River Is Old, but Interlopers Are New
A river still runs through Ashe County, as it has since the African continent and the Americas collided 500,000,000 years ago and pushed up the mountains called the Blue Ridge. The New River defines Ashe as much as the mountains that surround it, and is better known. The New is but a riffle here, easy paddling with few rapids and none of consequence.
Lani and I were married there 30 years ago, the first couple married in the little Episcopal Church after the famous fresco of The Last Supper was completed by Ben Long. Our children were also born in these mountains. So, we have roots there. Those seven years were in some ways the happiest of our lives.
We’ve visited many times after moving away, though it had been a couple of years since the last time. We decided to go back with the kids and camp along the ancient river. But we haven’t camped much since our days as hair paddlers on the big whitewater. I wasn’t sure I would like it anymore.
Still, it was a chance for our now-grown children to learn something about their past. They were too young to remember, but anxious to go back. They brought their significant others, making the whole experience better. My son’s girlfriend, Amanda, had never spent any real time in the mountains, so she was in for a treat. Laramie’s beau, Adam, is an experienced outdoorsman.
We found a perfect campsite along the river, at the New River State Park. It took five loads to get all gear to the site, but the camping part turned out to be perfect, orchestrated with the precision of a military campaign by Lani The Planner.
Moving around our old haunts like tourists, much felt the same. Scenic spots, weathered barns, dusty gravel roads, vistas from the top of Mt. Jefferson all brought a sense of calm and place.
We also noted major changes since we left. A gigantic WalMart nestles up next to the “new” high school, centered in a mishmash of commercial development. It is more prosperous than when we were there. There are bigger stores, more choices. In town, there are now art stores and tourist shops, coffee houses, upscale restaurants. There is even an outdoors store, though it sells mostly clothes. The old locals would have laughed at that.
Along the river, developers built gigantic houses on the ridgelines. It doesn’t help a canoeist’s “wild and scenic” view any, but the views must be pretty good from up there. These days, Christmas trees cover vast areas of mountains that were grazed by cattle. The trees aren’t scenic by comparison, and the fishing isn’t as good because of toxic runoff, but we love our Frazier firs at Christmas.
The biggest difference is the closure of land to the public. People buying in from somewhere else feel the need to wall off their private little domain and keep it to themselves. Posted land signs and fancy privacy gates are everywhere. Thirty years ago, people were tolerant as long as you did no harm. As the locals used to say, “The last one in is the first one to shut the door”. That seems is universal.
Two small events on the trip were particularly memorable. Experts tell us that fireflies are becoming dramatically less common. I’d seen only a handful all summer -until our first evening at the campsite. As the darkness closed in, all around us fireflies began blinking, hundreds of them in trees and open spaces. A little later, I went to an open field out of curiosity, and there were thousands on display. Framed by a crystal clear sky and the twinkle of thousands of stars, the fireflies put on an equal display, only brighter. After a few minutes, I could see patterns to their blinking; a hundred bugs firing up simultaneously. Only one other time have I seen anything to compare. It was magical.
The next day we went for a canoe trip and saw another miracle of sorts. Out in the middle of the river, clustered on two rocks just inches above the water, were hundreds of dragonflies, apparently mating. Each one was iridescent blue, and they were all flying united. Why that particular rock in that particular place in the river? Why the numbers? I’ve never seen anything quite like that little window into nature.
It is moments like these that make us go back, despite progress that assaults a bucolic sense of memory.
More like this story