Most of you know that ten years ago I decided to simplify my life and move up into the Great Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina. I moved from several different places until I found this particular mountain with its peaceful view of the valley below and the sparsely strewed houses of the neighbors, all either lower or higher on this difficult grade. With that as a foreword, very few people know exactly where I live and for the point of this anecdote, that is probably a good thing.
Each year hundreds of thousands of people flock to this area to enjoy cool summer breezes, swoon at the beautiful scenery, and indulge in the folksy history, art, music, dining, hiking, and golf. But very few tourists or “leafers” ever wander past the well-groomed landscapes of the parks and attractions, almost no one dares to turn off the safety of the pavement onto roads that seem impassible to their cherished automobiles, and few if any, ever meander deep enough into the woods or high enough on the ridges to discover where the real mountain people still live. It is in these environs that I choose to make my home. From the county road at the foot of mountain, the first obstacle you encounter when exploring the ingress to my home, is the need to drive across a running creek of mountain-fresh water. The pioneers who first settled this peak decided to build a stream-crossing rather than to bury a culvert and divert the water under the road. I appreciate their decision; it keeps the looky-loos off of the one-lane road that is the only access to our houses.
When I first came to this place, I met a couple of neighbors from the mountain that were like me, relocated flat-landers in search of a different lifestyle, but in honesty, there are many families above me that are determined to keep their privacy. With these hill people, the most interaction you could expect is a wave of appreciation when one or the other of us has to pull over onto a flat spot to let the other one go by heading up or down the mountain. Now you might think these standoffish neighbors are waiting for me or another barely abided invader to make the first move with some modest basket of food and spirits delivered to their door with a heartfelt hello. I would beg to differ; these people guard their privacy with fervor. Many of these mountains are still populated with families that have homesteaded here for hundreds of years keeping to the same piece of land. They are a people and a culture unto themselves, and many still harbor deep resentment to those who built the Fontana Dam and flooded thousands of acres of ancestral lands, or those who decided that the Great Smoky Mountains need to be preserved for all Americans to enjoy and confiscated generational lands, historic churches and meeting places, forced the evacuation of working farms, and prohibited access to their subsistence hunting grounds and fishing holes, all so that a few hikers and car-bound tourists can come and enjoy the relics and ruins of a once peaceful and secluded community.
There are a dozen or so names that claim ownership to vast tracts of land in these mountains; family names that can be traced back to the original land patents and down through deeds that have been divided and subdivided through the ages. Some of these names have overflowed into the businesses of the towns and villages, to the plaques on the bank teller’s windows or the employee of the month wall at the local grocery. Some descendants have chosen to join the growing community of outsiders that have populated their once isolated hamlets, but others have taken deliberate steps to isolate themselves even further from the prying eyes of modern society. The once commercialized fascination of these backwoodsmen in the movies (locally set Cold Mountain, Nell and Deliverance) has turned to some impressive documentary style exploitations of television in Hillbilly Blood, Mountain Monsters, Moonshiners, Mountain Men, and Appalachian Outlaws. I am quite familiar with all of these filmed locations and in a few incidences, a couple of the actual characters. But still, there is danger in the hills when trespassing where you don’t belong. It is an almost a daily occurrence to be sitting outside and hear the sounds of firearms being discharged. Sometimes it is hunters in search of supper, often it is merely target practice, in the weeks before hunting season, it is the “sighting in” of their long rifles, but frequently, as evidenced by the rapid barrage and eclectic mixture of caliber rounds, it is nothing more than backwoods fun with a not-so-subtle implication. Bottom line, I keep to myself.
Shortly after I moved in here, I met the son of the builder who came up from Florida to build this house. The man asked me if I had ever been to the top of the mountain; I hadn’t. He told me a colorful tale of a four-wheeler expedition on some trails near the ridgeline and locating the headwaters of our Hide-Away Creek. He told me the terrain was steep, dense and difficult to maneuver, but that it would be worth my time if I ever get a four-wheeler (a desperate desire of mine).
All that I have written here is the preface to these next few words:
On a relatively temperate night recently, my nurse-maid/friend, who’s been helping me recover from my recent infirmities, and I were sitting on the deck that faces west. She shushed me sharply and whispered, “Listen!” From the high regions just to the north of my house came the unmistakable sounds of clinking mason jars. We had no outside lights on so we sidled to the edge of the porch to watch and listen. In the woods, no more than a half-mile from me and about 1,000 feet higher on the hill, were lantern lights in an area where no house stands. We silently listened as bottle after bottle was filled and stowed until at last the industrious night-workers extinguished their lanterns and the mountain again became dark and deserted.
We traded jokes about hiking up to buy some fresh moonshine, but jokes were all they were. I know where to safely purchase White Lightning, both the legal kind and the untaxed local kind; I don’t think traipsing off onto a foreboding wooded hillside is a good way to procure a little hooch. Even if I were able to locate their burner, mash pot, thumper and worm, I doubt I would’ve survived long enough to consummate my intended commerce.
Old-timey mountain life still exists in these backwoods, and sometimes it is just up the road. People around here still miss and mourn for the country’s most famous moonshiner, Popcorn Sutton. He lived and worked his stills no more than a fifteen minute drive from where I live. Because of the ample availability, I know there are dozens, perhaps even hundreds of illegal stills operating within a few miles of my house. I wouldn’t want to mess with any of them, but it is oddly comforting to know that the indigenous Appalachian culture has not been usurped by the heavy hands of government regulations or the incursive onslaught of the outside society.
Mason jars clinking in the night, well that is just one more reason I love living in the Smokys.