Dreaming a New Mountain Dream

Tom and I both woke up this morning with the conviction that we’ll be returning to our beloved western North Carolina mountains. That’s why I changed the name of this blog from Kicked By a Mule to Writing to the Sunrise.  While we did indeed feel “kicked by a mule”  after getting a mantle cell lymphoma diagnosis and going through all the changes the past two months have wrought, optimism is deeply rooted in both our natures. Plus, with an indolent and localized strain of MCL, caught early, and one of the best medical teams in the world at Mayo Clinic Florida, there’s ample justification for optimism. So we’ve begun to dream again. And if history is any guide, when the Harpers start to dream, the earth moves. I should probably start stockpiling packing boxes!

Our home near Asheville, NC from 1997-2004.
Our home, (designed by Tom), near Asheville, NC from 1997-2004.

We spent all day yesterday surfing real estate for sale in Maggie Valley, Waynesville, Hendersonville, Arden, and Fletcher. All we have to do now is finish two more cycles of R-Benda and roughly a month of external radiation. If the docs are right, and Tom continues to do well, we could be back on the ridge tops by late spring of 2015.

We were only weeks away from putting “the mansion” — our fond name for our home here near Pensacola, Florida — on the market when Tom was diagnosed, so the house is polished and ready for listing whenever we are in a position to pull the trigger. Right now, however, the “biosphere” — one of the nicknames given to the mansion by the grand-kids — is a place of clean, quiet serenity in the middle of a hundred acres of pine woods, where whitetail deer and wild turkeys are regular visitors. Can you imagine a more wonderful place to heal and dream a new dream?

Just Life

It’s Thursday night, I think. Buck and I got back home to Pensacola last night. We made our way from Maggie Valley to Asheville and turned west on I-26 toward Columbia, South Carolina, where we picked up I-95 South to Savannah. I’d love to say we lingered in Savannah’s old town over a romantic dinner and walked along the river, but that would be a lie. Instead, we ducked sheets of rain and dodged wind gusts until about 5 o’clock. We found a bed and a delivery veggie pizza in a Hampton Inn at a motel city called Gateway South on the Jacksonville side of Savannah. Buck, dear soul, found a liquor store and bought me a fine bottle of single malt Scotch sippin’ whiskey to celebrate the eve of my 61st birthday. I didn’t hurt it too bad, though, anticipating the next day’s fasting for our annual Mayo Clinic wellness physicals.

We spent the evening talking about the romantic journey of our history together. We talked about our Maggie Valley stay, the visits with friends, the nice people we crossed trail with, how sweet it was to stay at the  “Awesome View” cottage, managed by Carolina Vacations, and how superb it was to live for two weeks in a Smoky Mountains’ rain forest garden.

I came away determined to garden again, despite arthritis that cramps my hands and shoulders, despite hungry deer that eat up all the proceeds.

Images of these perfect blooms will stay with me all through the heat of our Pensacola summer. We’ll be hunkered down here in the air-conditioned destination resort until September, when we’ll head to Bernard, Maine on Bass Harbor, back to the fabulously rustic “Captain’s Quarters” owned by the very dear golf croquet champion Jeanne Fernald. Got a note from Jeanne today, and she tells me there is still vacancy in July and August at Captain’s.  Shoot me a note if you’re interested and I’ll tell you all about it. We have stayed there at least three times in the past. Great place  — has its own lobster dock, and isn’t far from Acadia National Park.

This sweet little flower is on a vine I spotted this morning on an early walk down to our very own Longleaf Preserve gate. Early morning’s are the time to walk, while the air is still fragrant and cool. Our doc at Mayo said we should keep on keepin’ on, that our formula, whatever it is, is working. We’re apparently poster kids for the older set. Heh.

I’ve been talking to and writing back and forth with my brothers and sisters. Sweet wondrous folk, dear to my heart. Hard to think of old age, separation, illness and, you know. You know. The part I don’t want to think about. None of us do.

Our good friend, Betty Hunter, brought us a bottle of Pear Gorgonzola salad dressing when she and Jim came to see us in Maggie. I used some today to dress a salad of butter lettuce, Carolina Gold smoked turkey chunks, walnuts, red onion slivers, walnuts, and dried cranberries. Just about the best stuff I ever put in my mouth. Ooh, it was good.

Ain’t it pretty? Sockeye salmon in a teriyaki sauce with brown rice, baby spinach and wok-grilled red peppers and onions. Who says healthy eating is some kind of sacrificial act?

