Yes, It Snows In North Carolina

Yes, It Snows in North Carolina   

(On the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Blizzard of ’93)

When the Michigander I’d just met learned that our family lives in North Carolina, he said, “Well then, you don’t have to worry about snow.” It’s a comment I frequently hear from people who “aren’t from around here,” as if they think all Tar Heels live at the beach. Little do they know. In a state that stretches 600 miles inland, my home is on the same longitudinal plane as Cleveland, Ohio. The meridian actually skims Michigan’s mitten thumb and lines up with eastern Ontario. Pretty far inland.

At more than 4,000 feet in elevation, we’re also a bit higher than coastal areas. So, yes, we have some weather, and it’s not usually fit for swimsuits. Our thermometer has read as low as -32º. Our most wintry weather has a tendency to come after many folks have long since said goodbye to winter. During our first year here, we were surprised by several inches of snow on Memorial Day. Just a few years later, four-foot drifts covered our gravel road in the middle of April.

Snowfall near our house, 2010: everything is covered.

Then, there was that other time . . .

In mid-March, 1993, I had a business meeting a couple hours from here. I decided to add a quick overnight visit with my parents, who lived nearby. Snow was again in the forecast, but it wasn’t expected to begin falling until sometime the following day. I’d surely return home ahead of any significant precipitation.

Even so, I parked my little Geo Metro at the bottom of the mountain road that led to their home. Just in case. If the snow came earlier and/or heavier than expected, it would have been treacherous trying to drive out from my parents’ mountainside perch.

The next morning, we woke to a world of white outside and darkness indoors. The snow was deep and heavy. Power lines had snapped for miles around. Snow poured down for three days. Hundred-mile-an- hour winds created monstrous drifts. The governor issued a two-day long, twenty-four-hour curfew. Even wwhen the curfew was lifted, it was clear I wasn’t going anywhere.

Not only could I not retrieve my little car from the snowbank created by a snow plow—I couldn’t even see it under its huge snow mountain. My seventy-something-year-old father, who had suffered a massive heart attack several months prior, was in no shape to shovel snow. And I wasn’t willing to risk the same fate myself.

Back at home, the Gnome and our college-aged son who was getting ready to return to school after spring break were confronted by drifts up to four feet deep once the snow finally stopped falling. They were trapped, too. We usually hire someone to plow out our gravel road when it’s impassable, but no one could get up there. With school beckoning, they felt compelled to begin the daunting task of digging themselves out by hand.

Worried about not one but two potential heart attacks, I insisted on sworn promises that they’d take breaks a minimum of every two hours and call me on the nose at each break. I couldn’t get to them, but if I didn’t hear from them on time, I’d be calling 911 stat!

There was nothing more I could do except wait it out. My parents and I got by with a roaring fire in the fireplace and a lot of canned soups heated on a camp stove. We entertained ourselves with conversation and reading.

Enjoying my snow exile in a hammock

My mother had recently acquired a book published by the genealogical society of her home county. Residents had been invited to send in family stories and histories. Some were straightforward with lots of begats. Some people heaped praises on themselves—in the third person, clearly not realizing their own name would appear as author of their submission. Some were pious, some irreverent, some lavishly embellished.

Other entries were laugh-out-loud funny. Like the one about the grandpa who never cut his toenails and walked around his log cabin barefoot, his nails clicking loudly on the wood floor with each step. Or the one about the family whose children decided to outfit their mother with a football helmet and hang her upside down in a homemade traction device to cure her aching back. Or the story about the man who kept a skull in his closet. Then again, maybe we were just punch drunk. It was good medicine to read and share those stories while we were cooped up.

The book presented another opportunity, one to learn about my own family history. When I’d previously asked Mother how long her family had lived in her home county, she couldn’t tell me. She knew nothing about her family beyond her grandparents. Even then, the information was sometimes scanty.

