Road Trip XI, Days 11-16: What Woods These Are I Definitely Know, Or, What Really Makes an Easterner

Greetings from Durham, NC, my hometown. I’m actually writing this from the living room of the farmhouse I grew up in, and where both my parents still live. I know. I’m beyond lucky, for a person of any age–and I’m 60!

The Mate and I have been pinching ourselves as we crossed this enormous country/continent west-east, waiting for the usual weather trap…but so far, none has sprung! No ice storms, tornadoes, swirling dust, nor blizzards. Not so much as a thunderclap. Yet. We still have a long trip to go. But for now, I’m free to write about stuff you can notice when your nose isn’t buried in a weather app.

Like forests, which I can see very clearly, thank you, even while seeing the trees. Last week we had the pleasure of camping in eastern Arkansas…oh, wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. First we stopped in Little Rock to ride our bikes along the Arkansas River, which is famous there for its

This being the south, ya gotta add those quotation marks.

I thought I saw swans on the river, masses of them–only to realize, those are pelicans! In Arkansas! Go figure.

Maybe seabirds enjoy an inland vacation once in a while?

At the end of a long day’s drive, we camped in a state park that’s notable mostly for its location alongside part of the Trail of Tears. We got there late enough in the day that I only had time for an hour’s walk before dinner, and what I noticed was–I could be home in NC! The woods looked exactly the same.

Sun setting on maples, oaks, tulip poplar…and The Mate

Even though we still had the Mississippi to cross, not to mention the entire length of Tennessee and the Blue Ridge, these woods felt like home to me. Which of course brought up the decades-old debate between North Carolinian me and my Californian Mate: Are deciduous woods beautiful in winter?

My answer: 100% Even without the garnish of rhododendron, leafless winter woods are, to me, maybe even more striking than green leafy woods. They’re showing you the bone structure of the land!

My Western Mate, and both our Western sons, always insist the winter woods of the east look “dead” to them. I mutter, “Huh,” raise my chin, and feel sorry for them.

Running out of time for a second night of camping, we opted for a motel right outside Smokey Mountain National Park (taking pains to avoid the shudder-inducing town of Pigeon Forge/Dollywood). One more quick walk before dark yielded a swinging bridge over the Little River…

…but unfortunately, all the river banks are locked up in private property, so no beautiful hikes there.

Next day we got to drive through the park, up and over the Appalachian Trail…

I know–how could we pass up “Sweat Heifer”? But we had friends waiting to hike with us in Asheville. And Mt. Katahdin was a little too far.

…and into North Carolina! Asheville is very hip these days, so we were happy just to stick with our friends at their house & eat homemade food. But I did snap this sunrise photo of the city waking up behind Beaucatcher Mountain:

Sure can’t blame all those folks who want to live there! (And maybe you can go home again. #TomWolfeReference)

I mean–what’s not to love about those trees? “Dead”? C’mon, people!

Our last stop in the mountains, before making our way back to the good ol’ Piedmont, was the tiny community of Celo (pronounced See-low), in the South Toe River Valley.

South Toe River at your service

Wayyyyy back in 1981, after two years at Harvard, I decided I needed a break from urban college life. It wasn’t so much the stress that weighed on me, but the lack of purpose. What was this all for? Being privileged enough to be able to take a semester off without working for money, I was steered by a mentor to sign on as an intern at a tiny junior high school serving both day and boarding students: Arthur Morgan School. AMS still exists–look it up here!

Quakers Crossing!

AMS isn’t officially Quaker, but I believe it’s actually more Quakerly in practice than many so-called Quaker prep schools. The kids do all the chores and the cooking, start each day with 30 minutes of singing folks songs, go on weeklong backpacking trips and 3-week field trips. In fact, they were off field-tripping when we got there, leaving us free to tour the campus I worked at 40 years ago. I didn’t feel like taking pictures of buildings, but I did capture the mountains behind the community soccer field.

There’s a school in there somewhere.

(But can we talk about how those trees grace the ridgeline like grey velvet? Can we?)

Without going into detail, I need to say that my time at AMS changed my life…by redirecting it. Two years in Cambridge had been swerving me toward a “sophisticated” ethic of city fashion and fierce academic competition. SO not me. AMS and Celo reminded me of who I really was: a country girl. A girl hopelessly in love with mountains and the trees that grace them.

Those creeks! So clear and pure! When, in 1990, I abandoned the Southeast to become a Pacific Northwesterner, I swear I recognized that Blue Ridge Mountain purity in the waters of the PNW.

The creeks (or “cricks” or “branches”) in the Piedmont are pretty sluggish & muddy. But mountain waters…

Also–swinging bridges are a thing in the Blue Ridge–or used to be. In 1982 I used to cross one regularly, with two more down the road. In 2022, I could only find this one:

Oh well. (But the trees are still pretty.)

Something else I forgot about those mountain folks: their driveways can be STEEP. (That’s neither here nor there, but I couldn’t resist a picture.)

Seriously? In snow & ice?

Oh, and a quick plug: if you’re looking for a sweet and healthy vacay or staycay, you can’t do better than the Celo Inn.

You’re welcome!

My time at AMS was short, only half a school year, and I’m still not sure why I pushed myself to return to Cambridge so quickly. But in those six months I learned guitar, strengthened my singing voice (30 minutes of Morning Sing for 6 months!), re-connected with my true nature, and The Boyfriend Who Became The Mate & I acquired lifelong friends who still host us to share memories, and waffles.

Waffles With Ward (not pictured: Ward)

Our friends Herbie & Marnie have a sign above their door that sums up Celo best:

Amen.

Do the bare eastern woods embody the “imperfect life”? Or do they simply remind me that woods are the whole package–trunks and moss and rocks and streams and whatever else is to be noticed–not just green trees. That’s what I go to bat for when I insist on the beauty of my dear eastern forests in the not-green time. Who’s with me?