Proud Mountain Woman

(This essay was first published in the 2018 issue of Gateways Creative Arts Journal, themed Remembering and Forgetting.)

Not again!” she snapped. Until this moment, it had been a perfect morning. But when she turned on the tap to fill the coffee pot, nothing. Dadgum it! Preparing a hearty breakfast before seeing Braxton off to work was one of the many ways she strove to be the best wife she could possibly be. This thing with the water was getting to be a nuisance. All she asked of the Harwell boy was that he wait just a measly half-hour to divert the water supply to the cattle trough so Brack could get a pre-workday shower and she could fix his breakfast.

Today was one time too many. In a flash of huff, she trounced across the kitchen, slammed the screen door behind her, stomped across the sandy back yard in her pink and blue flowered pajamas, climbed over the barbed wire fence into the neighbors’ pasture, and turned off the cows’ water supply with a sharp wrist twist.

She marched triumphantly back to the kitchen, still mad, but smug. Today there would be coffee.

Who is this woman? What is her story? Her name is Pam Dillard Coates. I know this true life episode because the four-year-old me was in the kitchen when it happened. No doubt, the only reason this long-ago moment stands so clearly in my memory is that such a display of temper and venom was so unlike the quiet, gentle woman I knew as my mother.

That woman would never snap, never slam, and never, ever leave the house in her pajamas.

At the time, our young family of four was living in Mars Bluff, South Carolina, about eight miles east of Florence. My parents rented an old farmhouse from the Harwells who lived next door in what has been described as one of the finest examples of Greek Revival antebellum architecture in South Carolina. Even I knew it was pretty impressive encircled as it was with twenty-two Doric columns (not that I knew to call them that).

By contrast, our small wood frame house stood atop brick pillars, in the way of many houses of its era. The open space under the house was intended to keep things cooler in the hot southern summertime. Perhaps the nearby presence of “The Columns,” as the Harwell home was known, made our little house look shabby to the lady who came calling one day to welcome us to church. Mother did not like the sense she got that this matron felt sorry for us and that she looked down on us. It was a slight Mother never forgot.

But our home wasn’t nearly as pitiful as the two-room unpainted wooden shanty occupied by a tenant-farming couple. I walked across the fields to visit them on occasion. It was a tiny space, even by four-year-old standards. I walked into the small area designated as a kitchen with room for a wooden counter top on one side of the door and an old-fashioned icebox on the other. An open doorway led into the combination living-bedroom. The place was dismally spare. At least our house had electricity—and running water, sometimes.

We lived a couple hundred miles and a world apart from Mother’s hometown in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina. The people of sandy eastern South Carolina thought her mountain accent was quaint. By one means or another, someone was always calling attention to her differentness. She felt out of place, patronized, and she was rightly sensitive to any hint of disdain.

In the mountains, she was in her element. Her family was well-respected. Her parents were leaders in the small community. It was home.

She didn’t realize just how much. Though she was unaware of it, all of Mother’s ancestors had settled the area when it was first opened up via cession by the Cherokee. Every single one of them came to this country no later than the 1700s, some earlier. Like today’s immigrants, they were mostly poor folk who left their home countries in search of a better life. For the most part, they found it.

The Stillwells, Loves, Dillards, and Nortons were some of the first to move to western North Carolina as it opened up for settlement. The rest came not long after. Some made their way from Virginia through eastern Tennessee. A few moved from points further east in North Carolina, and more came from bordering counties in South Carolina and Georgia.

In other words, Mother’s mountain heritage included the very deepest roots among European settlers. And though she is still the sweet, gentle woman I remember from my childhood, I now understand that she is—and has always been—so much more. She shares many of the traits commonly attributed to Southern Highland mountaineers: self-reliance, persistence, and stoicism borne of necessity; reticence, independence, and individualism borne of isolation; and a hefty dose of mountain pride that demands to be treated with dignity.

Today she’s even more proud of her mountain heritage than she was as a twenty-something young mother. So am I.

The Other Side of Snow

In eastern South Carolina where I grew up, about an hour’s drive from Myrtle Beach, a snowfall was a unexpected and exciting gift from Mother Nature. I remember one particularly bountiful snow—enough to build a snowman! That was a true rarity. My brothers and I went all out, rolling three balls of snow, each larger than the one before. We rolled and we rolled. How proud we were to be able to make a huge snow statement.