Each article, it seemed, provided a clue about yet another previously unknown branch in my family tree, which in turn led me to still another and another. My paternal grandfather died years before my grandparents met. Mother knew hardly anything about him. With the help of the heritage book, I discovered that he had been in the Civil War, that my great-grandmother was thirty years his junior and was his second wife. I learned that my grandfather’s ancestors were some of the first European settlers in the area. My grandmother had deep local roots, too. I discovered that while most of my ancestors hailed from the British Isles, some came from Germany. It was fascinating stuff, even if not quite all of it was verifiable.

I was stuck in place for almost a week, much of it with my nose buried in the heritage book. By the time I finally left for home, I had a sheaf of papers summarizing family stories and diagramming potential genealogical connections for further research.

That week was the beginning of an enduring passion for family history, one that’s even led to a couple of books. All because of the Blizzard of ’93, otherwise known all along the East Coast as the Storm of the Century. On this occasion of the storm’s twenty-fifth anniversary, we’re in the midst of another great snowstorm. It’s not expected to be as big an event as the Blizzard of ’93, but then that one caught us off guard, too. 

Taking a bite out of snow

For a recap of the Blizzard of 1993, click here:   https://www.wataugademocrat.com/watauga/the-blizzard-of/article_13899f70-3c38-5153-8e92-10c2da17e884.html

A Thing of Beauty Is a Joy Forever

For Valentine’s Day

John Keats wrote it as the opening line in his poem, Endymion. If you’re like me, you read Keats, along with his fellow second-generation British poets, Shelley and Byron, in your senior high school English class. How I loved them.

At sixteen, I was primed for their romanticism—the imagery, the sensuousness, the idealism, the pensiveness. I remember spending rainy days under one of our massive pecan trees (in the midst of thunderstorms, no less) mulling over their poetry. Their young deaths (Byron at thirty-six, Shelley at twenty-nine, and Keats at the tragically youthful age of twenty-five) added an extra touch of melancholy to my teen moods.

Endymion’s opening lines go like this:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

This verse conjures up something uniquely mine, but I’ll bet it invokes something uniquely yours, too. What follows came to me one day when, as usual, I was first to wake. As I lay in the quiet of early morning, I took a long look at the Gnome‘s face, oblivious and peaceful in sleep.

* * *

At twenty, the only “wrinkles” on his face were the crinkly corners of his always smiling eyes. At twenty, he had a full head of dark blond hair. At twenty, his body was taut and tanned.

The skin is looser now, and the golden hair that covered the top of his head is gone, replaced by a full beard of gray on his face. The wrinkles have spread both upward and downward.

I try to see him dispassionately, as a stranger might. But I cannot. When I contemplate his sleeping form, I only see the whole of him across all the years of knowing him. What I see is the kindness, the love, the mischievous curve of his lips.

The crinkles are still there, too, framing the ever-present dancing smile that lives in his eyes.

And suddenly he is twenty again, but with the added dimensions of experience, of a  shared life together, of wisdom. A thing of beauty. A joy forever.

 

Summer’s Slow Slide into Fall

Summer’s Slow Slide into Fall (written in mid-August)

First day of summer: words that conjure up notions of vacations, suntans, freedom from homework. Thoughts of fun in the sun with summer reads, picnics, hikes, swimming, tennis, softball and baseball, bike rides, day trips. All those traditional outdoor activities mean summer’s here.

In truth, when the first official day of summer rolls around, fall is already lurking in the shadows. The first sign, of course, is day length. Summer means longer days, right? But summer officially begins with the summer solstice—the year’s longest day. The very next day—officially the first full day of summer—will be a little shorter, as will the day after that, and the next, and the next. Every day for the next six months.

It’s about the time of the summer solstice that I inevitably spot a tree with that one red or yellow leaf. I’m a big fan of autumn, but I also prefer to live one day at a time, and that leaf sits there taunting me, reminding me that fall is inching its way into my life. To the astute observer, other signs of autumn’s sure return are all around. Those lime-green spring leaflets that sprouted on trees (wasn’t that just yesterday?) have been growing both larger and darker. Before they put on their showy fall display, they will continue to darken until, in the distance, they’re such a deep green they look almost black.

