Human Connection in Appalachia

On my last hitch of the season, my colleagues and I were caught in a severe storm that prevented us from hiking seven miles into our basecamp. To be hiking in those conditions, with nine-days’ worth of provisions and trail tools strapped in our packs, would have been a lost fight, especially given the rugged terrain that led towards our destination.

We decided to seek shelter. Pulling up our rig at multiple dispersed campgrounds (which do not charge a fee for 14 days of stay), we soon conceded that all of those sites were flooded, with the potential to be even more flooded by nighttime. As a last resort, we pulled up at the Horsecove campground, a Forest Service governed site for which our funding did not cover for us to stay. During a past front country hitch, we had used their water spicket to resupply our water reserve, so we were familiar with the area.

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[Figure 1. Creek level rise in the area due to several hours of rain and thunderstorm]

Upon hearing our situation, John and Elizabeth, the campground hosts, empathised with our misfortune and allowed us to pitch our tents for the night- free of charge- so that we could wait out the storm. They were so kind that they invited us over to their camper, where they and their four kids huddled by the fire with us and offered us coffee. My colleagues and I spent this opportunity to dry what felt like perpetually moist rain gear, to seek warmth, and to be uplifted by their hospitality despite our adversity.

The storm had not ceased the following evening and my colleague Caleb and I were getting prepared to cook dinner for the crew. John hollered at us from a distance, and invited us over for dinner. Pointing at his well-fed belly, he jovially assured us that Elizabeth is a fantastic cook for him and the kids, and that she is cooking some chicken and dumplings for all of us. Besides, he said, we ought to save our food for when we get back out into the wilderness.

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[Figure 2. My Colleagues and the kids enjoying the Chicken and Dumplings by the dinner table] 

Spending the evening with the camp host family was a personal revelation on numerous levels. For one, being around these children made me reminiscent of my days of childhood not so long ago: those long, hot summer days  when I had no other obligation than to eat my greens and to behave well at home. As I grew up in a metropolis, I could not ever visualise my younger self as one of these kids, who have been living out here in the woods, cut off from the amenities of urban life, to live 24-hours-a-day in nature’s playground. By looking at their calves, embellished by clear remnants of previous attacks by various bugs of the forest – No-see-ums/ midges, mosquitos, paper wasps, etc.-  I could easily infer the unconventional lifestyle and upbringing they have had so far, out here in the woods. While the forest may certainly teach you discipline and life values, I thought, they are young kids, after all, who were evidently living a life far different than that of their peers. Since the family had accepted their position as campground hosts, they had been homeschooled by John and Elizabeth, and spent most of their time fishing for trout at the creek, riding rusty bicycles down the hill, and hanging out with other kids from families who would come to the campground after a days hike in Joyce Kilmer. Seeing these kids, so happy to be where they are, instantly brought a smile upon my face.

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[Figure 3. Riley, Josiah, and Sophia gathered around the dinner table]

As the sun disappeared and darkness dominated the landscape, my colleagues, the family, and I sat by the dinner table and continued to talk the night away. John and Elizabeth were curious of the work that we do out there, where we all come from, and what led us to the field of environmental stewardship. With each of us taking turns, they became more and more engaged in the dialogue, and shared with us who they were. John was born and raised in the Piedmont region- Central North Carolina, and moved to Robbinsville to work as a carpenter for a family in Robbinsville- the closest town to the wilderness that I work in, Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness of Nantahala National Forest. Meanwhile, Elizabeth has always been living in this region- she grew up in Snowbird, a Cherokee Native American community, just situated in the surrounding mountains of Joyce-Kilmer. The two of them had met on an online platform called Myspace (while the crew immediately recognised it, I had only a faint idea of what it was. After all, I am the youngest person of this six-person crew, being 16 years apart from the oldest crew member. It must have been a thing when I was a toddler or younger, or that I have been living under a rock). Remarkably, but not surprisingly, the two of them moved back here upon their marriage, given that this land is where their heritage lies.

Now, as a relative outsider of the United States, and unfamiliar with the history of its people, I do not have extensive knowledge of the Cherokee tribe, nor the strife that characterized their fall during the arrival of Columbus. My intention of this blog entry is not to comment on politics, but instead to remark on the beauty of the human experience; here we were, with all having come from a variety of backgrounds, gregariously sharing a hot meal with company whom had only been strangers merely 24 hours ago. My colleagues and I were inspired by their kindness and hospitality; John and Elizabeth appreciated our presence, later telling us that we are the kind of people they want their kids to grow up around.

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[Figure 4. One of the children, Sophia, got each of us to draw our names on the front page of her colouring book.] 

One thing that I have been most appreciative for these past 12 weeks is the people that I have been fortunate to meet. My Wilderness Ranger friend David Finnan once said to me, ‘the South suits your personality’, and I could not agree with him more: the southern hospitality is a beautiful trait of the American South, and I have been spoiled with it daily and reflect upon it every day with gratitude. And I write this as I sit rested in my friend Rene’s home in Lake Toxaway, with the presence of her and Peanut, her nine-year old Pomeranian-Chihuahua (I met Rene through a training program called the Wilderness Skills Institute up at the Cradle of Forestry in Pisgah Forest, where she and I buddied up for tool maintenance).

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[Figure 5. Rene’s best friend Peanut, slowly dozing off as I type this entry.]

While school starts back up on the 29thof this month, I made a promise to John, Elizabeth, and the kids to come back up and visit them. I made sure to stop by their home when I left Joyce Kilmer and, before leaving for good, Sophia asked me to stay with them for longer next time. Besides, I am already missing my colleagues, and I am planning on returning to Nantahala in the near future to holler at my trail crew. Till then, I will spend time recuperating from my recent heel injury, and hopefully continue to explore this beautiful region before making the long drive down to Georgia.

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[Figure 6. My new Cherokee family!]

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