We rolled the huge bottom section where we wanted to build our snowperson. We rolled the next one over, but when we tried to lift it into place, it didn’t budge. That’s how little we knew about snow. Finally, Dad’s strength and ingenuity solved our conundrum.

Now I live in a place that gets snow most every winter, some years more than others. I enjoy the variation of the seasons, so I welcome snow. Sometimes.

In the right conditions, a snowfall can be breathtakingly beautiful. If the temperature hovers near the freezing mark, the snow is usually heavy and wet, turning every outdoor thing into a pearlescent sculptural wonder.

 

 

Snow paw and snow antlers

 

 

Snow fences

Stopping by woods on a snowy evening

The tiny, dry flakes created by brisker winter temperatures sparkle when the sun comes out as if billions of diamonds fell from the sky.

If the snow is preceded by hoar frost, feathery ice crystals that attach themselves to every outdoor surface, the whole world becomes white—every branch of every tree, every pine needle, every fence post and metal structure, everything. It almost makes my heart ache.

Clothespins on clothesline

Tree with hoar frost against blue sky

Abandoned bed springs

Garden fence

 

Pine branch

 

Even cobwebs are appealing when covered in hoar frost.

 

But snow has another side. The excitement grows old when winter comes early and refuses to leave center stage so colorful spring can make a long-awaited debut. And that’s not all.

When even a modest snow is accompanied by strong winds, as is so often the case on our mountainside, the snow piles into unplowable drifts. We’ve been known to pack snowshoes, a shovel in case we get stuck, and a plastic sled in our car and park at the bottom of our nearly half-mile gravel drive in anticipation of such an event. On more than a few occasions, we’ve slogged up that mountain road pulling a sled full of groceries, bags of pet food and birdseed, book bags, and more.

Sometimes we’ve been caught off guard. Without snowshoes or the shovel that spends most of the winter in the car, walking in can be a real trial, especially in a deep snow where each step means lifting one’s knees waist high or higher with every step. And climbing uphill, at that. Conversely, we’ve been completely snowed in for four or five days at a time. An adventure at first, but gnawing anxieties grow with each day as we begin considering the possibilities of being trapped in the event of an emergency.

And then there’s that dreaded word, ice. At just the right—or wrong—temperature, snow is preceded by rain which freezes on roads. Sometimes the reverse happens and rain or sleet falls after the snow. Walking and driving in either condition is treacherous. Add steep, curvy, and sometimes narrow mountain roads for a bigger thrill than any theme park ride.

 

 

Icicles can be fascinating, though, especially when the wind blows.

In normal times, we may only have one ‘good’ snow a year, and it doesn’t usually hang around long. A day or two later, the sun’s rays melt most of it away. We’ve had a few exceptional years, though. Real doozies.

In 1993, snow totaled more than three feet in just over two days. We were under curfew for forty-eight hours straight. Locals fondly remember it as the Blizzard of ’93 (and yes, it was an actual blizzard). At the time, it was called ‘the storm of the century.’ The National Weather Service named it a superstorm.

The 2009-10 winter brought us more than nine feet of snow—and since temps remained below freezing for the duration, none of it had a chance to melt. For more than three months, the only outdoor colors we saw were white and gray.

Once we could drive around our mountain road,  2010

Snow field

Fifty years earlier, way back in 1960 (well before we lived here), it only snowed seven feet, all of it falling in a just over a month. Every other day it snowed. Temperatures never rose. The winds were fierce. What snowplows cleared one day, howling winds turned into another drift the next. Children missed a month of school; helicopters dropped food, medicine, and cattle feed to isolated rural households.

Now, I know our snow totals are nothing compared to the country’s northernmost areas and tallest peaks. But, hey, I’m in the south. Most folks don’t typically associate such snow totals in the land they think of as all sunshine and beaches.

But don’t feel sorry for us. We mountaineers take a kind of perverse pleasure in our extreme weather. It’s like a badge of honor and we wear it (read: talk about it) all the time, as if we somehow deserve credit for weather’s natural occurrences. We proudly claim our snow.

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Among the trees

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Taking a bite out of snow

Bragging rights

Back in my high school days, when every snowflake sent us running to the windows in gobsmacked awe, we were naively oblivious to snow’s downsides. All we knew was that even a relatively deep snowfall would disappear within hours, the reason we wasted no time getting outside.

