In 1988, I slapped an Appalachian State University sticker on the rear window of my car and headed west to the mountains.
I drove away from my home in Randolph County, down U.S. Highway 64, and past the Uwharries, which, until my college years, had been the highest peaks I’d ever seen.
On move-in day, I met my roommate, who was from Raleigh and had already claimed her side of the room and covered our dingy cinder-block walls with Dirty Dancing posters. We were strangers trying to make the best of an unfamiliar place, and here’s what I did:
I bought the sweatshirts. I ate in the cafeteria. And in the Gold Room. And in the Sweet Shop. I piled seven people in my car and drove to the top of Howard’s Knob. I tried to ski. I joined the Student Government Association. I went to my first football game — the Mountaineers played the Citadel Bulldogs — and the stadium was a sea of black and gold.
Except there was no sea here at all.
There is no ocean in the mountains, and I found myself wondering how I ended up in a place like this when what I preferred was flatland, warm weather, salt breezes. A landscape that didn’t rise and didn’t fall.
That year in Boone, it snowed in October. Then it kept on snowing. The snow piled up. Falling and rising.
It was cold, and I was lonely.
I felt the weight of all that snow, and I felt the weight of all those mountains, pushing down on me, pushing the breath out of me, pushing the life out of me.
I didn’t like it here, despite how much I tried, and a few months later, hanging my head in regret, I packed my car up and came home. I left the mountains, and it was a long time before I went back.
Years later, I took a job here, at Our State, and I went to Asheville for the magazine’s annual Best of Our State event. I sat on the terrace at the Grove Park Inn, and I noticed, for the first time, how the mountains sparkled. I saw the evening lights of Asheville in the distance. I saw more stars in the sky than I’d ever seen in my life.
I started going other places in western North Carolina. I followed a steep spiral in Taylorsville in search of the best mountain apples I’ve ever tasted; I went far out to Brasstown and learned how to pluck the strings of a dulcimer; I sat on the back of a truck bed and watched for the Brown Mountain Lights near Morganton; I went to Little Switzerland and ate a smoked trout B.L.T.; and I drove Railroad Grade Road in Ashe County and stopped my car to let a family of wild turkeys cross in front of me.
It took a long time for them to get across — they were in no hurry — and then I realized, as I rolled down the window and listened to the burble of the New River, neither was I.
After 25 years, I’d made peace with these mountains, pulled closer by time and distance.
A few months ago, I traveled 3,315 feet into the sky to a place called Wildacres, a retreat center on the top of Pompey’s Knob near the Blue Ridge Parkway. I spent a week in an isolated mountain cabin with no phone service, television, or Internet access.
In the day, I worked. At night, I sat outside and watched the sky turn from purple to black, stars popping. I tuned the small radio in the cabin to WNCW out of Spindale and listened to Underhill Rose and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. I listened to Boone Creek sing the truth about drifting too far from the shore.
While I was at Wildacres, so was a world-class bassoon camp. Every day at 4 p.m., bassoonists from symphonies all over the United States gathered for a recital, and I walked up the hill from my cabin to listen to them practice. They played Vivaldi and Mozart and Bach, and I had never heard sounds like this before, undulating waves emanating from their instruments. Like an ocean in the mountains. Rising and falling.
As I listened, I realized what I’d missed so many years ago, before I understood that, in this life, there are rises and there are falls. And there are places in this state that can shoulder all of that, strong places that aren’t pushing us down at all but lifting us up.
I looked around at the hills, and I whispered a thank you. It was as if they whispered back, “Don’t worry. We weren’t going anywhere.”