Climbing the Smokies: Taking my mother back home

I went home the other day to a place I’d never been, up a mountain, in the rain, ducking under rhododendron overgrowth, off the trail, following the Juneywhank branch, in what is now the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. When our people arrived there, in 1915, it was just land that my grandparents had managed to buy. They traveled there over five days, in a wagon, in the mountains, the older children walking, in the snow, in February.

How they got up there with the wagon seems a mystery, since I barely got up with my walking stick and two feet. One story has my grandfather whacking two paths through the ice, one for each wheel, to get through a tough patch. My grandmother, pregnant with my mother, got to ride in the wagon. They made it before the end of the month.

In April, two and a half year-old Hattie died, another mystery that it is too late to solve. Was it the arduous trip, a flu, something else? We don’t know. The following September, my mother arrived, the seventh of the nine children who would be born to Joseph and Minnie.

We climbed up, a troop of ten, led by my cousin Don, who knows the mountains like his own name, and spends his spare time searching out home places throughout the mountains with his research partner Wendy, who came along too. His brother Jim, a retired professor who travels the world as an outdoor writer, was just as capable. Don led us up for a good two hours, with periodic pauses for stories and tales about the park, the family, habits and hardships of the time.

The older kids would travel the two miles down and up every day to go to school. The family lived off what they could raise – crops, cows, pigs. There was no outhouse – you just chose your spot and went ahead. They stayed five years, long enough for the next child to be born, then sold the place to another family and moved down closer to Deep Creek, and an easier life, altitude-wise at least.  Could they have guessed that 99 years later we would have been coming to pay tribute?

We reached a relatively flat expanse, ringed by walnut and other trees that were not there until much later. We were at the homeplace. Don goes there several times a year, his son Joshua and others often accompany him, and Jim is no stranger to the place either. Don’s wife Susan comes if it is not snake season.

We hear that our Uncle Hall once tried to find it, but took a wrong turn and didn’t make it. My mother and two sisters tried themselves and were befuddled – it was so steep, they said, that it couldn’t have been the right place. They turned back.

Which was partly the point – my cousins allowed me and my children (and good-sport husband) to complete the circle. I carried her ashes up in my backpack in a little blue cardboard box, tied with blue ribbon that had been my mom’s. Anything more ornate would not have fit at all. I climbed up above the spring, and found a single bloodroot flower, the plant that Don and Jim’s dad Commodore had always associated with the place.

I drew a circle around that flower with her ashes and told her that I’d brought a little bit of her back home. Behind where the house likely had been – the powers that be in the park burned down all the dwellings years ago – we sat on fallen logs and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and talked.

Finally, we drank several toasts with water from the spring – to our forbearers and their hardscrabble life up here, to our parents, to my cousins, and to family.

It was a lot easier going down, especially once we got through the rhododendron forest, even though the rain had picked up to a steady drench. Our heads were full of stories and hearts full of appreciation for where we came from. Now I can picture the spring, and the bloodroot, and the ashes joining the soil, in the place where my mother began her journey, and smile.


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