And doing a lazy backstroke in the cool blue open air pool surrounded by tall Longleaf pines, singing mocking birds,  flights of swallows,  the high drone of a circling helicopter, and the drifting perfume of vining honeysuckle, can you tell me that it really does get any better than this?

Sit Still Long Enough and Maybe Something Wondrous Will Find You

Let this be a lesson to me.

Buck and I went down the mountain yesterday for lunch at a delightful Maggie Valley spot called the Nutmeg Bakery Cafe. More on that in another post. An impressive thunder and rain storm rattled the windows shortly before we left. Bright sun turned the wet road to curling steam. I watched mountain laurel and rhododendron buds time-lapsing before my eyes into delicate, multi-chambered pink and white blooms.

When we returned to the cottage two hours later, tummies full and a bag of ragged ripe South Carolina peaches in tow, the power was out thanks to a tree that fell after the storm. No TV. No computer. We called the property manager to report, and then decamped to the porch. I’ve been troubled by the original ending I’ve had sketched in for the novel I’m (still) working on, so I decided to sit, rock, and pull back the camera lens of my mind to focus on the larger picture of what this woman is really all about.

Sometimes an “Aha!” moment is more of a “Yes!” It happened, sitting out there with Buck quiet, hip-deep in a lengthy, small print doom and gloom economic analysis. Just a girl and her legal pad.

A few minutes later, I kid you not, a shimmering rainbow appeared. Yeah, yeah, I know the atmospheric conditions decreed that a rainbow would appear when and where it did. I don’t care. I consider it my own personal Rainbow Moment and declare that it sent me a message that I’m finally on the right track with my story.

The power came on after a while, but apparently the television cable was dragged down along with the power lines when the tree fell, so there was still no internet or television. Funny about the TV thing. We don’t actually watch very much, although we’re stock market and news junkies, so the background drone of CNBC tends to be on, at least during the trading day. But TV is a presence, and when it won’t deliver pictures on command, things feel a little “off.” Silly, but there you go.

We made scrambled eggs and toast and headed for the porch again to enjoy a sunset supper. I sipped from a mug of Tazo Zen green tea. We had finished our feast, when Buck spoke to me very quietly: “Move slowly, but get your camera and turn to the right. Bear.”

Two tiny cubs were just out of camera range. Mother Bear approached the porch, leaned snout-first toward us for a long moment, then slowly turned and retreated back into the woods. Much as I wanted a picture of those cubs, I stayed put right there on the porch. Buck and I looked at each other and grinned. Did you know that WOW is an acronym for Wonder of Wonders?

p.s. There’s still no cable service, but I rigged up my cell phone to deliver a little internet so I could post this!

I Can See Home from the Mountain

Night has fallen over the sweet small valley. Buck is prone beside me making those almost but not quite snoring sounds that a contented man with a quiet mind, the assurance of love, and a belly full of soup makes. I am listening to Patty Griffin sing “Up to the Mountain” and have to say, I am feeling pretty mellow myself.

Sunday morning will be here before we know it, and just like that it will be time to turn in the cottage keys to “Awesome View” and return them to the good folks at the  management company, Carolina Vacations. We won’t go directly home, but to Jacksonville for our annual wellness physicals at Mayo Clinic. I realized while writing a friend today that we have been trekking to Mayo once a year for the past 15 years. This year promises to be “Mayo Lite” — no special tests or procedures, just an oil change and tire rotation, then we’re back on the road toward home and the Longleaf woods.

I’ve got one eye on a gal named Debby. She’s the fourth named storm of the season, and is kicking up a little fuss out in the Gulf.  I made “clean out the refrigerator” soup for our supper tonight. There were several Springer Mountain Farms chicken breasts in the meat drawer, along with  the carcass of a deli chicken from the local Ingles grocery store. I sweated several sliced carrots, sliced celery ribs, an onion and several baby turnip roots in a lump of butter, then added the chicken carcass, chicken broth and a marvelous concentrated chicken stock (a gift from good friend Betty Hunter who visited us for some porch-sitting time along with her husband, good friend Jim).  That simmered for a bit. Then I remembered a few leaves of baby spinach in the produce drawer, shredded them and let them fall like leaves into the pot. Ah, the mousserin mushrooms — another gift from Betty — looked like just the thing to elevate this chicken soup to a whole new level. I rinsed and rehydrated them gently, then added them to the fragrant circle of steam. At the last, a few green beans, okra and a four spoons of brown rice.

I wish Betty and Jim had been here tonight to share the bounty of this soup. Betty is nearby, attending a conference. Jim is far away, visiting a son in Serbia. Oh, I felt for him after hearing about his 25 hour “flight from hell” that involved a damaged aircraft, missed flights, and desperate exhaustion. I imagine (and hope) he is rested now and feeling less like the Stranger in a Strange Land.

