…the house is a nest for dreaming, a shelter for imagining. —Gaston Bachelard
When my husband and I began making plans to move back to Yancey County, NC, in 2019, I wondered if I was trying to recapture a past time here that I had romanticized. Was this a foolish move? Was I looking for a “geographic cure” for the uncertainty and losses of the last few years? Was I expecting something that did not exist and maybe never had existed? Memory is a tricky thing, and although I mostly enjoy my memories, I don’t trust them to reflect reality.
You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe famously titled his novel. Yancey County felt like home. My spiritual home. This rural mountain county is where I once ran seven miles every day, learned to live in a solitude that became balm and inspiration. I also developed deep friendships and kept making new friends even when I moved away.
When I first moved to Yancey County, I was a single woman with two cats. I didn’t choose Yancey County, but the place met my needs in the summer of 1992: a job that I would enjoy and that would provide a steady income, and a location that would allow me easy day trips to visit my widowed dad down the mountain in Shelby. I was 42 years old and quickly running out of options for a sustainable life. The public and government relations business that I had started in Annapolis, Maryland, was hemorrhaging money and the work was seasonal at best. I needed a full-time job to pay the mortgage. My mother had died three years before and my dad was losing his eyesight to macular degeneration. I was an only child and wanted to be near my dad while his quality of life was still good.
So, I did what I felt that I had to do. I put my little cottage on the South River up for sale and began looking for a full-time job in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina. My plan was to make enough money to retire to the mountains and build a home on the water. I bought a four-wheel-drive pick-up truck to remind me of my dream. Through a series of unexpected events, that dream reconfigured itself. I completely bypassed the triangle area and the savings needed to build a house on the water in the mountains.
Instead, I found a part-time job as editor of a bimonthly journal for a peace and justice organization in Yancey County. I rented an old farmhouse that I heated with wood. It had no insulation, a metal roof that leaked, and a washing machine with cold water in an out building. The town of Burnsville and the closest grocery store was a 25 minute drive over a two-lane winding road. Across the two-lane blacktop in front of my house, Rock Creek flowed into the South Toe River. Mornings I ran across a low water bridge and down Route 80, past the Mount Mitchell Golf Course, and around the Black Mountain Campground. Rainy mornings I would shed my soaked clothes on the back porch and let the rain cleanse me. Frigid mornings, the smoke from my chimney was the best welcome home.
“These mountains heal,” my landlady said. “They make no promises, but they heal.” I quickly grew to love that drafty house and my neighbors. Even more important, I found an inner strength and resilience as I built a life for myself where I lived in community and communion with my neighbors and the land we shared. I no longer tried to live up to anyone else’s expectations or deadlines. I discovered a profound freedom and a responsibility that continues to guide my life.
The mountains continued to heal me after my dad died unexpectedly seven months after my move. The sale of his house enabled me to buy a small house on five acres surrounded by woods. This little house of my own was only a mile from the old farm house. For five years I cultivated a garden, friends, and a way of life that led me to the decision to become more serious about writing poetry and apply to MFA programs.
I lived in Yancey County until I married in 1997. My husband’s job took us to Germany for two years, and when we returned to the states, we settled in Asheville, NC, for 20 years. I embraced the changes that those years brought, but I repeatedly found myself drawn back to Yancey County in serendipitous ways. Even with a lovely home in Asheville, an MFA, a statewide community of writer friends, and book publications, I never felt at home in Asheville.
When I thought of Yancey County, I thought of my garden, a unique creation of straight rows where I grew vegetables and strawberries and a spiral with keyholes I created for growing tomatoes. I planted blueberry and raspberry bushes, basil and other herbs. I tended the old apple trees, and a grapevine that stretched along the driveway.
I wanted my garden back. I loved starting a pot of water boiling on the stove, then going out to the garden and picking fresh corn. Even though there were times in July when I could cry in frustration over the weeds and upkeep the garden required, it was home. It was the place that I cared for and the place that nourished me.
The garden was the perfect metaphor for what I wanted: a place to put down deep roots, to grow and change; to dream and imagine. And, yes, a place to weed, clear out clutter and “things” that do not nourish me. The little house in the woods that we bought in 2019 is home. I doubt I’ll ever have a large garden again, but with some of the changes we’ve made in our new home we took the inside out and brought the outside in. It is a place to “age in place.” I continue to weed out the clutter that chokes growth and change. I harvest a few words and look for new growth.
There have been changes since I last lived here, both in the town and to me. But the mountains still heal. I have a home for dreaming and imagining. The years I spent here in the 1990’s prepared me for the move back here without expectations. I’ve come home to a place that is at once new and familiar.
William Stafford’s poems often touch my heart. Here is one of my favorites:
The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
—William Stafford, The Way it Is, New & Selected Poems, Greywolf Press