High Points

March 27, 2023

The wrecked bus and railroad car from the hit 1993 movie, “The Fugitive,” lie along the Tuckasegee River in Sylva, in Jackson County, North Carolina. The train-bus crash scene, the sequence of Dr. Richard Kimball (Harrison Ford) sneaking into the hospital, and the following scene of Kimball walking along railroad tracks into a tunnel were filmed near Sylva.

The bus and car are visible (you can’t actually approach them) just outside town near the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad track. The scene passes for a tourist attraction in these parts.

Lots of movies have been made, entirely or in part, in North Carolina, among them “Last of the Mohicans,” “Dirty Dancing,” and “Cold Mountain.” In nearly all of them the state’s mountains and forests really are the stars. Sylva is one of the outposts of this hard country along a scrubby state road, U.S. 23/74, on the underside of I-40. We came for the fourth time to the stretch of dark mountains that ring Sylva for the “Assault on Black Rock,” the 3,000-foot climb to the summit of Black Rock Knob.

Mountains change the country starting just east of Waynesville. The forest is denser and darker, the distances longer between the worn, ramshackle buildings, one-story houses, trailers, and small industrial businesses, the turns in the highway sharper. In March it’s still cold, a sharp, biting cold, often with snow or frigid rain.

Sylva, about 50 miles west of Asheville, is a busy little factory town. It has its two highway exits, its gas stations and fast-food joints, its Walmart Supercenter. But the locals have worked hard to give it some attractiveness for out-of-towners, cute restaurants, shops, and breweries, most crammed along a four-block stretch of Main Street. Still, when you drive into downtown on West Main you face Jackson Paper Manufacturing, which belches thick clouds of white smoke that on an overcast day hang in the air like an approaching thunderstorm. Not what tourists want to see.

Main intersects with Keener Street, which offers a view of the public library, a graceful, domed structure that once was the courthouse. That’s about it. Western North Carolina has a few such places. They start around Black Mountain, just east of Asheville and continue to Waynesville, which calls itself the “Gateway to the Smokies,” then stretch further west to Bryson City, the eastern access point for the national park.

I quit taking the “assault” too seriously last year, my second go-round. The field gathered was the usual mix of young greyhounds, middle-aged middle-of-the packers, and a few skinny-legged codgers wearing thick jackets. We milled around, stamping our feet in the cold until the starter yelled “Go!” The field strung out quickly, sailing up over the granite carpet. The trail dragged us up, simply up. My lungs heaved.

The course is a fire road that winds higher for three miles of rocks, then levels off for a quarter-mile. It then turns sharply north into a single-track trail through junglelike thickets for a third of mile over twisted limbs, vines, culverts, blowdowns, and roots as thick as logs. A couple of volunteers stood next to an ATV at the base of the single-track, stomping and flapping their arms, their faces wrapped in wool.

I staggered up, gasping as the 5,000-foot chill penetrated my three thermal layers. At the top the jungle becomes a grassy patch shaded by the massive rock of the summit. The trail snakes sharply and crosses the frozen mud to a rock cave just below the summit. The wind howled. Foot-long icicles hung from the rock mass. At the top I felt for just a moment the weak warmth of the pale sun. Then it was down, down, for the headlong descent.

An old friend came to these parts to write a book. She got her inspiration from the old Cherokee trails and the stories of the stalwart people who came to this rough country and fought Indian wars. These places, hemmed in by the sharp ridges, Sylva, Waynesville, Maggie Valley, Cherokee, Dillsboro, Clyde, Canton, never grew much, the jobs were and are mainly in Asheville or maybe Bryson City. West Carolina University is in Cullowhee, south of Sylva. A tourist mountain-fall foliage train runs through in season.

Beyond Bryson City U.S. 74 plunges further into near-empty country then passes through Murphy, near the Georgia state line. The road turns due west but intersects with 60 and 19, which eventually are swallowed by the vast Chattahoochee National Forest. You can tack past the Devil’s Spine to Blairsville, Ga., or further south to Ellijay. You may pass by Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

This is Deep South backcountry, mountains, rivers, spectacular beauty, strange names, towns like islands in an ocean of wilderness. Ellijay, both cute and thick with forest, is just two hours from the maw of Atlanta’s northern suburbs.    

