North Carolina

The Carolina mountains are covered in a down quilt of fog. It’s summer, but the temperature is a biting 55 degrees.

The distant mountaintops look like blue humps in the hazy foreground. There are trees everywhere, trees so green they look fake.

The mountain highway winds back and forth like a half-inebriated copperhead, climbing upward, constantly twisting, turning, dipping, whirling, then doubling back. The Western North Carolina the scenery couldn’t get any more beautiful if it were made of golden bricks.

We pass a steep mountain pasture, not far from Mount Mitchell. The grass is so richly verdant, it’s lime green. The hillside is peppered with goats of all colors, grazing in haphazard formation. The goats are surrounded by a wooden fence that was at one time white, but is now weathered wood.

There is no traffic on this old highway. If you were to pull over, you could lie down in the middle of the road for half the day and live to tell the story.

It’s quiet out here. There are no vehicles. No overhead commercial airliners. No noisy A/C unit compressors. No ambient music. No nothing. Just the bleating of goats. Choirs of woodland birds. Light percussive rain, pitter-pattering on the leaves of the forest. And your own heartbeat.

I was reared in the country. Long before I moved to the city, it was the sticks that were my home. I was not raised in the mountains, but this place sort of reminds me of those early days.

My wife and I stop at a mountain gas station. The joint has seen better times. I’m not even sure whether this station is actually open for business, or whether it remains here as shrine to the days of yore. The pumps are old, with spinning numbers. No credit card readers. No overhang.

I fill up the van. I go inside to pay. A bell dings overhead. Randy Travis is singing on an unseen radio about three wooden crosses. The young woman behind the counter is—seriously—quilting.

The young woman has the same shade of red hair that I was born with. She’s either purebred Scottish, or 100 percent hick. Or both. Like me.

“Hey, you’re quilting,” I say to her, because I am a very observant man.

When she opens her mouth to speak, she sounds like the backwoods of the Old North State.

“Hey,” she says with a smirk. “You’re pretty sharp. Where y’all from?”


She frowns, as though I have just told her I am from the far flung deserts of Jupiter. “How far’s that from here?”

“Long way. About four hours.”

“Shoot,” she says. Only she doesn’t say “shoot.” She uses a much more colloquial term.

Then she spits into a Doctor Pepper bottle.

I am wondering if this woman has ever been four hours from home. So I ask. “What’s the farthest you’ve traveled?”

Her answer comes easily. “Shoot. I been all the way over to Japan,” she says. “Joined the Army when I got outta high school. They sent me over there, and it was godawful. Couldn’t wait to get home. When I got back to North Carolina, I told my mama to nail my feet to the ground.”

She completed college on the GI bill. But she doesn’t use her degree. She is a wife and a mother. And she works two side jobs. I ask how many kids she has.

“Five,” she tells me.

“That’s a lot of kids.”

“Shoot,” she says with a laugh.

“You’re a busy woman.”

“But I’m a lucky one, too.” She holds up the quilt. “This is a blanket for my first granddaughter. She was born a few nights ago, she’s a few weeks premature. But she’s healthy, and beautiful.”

“You don’t look old enough to be a grandma.”

“You’re sweet, but I’m already married.”

I pay for my gas. By the time I leave the filling station, the music has changed to Ronnie Milsap. “Smoky Mountain Rain” is the tune. My grandmother loved this song.

I can still hear Granny’s voice singing as she smoked her Winstons and kneaded dough with her bare hands. And I am reminded of how beautifully short life is. My granny was only 20-odd years older than me when she died.

“Don’t get lost up here, city boy,” the cashier says with a smile.



  1. David in California - June 23, 2023 12:32 pm

    “Light percussive rain, pitter-pattering on the leaves of the forest.” Beautiful. I miss that sound.

  2. Richard Owen - June 23, 2023 1:05 pm

    The story reminds me of wanting to do a Four Corners trip on my Harley FLH Classic with my wife and never touch an interstate. Nothing but backroads. Won’t be able to do it now as I doubt I am physically able.

    But this piece conjures up images for this old photographer.

  3. Dee Thompson - June 23, 2023 1:36 pm

    Grew up in Knoxville, and my parents used to take us to ride every Sunday afternoon, into the mountains. Your descriptions are perfect. Mountain people are different, in a good way. I set my second novel, Leaf Season, in the North Georgia mountains. God’s country.

  4. DAVID PEACOCK - June 25, 2023 12:30 am

    I grew up in Winston-Salem, went to college and spent the bulk of my adult life trying to tell everyone how beautiful it is in NC. Word can’t do it justice but yours come darn close!!

  5. Gary - June 28, 2023 10:43 pm

    Thanks, Sean. Well done. I’m a native Tar Heel from the eastern low country but now live in Jackson county about an hour south of where your story takes place. It’s truly a rare way of life – and always 10-15° cooler than downhill. Stop by sometime and we’ll have bourbon, pick the banjo, and talk late with whomever shows up. Then when it cools off, we can head down to the farm in Columbus County where the world is flat and you can see for a long long way. I live a blessed life here in NC.


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