Slow down and seek out a ‘Cool an’ Green an’ Shady’ spot
Note: This is the fifth installment from “The Hillbilly Highway, Volume 2: Seeds, Songs and Streams.” Learn more here.
By Michael M. Barrick
“Find yourself a piece of grassy ground, / Lay down close your eyes. / Find yourself and maybe lose yourself / While your free spirit flies.”
– From “Cool an’ Green an’ Shady” on John Denver’s 1974 “Back Home Again” album.
GLOBE, N.C. – I always find the song above by John Denver soothing. It is largely because of the subject matter. It was also released the year I graduated high school and left my native West Virginia for Charlotte.
Moving to North Carolina was not on my list of options at first. But then the state of West Virginia decided it needed our home to build a bridge. So gone was our home with its many cool, and green and shady spots in the woods of our lower back yard along Elk Creek. Within a few weeks of moving out of that house, I was on my way to North Carolina to work for the Charlotte Ambulance Service.
Fortunately, when I moved to North Carolina, I was immediately introduced to the mountains of Western North Carolina in Caldwell County by my uncle, who moved here in the early 1960s. He knows every back road, especially those adjacent to the Pisgah National Forest.
It was with him that I learned to slow down a bit. Over time, I was slowing him down as we would camp. The silence of the forest, interrupted only by songbirds or the occasional rustle of an unseen but nearby critter, mesmerized me. And it reminded me of my home that no longer existed. I needed it. Badly.
What I have learned over the 44 years since I first left West Virginia – and returned and left, repeat, etc. – is that my favorite places along the Hillbilly Highway are those places that few dare to travel. The trails, paths and old logging roads of the Appalachian forests lead into deep green forests and the mysteries held beyond the next switchback.
But this is also where you will find the places that John Denver called ‘Cool an’ Green an’ Shady.” His lyrics could not be truer for me. “Find yourself and maybe lose yourself /While your free spirit flies,” happens to me every time I venture into the forest. A rock, a stump, the ground, it doesn’t matter. As I sit and listen to the songbirds celebrate the woods, I want to stay among them as did the ancient natives who preceded us, simply sitting against a tree as I dissolve into my essence.
One day, I believe I will.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2018
Getting to it is not an easy drive or hike, but it’s worth it
Note: This is the fourth installment from “The Hillbilly Highway, Volume 2: Seeds, Songs and Streams.” Learn more here.
By Michael M. Barrick
MORTIMER, N.C. – Wilson Creek is misnamed. Part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, it starts out small near the top of Grandfather Mountain, but after tumbling thousands of feet through an ever-widening gorge in the Pisgah National Forest, it has the power of a river.
It has been known to wipe out towns and isolate communities for days. Indeed, Wilson Creek has destroyed this and nearby communities twice – in 1916 and 1940. In fact, the second flood forever wiped out the logging industry which drove the region’s commerce so successfully, that despite its isolation in the rugged hills of the northwest section of Caldwell County, it could have become the center of government and commerce in the county.
The 1940 flood, though, took out homes, churches, sawmills, roads and sections of the narrow-gauge railroad that led in and out of this remote, heavily-forested sloped village on the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Now, its 27-mile drop to the Johns River is through remote – rather, inaccessible – areas of the thick and dark Appalachian forest. Only the experienced hiker should venture its steep, rock slopes. Swimmers should beware of deceptively deep, but teasingly appealing pools. Kayakers are common sites in any season. Like me, they seem to prefer weekdays in the spring and fall, though the water is generally higher in the spring.
Wilson Creek earned its designation as a National Wild and Scenic River in August 2000 after community leaders convinced elected officials at the local and federal level to work together – across party lines – to protect and preserve it. It can be viewed by driving along the narrow and dusty Brown Mountain Beach Road, which runs from Adako Road to Rt. 90 in Mortimer. Here, once on Rt. 90, the traveler will be on the only state road in North Carolina not completely paved. There are parking spots along Brown Mountain Beach Road, but the hike down to the creek is strenuous at time, but certainly worth it, especially where the gorge empties into a large pool where the creek abruptly levels out.
There is plenty to see and lots of kind folk to meet in nearby Edgemont and Collettsville. In Edgemont, at the old train depot, decades after the last trail rails were taken up, one can still see the circle of earth made bare where the Roundabout was. With that as a clue, one can venture into the nearby forest and see evidence of the railroad bed. The old station is large with many benches.
