The New River, whose headwaters lie in my part of the Appalachian Mountains, is often considered the oldest river on the continent and even the second oldest river in the world—though not all experts agree. So how did it get its ironic name? No one knows for sure. In any case, I wrote this piece at an August writing workshop at New River State Park a couple of years ago as I reminisced about the many canoe excursions the Gnome and I have shared along this wild and scenic river. A Lazy Drift Down the August New Ducklings huddle in bank cuts resisting parents’ push into the current; two deer take a soothing afternoon sip cooling stick-thin legs in mountain-icy water. Holsteins wade across shallows to greener pastures, perhaps, and a Great-Blue stands majestically, its sharp eyes ever watchful for a tasty fish dinner. I bump across rocks and glide over riffles, the sun dappling my legs and arms, my bottom as chilled as drinks in the cooler; I wave to splashing children and paddling picnickers. Trees bear witness to beavers’ work as swallowtails float above; sticks of an osprey nest rest on a boulder ledge. Thirsty gray-green leaves and occasional yellows and reds flutter down and drift along beside me. River’s edge is plastered with signs of autumn— seed-popping touch-me-nots vie for space with sunny goldenrod and mauvy Joe-Pye weed; citrine coneflowers fill every cranny. Clouds playing across the mountains produce ever-changing panoramas of light and dark as they cast reflections of blinding white on the emerald river surface. Floating downstream in the late summer quiet I am lost in the flow of this river of calming mindfulness.
Second day, seventh month, nineteen and seventy-nine our family of four arrived for the first time on our newly-bought mountain land, ours now for keeps. Massive meadows of nodding daisies greeted us, the first of many magical moments in July of ’79. Like the morning when clouds made a foamy sea of white, blue mountain peaks peeking through like islands. Our hearts stood still at the impossible beauty of it. Like our discovery of wild strawberries and highbush blueberries, scrumptious snacks and desserts made all the better because they were ours. All ours. We slept on the ground, cooked over a campfire, drank water from a not-so-nearby spring, made an outdoor privy surrounded by blooming rhododendron. In that 1979 July we bathed in the frigid waters of a babbling brook, our skulls numbed senseless by the cold. Our music came courtesy of birds and insects, our entertainment from read-aloud stories by lantern light, homemade crossword puzzles, and imagination. Formerly housebound cats found freedom to roam; proud hunters dropped field mice at our feet and occasionally a grasshopper. We chopped trees and cleared ground, created designs, drew up plans, and sought official permissions. We built our forever home with our own hands— ours and our children’s— the only ones at work. Now the children are long grown and gone and the cats have found their final resting place on our daisy-covered hillside. Now the sounds of grandchildren laughing in summertime, finding their own magic on our mountain, bring smiles and happy memories of early days. Conveniences these days are modern— and convenient— living on the diagonal. But July of nineteen and seventy-nine? It was the best of times and the best of times.
Every leaf is fresh and lush and green in June apricot-colored azaleas set Appalachian hills on fire and electric-red firepinks dot rocky mountain roadsides The last bell of the year has rung as raucous youngsters race from school yards into back yards to prance through sprinklers and blow iridescent bubbles in barefoot abandon Summer is young in June and full of promise newly planted gardens grow plump succulent strawberries ooze red juices from eager lips country fields are hectic with hay mowing and baling Wrens sing happy songs in sunshine Synchronous fireflies dance in the dark to the music of June’s night insects the air is sweet with the scent of the milkweed and honeysuckle that suckle trembling butterflies Who would want to live in a world without lavish June?
(This is part of my series of monthly poems. I am painfully aware that all is not merry in May, particularly this year, and that May ends with a commemoration of Americans who died in war, including members of my own family. This poem is not meant to disregard or disrespect any of that. In fact, this May has been quite difficult for me personally: I was faced with the senseless and untimely death of a long-time acquaintance and the physical pain and limitations caused by shoulder and neck issues—a trial of aging. But this poem has another intent: to celebrate the glories Nature gives us in May and the excitement that naturally fills the air this time of year.)
