I live in Vilas, roughly five miles northwest out of Boone on U.S. Highway 421 South, a mere nine miles from the Tennessee line. Vilas rests quietly, rather anonymously, at an elevation of 3,266 feet. Its population is 3,482, a statistic that strikes me as outlandish. I simply can’t picture that many citizens here. Nestled in a valley, its name derives obviously from a permutation of that word — in all likelihood, I’m thrilled to announce, from the Latin: vallis.
When my wife, Joan, and sons, Jacob and Beckett, and I first began house hunting in Watauga County, after I accepted a teaching job at Appalachian State University, we were certain we wanted to live on the highest affordable peak.
There was something so romantic, so seductive, attached to the notion of panorama: the power to see forever. Searching for houses led us ever upward into the clouds, where blacktop suddenly turned to mud and millstone washouts, grassed-over one-lane two tracks, shear on both sides, the drop-off like Kilimanjaro, darkness mantling us along with vertigo.
The children, the afterlife at their elbows, wore those worried, neurotic faces they had acquired from too much sky. Native Wataugans know only fools opt to abide on ridges where folks have to chain cast-iron yard furniture (and even pets) to keep it from blowing away in habitual Levitical gales once winter comes on, where the only way to hack out of your house is to hire a snow plow, where fog is like in a Jack the Ripper movie. On more than one occasion I had to back down a thousand feet of corkscrewing gravel because I couldn’t locate the house for sale and there was no way to turn the car around without pitching us over into the abyss.
Thank God, we found Vilas and its sane, unspeakably beautiful valley to live in.
Those from outside Watauga County tend to call it Vee-loss. The Vi, however, is pronounced like Vidalia. The stress — the word, Vilas, is a trochee — is on the first syllable. It goes by the aliases Reese and Sherwood, as well, though I’ve never heard it referred to as anything other than Vilas. It’s not really a town — there is, however, a post office, and a fine one — but more a place, in the liminal sense, that must be inhabited, season in, season out, year after year, to be apprehended. Vilas is my home, my place, these last two nouns inseparable. In her brilliant 1956 essay “Place in Fiction,” Eudora Welty, who for her entire life occupied a small space in Jackson, Mississippi — yet out of it created worlds — declares: “Surely place induces poetry, and when the poet is extremely attentive to what is there, a meaning may even attach to his poem out of the spot on earth where it is spoken, and the poem signify the more because it does spring so wholly out of its place, and the sap has run up into it as into a tree.”
There’s decidedly sap enough for any number of poets in Vilas. Place as Muse has evangelized writers since time began — and this place, along with my hometown of Pittsburgh, has no rival.
By automobile, one may choose one of two ways, off Highway 421, to get to my home on Linville Creek Road, named for the trout stream that courses through the valley and skirts the edge of our property. I take the right at Brooks Plumbing.
On the opposite side of the road, rising toward a distant ridge, is a brace of three Coffindaffer crosses. Their vertical and transverse beams, rowed with lightbulbs, are switched on each evening. When the real dark pours in, the mammoth crosses float, blazing, on the interminable black mountainside. This is the long way home, ever up along the looming brawn of the massive ridge, lording over the valley, north of the highway: Rich Mountain, comprising Snakeden Mountain, Grassy Knob, Buckeye Knob, Potato Hill, and Rich Mountain Bald. At the onset of cold, at its precipitous altitude, fog freezes to its face; and, in the mornings, its peaks are frosted milk glass, sparkling magically with what we’ve learned to call rime-ice.
I drive past the pristine Hollars family graveyard and its handful of very old tombstones, breach the road’s apex, drop rapidly — mountain ranges so far off I wouldn’t hazard what county they’re in — take a classic hairpin, then begin the descent that will take me past some of Vilas’s oldest homes, still known by their ancestral names: the Tillman Adams House, built in 1889; the Daniel Bradley Farm, perhaps built as early as the 1860s, and in all likelihood the oldest house in Vilas.
Then past the 122-acre Shipley Farm, established in 1872. Robert and Agnes Shipley, hailed by High Country Press as “the first couple of agriculture in the High Country,” are the patriarch and matriarch of the valley, of all of Vilas — and beyond, for my money. A regal, inseparable couple, Mr. Shipley, 101, and Mrs. Shipley, 96, working on 71 years of marriage, are charming and classically handsome, and they recall forensically, chapter and verse, every whit of history that has passed in this valley and Watauga County. Like Abraham and Sarah, they glide the valley in their biblical Lincoln, Mrs. Shipley’s famous yellow irises preening in the hundreds along the roadbed of Linville Creek.
The blacktop wends between two enormous pastures, an ancient sigodlin red barn, quiet houses here and there, and a few mavericks way up on the ridges — as if they’re from another planet — clinging desperately at that height for purchase. Sorties of goldfinch jet, bright yellow, over emerald green grass splashed blue in counterpanes of ragged robins, dotted black with Angus cattle and half a dozen shining sorrels penned on the other side by long stretches of faded black corral.
Some years ago, in preparation for a family wedding, every plank of that fence was patched, then painted onyx black by hand, for days, every centimeter of it, for a quarter mile up and down Linville Creek Road. A sconce of wildflowers adorned each vertical beam. The meadows were mown and hayed and a road timbered out and cut up to the ridge. Visible from the road, the day of the wedding, was the bride, her dress like a billow of white phlox; tablecloth tails lifting in the breeze; silhouetted guests sitting at the wedding supper.
One late winter night, on the way home, I found myself behind perhaps 40 head of smoke-bellowing Black Angus, massing, like an Old West cattle drive, down the middle of Linville Creek Road. The cows were herded by truck and men on foot, from one pasture to another. Trained over them were banks of spotlights, creating a wholly surreal effect. It reminded me of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and the famous scene where the bulls are run through the streets of Pamplona, Spain.
