The Appalachian Mountains were just hills. I was a painfully shy eight-year-old, my brother was a brave fifth grader, and we were fresh from the West, where kids read quickly, we got real snow, and mountains were screaming, sky-scraping shards, not rounded grandmother quilts. Not rolling, take-your-sweet-time Southern accents. Not flurries.
The Eastern White Pines swayed dangerously in humid winds of summer thunderstorms in Hickory, North Carolina, always too close to the house. “Not like the noble Redwoods,” my Dad was quick to point out, of which we had a panoramic poster in the basement. A person was a pebble in the photograph, a t-shirted smear at the base of a leafy three-hundred-and-seventy-nine-foot cathedral. Giant toothpicks I wrote in my diary. I miss Colorado.
Shy from foreignness, the woods in the backyard became my new friends as we moved school districts again. The neighborhood boys who picked cherry tomatoes in the garden and hunted plastic deer for target practice weaved in and out of the pines, where I grew myself up.
“Going out on the trail.” With Mom duly notified, I closed the squeaky screen door behind our golden retriever, Lucky. He bounded down the path, pausing to sniff tree messages and wait for me. Seventy-seven degrees plus ninety percent humidity made the needles and leaves stretch out and grow, blocking the house from view as we crested the hill, though I could still hear Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” on the stereo as my Dad chopped wood near the garage.
It’s not a big hill, I knew. Not comparatively. I chided myself for breathing heavily.
I passed the crossed downed logs that, when I was eight, were as far as I would dare walk alone. The once-furthest reaches of my universe. Where I had sat, knees curled to chin and thinking alternately about ants and friendships, the logs were matted with mosses, inwardly churning warmly, slowly, to soil.
Lucky stood stock still across the field, a poised, patient hunter, until he saw me. Pose broken, tongue lolling out, he galloped back to half circle me and then dove forward into the woods. Last night, I had pretended I didn’t hear when my brother, Jesse, was talking at dinner.
“A car. John and I found a whole car, on the far back trail. It’s all rusting and full of holes.”
I wanted to see the car, but I wanted to find it myself. I followed Lucky—maybe he had been with Jesse and remembered the way—until I saw an impossible angle. A series of pipes? A metal bedspread. Lucky came sniffing back, curious at my curiosity. There was more, hidden under leaf matter: a bucket, a broken kitchen chair, a dozen cans crushed and flung and rusting. Everything old and forgotten.
I came back to the house with a bucket full of trash and a hundred questions, all handed to my parents. Who did it? How could they? A car was one thing—that was a story. But: a broken washer? It’s the woods! How could someone throw trash in the woods?
Somehow this tied to the South in my mind. Never mind that I’d only had manicured, fenced-in yards and never a real natural area to play in as a younger child in Colorado, in California. These woods had given adventures and kept my secrets. And they had been disrespected. Since they were in the South, the South was to blame, generally. Hauling out old, years-forgotten trash became an excuse to spend more time wandering farther back along the trails.
After a decade we were still in Hickory, begrudgingly, and my offhand sketches were of impossibly sharp, peaked mountains. But when I took time, bought fresh canvas, washed my brushes, and laid out my paints, the quiet canopied hills rolled, cradling Carolina blue skies.
My brother and father still took their yearly summer backpacking trips in those real Western mountains: the Gilas, the Rockies, the Tetons. That first autumn, though, the flush of thick colors in the rusty Appalachian chestnut oaks and sweet black birches brought us out along the Blue Ridge. Every autumn after, too, after the end of summer blackberries and Muscadine wine.
At 22, Jesse, my brother, went to indie-music-capital-of-the-world, Austin. But he slips East in interims. The rhythms his guitar creates remember North Carolina sometimes. Overpopulations of white-tailed deer flipping through wind-raked white pines seep into corners of his albums, into songs like, “Are You Still Lost in the Pines?” The small town south of sprawling Durham where he spent a year or more, New Hill, became the name of his band.
Teenage me never embraced a damn bit of the South. I was proudly “not from here,” eager to be associated with “elsewhere,” thrilled at my assignment to Central America for Peace Corps. But at 23, I jumped at a job working along the Appalachian Trail, steeping for days in steaming Virginia’s Julys and bone-chilling rain of Maine’s Septembers. I hauled out forgotten plastic bottles, wrappers, wind-blown bags—with all resentment faded into an understanding of history, of a thousand other people wandering the same trails, of struggles to share the land. I never knew I could feel the same love for a trail that I do for close friends and family.
The week before starting my new job, my brother and I went for a walk beyond his backyard in New Hill, North Carolina. Treadway of soft needles, green brier pulling at boot strings, chatting about trail running and albums. We found the road, which died suddenly at Jordan Lake. We were quiet then. Beyond the green tunnel of trees, the still water skated away quietly below the roar of cicadas, reflecting tiny burning fireflies.
“Are You Still Lost in the Pines? (Yes)”
by Jesse Wooten’s band, New Hill.
You can also listen to the rest of their album, “Tracks.”
Nicole Wooten is sorting out the life logistics of a conservationist who’s in love with the mountains of the West and the forests of the Southeast. Email her with advice at email@example.com.
Jesse Wooten: woods folk coffee enthusiast with his bicycle in Texas and his heart in North Carolina.