During spring break of my senior year, our high school chorus went on tour. We were headed to New York. We spent a night in New York City, the first time most of us had ever seen a skyscraper. Then we traveled upstate to perform. We were excited to see snow on the ground. But what were those humongous ugly mountains of grayish-black, sludgy-looking stuff at nearly every corner? Yeck! Why, I wondered, didn’t these northerners care enough to keep their snow clean and pristine? How could they let it sit around and get so dirty, so totally ruinous to the landscape of purest white?

Now I know.

 

 

Recent snow scene

That Feel Good Moment (Another Kind of Love Story)

We woke up to another glorious snowfall, this one a fluffy six inches deep and preceded by hoar frost that made all outdoors a glittery white. We bundled up in warm layers and snow boots in preparation for a trip to town for a few errands.

On the porch, the Gnome was fumbling with boxes destined for the recycling bin while I was busy locking the door. I turned around to see what looked like an apparition of Amber, one of our beloved pets of yore.

The dog was beguiling with her golden plume of a tail wagging in youthful enthusiasm. Where had she come from? We live far from a public road. How long had she been out? She must be hungry and cold.

For a moment we thought we’d once again been adopted. But she was wearing a harness. She must have been with her humans recently. Surely she hadn’t been abandoned by the side of the road.

As the Gnome held tightly to her harness, he felt for a tag. Appropriately, it read, “Not all who wander are lost, but I might be.” There was a phone number. I was already digging for my cell phone.

“Hello,” the male voice answered.

“Hi, we have a dog here whose tag has this phone number attached.”

I could hear deep worry quickly replaced by relief as he told me he and his wife were out looking for her at that very moment. We exchanged information; they were less than half a mile away. I told him we’d pile her in the car and meet them in a few minutes.

But they weren’t about to hang around waiting. Before we got to the road, we saw them hiking up the mountain on our very long, climbing, gravel road. Red-faced, wet-haired, and with tears rolling down their cheeks, they hugged each other, they hugged the dog, they hugged the Gnome. (I’m sure they would have hugged me, too, but I was still buckled up in the car at the moment.)

Turns out this young couple had been out on a romp with their barely one-year-old pup. They’d practiced letting her off leash at home for a few weeks with no problems and decided today, on the remote path they were hiking, would be a good time to try it further afield. But they turned away for a mere second. That was all it took for her to disappear. Probably spotted a rabbit or maybe a deer.

They’d been searching for a couple of hours, climbing ever higher in the deepening snow—exhausted, worried, with no idea if they were going in the right direction, and about to give up when the phone rang. In the few minutes she’d been in our custody, we’d already fallen a little in love with the dog, but our infatuation couldn’t hold a candle to the adoration this young couple showed for their furbaby.

Even though they insisted they could walk, we couldn’t let them trek another half mile home. They were on a natural high but obviously overheated and exhausted. We piled the humans in the car, too, with the dog safely ensconced between them.

After we dropped them off, I realized how full my heart was. I looked at the Gnome and said, “Doesn’t it feel good to do a good deed!” We had smiles on our faces, smiles in our hearts, and livelier springs in our steps the rest of the day.

Have you found your good deed for today? This day devoted to love is the perfect time to reach out. You’ll be glad you did.

Selecting the Airbnb that’s Right for You

(Read this to see why I like traveling with Airbnb.)

If you’ve wondered about Airbnb but been too uneasy to give it a go, read this post for tips to make traveling with Airbnb safe, easy, and fun. (Airbnb’s website changes from time to time, so things may be a little different when you try it, but these guidelines should still be useful.)

 

What a cheery studio apartment this was, attached to our host’s home but with a private entrance.

1. In the search bar at the top of the page, type the name of a location. (You can go through the entire process up to reserving a space to see how it works.) Additional options will appear including number of guests, type of place you’re looking for, and price range. These options help narrow your search, saving considerable time.

2. A list of places matching your needs will pop up along with a map showing the general location of each rental. So, if you’re looking for a place in the heart of a city, you won’t accidentally end up thirty miles away. You’ll see the per night price and, in smaller print, the total price, which accounts for cleaning, service fees, and taxes, so it’s all inclusive. Keeping this in mind, don’t let the nightly rate fool you. Sometimes the one that looks more expensive at first glance costs less overall because the fees can vary significantly.

3. When you select a property, click on the photo at the top of the page for a slideshow of the place. I don’t advise staying somewhere that doesn’t provide enough pictures—interior and exterior—to size up the place.