Exactly two miles after I turn off 421, I more or less dead end at our front door and hail the hoodlum crows, of whom I’m so sentimentally fond, secreted in the upper branches of the massive silver maple; and, when the mood strikes them, they call my name.
Two ancient cedars, monogamous, coupled beyond memory, one a little larger, a little stouter than the other, keep vigil in the endless swales that spill into our front yard. They remind me so much of Ezra Pound’s stunning translations of Chinese poet Li Po that I bow to them before entering my home and, often, they bow in return. They watch over my green house, trimmed in white, with modest gables and choir-loft balcony, in which I have lived longer than any other. Built in 1969, my favorite year, it abides in a quadrant of an intersection, a crossroads of what I think of as the nexus of the valley, where Linville Creek Road metamorphoses without warning, fanfare, or announcement, into Charlie Thompson Road.
In truth, because “there is no there there,” to quote Gertrude Stein, no town proper, or even sign on a stob to signal one has arrived in Vilas, I suppose I narcissistically view the crossroads where I live as Vilas. Perhaps we all have that tendency — to see the world through the reverse end of a telescope, to shrink it to a tidy microcosm we can take in, manage, and even comprehend in a glance.
I own a facsimile photograph taken long before us, in 1950, the original dug out of the Shipley archives. It is black and white and wrinkled — as if to approximate the valley’s topography 63 years ago: buxom hills and horizons blessedly shed of houses — including ours, though I spot our plat where two enormous barns hulk. It’s an aerial photograph, or perhaps taken from the 90-degree ridge directly across from us. From the vantage of altitude, our acre and a half is heart-shaped, domed, and sanguine. Roads swoop in and around it like ventricle, auricle, aorta, the mysterious chambered interstices — even oracular: one day, years after this photograph was snapped, my family and I will happen onto one of these roads, and it will lead us to a house,
nonexistent in the photograph, built specifically to sustain and nurture our desires.
There are a few dwellings I recognize. There is one — the rather spectacular David and Susan Horton House, built in 1892 — that exists out of time, yet always in its own time, that passersby can’t help but be enchanted by. It belongs to our friends, Jimmy Davidson and Amy Galloway and their angelic, precocious 3-year-old, Vivian, who is perfectly suited to understand the house and complete its Victorian splendor. Dr. Billings’s very old house (Horton-built as well) is 400 meters up the narrow thread of dirt that is now Walnut Lane. It appears there was a house where Bill’s trailer now sits across from Jimmy, Amy, and Vivian. And that’s it — other than the steady progress of clouds into Tennessee across the craggy brow of mountains that might be all
the way off in Virginia, a few barns and shacks bided into the land, and a crop or two. Were the photograph in color, the green would be too blinding to bear. I wonder who took it and upon what whim — the clairvoyant shutter that trapped this
Joan and I have watched it rain, warm and gently insistent, all summer from our balcony; and, in tandem with the solemn rush of Linville Creek, it’s been like listening to the Latin Mass, legions of fireflies igniting in the shower.
We’ve borne this late spring and summer any number of flash floods. For us, this means that Linville Creek swells, then overflows its banks, and the gravitational runoff from the ridges that cup us engulfs our crossroads — in this instance, truly, the crosshairs.
The floods occur that swiftly — in an instant. Linville Creek Road becomes a waterway, the plank bridge that leads out of our property via Walnut Lane goes under. Usually the wind picks up a knot or two, and the meadows and the swales take on an unearthly gleam. The crows, never blacker, leap out of the trees and wing sideways toward Avery County. The smaller birds simply blow away.
One minute, a downpour; the next, a torrent encroaching on dooryards, tributaries cascading down from every hidden, suddenly exploded trickle from above. The water heaves and deterges with lethal speed, and the inventory — an entire ethnography of artifacts — sluices toward us through the valley. I’ve harvested the day after a flood a baseball bat, innumerable balls, a kayak paddle, coolers, tools, baby dolls, backpacks, cell phones, and a Bible.
But today, July 4, Independence Day, the rain falls straight as a plumb line. The birds sit on their branches and sing patriotically, and the sun can’t refrain from shining behind its scrim.
It’s rained for days and days, all summer it seems, and this July we’ll notch the record for all-time rainfall in Watauga County. The water table is gorged, and ever-poised to flood, so it’s not long before Linville Creek Road is two feet under loud, rushing, brown water and the bridge disappears. Then the procession of goods through the gouged flume: immense white plastic hay bale covers, copper tubing, hoses, garden netting, concrete blocks, burlap, beer cans (some unopened), and both ends of a telephone pole snapped in half.
In the evening, the flood draws down and the rain slows to a whispering drizzle. Our neighbor on the ridge directly above us, Ralph, a woolly retired Florida firefighter — I met a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader at one of his inspired parties — lets loose a fusillade of state-of-the-art fireworks to rival the municipal display in Boone. Over our home sprays mountain glory.
Ten feet from Joan and me, a buck, doe, and their recent fawn feed beneath the chestnut tree. Calves bawl from Shipley pastures. A massive great blue heron lifts out of the mad, rushing creek between two skirmishes of orange and yellow jewelweed. Writing spiders, invisible among the split rails, spin —
recording everything for their morning deadline.
North Carolina’s seventh poet laureate, Joseph Bathanti, is the author of two novels, a book of stories, and eight books of poetry. His new book of poems, released in October 2013 from Mercer University Press, is Concertina, based on his sojourn as a VISTA Volunteer with the North Carolina Department of Correction. He is Professor of Creative Writing at Appalachian State University.