Early in the 20th Century, Edgemont was the last stop listed on train schedules in the local newspaper. Beginning in Newton in Catawba County, the train would stop in Hickory, Granite Falls, Lenoir, Mortimer, Edgemont and other small towns, perhaps with only the train station. It clung harrowingly to the steep cliffs into which the rail path had been carved, though it would have been worth it, just for the view of Wilson Creek.
There is a visitor center on Brown Mountain Beach Road and for the adventurous, one can hike along the headwaters. One can access it – and the Appalachian Trail – from a small parking area below the Linn Cove Viaduct of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
I have spent hundreds of hours over the past 44 years sitting on my favorite relatively gently sloping cliff of Wilson Creek. In every season. I’ve hiked it at its headwaters and I’ve sloshed through it near its mouth where it empties into the Johns River. I have meditated and never ceased pondering what is around the next rock, over the next log, or just under my next step as I hike it.
For me, it represents what I love about Appalachia, about traveling along the Hillbilly Highway. It is adventure. It’s fun. It’s risky. It is a place to take visitors, whether to look out a car window or put on hiking boots. It is stunningly beautiful and essential for preserving for future generations.
In short, it is rightfully a National Wild and Scenic River. It is also a must stop along the Hillbilly Highway.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2018
Wild places and wildlife are sacred because they are evidence of a creator
By Michael M. Barrick
My love for the wildness of the natural world was kindled in the most unlikely of places – an urban neighborhood. True, it was a pre-interstate, small-town neighborhood nestled along Elk Creek in Clarksburg, W.Va., a main tributary of the West Fork of the Monongahela River. In addition, our house was one of only seven on a dead-end cobblestone street. Still, our neighbors were close. The one-mile walk back and forth to school was through neighborhoods with houses no further apart than the wing span of a small child. Narrow alleys dissected and intersected with the streets crowded with cars.
In the middle of all this, though, was my sanctuary. Our property included a swath of woods along the creek. High, steep cliffs marked the safe edge of our boundary, though that didn’t deter me and my friends from scurrying up and down them. Two ponds were under the tall canopy of trees; the foot-and-a-half wide path down to it from what we called our “upper-back yard” was overgrown with rhododendron.
It was a natural science laboratory that also served as my sacred spot – my place of meditation. It caused both wonder and wander. It offered insight into the rational and the mystical. Ultimately, it was a site of solitude.
Yet, it was also an essential part of our community. It provided a place for me and my friends to explore new things together, to take risks, to share secrets. We gathered along Elk Creek in a field as a tribe virtually every summer evening to play volleyball. Some of us even tried not to rotate from that creek side, hoping we could jump in the waste-high water, negotiate the rocky creek bed and retrieve an errant ball.
As I grew older, my childish ways gave way to very adult worries. At 18, I would spend hours in those woods pondering my future. Would the body counts from Vietnam mean that, I too, would be drafted? Why were peace-loving people such as Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. murdered? Nobody, of course, had answers to these questions, making those woods a vital sanctuary as I sorted out adult problems in what had been a child’s world. In short, it was one of the few places where I was at peace.
Then, it was destroyed. Sadly, though the creek and woods were sacred to me and many others, they were not to the state of West Virginia. They were in right-of-way for a new highway. So, at 18, my roots were involuntarily ripped up as heartless functionaries for the state attempted to “help us replace” our home. As I watched my folks, in particular my mom, struggle with this loss, a loss resulting simply from our society’s priority to move cars faster, I quickly lost faith in our institutions. I found myself lost; sure, we had a new house, but my sanctuary was destroyed – forever.
So, I moved to the largest city in North Carolina to work as a paramedic. There, the flat land and the lack of mountains only served to remind me of my lost sanctuary. Fortunately, though, an uncle on my mom’s side had settled over a decade before in the Blue Ridge foothills about two hours from Charlotte. Growing up where I had, he too had a love and respect for wild places. So, he bought about 100 acres of pristine woods, far up the Blue Ridge Escarpment. There I was introduced to unspoiled views, with hills, valleys, woods, water basins and wildlife that offer an unending display of the rich Southern Appalachian eco-system. We could safely drink out of any creek, spring or stream. Spring days offered a beautiful new surprise every day. The night was when the critters reminded us that we were only visitors and the starlit, unobstructed sky reminded us of just exactly where we fit in the grand scheme of things.
We are not, I learned, the center of the universe.