As spring wildflowers transform into summer ones, so summer’s blooms have now, almost imperceptibly, given way to those of fall. Daisies are replaced by Queen Anne’s lace; black-eyed Susans seem to morph into yellow coneflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, and sunflowers. Floral hues become both more muted and more rich. The buttery yellows of summer’s evening primrose make way for the more mellow tones of fall’s goldenrod. There’s the rusty shade of spotted touch-me-nots in lieu of daylilies’ brighter tints. In the wild, pinks virtually disappear as summer subsides, and lavenders transmute into the subtler mauves of milkweed and Joe-pye weed and the rich purple of ironweed. In front yards, gardeners discard summer’s petunia palette in favor of the earth tones of chrysanthemums. Berries appear. Fruits ripen.

 

 

Birds’ feathers become a little less brilliant. Grasses develop gracefully drooping seed heads. Little by little, vegetable gardens show signs of wear as growth slows, pumpkins turn from green to orange, and early veggie plants dry up or go to seed.

dscf9200.jpg

The sun itself gets in on the action. Ever since summer’s solstice, its arc becomes a little more southerly, a little lower as it moves across the sky.

As I write this piece at the beginning of the third week of August, my calendar tells me we are just past summer’s midpoint. To be precise, sixty percent of our summer days have passed. Sitting outside in the afternoon, I hear a distinctive sound unique to this time of year—the thump of acorns and hickory nuts as they hit the ground in the woods. It’s not a safe time to be standing under a nut tree!

Then comes an evening’s after-supper walk when I unexpectedly sense another change. The days may still be warm and humid, but I feel the barest hint of chill in the night air. Sometimes, I even catch a slight change in nighttime scents—a little less floral, a little more spice. My ears notice the ever-increasing cacophony of crickets and katydids doing their late-summer thing. Their sounds also pierce the otherwise country quiet during the day, but at night the music is almost deafening, yet soothing in its own way and one more sign that fall is closing in.

Fall has always been my favorite season, so I welcome its coming. Still, it’s a little curious that just as we’re getting into the full swing of summer, autumn has already begun its birthing process. I guess that’s the way of things. The peak signals certain ending, but an ending accompanied by new beginnings—caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly, seed to tree and back to seed again, adolescence to adulthood, retirement to a new life chapter,  the whole of life itself.

 

Becoming a Home–and a Construction Zone: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 8

Becoming a Home–and a Construction Zone: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 8

(If you’re just tuning in the Early Days on the Diagonal series, you may want to start here and work your way forward.)

Not surprisingly, December just keeps getting colder. As far as temperatures go, life in our shed isn’t much different from sleeping on the ground. Not much construction work gets done—we spend most of our time trying to keep warm. Finally, on December 20th, when at 1:00 pm the thermometer reads 5°, all our water and canned foods are frozen solid, and the temperature keeps dropping, we know we can’t keep this up.

pict00631.jpg

Within two hours we find a furnished one-bedroom apartment in town. Temporarily, we leave behind a lonely-looking but imposing 2 1/2 story structure—shingled and, for the most part, enclosed.

We also face the reality of a drastically low bank account. If we want to finish the house, we have to find paying work. Consequently, we have barely any time to work on the house. Vicious cycle.

Nonetheless, we continue our building efforts on weekends, and by mid-April, after nearly four months in town, we move back to our land, this time directly into the shell of our house. It, too, is only covered with blackboard—for the moment—but we do have doors. No glass in our twenty-three window openings, so we’re still very exposed to the elements.

Once again we turn to plastic, but this time with a protective layer of landscape shade cloth and rows of strapping to protect the plastic from the rain and whipping winds. This combo does nothing to abate either the cold or noise, though. We wince every time the fierce wind blows and beats noisily against the plastic.

