No matter where I wander or what the season,
my heart belongs to the Great Smoky Mountains.
They inspire me to write my very soul:
“I always like coming back home. These mountains around here are cozy. Lots of hills, hollows, and coves. You go out west, where they’re really big, and they make you stand back and look. They’re not with you. Around here well, I guess you could say they become a part of you.”
S p r i n g a t C o n n e m a r a
The home of poet Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), “Connemara” sits on a 260-acre farm in Flat Rock, North Carolina, where Sandburg spent the last twenty-five years of his life and wrote a third of his life’s works. Built by Christopher Memminger before the Civil War, Connemara remains as it was the day Sandburg died, fifty years ago: untouched by time and sanctified by peace.²
“I may keep this boyheart of mine…I am an idealist.
I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way.”
“There is a place for me somewhere, where I can write and speak much as I think, and make it
pay for my living and some besides. Just where this place is I have small idea now, but I am going to find it.”
Give me a quiet garret alone
Where I may sit for a few casual callers
And tell them carelessly, offhandedly,
‘This is where I dirty paper.’
Thus each poet prays and dreams.
The eternal hobo asks for a quiet room
with a little paper he can dirty,
with birds who sit where he tells ’em.
—Carl Sandburg, from Breathing Tokens, 1945
S u m m e r t i m e o n t h e N a n t y
Deep in the heart of the Smokies lie the Nantahala River and Gorge. Cherokee for “Land of the Noonday Sun,” the high walls of the gorge shut out the summer heat. Although the Nanty is dam-controlled, its beauty and undisturbed wilds get you just about as close to nature as you could want. In fact, I love the Gorge so much that I signed on to work there one summer. One of my favorite things is to steam into Nantahala aboard the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and enjoy a brisk trip down the river—53 degrees year-round!
Speaking of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, I managed to land a job there the next summer. I was even lucky enough to be aboard the first passenger excursion pulled by GSMR’s 1942 Baldwin 2-8-0 Steam Locomotive #1702 after a 12-year absence and restoration. If you look closely at the photo below (click here to zoom), I’m standing in the vestibule between the open passenger car and the yellow Chesee caboose.
I am sick of four walls and a ceiling.
I have need of the sky.
I have business with the grass.
—Richard Hovey (1864-1900)
F a l l a t F u r m a n
All that I am—the thinker, writer, wonderer and wanderer—goes back to my four years as a undergraduate at Furman University, a private liberal arts college in the foothills of upstate South Carolina. Founded by Baptists in 1826, Furman broke with the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1990s; since then, its national reputation blossomed and the university garners international attention today. Furman taught me the importance of shaping the mind, feeding the spirit, strengthening the body, and nourishing the soul. I never see a crisp fall day without remembering a new year at alma mater.
In a world that’s both astonishingly beautiful and horrifically cruel, ‘sanctuary’ is as vital as breathing to me. Sometimes I find it in churches, monasteries, and other sites designated as sacred. More often I find it in places sacred to my soul: in the natural world, in the company of a trustworthy friend, in solitary or shared silence, in the ambiance of a good poem or good music.
—Parker J. Palmer
W i n t e r i n C a t a l o o c h
I think my love of history goes back to the childhood visit I made with my family to Cataloochee. The ghostly houses and churches haunted my childhood memories, and I still make it back there when I’m home. It beckons to me.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Cataloochee (Cherokee for “fringe sticking straight up,” referring to the tall conifer trees on the ridge lines) was the most-populous valley in western North Carolina—and the least accessible. All that changed in 1930, when the U.S. government purchased the entire area to become the core of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Valley families, forced to sell their property and move, left their way of life behind. Today, the empty buildings of Catalooch mark their presence still.
Cataloochee is the focus of a 2007 novel of the same name, penned by Asheville native Wayne Caldwell (a descendant of Hiram Caldwell, who built the house above). Caldwell’s fictitious account of the pioneer families of the valley gives the reader a keen sense for the people of that place.
Max Hunt also gives a marvelous account of the making of the park in his April 20, 2016 article in the “Mountain Express,” which I’ve linked here.
Trees hold a mountain of memories,
A history and place and time all to themselves,
Somehow cold and forgotten
Out in the middle of nowhere.
(“Cataloochee,” by Mark Horner, 2006)
¹ Harold Garrison is quoted in The Face of Appalachia: Portraits from the Mountain Farm by Tim Barnwell (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2003). Featuring photographs captured over three decades (ca. 1970-1990), Appalachia depicts a nearly-vanished way of life.
² Carl August Sandburg (1878-1967), the renowned poet, novelist, and Lincoln biographer, died at Connemara on July 22, 1967. He was 89 years old.