We may as well have a place to go as the months speed by, a place two or three hours from home, a kind of virgin place that still is new, a place not heavy with memories. Asheville is the beacon, the glitzy, exotic, offbeat little city in the hills with the lovely resort hotel built from rocks, the graceful cathedral, and in recent years the folks worried about climate change.

The Black Rock junket was a bit worse for me this year, and, if I show up next year will be worse still. More important things are at stake: the awakening to good but rare things, the sublime, bracing mountain chill, the overwhelming rockiness, the loneliness of deep woods, the dark, mystical remoteness that somehow offers a glimpse of eternity, and raises spirits, for me, for anyone.


The Cloister

March 20, 2023

The Monastery of St. Clare is tucked away on a rural road near Traveler’s Rest, S.C., maybe 20 miles from Greenville. The route breaks away from a busy state road, a couple of westbound turns wind through rolling pastures and meadows, then thick woodland. The farms seem larger, then fewer, then disappear. Around a long turn the monastery sits on a high hill opposite a nature preserve.  A simple sign identifies it.

Here in Greenville County we have a church on nearly every corner. Two Baptist churches are within a mile of our street, fitted with giant steeples. Nearby is a massive “Praise Cathedral.” Other Christian churches, both mainline Protestant and fundamentalist, stand along every thoroughfare. The Catholics have about a half-dozen parishes. The Mormons are on the west side. Then too, we have non-Christians: an Islamic Center, a Jehovah’s Witness meeting place. Greenville has two synagogues.

W.J. Cash in The Mind of the South noted that “The South, men said and did not doubt, was peculiarly Christian; probably, indeed, it was the last great bulwark of Christianity.” From Southern pulpits, he wrote, “ran the dark suggestion that the God of the Yankee was not God at all but Antichrist loosed from the pit.” When he wrote that in 1941 he was alluding to Southern fury at Northern abolitionists. Now, generations after Reconstruction, the ages-old Southern preoccupation with the life of the spirit, whatever its political origins, enables all shades of faith in these parts.

St. Clare, born Chiara Offreduccio in 1194, grew up in a wealthy household in the Italian city of Assisi, where as a girl she often heard Francis of Assisi preach. When she turned 18 she resolved to follow Francis, rebelling against her father. She cut her hair and fled to a Benedictine convent. Her sister Catarina and other women joined her and dedicated themselves to a life of prayer and devotion to St. Francis. When her father died her mother also joined her group. They didn’t wear shoes or eat meat, and lived in contemplative silence.

In 1253 Pope Innocent IV declared the group would be called the Order of Poor Ladies. Clare died two days later at 59. In 1255 she was canonized St. Clare. In 1263 the order became the Order of St. Clare, devoted to Francis of Assisi’s mission of poverty, prayer, and service. The order has established some 900 monasteries in 70 countries, numbering about 17,000 women. The world is filled with places named for Clare, e.g., Santa Clara, Calif., and, with altered spelling the St. Clair River, St. Clair County, Michigan, among others.

Every monastery is independent, led by its own abbess. All follow the rule of St. Clare, based on the life and teaching of St. Francis. In the U.S. three other separate expressions of the order support monasteries: the Collettines, the Capuchin Poor Clares, and the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration.

We drove up the steep driveway. The grounds around the one-level building looked deserted. The front entrance was locked. We knocked and looked around. A woman finally opened and motioned us inside. “Here’s the chapel,” she whispered with a smile. “I’m Joanie. Stay as long as you like.” The chapel was gracefully designed to the oval lines of the building, austerely furnished, with a low table serving as an altar.

We talked a bit. Joanie said the nuns are cloistered, true to the order’s mission. Their lives are devoted to prayer. They conduct retreats at a retreat house on the grounds, provide spiritual counseling, and maintain a garden behind the main building.

