Part 4: In which a mountain county is described
This morning, an incandescent white fog filled the river valley and the ground was covered with frost. The cows that graze on the bottom land exhaled steam, when you could see them at all. Yesterday was much the same; most of the afternoon was ”whited out,” meaning that everything past four or five feet from your eyes was obliterated by the mist.
Weather like this is one of my reasons for loving these mountains in the Blue Ridge of North Carolina. I have never seen so much weather. It is as though the weather were condensed, like a stew cooked down from a soup.
Even fair weather is magnified, the air clearer, the sun bigger and brighter, the clouds more manic. The air is often so clear that you’d swear you could resolve individual blades of grass on the side of Mount Jefferson, five miles away.
And the weather changes quickly and dramatically. It is all foretold on the face of Mount Jefferson, in the middle of North Carolina’s Ashe County.
We can see the mountain from the house we are staying at, out the kitchen window. It dominates the more populous half of Ashe County, raising its humped peak over the surrounding hills like ”a Charlemagne among his peers.”
Mount Jefferson will glow with sunlight one moment and turn dark and baleful the next, signifying the coming of a storm. He will evaporate before your eyes in portent of snow, growing whiter and whiter as the snow becomes a veil between our window and the peak. Some days he is blue, some days, gray. In early morning, the sunlight sparks the peak into a glowing orange. At other, very clear times, the mountain is green. Blue, Gray, Orange, Green — Union, Rebel, Protestant, Catholic — they all war on the mountainside.
And every day, the mountain has shown me something new in color, tone, shape, shadow, contrast, mist, camouflage.
And all night long, when the winds calm, as they seldom do, I can hear the rush of water over the rocks in the New River.
Ashe County, in the extreme northwest corner of North Carolina, is 427 square miles of wrinkled green mountain irrigated by clear cascading streams. Away from any major highways, and with no high-profile attractions, it is not overrun with tourists, even in the height of summer.
The people who are sprinkled through these hills and hollows are open, friendly and helpful, especially in winter, when cooperation is a necessity.
The whole county, populated by only about 27,000 people, is a haven for outdoor activities, and visitors find plenty of fishing, canoeing, hiking and camping.
The New River flows through Ashe County, or rather, both New Rivers, for it is divided into the North Fork and South Fork. Between them, they section off the county by thirds, running from the southwest to northeast.
The river is very old, the oldest in the New World according to some geologists, and it meanders like the Mississippi rather than straightaway seeking its own level and cascading over anything in its path, the way most mountain rivers do. And every other river in the state flows, eventually, southeast. The New River flows north, eventually joining the Kanawha River in West Virginia and then following the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico.
The river twists and folds on itself so mazily that you are constantly surprised, on coming to the river by the highway, that it always flows in the opposite direction you would have thought it should.
About half the roads in the county are paved, but a large percentage are only gravel. Some are only Jeep trails. And all along these roads there are random mountain houses and bordering fences. Actually, the county seems divided in character into its southeastern and northwestern halves.
In the southeast, rolling knolls of pastureland at average heights between 2,500 and 3,000 feet above sea level look as if they had been misplaced from England’s Yorkshire. This half of the county is well populated. The county seat is Jefferson, with about 4,700 people; West Jefferson is slightly less populated but is more developed. When people go ”to town,” they mean West Jefferson. It’s where you’ll find Geno’s Pizza.
There are many farms with tobacco patches, cornfields and oceans of wheat. The biggest industry is beef cattle, and nearly every farmer in this half of the county grows his own steers. Dairy cows are common, too, and Ashe County has its own cheese factory, the only one in the state. Tours are popular, and so are samples.
Also in Glendale Springs is the Last Supper fresco painted by artist Ben Long IV in the 1970s at Holy Trinity Church. Long spent years in Italy studying the technique for painting on wet plaster and had searched vainly in the United States for a place to practice his craft. When he came to Ashe County in 1973, he approached Father Faulton Hodge with his proposal to make a fresco in his church and Hodge told him, ”We’ll take it. What’s a fresco?”
Actually, Long’s first work for Hodge and the parish was at the smaller and older St. Mary’s Church in Beaver Creek. His first work was a large painting of the pregnant Virgin Mary, holding her swollen belly. Some 75,000 people come each year to see the frescoes. Both churches are open 24 hours a day.
But the northwestern portion of the county is broken up with long, high mountains, and settlers have built tiny wind-weathered shacks in the coves. A few longer valleys are nicked with strings of homes, but there is none of the broad farmland that makes the other half of the county so habitable.
Ashe County was once called ”the Lost County” because it was hidden up behind the Blue Ridge — a virtual escarpment that separates the Appalachian Mountains to the west from the rolling hills of the Piedmont to the east — and there was virtually no way to travel up and down the Ridge to communicate with the rest of the state.
What travel and communication early Ashe County residents had was with Virginia, not North Carolina. Even now, there is only one road — North Carolina 16 — that dares climb the face of the Blue Ridge to enter Ashe County.
One of the results of the isolation was that early settlers felt an alienation from the rest of the state. Because they believed that the Raleigh government was ignoring them, portions of mountain North Carolina — including Ashe County, and parts of what would later become eastern Tennessee — seceded and formed their own state, which they named Franklin. It lasted from 1784 to 1788, eventually fizzling out when no one paid it much attention.
Historically, the mountains of the South have always been distinct from the rest of the region. Even during the Civil War, when Southern patriotism was supreme, abolitionist sentiment ran high among the poor farmers of the mountains, and the ”Underground Railway” had a regular stop in Ashe County. In fact, before the United States Geological Survey named the central peak after our third president, it was locally called Negro Mountain, or some less polite version of that, after the number of runaway slaves that found shelter in its shadow.
In 1840, there were just under a hundred registered (and legal) distilleries in Ashe County. When North Carolina voted itself dry, the distilleries went underground, or more properly, uphill.
Corn liquor is still being made. It is popular and available, despite the ”revenooers.” Commercial whiskeys are now available again, but many prefer the corn squeezings; it has a reputation for smoothness. ”Goes down like a pussycat; flies through your veins like a wildcat.”
A tax-paid legal and commercial version of the moonshine is available in some portions of the mountains for those who want to find out legally what it’s like to drink their hooch from a Mason jar.
The best times of year to visit Ashe County are the spring, when the season works its way up the mountain, trailing clouds of azalea and rhododendron glory behind; and fall, when the season comes back down the mountain, coloring all the trees with orange, yellow and red. Fall colors in the North Carolina mountains have few rivals anywhere.
NEXT: North Carolina Pig Pickin’