It was an awareness that led, in time, to my deeper understanding of the natural world – that it is sacred. It is sacred because it supports the very life which supports us. It is sacred because it is delicate. It is sacred because of what it offers our hearts, minds and souls (if we will accept and recognize it). Wild places and wildlife are sacred because they are evidence of a creator.
In our modern, western world, these are lessons desperately needed today. As we sit in a room and watch friends and relatives peck away at small phones and computers, oblivious even to the person sitting next to them, we quickly lose sight of our smallness in place and time.
Meanwhile, with our faces glued to the latest electronic devices, our politicians ignore climate change and, unquestioning, push us further away from the wild lands which sustain us. The experience I had 40 years ago of losing my home is repeated daily in the Mountain State and elsewhere in Appalachia – all for “the progress of man.”
Action, then, is required. There is still land to preserve. We must be educated and unified. We must then speak truth to power, and we must prepare our children and grandchildren – for this is a multi-generational battle. First, though, we must realize that not all people will change. Enough, however, can be persuaded.
To persuade them, we must begin by asserting our morally superior position. While that may, at first glance, sound arrogant, it isn’t. Why? Because we have already established that wildlife and wild places are sacred. This assault upon the sacred is a clear and present danger to all terrestrial life. So, we must not concern ourselves with being marginalized or characterized as “tree huggers.” Rather, we should embrace our conservationist heritage. It is this heritage that gave us the national park system.
There are countless ways to do this. Perhaps you could start by attending the Earth Day conferenced scheduled for April 20-21 in Charleston, W.Va. With a theme of “Preserving Sacred Appalachia,” it will be a gathering of conservationists with one goal in mind – to deliver a unified message that Appalachia and all wild places are sacred and worth preserving. Join us. Embrace the label of conservationist or environmentalist. Live a life consistent with those monikers. Become the expert within your circle of influence. Most importantly, relentlessly spread the gospel of conservation. Will we prevail? In time, we can. We certainly, will not, however, should we shy away because of what others think or say about us. Let us not allow apathy, ignorance or greed guide our future.
© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project, a social enterprise business committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member. Learn about the Earth Day conference here.
By Michael M. Barrick
Before Sarah and I moved back to my native state of West Virginia in the middle of 2013, we lived in another place that we consider “Almost Heaven” – a cabin deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains just a few miles south of Blowing Rock, North Carolina. The cabin and the 57 acres it sits on offered the desperately needed sabbatical I required after a stressful life season.
It offered a time in a place that is the definition of peace. I helped my uncle and others build the cabin on the edge of Cold Creek, at the end of a hollow. I spent many days hiking up to the high peaks in the neighboring Pisgah Forest.
I valued the time alone, but also enjoyed visits by a friend of 40 years. We would sit outside enjoying the sunshine or moonshine – and sometimes both. We allowed the days to linger. We would take the occasional hike. But we never gathered up the gumption to tackle the ridge nearest to the cabin, as it is nearly straight up and full of rhododendron that are as formidable as they are beautiful.
That all changed one day when I was watching our granddaughter, Atleigh. She was a mere four-years-old at the time. The three of us were sitting along the side of the cabin, basking in the sun, listening to the creek. As we sat there, I did what friends often do – I offered a challenge. “Rick,” I said, “you feel like climbing that mountain?”
Before he could say “No,” or I could back out, Atleigh jumped out of her chair, turned to us both and declared, “I’m a climber! Are you?”
Now that was the ultimate challenge. So, without another moment of thought, we were climbing. I barely kept up with her and Rick was falling behind. He hesitated. Atleigh would have nothing of it. “Come on Ricky!” she exclaimed. “You can do it!” Inspired, he persevered. In time we reached the peak.
What awaited us was a panoramic, 360-degree view. To the north was Grandfather’s Mountain. To the south, the steep slopes of the Blue Ridge Escarpment. To the east and west, saddleback ridges. Rick found an old path and disappeared into the woods. Atleigh and I found a rock. She sat on my lap, her long legs hanging over mine, her head rested against my shoulder.
The little fearless climber that I cradled with my arms had taught two old men a valuable lesson – never, ever lose your sense of adventure. If you do, you will deprive yourself of unspeakable joy.
© Michael Barrick, 2014. This essay aired on “Inside Appalachia,” a program of West Virginia Public Radio. “Inside Appalachia” is heard on West Virginia Public Radio at 6 a.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday; it can be heard on numerous partner stations throughout Appalachia. Listen to it here..