The soup simmered, and I absently began to put things we won’t be using again this trip into a canvas bag: oatmeal, herbes d’provence, oregano, a can of Ortiz white tuna in oil, a box of Chai tea bags, a partly eaten box of Kashi go-lean super crunch cereal, the dregs of a bag of Bear Naked granola. The peanut butter stays on the counter. It is Buck’s survival food, his almost-every-day breakfast.

These unplanned movements cause me to realize I miss home. Even here, on this lush mountainside, I am suddenly homesick. When Sunday morning comes, I’ll be packed and ready.

And when we get home, I’ll move the bird feeders close to the back windows, where I can see them up close. I took the window screens out of the casement windows recently, so I might able to photograph winged visitors up close  from my perch inside the house.

Shape Shifting

Leafy Shadows move on the scored concrete floor

Dark butterflies find their way

Steel birds rumble the valley

The hawk is always hungry.

Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?  (from Landslide, written by songwriter Stevie Nicks)

Communing with Old Friends at the Beaverdam Methodist Church in Rice Cove

Buck, Jack & Aileen Rice, and Beth in the Beaverdam Methodist Church parking lot on Sunday, June 17, 2012

Jack and Aileen Rice are two of the dearest people Buck and I have ever known. They sold us the land that we built a wonderful home on in Rice Cove, Canton, North Carolina in 1997. We spent 6-8 months of the year there until we sold that beautiful place to return to Pensacola full-time. If you sense regret in our decision, you would not be wrong. Given what we knew and felt at the time, we would almost certainly make the same decision again, but the tug of this lovely place is undeniable.

We drove from the Maggie Valley rental cottage to the Beaverdam Methodist Church in Rice Cove this morning for 11:00 a.m. services. When I saw Jack and Aileen sitting in their regular pew on the right side toward the front, I wanted to run to them and hug their necks. The service was just starting, so Buck and I found a seat right in front of the Rices, whereupon we discovered their youngest daughter, Kim, also our good friend, was there, too. She lives in LaGrange, Georgia and was leaving to return there right after church. What a happy surprise to see Kim.

Buck with Jack and Aileen Rice and their daughter, Kim Adams

One by one, eye contact was made with folks in the choir and across the aisle. Luckily, (because I thought I would burst to hug these dear folks), there was a greeting time early on in the service. It was a free-for-all. The pastor had trouble getting us all to sit back down so he could continue the service.

Betty Driver directs the Beaverdam Methodist Choir on Sunday morning, June 17, 2012.

Times like this do a body good.

Tiger Swallowtail on Lily in Maggie Valley

Buck and I balanced bowls of  wild rice soup and a saucer of cheese toast on our laps while we enjoyed lunch on the cabin porch here in Maggie Valley. Just as Buck got to the punch line of a new plot twist he is working on, I saw this gorgeous swallowtail butterfly land on one of the lilies in a cluster not ten feet away from my foot.

I tip-toed indoors to fetch my camera. This beauty not only waited for me, but posed patiently.

Lush, generous nature on display at one’s fingertips is one of the many reasons we are drawn to Western North Carolina. I didn’t lurk for hours in an uncomfortable position with a fancy camera waiting and hoping for these photos. It was serendipity, pure and not-so-simple; something that seems to happen here with delightful frequency.

After lunch, Buck and I drove to nearby Waynesville and walked a section of the Greenway— another happy surprise — near the Waynesville Recreation Center.  More on that tomorrow.


It’s late on a Tuesday night and I have one ear bud snaked up from under the covers and stuck in my left ear. That way I can listen to music but still hear Buck in case he murmurs to me from sleep. I’m listening to Carole King and James Taylor from their “Live at the Troubadour”album. They are singing “Carolina In My Mind.”

Sunrise from the house we built near Asheville, North Carolina in 1997 and sold in 2004 to return to Pensacola full-time.

I’ve been going back to Carolina in my mind, too, and in early June, the fantasy will be realized yet again. Buck and I have rented the same good-feeling cottage in Maggie Valley that we rented last August. It has one of the world’s great, welcoming front porches overlooking the little valley, and from sunrise until the lights come up in the iconic mountain town, it’s a place for breathing deep, sharing, and reflection.