Naturally, a cold front moves in the same time day we do and temperatures drop to the twenties. Our little space heater can’t compete. At least we’re warm when we snuggle under the electric blankets the Gnome’s parents have provided.

img003_edited

Looking into kitchen area. Horizontal girts make perfect narrow shelves.

In May our phone is installed. Now we have access to the outside world. With no stairs yet, our access to the second floor is a ladder. Neither do we yet have running water; we’re still pretty much camping.

By the end of June, all the studs for our few interior walls are in place. We’re also beginning to put up exterior siding. With the height of the house and no scaffolding, this means even more ladder-climbing. It’s a slow process.

img006_edited

Upstairs with loft above. Look carefully and you can see some of the horizontal plastic strapping protecting our plastic-covered window openings.

The glass for our windows arrives in August. After installing them, we finish most of the exterior siding. We wait for lumber prices to drop before buying the rest. We also install our tub, toilet, and bathroom and kitchen sinks, but it will be a full year after we’ve moved back up here before we complete all the plumbing work and get running water. Since we’re dependent on an electric pump, getting water is also dependent on having electricity. The Gnome’s electrician dad does a walkthrough to assure us we’re doing it right. April 24th, 1981, the day we’ve completed our wiring and water is finally running to all our indoor fixtures, is a red-letter day for sure!

Our home’s far from finished—for instance, we’ve only now finished nailing down the subflooring that’s been sitting on joists for a year—but we finally bring all our belongings home from the storage unit where they’ve been sitting for eighteen months. It gives the place a homey feel.

Punkin and Cuddlebug’s extracurricular activities keep us so busy that work on the house slows to barely a crawl. Living in an unfinished house means working around people, furniture, and stacks of unpacked boxes, slowing things down even more.

img005_edited

Lumber gets stored inside to protect it from the weather.

It will be another five years before we have a kitchen counter and cabinets, and still another before we get around to painting our interior walls, build a closet, and finish the exterior siding.

img002_edited

Before we had a closet

In truth, we will never get finished. When we once again have time—and money—to finish the job, the house will be begging for some serious rehab and remodeling. But that’s another story for another time. Meanwhile, stay tuned for a bonus segment of Early Days on the Diagonal.

finished-house

Except for painting the window trim (we’d started, upper right) and vent openings below windows, this is as finished as it gets until thirty years or so hence.

Off the Ground: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 3

Off the Ground: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 3

(If you’re just joining this series, you really should read this first and work your way forward.)

July 10, 1979: The day we move to the shed. Small as it is, the shed feels immense compared to the tent. And it’s still standing, so perhaps we really can build a whole house.

In retrospect, 2017: We didn’t know how much ahead of the times we were. We built one of the world’s tiniest tiny houses way before tiny-house-living was a thing.

An army cot across one end with another along one side for the children gives us just enough room to lay a double sleeping bag on the floor for us. Putting it out of the way each morning gives us room to dress, eat, play board games, and draw house plans—as long as we coordinate. The cots do double duty as daytime seating. Improvised single shelves along two walls keep some of our stash off the floor. We have no door, just a three-foot wide doorway.

In retrospect, 2017: I wonder why the possibility of intruders never occurred to us. We felt perfectly safe from the human type, but why weren’t we concerned about wildlife? In the years since, we’ve seen everything from snakes to bears. We must have been crazy!

img009

Our “kitchen” is just outside the shed on left end. The doorway is also on the left end. Suitcase and canned goods are lined up along our front “wall.”

With all outdoors for living, our little enclosure doesn’t feel cramped. Our “bathroom” in the woods boasts incredible scenery with its huge rhododendron walls for privacy—not that we need all that much privacy up here.

The shed’s plastic walls and  roof provide plenty of natural light, but we discover the obvious—it’s either a steam room or a sauna, depending on the weather. No place to spend daylight hours, especially when it’s sunny. Yet, it’s the only suitable spot for drafting house plans.