4. Close the slideshow to read the description and list of amenities. Each has a ‘read more’ option. For the record, all the Airbnbs I’ve stayed at had all the promised amenities and often others missing from the written list.

5. Scroll down fora diagram of sleeping arrangements. In addition to the slideshow, this shows where and what type of sleeping arrangements are available (bed, futon, air mattress).

6. Even farther down the page are guest reviews. I’m highly unlikely to stay in an Airbnb so new that there are no reviews. Sorry, but I don’t want to be the guinea pig. In fact, I like to see plenty of reviews. That way, I’m guaranteed a good cross section of experiences and perspectives.

7. The listing also has a host photo and usually a brief host bio. There’s even a place where you can contact the host if you have questions or need any clarification.

8. Lastly, you’ll see a neighborhood description. What you won’t find, for security reasons, is a street address. That’s provided one or two days before your arrival, along with instructions on how to get in. Some hosts will greet you in person to show you around. Others offer a keypad or lock box.

9. Read it all. Reread it. Just like real estate ads, you might find code words. If they give you pause, jump to the next listing. However, I’ve almost always found that the pictures and descriptions are entirely accurate. Hosts have a vested interest in portraying their sites accurately. After all, if you arrive with a set of expectations that aren’t met, your host can expect a negative review for all to see.

10. On the right side of the page you’ll see pricing detail and the chance to book. It’s an easy process.

 

This New Mexico casita was one of our early Aibnb experiments. We were astounded at the low price. Fresh, airy, filled with original art, it’s a mother-in-law home which the host rents out when she isn’t visiting. The patio was  perfect for taking in the mountain view. 

11. For each rental, there is a heart at the top right. Click on that if you’re interested but not ready to make a commitment. You’ll be creating a sort of wish list to choose from. By the way, each time you click on a listing, it opens a new tab, so you don’t lose the original.

12. Another menu item, ‘Trips,’ shows the places you’ve stayed before in case you want to return. Still another lets you message your hosts as your arrival date nears or even when it’s over. Who knows? You might start up a lifelong friendship.

13. A day or so after your visit, Airbnb will ask you to complete a questionnaire and review. Please do this. It helps others like you. All reviews are posted on the listing’s site. If you have a complaint, the host may respond. You also have a chance to give Airbnb private information which allows them to follow up.

More Tips

Consider your ethos. If green is paramount, you may be able to find it. If it’s community investment, you’ll want to shy away from hosts who hollow out neighborhoods by buying up multiple properties for short-term rentals. How about diversity? Airbnb hosts can’t state that they discriminate, but some make abundantly clear that they don’t, stating for instance that they’re LGTB-friendly.

You can change or cancel a reservation, though hosts have individual rules for when and whether you lose some portion of your payment. Airbnb may also deduct the service fee. Most of the time, nothing is paid up front. These details are on the website.

Respect the host’s rules, also posted. If something doesn’t appeal to you, simply pass.  Sometimes, hosts may want you to strip the bed or put used towels in a designated spot before you leave. If you rent an entire house, they’ll certainly want you to wash any dishes you use. They won’t ask you to vacuum or actually change the linens, but they’ll want you to leave the place basically as you found it—as you would with family or friends, right?

The view from our Ingonish Beach, Nova Scotia, Airbnb included  both water and mountains. Best of all worlds.

Always, always remember that you’re staying at someone’s private property, whether or not they’re in the next room, and treat the space with the respect you want your own home to receive. If you accidentally break something, say so. Your host will probably be understanding, certainly more so than if you slink off without saying a word.

Planning a trip with Airbnb may take a while longer than making a reservation with your favorite hotel chain. But if you’re someone who comparison shops for lodging anyway, one process may not take longer than the other, though it’s easy to become infatuated with some of the Airbnb options. You may find so many desirable choices that you forget the original purpose of your travels.

In the end, Airbnb is a means, not an end. At some point, you may need to rein in your impulses and remember your travel goals. But if unique travel opportunities and adventure figure into those goals, Airbnb is one way to realize them.

Almost all the Airbnbs we’ve visited cost less—often significantly less—than any hotel or roadside motel we could have found, and were ever so much more interesting.

 

A few more places we’ve stayed with Airbnb. Sometimes you get amazing views, sometimes a hammock or even your own Airbnb cat. (Don’t worry, hosts make it very clear if animals are on the premises, at least in our experience. But you can always ask in a message, a good idea if you have allergies).

Have you tried Airbnb?