I was on the phone with my mom earlier this week and we were talking about the annual family gathering back in May.
Prior to this year, it had been more than a decade since I last visited Bryson City, a tiny little town nestled in Western North Carolina’s Great Smokey Mountains where my mom’s family originated.
As we talked, I told mom I couldn’t believe how much development had occurred since my last visit. It broke my heart the way the mountains had been cleared to make way for hotels, Walmarts and other box stores that literally lined the highway from Asheville into the heart of what I always believed to be one of the most beautiful places in America.
When I was a child, I used to spend a couple of weeks every summer with my aunt and uncle who lived in Silva, a tiny farming community not far from Cherokee. They had a small farm down in the valley along a dirt road with forest-covered mountains rolling across the horizon as far as the eye could see. The nearest neighbor was several miles away, and the town (which consisted of a post office, gas station and general store) was about a 20-minute ride in my aunt’s pickup. As a child, I always felt they lived in the most remote, isolated place on earth. It was beautiful; although back then I wished they had more of the amenities we were used to back in the city.
They lived a simple, rustic lifestyle. They had electricity, but that was the limit of the other modern conveniences that most of America had already taken for granted by the 1960s and early 1970s. Going to the bathroom in the outhouse was an adventure, especially at night. All their water came from a spring that ran down the mountain and flowed a few yards along the side of their house. My cousins and I would go out every morning with buckets and tote in fresh water for drinking, cooking and cleaning. As I remember, it was the sweetest water I ever tasted.
I absolutely loved those summer visits, even though I admit I did scoff at the long list of daily chores that I had to do with my cousins Bud, Larry and Beverly.
I never could get the hang of milking cows with Larry, so I got stuck helping Beverly churn butter. We’d take turns churning the handle up and down for what seemed like hours until my aunt would finally take the top off and declare it ready to put into a mold.
We went fishing nearly every day, catching rainbow and brown trout from the rivers that flowed between the mountains. Most days after all the chores were done, Bud and Larry would head up the mountain with their rifles to hunt for rabbit and squirrels. They never let me go with them, though, saying that I made too much noise.
I didn’t mind. I enjoyed helping Beverly round up the chickens and get them back in the pen. Every morning we’d let them out to free range in the pasture and the woods at the foot of the mountain. Just before sunset, we’d round them up and shoo them back in the pen that provided nightly protection from the predators.
And there were lots of those. I won’t say that seeing a black bear was an everyday occurrence, but running into a bear — sometimes up close and personal — wasn’t out of the norm. It was the same for mountain lions and bobcats. And while I never saw a wolf, I heard them howling from the mountain every night as I tried to fall asleep above the din of Larry snoring in the bed next to mine. One night I made the mistake of telling Bud and Larry how the howls bothered me. They felt the need to make up a story (although they told me at the time it was true) about the boy who went to the outhouse at night and was eaten by a pack of hungry wolves. After that, I never went to the outhouse after dark, no matter how badly I had to go.
Sometimes my aunt would take us up the mountain and into the deep woods to forage for the wild berries and mushrooms and ramps that grew in the rich, mossy soil beneath the canopy.
Even though I felt like I was a million miles from civilization, every visit was an adventure, creating memories that years later I hold dearly in my heart.
I told mom that for the past several years I had thought about buying a cabin near Maggie Valley, not too far from the small town where my aunt and uncle had their farmhouse. But after seeing all of the development, I told mom I no longer had any interest. Until my recent trip back east, I thought it would be nice to have a place to get away and write. To take walks in the mountain forest as I had done as a child — the place that sparked both my imagination and creativity and provided the fuel for stories that I put together in my head.
Mom told me she had a hard time with the development, too — almost to the point that she hated going back to her native home in North Carolina. She also had a few choice words about “the damned Yankees” who came down and razed the mountains as if they had a right to change the land God created to suit their pleasure.
As much as it pains my heart, I guess Thomas Wolfe was right. Though the circumstances are different than in his novel “You Can’t Go Home Again,” in my case, the home I remember from my childhood doesn’t exist anymore. The mountains have been replaced by condos and shopping centers. The woods that I used to walk through — the place that gave birth to my need to write down the stories that came to me as I sat on a rock beneath the canopy — are no longer there. Concrete slabs and ribbons of asphalt now grow where the tree-covered mountains had stood tall for millennia.
It wasn’t all gone, though. You can still see a bear and a mountain lion. I saw the signs along the highway beckoning motorists to take the next exit where for a fee, you could safely view the native creatures of the mountains as they paced behind the bars of a locked cage.
I was so angry I wanted to scream.
The place I used to think was a million miles from civilization is now the hub of a thriving metropolis.
Heartbroken over the changes to the land where my life began, I was overcome by guilt as I thought back to the stern warning my father often gave when I was a child:
“Be careful what you wish for.”
Neal White is the Editor of Waxahachie Newspapers Inc. Contact Neal at firstname.lastname@example.org or 469-517-1457. Follow Neal on Facebook at Neal White – Waxahachie Newspapers Inc., or on Twitter at wni_nwhite.