The Traveler’s Rest site is one of 33 St. Clare monasteries in the U.S. The cornerstone shows the nuns came to the area in 1955, the monastery was completed in 2008. Mass is offered each weekday morning. The priests who come are those with the time to spare. The Saturday afternoon Mass, Joanie said, brings a crowd.

I attended St. Anselm College, run by the Benedictine monastic order. During freshman year, with a couple of classmates, I spent a weekend in the monastery. I slept in a tiny room and followed the monks’ schedule of prayer at 6:00 AM, silent reading and meditation, and Compline (evening prayer).  Meals were silent, the monks seated together at a long table, one read aloud from some spiritual volume.

At the time the country was enduring the bloodbath of Vietnam, the cataclysm of civil rights activism, deep alienation of young people, and vast political transformation. Yet through the weekend the tangible message of the monastic life was the undeniable nearness of God, not within the walls of the monastery but for all of human existence.   

Thomas Merton, born in 1915 and raised by an Anglican father and Quaker mother, a gifted scholar, linguist, and writer, seemed destined for fame and fortune in New York’s publishing world. In 1938 a Hindu monk urged him to read St. Augustine’s Confessions and Thomas a Kempis’s Imitations of Christ.

In 1941 Merton visited the monastery of the Cistercian Order in Gethsemani, Kentucky (also called Trappists) and breathed the strong silent air of contemplation. The trip transformed his life. In 1942 he joined the Order and in following years, until his death in 1968, wrote 50 books on spirituality, pacificism, and social justice. His memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain, has been translated into 15 languages. The original hardcover sold 600,000 copies. Merton taught untold millions the gift of his vocation, the sublime beauty and power of faith.

We walked the St. Clare grounds for a short while. We saw no one, but knew the nuns were about the place, engaged in their assigned tasks for the benefit of their community and for those who wander by.

I returned for the morning Mass a few days later. The 15 or 20 nuns, in their tan robes secured by rough cord, sang beautifully. Afterward they smiled quietly then disappeared. A few other pilgrims showed up. We felt in the quiet dynamism of that place of peace and contemplation the presence of God, the vocation of this small group of women, which brings spiritual gifts for visitors, and for mankind.


March 13, 2023

It was around 6:00 P.M., the sunlight was fading. The batter crouched, awaiting the pitch. It was outside. He swung at the second one, which was high and again outside. The third was in the dirt. He swung at the next one and connected with the dull clunk! of a metal bat on ball. It bounced sharply past the pitcher and through the infield. A runner on first advanced to second then to third as the center fielder chased the ball to the fence.

Fourteen nine- and ten-year-old boys showed up for practice. They didn’t have uniforms, those would come next month when the season started. This was their second practice together. Drills started in the infield, the coach tapping ground balls. Three boys took turns at each base, a couple at shortstop and between first and second, and one caught throws back to the coach.

This was Country Club Road park, a complex of kids’ baseball and soccer fields off Country Club Road on the fringes of the city. With some effort, the kids’ parents had found the place for the first practice. They sat on the uncomfortable metal bleachers along the third-base line, hunched forward, arms folded against the early evening chill.

The boys started practice horsing around, the coach got them focused. Most fielded the grounders cleanly, more or less, some were muffed or rolled to the outfield. The boy at third who caught the ball threw to the fielder at second, who pivoted and threw to first. Some of the throws were sharp, most were high, looping tosses that didn’t quite get there. These were nine-year-olds, after all, this was their introduction to baseball.

The coach was alone. I guessed he had an assistant who didn’t show up or was alternating with the coach at the twice-weekly practices. Maybe the guy leading the practice was the assistant. He called the players’ names as he knocked the balls toward them and, pointing with the bat, motioned them around their positions.

The kids all had gloves, cleats, batter’s helmets, and metal bats. I recalled faintly that kids in my hometown Little League decades ago wore sneakers, the league provided the helmets and the bats, which were wood. Now the boys are expected to be fully equipped. I wondered what ten-year-olds’ baseball cleats cost. Part of the investment, I guessed. Meanwhile, I’ve noticed on TV that many major league ballplayers are wearing ordinary running shoes.