The Very Merry Month of May
May Day, May poles, Mother’s Day mark the month of May proms and graduations abound flowers burst forth in explosions of color— pink and purple rhododendrons sensuous irises in every hue cheery cherry blossoms and more. Lilacs perfume the world with scentful blossoms and native magnolias sprinkle the woods with creamy white each spring rain makes Nature’s palette more vibrant. Mountains are transformed as winter’s browns and grays are replaced by countless shades of green undulating and billowing up the hillsides like fluffy viridescent clouds Once again finally again the earth is verdant fragrant breezes embrace us our eyes behold a world of color May is the quintessence of spring a time that feels like summer —only better Spring fever wafts through the air as youthful energy and enthusiasm bounce off the walls like echoes May is when love effloresces as exuberantly as the season’s blossoms May is a rush— A time when we can’t keep up with our own emotions May is for bird trills nestbuilding and frolicking wildlife who also know May is a time of rebirth and rejoicing. If ever there was a time to seize the day it is a magic day in May Nothing can compare to the days of May a month for living laughing loving
(While spring comes to some places in March, the season is still in its infancy in these parts through all of April. This is my mountainside take on the month everyone surely loves.) April is a yellow month. Daffodils, forsythia, and dandelions (whose future fluffy puffs delight children everywhere) dot the landscape. April is blue, purple, and pink with wild violets, phlox, and periwinkle blooming side by side with hyacinths, tulips, lilacs, flowering crabapples. April is green as spring’s bright tastes emerge from the earth: asparagus and rhubarb along with creasies, garlic mustard, and folkloric ramps. April is white— fabled dogwood shares mountainsides with legendary serviceberry, its delicate blooms drifting down like flakes of an unexpected spring snow. April is the month of awakening, its arrival heralded by blackbirds red of wing, bluebirds of the bluest blue, and the iridescent greens and dazzling ruby throats of hummingbirds. April is for spring cleaning. Time to rid closets and minds of winter’s cobwebs; bodies, too, with tonics of ancient lore: sassafras, poke, purslane, and more. Gardeners beware: April (weather) makes fools of us all with its first tentative beckoning of spring and irrepressible last days when forest fairies frolic with dancing buds of bloodroot, trillium, and mayapple— all interrupted by surprise frosts and snows. Blossoms and fragrant breezes awaken us from winter slumber with April’s ebullient energy and its whispered promise of a best yet to come. Where would we be without the gentle poetry of Nature that is April?
It’s been said February has nothing to recommend it— except its mere twenty-eight cycles of twenty-four hours. But the surly sluggish days hang over us with their cold and clouds, gray skies even grayer, by-now-dirty snow piled on street corners, reminding us even on sixty-degree days winter is not done with us. Harbinger of a season it seems will never come, this twilight month of blues and blahs, passion and penance taunts us as the groundhog either lies or disappoints: spring will always be six weeks away. The fourteenth is Hallmark Hell a frantic time kept alive by money and false hopes, a reminder of love lost or never had. February’s loathsome mirror never lies: dry skin, cracked lips, and dull brittle hair stare with sullen petulance into our winter-bleary eyes. Who can even pronounce this strange two-R month? So call me a contrarian, but I like the second month, the one beginning with National Baked Alaska Day and ending in honor of chocolate soufflé. February is the month of purification: time to clean closets, declutter drawers, waft sage smudge sticks to cleanse winter’s negativity cobwebs from our homes and minds. Let’s revere observances presidential and Black and celebrate the mysterious Lenten rose. Tranquil February is time to discover discernment and dispel distraction. This subtle month asks us to pause, be patient, to savor the journey and gift of quiet wisdom. The Snow Moon month whispers, “I’m here. BE.” For how can we cheer the spring’s birth of light and color without knowing the dark side of the moon?
[Hope you enjoy this Valentine’s Day classic. It’s one of my favorites–for obvious reasons, as you will see. And I should point out that today, February 12, is our first date anniversary.]
The place: Furman University dining hall
The time: February 1, 1965, sophomore year; registration day for second semester classes
The scene: a group of friends sharing a long table at lunch. I’m facing the wall of glass that looks out onto the lake and its iconic swans.
My friend and future roommate has just come rushing to the table, practically dragging a guy we’d never seen before along with her. Jan wants to introduce us to this fellow she’s just discovered walking across campus. They are old childhood buddies. She’s bursting with excitement to have found him here, he having just transferred from the University of South Carolina. She’s eager for him to make fast friends and happily settle in to his new life as a Furman student.
