Fred First compares the mountains’ pull upon us to those of nutrients, of migration, of music.
A city girl, my mother used to say wistfully that she was born with the country in her bones. I lived, early on, among hills, and was born with mountains in mine.
She has never quite forgiven me for abandoning the Deep South. My mom doesn’t understand why Birmingham was birth place and forever home for many of my childhood friends, but not for me. And it has taken decades to be able to explain my northward migration to her – and to myself.
I trace its roots to this: I clearly remember standing at my sixth-grade desk, pledging allegiance to the flag, followed by the recital in unison of the 121st Psalm: “I will lift up mine eyes until the hills from whence cometh my help.”
I lifted my eyes to the low hills beyond tall windows. The rust-colored ridges of Red Mountain a mile from school gave the town its iron foundries and Vulcan, a ferric god of the forge who stood guard over town from a high place. I took the Psalmist’s entreaty to heart. Both solace and power poured from those mountains-in-miniature. I could feel their call and their calm.
But the gravitational pull of distant places drew me higher and north of central Alabama, toward a landscape with real mountains and real winters, a land of blue vistas nearer the heart of this great range whose ancient core fades to sand just south of the city of my birth.
So my wife and I left Alabama and moved often, less following our careers than our inner compass towards a place that would be home. And at the end of those migrations, we had never lived beyond sight of the Southern mountains. The map of the “wheres” of our shared lives traces the boundaries of our inheritance: We are Appalachians. We belong to this family of mountains and to all the stories and natural histories of which they speak.
Certain landscapes, for some like us, hold a nutrient we seek. Like salmon going back, we have unwittingly migrated along the gradient, upstream over decades, from the baby mountains of Birmingham, under the Plott Balsams of Sylva, beyond Table Rock and Grandfather views of Morganton, beneath sandstone ridges and along the meanders of limestone valleys of Wytheville, Va. Now, we have at last come to rest in the source waters of our journey.
And yet others too, with gratitude, have found the same good fit as we have here. They can tell the same story of finding home and belonging – in places like Blairsville, Mentone and Murphy.
These gentle mountains welcome us as children –by birth and by adoption – to open wide the reach of our senses and of our hearts for place. They engender music in our souls and in our feet, a common elemental song that resonates in those of us who are called to the dance.
So Mom, yes, some of us had to leave home to find it. But then, if you set your eyes just right, maybe I never left, but only discovered that home stretches for hundreds of miles north of where you birthed me at the beginning of this mountain trail.
Fred First lives in Floyd County, Virginia. He is a blogger, photographer, columnist, radio essayist and author of "Slow Road Home" and “What We Hold in Our Hands.”