The sunlight lasted after 6:00, highlighting the deep green of the outfield and the forest beyond the chain-link fence that enclosed the field. The boys playing outfield shaded their eyes with their hands, although several wore caps. The shadows slowly extended out from the infield. Around 6:30 someone switched on the field lights. The boys paid attention. They caught more ground balls, their throws were more accurate. The coach waved his bat like a baton, a conductor in front of his orchestra, moving them to one position, then another.

The parents in the bleachers, mostly moms, watched their sons engaged in the boys’ baseball ritual, chatting a bit about kids and sports. Kids and sports, I’m guessing, now is almost a compound noun. What kids aren’t in something? Soccer—in the fall more than a thousand boys and girls from ages four to 14 play on teams at our local YMCA. The basketball league, in season, has games every weekday evening and all day Saturday. Then football, gymnastics, swimming, softball, tennis. Then the newcomers, hockey, taekwondo, judo, golf. Kids’ sports cost money, the sign-up fees and the gear, the gloves, bats, rackets, shoes, helmets, the hockey sticks, helmets, pads. I’m leaving some things out.

One mother talked about kids’ football in her home town in Alabama. The coaches, she said, made the boys run until some of them threw up. “It’s awful,” she said. “and some of those kids are massive. At least here they play flag football.”

So it’s not all fun and games. I recall some of the fall soccer games, when a few parents shrieked at their kids and at the refs. Some of them, standing on the sidelines as their kids run around the field or sit on the bench, are replaying their own imaginary stardom.

But then the kids are having fun, most of them. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the boys (maybe the percentage is higher than that) we were watching won’t become major league ballplayers. “He’s not going to be the next Sammy Sosa [or other big-league star]. If he’s just an accountant, I’ll be happy,” the mom from Alabama said.

But then there’s the dream. Of these kids running around, throwing, catching, swinging at pitches over their heads or bouncing in front of the plate, some will return to play next year, their skills a bit more advanced. Then maybe the middle-school team. Then high school, where they face the prospect of not making the team, for some, their first real disappointment in life. Do they give up and get back to their schoolwork—or do they practice harder? They’ll hear the stories of high-school players who got to the minor leagues then were called up to the majors and became stars.

Still, as we shifted our positions on those hard-as-rock bleachers, feeling the evening weather close in, the parents relaxed in the moment. Except for the voices of the kids and the whack of the bats against balls, the place was mainly silent, peaceful, almost. Most of the pitches by the boy taking his turn on the mound went over the catcher’s head or through his legs to the backstop, as the batters swung wildly.

A few parents checked their watches. It was after seven, a school night. Some of these boys probably still had homework, most had not yet had dinner, then would need a bath before bed. They were elementary-schoolers, after all. But for that 90 minutes at that ballfield on the far outskirts of town, the world retreated a bit. For the kids, the tests and homework, the bells starting class, the lines in the lunchroom, were replaced by fun outdoors in late-day sunshine.

For the parents, too, practice was a few moments of light-hearted pleasure that suspended the daily parenting drill, the chores, the commuting, the bills, the job—the rest of life. It was, or it seemed, in this corner of this southeastern state, a bit of the “Boys of Summer” when, in their memories, on a warm, sun-drenched afternoon at some big ballpark, the shirt-sleeved crowd roared as their star homered, driving in runs, circling the bases. It’s baseball

The Bay

March 6, 2023

The Belmont Bay community begins maybe a mile beyond a left-hand turn off Dawson Beach Road, a gritty commercial street in Woodbridge, east of U.S. 1 and the Virginia Railway Express depot. The place is more or less isolated from the auto repair shops and tiny bungalows of the Dawson Beach neighborhood by fields and scrub woods.

Ten days ago we sat on a bench and stared out past the marina and across the water. It was mid-afternoon, near 80F, the sky a hazy August blue. The sunlight shimmered on the glass-calm bay. A mile across the water, on a deep-green neck of land, two enormous homes perched near the shore. Beyond the row of sleek schooners, their sails tied and tucked, a couple of yachts tacked to the Potomac. I recalled my mother’s advice when I was a kid: “If you ever have money, buy a boat.”