* * *
Yes, this was the first time I laid eyes on The Gnome. His eyes twinkled and even then his lips curved into that amiably mischievous smile he’s so well known for. For the next year, our paths crossed in classroom building hallways or in the student center, where we usually stopped for a lighthearted chat. Sometimes we visited in the dining hall when he spotted our little group at a table. How did he approach us? Patty was the key. Whenever he saw Patty, he made his way over to give her a pat on the head saying something like, “Pat, pat, Patty.” She always smiled, but, oh, that little joke must have worn thin.
We’d known each other just over a year when he finally asked me out. As soon as word leaked that we we had a date, Jan and Martha (another of his childhood friends), both so protective of his feelings, started in on me.
“Don’t you hurt him.”
“He’s a sensitive soul.”
“You’d better not break his heart.”
Or words to that effect.
And here I thought it was just a date, a mere basketball game. They had me freaked—I nearly called it off. But I stuck it out. Besides, what was with them? He didn’t strike me as being particularly delicate, and, as far as I knew, I’d never done any heart breaking.
Even though it was a nail-biter of a game and Furman lost to the Citadel by a mere two points, we had a fine time and everything went just great—until evening’s end. Sitting in his car in the circular drive in front of the women’s dorm, we were saying all those nice, if awkward, things two people say when a first date is nearing its end. Then he told me he had a gift for me. Warning bells went off. They turned into ear-piercing alarm bells when he pulled out a little blue velvet box.
My heart leapt into my throat. Oh my gosh! What have I gotten myself into? I should have canceled, I should have canceled, I should have canceled!
But I’d forgotten the mischief that was always dancing at the edge of those green eyes. He opened the box to show me a gaudy adjustable ring featuring a huge—and I do mean huge—chunk of glass. There was a little card inside that read, “Hope Diamond.”
I was so relieved that it didn’t occur to me to be insulted at the implication.
It was never stated, but we were a steady couple after that. My dorm sign-out sheet (now, there’s a story!) shows that I only went out with two other people following that February 12th basketball game, and both of those occasions were within the next five days. Chances are those dates had been made well in advance of my first date with the Gnome.
By early in our senior year, a future together seemed like a fait accompli. Without any formal declarations, we’d begun talking about where we’d live, children, things like that. So, when December 2nd rolled around and he took me to Ye Olde Fireplace, the swanky steak restaurant where all Furman couples went for special occasions … well, yes, this time I was thinking about a ring. Even more so when, after dinner, we headed to the top of Paris Mountain, that popular, romantic peak that overlooked the city and its night lights. Surely this was the moment.
Then came the bombshell. With a serious look on his face and an ominously somber tone in his voice, he said, “Carole, I have a confession.” Uh-oh.
“I haven’t been completely honest with you about our relationship, and I have to confess something.” This time my heart thudded into the pit of my stomach.
“Remember our first date?” he asked. “That ring I gave you—it wasn’t a real diamond.”
“But this one is.”
Well, you can’t say I didn’t know what I was getting into.
Maya Angelou said, “This is a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this day before. In these days of still limited social activities, days can sometimes feel that they merely bleed into each other. I read a recent magazine article in which the author wrote of this very feeling, asking, “Is it Tuesday or November?”
I understand that sentiment, but it can be dangerous, so I set my mind to considering what makes each day special and unique. Everyone’s experience is different, of course, but my thoughts led me to this essay.
I never know what I’ll wake up to on our ridge. A bank of south-facing, shade-free windows greets my sleepy eyes. Will the sky be cornflower blue or gravel gray? Or will I be enshrouded by pea-soup fog so thick an unknowing person would have no idea our home is surrounded by mountains?
Will the Fraser Firs, planted so long ago as a Christmas tree crop—forgotten until they grew into sixty-foot giants—wave in the breeze as if they are dancing a graceful waltz , or will they be as still as the rocky peaks behind them? Will their branches be spring green or will they be laden with snow or frosted with ice? Will the maple leaves be green, crimson, or gone?
Will rabbits, turkey, deer, or even a bear be wandering across our meadow? Will daisies be in bloom or wild blueberries ready to become pie? Are mushrooms, chickweed, or purslane ripe for foraging? Will daffodils smile their sunny faces at me?
