Photo by Scott McClurg
Highland County, Va
Highland County, Va
I don’t remember anymore when I first visited Highland County, Va. I know it was a tradition in our household to venture over three mountain ranges each March for the annual maple festival. But I never came here for the syrup. I came here for the mountains.
I had mountains at home, of course, parked as I lived right up against Shenandoah National Park. But resting at the edge of the Piedmont isn’t the same as nestling down in the Alleghany Highlands.
As a child, I could look east and see open space. Here, the mountains envelope me.
I know plenty of people who are afraid of mountains – the twisting roads, the sheer rawness of nature they represent, the isolation. It’s something I’ve never understood.
To me, the mountains represent security.
In the evening, as the sun settles behind Lantz Mountain and I may have the chance to catch a glimpse of a pair of fox kits scampering in the pasture below my house, I feel marvelously alone. And I like it.
It is something we all have in common here – that love of being alone and part of the landscape. It is the same thing that draws visitors who, in their daily lives, are so disconnected from the earth that feeds and nurtures them.
I can remember coming to Highland one winter when I was a teenager, sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car as we wound westward on 250 into the Blue Grass Valley, searching out sugar camps. “I’m going to live here one day,” I said.
Mom shot me that glance that says, “Oh, yeah. Big dreams, kid, big dreams.”
But I wasn’t easily deterred, and these mountains remained at the edge of my consciousness as I watched my own hometown succumb to fast food restaurants, four-lane highways, and subdivisions named after plowed under farms. I continued to visit here even after the necessity of employment drew me into the net of city life.
But seven years ago, I decided, rather on a whim, that it was time – time to get back to the mountains. But not just any mountains. They had to be mountains where time stood still, where the outside world couldn’t easily filter in, where ridgetops were still blanketed in forest. So I came – carrying my mountain roots with me.
To plant somewhere in these hills.
My 10th-grade biology teacher was among the folks who helped me move. Burly and jovial, a former football coach, he volunteered to drive a 29-foot U-Haul from the Atlantic Ocean to Highland County. And he did, following me at 20 miles per hour up curling Route 220 from Covington at 3:00 a.m. on a cool spring morning.
When daylight shed additional light on the path he had taken the previous night, he turned to me and asked, “What did you do? Close your eyes and point to a place on the map and just decide to move there?!”
This from a native of rural Appalachia.
I only smiled.
In some ways, he was on target. I followed my heart. The heart is not always a logical leader.
But folks don’t live in a place like this because they’re logical. They live here because they’re in love.