July 11, 1979: The water inspector okays our septic tank, our first official approval of any kind. It feels like a huge accomplishment. But with one hurdle out of the way, we stumble onto another: the car won’t start. Fortunately, we find the problem and it’s an easy fix, but this experience magnifies our isolation. With only one car, no social support system, and no phone, our existence here is fragile and hinges on lots of things going right. We’ve already discovered they don’t always.

It’s only our second night in the shed and we have yet another heavy rainfall. The accompanying strong wind, which we’re coming to expect as normal, blows up under our plastic “roof” and tears holes where the plastic is strapped to the rafters. We get soaked. (It won’t be the last time.) A few repairs get us through the night.

July 12, 1979: We add a second layer of plastic, hoping it will be enough to protect us during the next big windstorm. We know there will be one.

While the Gnome works on the house plans we’ll have to submit to the county building inspector so we can actually start building, I chop down the few hundred black locust saplings covering our construction area. Everything’s happening a lot more slowly than we’ve anticipated. But it’s all progress.

img010

The Gnome’s drafting table with stacks of reference books to the right. Too hot for a shirt in here. Note upper left of picture where plastic is raised to let in a tiny bit of air. Sleeping gear in background.

(Tune in next week for more adventures in Early Days on the Diagonal.)

Early Days on the Diagonal: Part One

Early Days on the Diagonal: Part One

(The first of an eight-part series on our first steps toward modern homesteading.)

It had been building for years, this desire to make a bold move. The mountains had long ago wrangled a home in my heart, and they weren’t moving out. I yearned to make my physical home in the mountains, too. The Gnome’s long-term fascination with architecture was just itching for some creative expression.

We both imagined a bucolic life in the country, away from little houses all in a row where bedrooms were so close to the neighbors’ living rooms that they could hear every snore. We were two introverts leaning hard into recluse territory. The Gnome wanted to give our children an outdoor life, and he wanted to play in the dirt and build things. Me? I’m my mother’s daughter: I needed some elbow room, a place where no one was likely to drop in to borrow sugar or gossip over coffee. I dreamed of the freedom to roam the land, to run around outdoors naked if I wanted to (which makes me my father’s daughter, too).

So it was really no big surprise that in early 1979 we decided to make all our dreams come true at once. The only surprise was how long it took. But we’re not innately risk-takers. It was a slow, labored journey to convince ourselves we could make such a big change in our lives.

Once we got ourselves on the change bandwagon, the big question was where. Ultimately, we settled on western North Carolina, much closer to family than our current twelve and sixteen hour drives from our home in Louisville, KY, but still far enough to maintain our independence. The Gnome recalled a summer science camp he attended at a mountain college. That sounded like a good beginning point.

In April, we took a week’s vacation to look for land. Our good friends marveled at our daring—to leave secure jobs with no prospects, to take on a major designing and building effort with only books for guides, to move where we knew no one and had no support system. Yet, more than one of them admitted some envy and a secret wish to do something similar.

The local realtor who specialized in rural land took us all over the place, but nothing satisfied. Too steep, too near the highway, too close to neighbors. We were feeling pretty let down. It had never occurred to us that we might be unable to find anything suitable during our one-week window of opportunity.

We were ecstatic when Realtor John remembered one more piece of property. It met all our needs. At almost ten acres, half woods and half open meadow, we could count on privacy. The place was about a third of a mile from the graveled state-maintained road.

img001_edited_2

Portion of the meadow. In April, Spring’s still waiting in the wings.

Not a house to be seen. Exactly as we’d imagined. We had just enough time to sign on the dotted line before heading back home to prepare for the biggest move of our lives.

All manner of mosses, mushrooms, and lichens awaited us in our woods-to-be.

img005_edited_2

The locust rail fence along our eastern boundary captivated us.

dscf0061

We were delighted to find this creek on our property.

(Stay tuned for the next installment of Early Days on the Diagonal.)