In Boone, people sometimes include a disclaimer when making promises: God willing and the creeks don’t rise.
Why, you ask? Tonight is your answer. The creeks have been pulled from their banks as if by strange music. They’re falling, dancing and drunken, into the South Fork of the New River, which runs just beyond my back door. Nearby, a paved road has already been covered by its currents. My gravel drive — an earthen dam holding a pond — is in danger. And the rains keep coming down.
It’s not uncommon to hear people discussing what makes a place Southern. But when it comes to Boone, I think the question might be: What makes it Southern Appalachian? What constitutes its marrow, its personality? My suggestion: precipitation. If humidity is Southern, then earth-moving floods and mountain-size snowfalls are Southern Appalachian. Precipitation, in its many forms, feeds mountain creeks, covers ski slopes, plays midwife to the salamanders that wiggle in my palm when lifted from dark, moist soil.
Boone might be the only town I know that’s defined less by what’s inside of its municipal borders than by how it reflects what’s outside of them. Visitors might go downtown for restaurants and shopping, but the real reasons they’ve come to Boone are revealed on their roof racks, in the form of kayaks, river tubes, Christmas trees, skis, and snowboards. Trace these tourist icons far enough, and they’ll all praise some form of precipitation.
This evening, dusk has turned to darkness quickly. I walk out to check how high the river has gotten. I want to see — best as I can by flashlight beam — whole logs being moved like toothpicks. In a matter of hours, my highland yard has become a swamp. I move to where the waters are lapping at the silvered locust posts of my garden fence. Beyond, there are surf-worthy waves. I can hear and feel them, their power surging with my heart rate.
Later, I lie fitful in bed, listening. What is happening out there? The river sounds like a freight train barreling just inches away from my head. Is this the sound of my road turned to silt? My house is on high ground. There is nothing left to do but wait out the storm. Still, it’s hard to rest, my soul pulled toward the river like tides to the moon.
Discontent to stay behind rain-whipped windows, I shuffle onto the back porch with a quilt wrapped around my shoulders. The air smells as it does after the garden’s first spring tilling, all fresh earth and possibility. Tonight, across town at the Boone Mall, a car will be lost to an adjacent creek, but stores will be spared. Ultimately, so will my road. But the landscape will be slightly different. Riverbanks shift. Mountainsides slip. Here, beauty does not always arrive gently.
The long-range views from Boone can make one feel small. So can the realization that, in this ancient landscape, not everything is under human control. Just as these mountains tend to make people feel either suffocated or cradled, Boone’s oft-extreme precipitation can be viewed as either frightening or empowering. Because it demonstrates that we’re undeniably a part of nature, something larger than ourselves.
To feel ice freckling your cheeks is to be part of a geologic story that has transformed the Appalachians — once as high as the Alps and Rockies — into serene scenes. Jagged peaks have been softened, over millions of years, by pelting ice and slow erosion. Rain- and snow-fed rivers continue to deepen valleys. On the ridgelines around town, you can walk right through clouds, in the form of fog, on a near-daily basis. At 3,333 feet above sea level, surrounded by temperate rainforest, Boone is part of an ongoing drama that rivals any story orated by the ancient Greeks.
Tonight’s rain is swelling the heart-of-town flow of Kraut Creek, saturating the grassy lawns of Appalachian State University. It’s making puddles in parks, deepening cracks in asphalt. Rain is what makes the woods around town feel like fern-draped, prehistoric areas. Leaves that are dripping with moisture are, after all, usually laden with life. And, soon, there’ll be new mushrooms growing between brick and sidewalk, in the dark recesses of logs and fallen branches.
Shape-shifting forms of precipitation don’t allow locals to get comfortable for too long. They refuse to let us forget that we’re tied to a world beyond the one we’ve created. In the fall, some of us mark foggy days by dropping beans into Mason jars, each bean an indicator of how many snows we might expect in the coming season. Precipitation reminds us to take our raincoats and buy snow tires, tells us how high woodpiles should be stacked and how many canned goods should be stocked. We might get our rations at Food Lion instead of the Mast General Store, but we’re still mountaineers.
My neighbors and I mark seasons with cider press parties, potlucks, and picking sessions on the porch of the community center, all timed to coincide with the sort of precipitation we see coming. In turn: Fog rolls through town, thickening with woodstove smoke. Ice glazes trees. Snow coats buildings, presses against roofs. There’s the hush after blizzards pass, the crack and moan of slicks breaking, snow slipping off of metal roofs. Then, the sun shines while clouds mist, causing rhododendron to detonate into color, inspiring songbirds to echo glory, glory in even the darkest of hollers.
Living in Boone means watching the weather, sometimes on a minute-by-minute basis. We’re alert to precipitation because we have to be. Roads close. Slopes open. Bridges are overtaken. Sometimes, we keep watch joyfully. Sometimes, nervously. Almost always, while muttering under our breath about the never-ending onslaught of rain, fog, sleet, and snow. Because it seems that, when it comes to places and people, the things we love most about them are often the very same things that drive us mad. So it goes.
Dawn is still hours away from where I stand. I draw my quilt close to my chest. I can’t see very far into my yard, but my senses are attuned. I inhale the strange sweetness of Boone’s lifeblood. And the river that usually lulls me to sleep roars me awake.