Belmont Bay is a golf/waterfront/retirement village of giant single-family homes, townhomes, and condominiums, designed to mimic West End London or Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown. Apart from the golf course only a few near-invisible businesses, a doctor’s office, a yoga studio, that sort of thing, are allowed.

A few cars eased past the Harbor View East and Harbor View West condo towers. A half-dozen older folks strolled near our bench. The quiet seemed to create an eerie, almost surreal distance from the droning traffic warfare and the staccato workplace pace of the Washington Beltway.

This Northern Virginia trip had a point. Friends and the Massanutten Mountains are still there. In northwestern South Carolina, five hundred miles south, we packed and left at dawn.  

We glided past Mount Mitchell, the tallest peak east of the Mississippi, in the shadows of the eastern Great Smokies, to Erwin, Tennessee. The Choo-Choo Café had closed. Instead we got breakfast at the Dari-Ace off the Erwin exit, beneath the mountains ten miles south of Johnson City. We sat with seven local men at a U-shaped counter. The conversation hinted at driving trucks for TVA or local utilities, technical talk mixed with chitchat. TVA has a lot going on in East Tennessee. The bacon sizzled on the fryer. We finished our eggs and hit the road.

It was I-26 to I-81 to I-64 to Charlottesville. I missed the exit by seven miles. We backtracked then chugged through the local rush hour. Two hours later we reached the Lake Ridge cascade of subdivisions in Woodbridge in eastern Prince William County. The local streets still were choked.

It was a moment of strange events, the dueling Putin-Biden speeches, Biden’s incandescent visit to Kyiv four days before the war’s one-year mark. With Zelensky he walked ancient streets that now are missile targets.

We made it to our old church for the evening Ash Wednesday Mass. Downstairs, the bare sheetrock, the paint dust, the construction tape of the latest renovation signaled the obliteration of the place we knew. We looked around the once-again spruced-up church, full of strangers. It had been two years. I guessed everyone our age had followed us out of town.

The priest spoke about people who—he said—say they don’t want to act like the hypocrites who go to church. “I see a lot of hypocrites out there,” he said. “At least you’re showing up, making the effort.” The faces around me looked puzzled. It was a tortured point. I couldn’t recognize the hypocrites. We left early.

The memories were faint and a bit sad, summoning Thomas Wolfe’s moodiness when he picked the name for You Can’t Go Home Again, complied from the millions of words he left his publisher when he died at 38. So much the same, so much different, in clumsy, awkward ways.

We had visited Belmont Bay a couple of times years ago and once walked through a condo for sale. The pseudo-old-world architecture hinted at the idea of a soft landing near water, away from the Woodbridge dreck. “Upscale” was the word that we thought would spiffy up our lowbrow tastes. We knew we were not a fit. I never did buy the boat.

Looking out over the still water, the attraction of the place and others restricted by membership covenants or net worth dawned on us. What some old folks and eccentric younger ones want from this is a hideout within the fantasy of not being bothered. The wide stretch of water, not especially pretty, the gigantic brick and concrete structures, the narrow one-way streets between the retirement towers whisper, “This place is for well-off recluses.”

We learned that a good man passed last Saturday evening. Ed Kelleher, for 32 years an editor for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, was a much-loved newspaperman who had a half-dozen years on me. “He deeply cared about people,” said one of his colleagues. “His kindness and empathy were at the core of what made him a great journalist and co-worker.” He lived and wrote his stories in his hometown, close to people he loved.

We brought home new wisdom: no hiding out in fake places. The passing of a compassionate man and the tolling rush of time sharpens understanding: hold those you love close wherever you find adventure in existence, what you have left. The rough-edged neighborhood we left was a sensible place for a long time but whatever the landing place, discovery, passion, goodness still are possible to the end.

We unpacked. I walked out the kitchen door and looked at the yard. It was early evening, the sun was starting to sink beyond the roofs of neighbors’ homes. Nothing had changed: lawn furniture blown over in a storm, weeds spreading bright and green, a chunk of the back fence broken. I went back inside. Here, we’ll go on.