob, nor did my mother. Both of us were born in Washington, DC and grew up in Northern Virginia. But whenever she uses the word "Home," we all know that she is referring to this slope on Old Michael Road, between Canton and Crusoe, in the midst of Pisgah National Forest. I grew up slightly confused, thinking that it had been my grandmother's home, but that was not quite true either; only the youngest of the thirteen children in her family had lived in the place I visited as a child. Still, it was a place to which I have a strong connection, though I've only been a few times as an adult.

The last time was for the birthday of my aunt who now lives on the site where the old house burned down a number of years ago. I remember when that previous house first got indoor plumbing, which means I am just old enough to know what a chamber pot is for. By the time I was growing up, tobacco farming was no longer the mainstay of the family, though it had been, despite my great-grandmother's allergy to the stuff, even in its raw form. I grew up in a part of northern Virginia that I thought of as suburban, perhaps because I knew that "Home" was rural. The fact that my street was named "Owls Nest Road" after a hunting lodge and that part of the road was unpaved did not compare to the rural life further south.

Most of the time we spent in North Carolina was in the western mountains, not only on the old family property itself, but also in other towns around Asheville. I associated the area -- correctly, I think -- with deeply conservative religion, and though I only ever saw Billy Graham in big arenas in Baltimore and Kansas City, I always knew that I was in his territory when I visited. At the time, this was comforting, though in later years I came to associate that brand of Christianity with intolerance, and ultimately with brief but clear glimpses of a racism that was never far from the surface.

It is against that backdrop that recent visits have revealed so much change. In 2000, we passed through the area on the way back from Brazil (we had flown from Miami) and in 2008, we attended a birthday party for the only surviving sibling of my grandmother. By that 2008 visit, I noticed two things about the settlement patterns in the immediate area of the family mountain. First, we were much closer to town than I had ever realized, a ten-minute drive from the sizable town of Waynesville. Second, a very low-density form of suburban sprawl was overtaking the area. I am a happy to see from satellite imagery (below) that the scarring of the land by ranchettes, McMansions, and (gadzooks!) country clubs seems to be limited to the main road, but the visual impact was nonetheless jarring.

During the 2000 visit, we stayed with grad-school friends who were working at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, 20 miles ESE of Cold Mountain. Although they loved the home they had built on the forest-covered mountainside just out of town, they were already preparing to move to Asheville, because they found the religious climate stifling. As Jews, they were worn down by the fact that most introductions included the question, "Where do you go to church?" meaning "Where do you go to Baptist church?"

This, sadly, did not surprise me very much, but their solution did. They had decided to move to Asheville, a town that I did not think would be any more diverse or tolerant. Little did I know that in the generation that had passed since I spent any serious time in the region, things had really changed. We learned that by 2000 Asheville had become artsy. We even went to a Cuban restaurant there. I could not jibe this with the Asheville of my youth. During our 2008 visit, we learned that the whole area had somehow become trendy, leading me to add an entire North Carolina section to my page on coffee shops.

Before closing this long ramble -- I could go on for days -- I should comment on a couple of things that Pam mentioned in her post. The first is the movie Junebug, which I enjoyed tremendously. It was a movie that was focused not on its plot, but rather on its rich assortment of characters. Like Pam, I found it interesting that none of the characters really developed. Unlike Pam, I felt like I knew many of these people, and I knew one of the hymns they sang in church. (Common cinematic experience at our house: rural southern movie includes obscure gospel music; James sings along.) Of all the characters, I liked Amy Adams' "Ashley" the best. Tthough she is the kind of naive religious person I have tried so hard not to be, her faith is sincere (if severely blind) and her love for everyone -- including her loser husband and city-slicker sister-in-law -- is rooted in that faith. From her performance in Julie & Julia, we know that Adams is a terrific actress, but her own Mormon upbringing seems to have enhanced  her work in this role.

The other is the breakfast. I associate homemade biscuits with my Aunt Ruby, who was married to my Uncle Brad and with whom we stayed on most of our visits. Brad was an overnight truck driver for Overnite (the company name used to be quite literal -- their trucks were rarely seen in the daytime, and he drove the equivalent of the moon and back on the same mountain roads for decades, all at night). He was a day sleeper, and weekend breakfast was a big deal, especially when there were visitors. When I read of a  table straining under the weight of a feast, I think of breakfast in their house, and with the perfect biscuits being prepared, almost as an afterthought, just as the rest of the meal was coming together. I remember the aromas, the coffee (I wish any coffee actually tasted like that percolated Maxwell House smelled), and the room, but the only actual food I remember is the biscuits and the homemade preserves that went with them. The breakfast I prepared this morning was a pale comparison.

In the view below, Cold Mountain occupies the southern 2/3 of the image, with "our" mountain on the north side of Cruso Road.

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