This trip will mark a return to serious hiking. I lost my nerve for it when I took a bad fall in the Shining Rock wilderness near Cold Mountain in the Smokies on July 4, 2001. In fact, until a couple of weeks ago, I had barely put on my well-worn Timberland boots. They were heavy, but the steel shank protected my ankles many times, the deep lug soles broke a lot of slides and falls, and the Gore Tex kept my feet warm and dry.

So, when Buck and I both bought new hikers and put down a deposit on the Maggie Valley rental, we knew the time had come to return to the ridgetops. We’ve been breaking them in around here: his are very flash Nike trail runners with electric blue laces; mine are Soloman light-weight ankle boots, Gore Tex but amazingly light — best of all, on sale. We’ve developed a pretty good routine: 40 minutes at 10 elevation on our old side-by-side treadmills, then an hour or so cross-country in the woods.

I look forward to retracing our steps up from Alum Cave to the stunning peak of Mt. LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountain Park. I will dance there and run, singing, all the way back down the mountain. The evening after that hike will be sweet. We will sit in rocking chairs on the porch, toast our day, eat take-out lasagna from Frankie’s, watching a long sunset and all the twinkly lights illuminating the valley.

Wired, Retired and Ready to Go

When you set up a blog on Typepad, there's a place to put a description. It becomes a kind of tone-setter for the blog. From Day One, my descriptive phrase has been the quote, (variations of which have been attributed to Albert Camus), "And in the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer."

I'll always love that quote, but have changed it today into a totally non-literary description of where Buck and I are in our lives. We thought we were all settled into the "old home place" here in the panhandle Florida pine woods.

But you know what? We miss living in the mountains of Western North Carolina. We just keep coming back to it again and again.

And so, we've come to one decision in a series of decisions to be made: we're getting the old house we bought a while back, the one we call  the "Sugar Shack," ready to put on the market. Buck and I grew up around lakes, rivers and the Gulf. We spent a lot of times as children hanging our feet over the edge of a dock. But like many fantasies, the reality of a place on the water in Florida is trumped by our recollections of mountain living.

Since we can't live in three places at once — frankly, two is a pretty big stretch — we're going to trade our dock-on-the-bay dream for a writers'-cottage-in-the-mountains dream, where Buck can finish his novel, start another, and I can doodle around with my essays, stories and the memoir of our time at Longleaf. If we are very lucky, the "Sugar Shack" will sell quickly. Even in this slow-moving real estate market, there is almost always a buyer for a quaint place on a pretty bay with a brand-new dock and amazing sunsets.

Soon as it sells, we'll be ready to find a piece of ground and a builder in the Waynesville/Asheville/Hendersonville area of North Carolina. I can already see the look in Buck's eye that tells me he is designing a small cottage with lots of decks.

It's an exciting time for honeymooners of any age.

We are wired, retired and ready to go.

Sunday Morning Musings

The adolescent-looking doe and her spotted baby fawn stood at the edge of the gravel road to the house just at dusk yesterday.  They watched as I opened the gate, drove in, then got out to close the gate behind me.  By the time I reached for my camera across the seat, they had melted into the woods.

Lovely sight. It's that time of year here, when  fawns are dropping, huge banana spiders hang in their substantial webs across the fireline roads, and amethyst asters mix with spiky goldenrod and the startlingly purple American Beauty Berries (French mulberries).

We have only been home since Tuesday night and will be gone again Wednesday morning. We'll be near Jasper, Georgia in a house atop Sanderlin Mountain for a few nights, and then continue to Waynesville, North Carolina to visit with our old friends in Rice Cove (the Beaverdam Community in Canton), hike the Smoky Mountains and osmose some of that high mountain inspiration.

I awoke this morning to the news that Bernard, Maine, where Buck and I were hiking exactly one week ago, is under a tropical storm watch (of all things).  Hurricane Kyle is expected to move into the Gulf of Maine today. 

In case you have the good fortune to visit the Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island in Maine, there is a book I highly recommend:

IMG_1557It was written by Tom St. Germain and published by Parkman Publications in Bar Harbor, Maine.

It's the best hiking guide I have used. We have handwritten notes in it going back to 1993.

Just as we were leaving the rental house in Bernard on Bass Harbor, one of the owners, Tom, arrived with two of his pups. Tom is originally from California, but has been in Maine long enough to be considered a local. He is a retired high school teacher, a kayaker, surfer, distance hiker and a writer.

His love for the Maine woods and waters shines through his words and gestures. He and his wife, Leslie, have a great place here, even without the fabulous view.


IMG_1577  Bass Harbor from the retreat 

Well, we've washed our hiking shorts, tshirts and socks, and are ready to hit the road again on Wednesday!  Words and pictures to follow. . . .hope you all have a great week, too.