Will spiders have woven gossamer webs on fences? Will garden tomatoes be ready to harvest? Will robins and cedar waxwings be feasting on mountain ash berries? Will hummingbirds flutter at us through the window asking, “Well, I’ve returned, so where’s my nectar?”
Will caterpillars become butterflies today? Will hawks circle overhead as they gather to migrate? Will neighborhood crows hold a cacophonous caucus in the woods? Will I encounter a red salamander or a spade-footed toad on my morning walk? Will Jack-in-the pulpit or trillium be in bloom today?
As I begin to contemplate the never-ending possibilities awaiting me each day, I realize how important it is for me to remember this is a wonderful day. I have never seen this day before.
A few of the scenes, many of them surprises, that have greeted my sometimes weary eyes.
(The end of this reprise of our 2018 trip to Nova Scotia comes to a close with this post. But stay tuned for a couple of extras coming soon. To ‘travel’ virtually with us from the beginning, click here.)
Bittersweet is the best that can be said for what was to be our last day in Nova Scotia. To ensure as much time as possible in Cape Breton, we had planned this to be a long travel day. It would take us practically to the border with New Brunswick, in the tiny rural community of Joggins. So tiny that AAA couldn’t find it to map out this portion of our trip. So tiny even a number of Nova Scotians didn’t recognize the name. Yet Joggins is home to yet another UNESCO World Heritage site. The Joggins Fossil Cliffs contain the most complete fossil record of life during the Coal Age, 300 million years ago. That’s a full hundred million years before the dinosaurs, so these fossils, preserved in the very place they lived, are the dinosaurs’ ancestors. Some of the fossils found here are giant insects. According to the Joggins Fossil Cliffs website, this is the only place on earth where you can view these rare plant and animal fossils in situ. Well, I was impressed!
We stayed the night at a true bed and breakfast inn, though we’d found it through Airbnb. We were joined by a young couple driving from Halifax to be with family for Canada’s Thanksgiving weekend. The four of us enjoyed a visit in the living room where we shared our respective’ backgrounds and learned a bit about cultural similarities and differences while enjoying some of our host’s homemade wine. Not only does Bridget own and run the B&B and make wine, but she’s also begun a business manufacturing buckwheat pillows—and she’s a former international professional singer, besides. (And her breakfast was fabulous!)
The next day saw us driving across New Brunswick and into Maine. Though the leaves had only just begun changing color in Nova Scotia, they were really showing off in New Brunswick.
Not be the sharpest photos ever taken, but hey . . .
we were going 110! (in kilometers, of course)
Crossing the border back into the States was harrowing—at least the waiting was. We’d read that we needed to itemize all our purchases and have them and all receipts readily available for inspection, so we’d spent a long couple of evenings getting our documentation and souvenirs organized. Though we’d practically sailed into Canada (no lines and only a single benign question by the border agent), we waited here for close to forty-five minutes. Plenty of time for us to begin feeling guilty for merely imagined offenses. Cameras were watching from every angle. We tried to look innocent and nonchalant. Did that make us look like crooks instead? Our unease only increased when the border patrol unlocked and entered the RV in line in front of us.
Finally, it was our turn. We were asked the nature of our visit, if we’d enjoyed our stay, and whether we’d purchased anything other than souvenirs, personal gifts, and incidentals. That was it. A lot of worry for nothing.
In Maine, we made a little detour to stay in Seal Harbor, right at an entrance to Acadia National Park, a place I’ve always yearned to visit. Was it exhaustion as we were nearing the end of our travels? Was it being surrounded by so many leaf-peekers and their vehicles after so much Nova Scotia tranquility? Whatever the reason, we were underwhelmed. It was the only disappointment of our twenty-five-day journey, but it was about to be made up for in a big way!
We made one last detour before the big push to get home. When we’d come across an Airbnb listing in the small village of Newbury, Vermont, we added a day to our itinerary just so we could take it in. Everything about our host, her home, her village seemed so iconically New England.
And so it turned out to be. The home we stayed in is almost two hundred years old on a street of similarly aged residences, mostly modest clapboard homes with gabled fronts. Most of the village’s structures were built either between 1790 and 1860 or in the ten years following a devastating fire in 1913.
