We've been back in the mountains nearly three years now. In this house almost two years. Can you believe it? I can't. I still feel as if the whole experience is new, as if we are newcomers to the area, just returned to our childhood home, not really at home again.
We don't actually live in the town that was our childhood home. We are in fact an hour or so West of that town, deeper into the mountains, surrounded by higher peaks, and more of them.
Actually, this town where we live consists of three towns pushed together and running into each other in a way that makes them one.
There is the tourist trap, fed by tour buses and a recreational railroad line that now exclusively uses the tracks that once created the town.
Then there is the working-class town, the county seat, home of the paper mill which serves as one of the area's largest employers (second to the State of NC) with a tiny but quaint downtown area of three blocks and then a string of ugly commercial development (a Wal-Mart, a Lowe's Home Improvement Store, Sonic, Ryan's, car dealerships, Radio Shack, couple of drugstores, banks, a regional grocery, fast food).
Pass through this town and for a moment, you believe you are heading to "the country", until you come to a University. This University basically digested any remnants of the third town, which now consists solely of a barbershop, a cafe, a tattoo parlor, a spate of ramshackle apartments (so awful I can't believe anyone actually lives there), and a real estate office.
There are plans to grow the University, to recreate (or create for the first time ever) a town square here, but I find it difficult to envision such a thing taking place. No one seems interested in investing that much into the area (a large number of homeowners of this county are seasonal--vacationers and summer people from Georgia and Florida--the mountain folk are too poor to do much beyond subsistence living, and the University holds itself above the commoners in a way that creates separation--a "towns-and-gowns" situation).
Beyond the towns a buckshot scattering of development, mostly clustered around the old farm communities, which grew in the place of Cherokee settlements in the valleys created by the many creeks that flow into the river. The river the common denominator of the area, of all three towns, even of the University.
We live in one of these farm communities, along one of these creeks, our neighborhood cut from bottomland beside the creek and into a knob that rises above it, a mountain above that, like steps.
Perhaps corn was grown here, as in the adjacent field. Perhaps it was always wildflowers and hay. Perhaps livestock were grazed here, fattened before being driven over the mountain. Perhaps a Cherokee clan rested here, or summered here (this Spring we found a quartz arrowhead in our garden, a real treasure). Perhaps a more ancient tribe spent time here (not far from our house there is a rock with writings of an ancient tribe, pre-Cherokee, the language now lost, the peoples unknown to us). Perhaps, as my four-year-old daughter once mentioned, there are dinosaur bones beneath the soil and this was their Great Valley.
Daily, I look out over this valley and I feel at home. At peace. I look toward Moses Creek, toward Black Mountain and Double Top and Cooper's Mountain, and I see the ever-changing patterns of sun and clouds and vegetation and I am dumbstruck by its beauty.
To tell the truth, I don't love the town(s) we live in. They hold little charm for me. I'm slow to feel kinship among many of the people here. We've made few friends.
But when I drive along this valley road, wending my way beside Caney Fork Creek, catching glimpses of pools of light and shadow, of wildflowers and wildlife, of the deep folds and rises of the blue-gray blanket of mountains...I feel at home.