As we pulled out of the drive, the dashboard clock read 5:18a.m. It was dark in Ohio, and we were bound homeward. While the baby slept strapped into the backseat, the sun rose along the fields and small towns of 250. Somewhere between the main streets of Apple Creek and Wilmot, the old Rich Mullins album we’d put on sang to us, and it was apt: “there’s so much beauty around us for just two eyes to see / But everywhere I go I’m looking.”
Two hours later, we wound through the high hills of West Virginia. My husband dozing on the passenger side, I sped down a mountainside run, the steep slope of a mountain rising gigantic before me. It seemed as though I’d crash into its side, or perhaps keep zooming up and up to the crest. I thought it was rooted very deep – a majestic thing. And I remembered Lewis’s Narnia in The Last Battle, worlds behind worlds, a gigantic mountain rising behind and above the very sun. My heart leapt and an eagerness gripped me as I sailed down the interstate toward the awesome, lovely thing. Then a bend in the road, and the hill was left behind, though the vision of imminence and majesty remained.
Once I moved to Appalachia, and my soul, it has stayed there. Now the cracks in my heart seal up a little bit whenever I travel through. Much of our lives, my husband’s and mine, have been lived in or near these mountains, and we travel intermittently along corridors that take us to and back home again from the North and New England. There’s another song that sings the tune of our relationship, Old Crow Medicine Show’s Wagon Wheel, following my husband from New England to Roanoke, through Johnson City and all the way to Raleigh, where I lived before we were married.
There have been a lot of moves for me in the last six years, I in this generation of job-changers. I’m not sure how I feel about all of them, or the fact that it takes all the fingers on my hand to count the places I’ve lived between 2005 and today. James Taylor hears the highway calling him toward the Carolina that is the seat of UNC. But for me, with the exception of Taylor’s Chapel Hill (OCMS was so kind as to include the flatland Triangle in its song’s passage down the Blue Ridge), all my moves have been toward mountains. We lived our first married year comfortable under the historic green shade of Charlottesville’s Monticello. (I could see the apple orchard side of its brother Montalto out our bedroom window, balm for my moving-weary soul.) And now, these past few years, we’ve settled in a Southwest Virginia valley that has us driving right up against the hills in ten minutes, any direction. We’ll begin the raising of our daughter here.
As for the first chapter on this hilly portion of my life’s map: when, six years ago, I moved from the North Georgia foothills (rolling in their own sleepy, southern way) to Asheville, North Carolina, pocketed in the crestfalls of many mountains – Pisgah, Dearview, Beaucatcher – I drove up the winding road. Above Greenville, South Carolina, the curves of 26 become steep and the views drastic. In all my sweet Carolina, it’s the corner I love best. I neared the exit for my job interview, and all of a sudden, I was passing under a bridge so high I could hardly believe it shared the same travel space. I craned my neck, looking as long as I safely could, drinking in the stunning height. Then I was on to downtown Asheville, in love already and ready to live amongst these hills. When I had to leave those hills behind, and all the deep relationships that they, by then, contained (I held so many people in my suitcase heart), my heart was all but rent.
There has always been something about the height of the close ranges, the depth of the variegated rock as I pass through deep cuts, the insides of the mountains close enough to reach out the car window and touch. In Appalachia, the landscape becomes personal, something you can intimately know, and then, in another stroke, just around the next bend, it rises up in near-intolerable majestic show.
On sings Rich Mullins:
And once I went to Appalachia for my father he was born there
And I saw the mountains waking with the innocence of children
And my soul is still there with them wrapped in the songs they brought
I crane my neck to get a view of that high, close mountain for as long as I can see it. It beckons and it daunts. It is both near and far. It smites and charms me deeply, both at once. The road, as it always does, takes a curve at the last minute and passes the crisis of near-collision by. I move on through the next town, toward the next set of near peaks. But the close encounter with the mountain has begun its work. It inspires and it heals, and it takes me home.
Yes. Whether I live there or not, home is Appalachia now. In the words of singer/songwriter Jason Harrod, “Take me where them rolling hills / Can gather up and cure my ills.” And may they one day carry me home.