Not every residential neighborhood is on a town’s Main Street, which, in this case, is also Vermont Highway 5. Never was there a quieter thoroughfare. Between the residences is the core of the village, the Village Common, a large green space for public use. The village hall, village school, and Methodist Church sit on one edge of the Common. The entire village, flanked by the Connecticut River, is a historic district.
Simply idyllic. Just our style.
Linda, our host, is a professional photographer. She works in black and white, uses old cameras with actual film, and has her own darkroom. Like the Gnome, she collects cameras. (I told her she should count them before we left–wink, wink.)
She was kind enough to take us on a walking tour of her charming village the next morning. We passed the Village Common, the school, the church, the post office, the village hall, the public library. We stopped for chats with other morning strollers. We talked about the village’s history and Vermont’s fabled town meetings. We took in the village store (the oldest country store in Vermont) for a steaming cup of coffee and yummy homemade cinnamon rolls, then sat on the steps to chow down. We dropped in at the bank to study old black and white pictures of the fire.
The bank is closed on Saturdays, but our host has a key. (It seems that the few villagers who lock their doors share their keys with the neighbors.) Linda loves her hometown and its history, and it shows.
Unfortunately, sometime between our return home and getting to this point in my travel diary, the last two hundred or so photos mysteriously disappeared from our camera. I had to resort to Google to find a couple of photos to share.
Just because our travels are over, don’t think I’m through writing about Nova Scotia, There are still a couple of reflective posts (and, of course, photos), so I hope you’ll come back to see what they are.
(While we’re all busy keeping safe by staying home, you might like to join me on a recap of my 2018 road trip with The Gnome to Nova Scotia. This week, we’re on the second leg of the breathtaking Cabot Trail in Cape Breton. and I recently took a long (and long-awaited) road trip throughout Nova Scotia. To read about—and see—it from the beginning, click here.)
It was almost mid-afternoon on our trek around the Cabot Trail when we stepped into a small museum near Dingwall (on the northern edge of Cape Breton Highlands National Park) for a much-needed bathroom break. A couple of (very) young women from New Zealand had the same idea. (Amazing how you meet people from all over the world on the trail!) They were cycling the trail from the opposite direction. While we were going downhill, they’d been climbing all day, since dawn, in the chilly rain. How I felt for them!
I had to chuckle at the sign on the inside of the bathroom door. It said something to the effect of, “We get it. You really need to go,” and welcomed folks to use the amenities (they are few and far between on the trail), but it also asked for a donation if you planned to skip the museum itself. Fair enough! We decided to take it in, though. It was surprisingly professional and enlightening, especially for such a tiny place. There’s even an area for genealogical research.
The pleasant woman staffing the museum told us she thought the part of the trail still ahead of us was its prettiest section. That was hard to believe, given the vistas of our previous two days. Turned out she was right, though the day was so stormy it wasn’t such a good picture-taking day. We decided to come back for more the next day, which was less rainy, but extraordinarily windy and often almost as hazy. Still, we took lots of photos. (You knew we would!)
We took a few damp hikes, including the bog walk at which, if we’d been there a few hours earlier, we’d have surely seen moose—we sure saw lots of tracks. We also hiked the short trail to this Scottish Highland shieling, a hut to shelter crofters (farmers) and their livestock from the brutal weather on the moutaintops. And we hiked enough of the Skyline Trail to see . . .
this! After 49 years’ worth of trips searching in vain, we were able to prove to ourselves once and for all that moose are not the mythical creatures we’d begun to believe them to be.
From the road far below, you can see folks that made it to the end of the Skyline Trail, at least with binoculars—or a telephoto lens.
Photos of the curvy, coast-hugging Cabot Trail, where the mountains kiss the sea.
Our destination was Chéticamp. Little did we know that on one of our look-off stops, our camera had captured an image of the home where we’d be spending the next couple of nights. Our charmed, and charming, hosts had found themselves one of the most perfect places on earth to live. Not only is their home on the edge of the Chéticamp River (which they often kayak, lucky ducks!), but on the opposite side of the river is the majestic park itself. From their huge living room windows, they can also see where the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Where else could you get that kind of view? It was a good way to end our trip around the park.
The view from the living room window includes this mountainous cliff, part of Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
This spit of land is all that separates the river from the ocean, also seen from our hosts’ living room window. How cool is that?!
Come back for the last days of our travel adventure and some more reflections, won’t you?