Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas at the old Langhorne Mill

Christmas morning in the Blue Ridge came with that spectacular fiery glimmer that often lights up the mountains with a ruddy glow -- even on days that will be overcast and short.  But by an hour after dawn it provided a nice, even, flat light at one of the prettiest sites in these mountains -- the remains of the old Langhorne Mill on the upper reaches of the Dan River, a few miles north of Meadows of Dan.

Here's what Leslie Shelor wrote on the Web about the early settlers here:

The earliest recorded settlers in Meadows of Dan reached the area by 1810. Patrick County was formed from Henry County in 1790, and established farms and communities were already in existence in the lower parts of the county. The Langhorne family, one of the few of English descent in the community, held a land grant that contained much of what is now considered Meadows of Dan, but by the time they reached the area, they found many people already settled. The Langhorne patriarch is credited with giving the area the name Meadows of Dan. He settled on the headwaters of the Dan River, and grist mills in the Langhorne name were built along the stream. Another settler, John Shelor, came to the area when he was young, hunting wolves for bounty. His journal, which no longer exists, records that there had been a fire in the area. The new growth, as he described it, had reached the height of the shoulder of a deer.  Thus the "meadows".

 I don't know who took time to put some bright ribbons and swags of greenery on the little bridge on Langhorne Mill Road or on the beautiful old stonework foundation of the mill itself, but they certainly made my day when I saw it on my way back to the farm after picking up some diesel.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Best ham you ever ate. Scout's honor.

It had been a miserable day -- soggy, dark, mercury fixing to plunge, inhospitable, mud ugly -- when Barnie and Debbie Day walked in with a big ham, a big pot, a big saw and big hearts. They have taken us under their wings up here in the Blue Ridge and have been making sure we know what to do, especially when it comes to good eating.

Barnie has taught Jim Newlin and me how to skin a deer and where to get the meat butchered and wrapped. He has shown me his favorite early-morning hunting spots, introduced me to people who know how to fix a tractor or rive a shingle or get a small engine running again, and brought me books from his library in the century-old house where he and Debbie live.

On this night Jim and Silvie Granitelli joined us for a session in how to wrap-cook the ham.  We turned it into a party. And it turns out to be fairly easy for an old guy to cook the best ham you ever tasted.It works like a charm. I should mention that all three of us are married to wonderful cooks, so it's a delight to me to discover I can do something in the cooking category that doesn't involve making a pot of chili or firing up the grill or tending the smoker all afternoon.

I wrote about Barnie's instructions for wrap-cooking a ham about a year ago on a  blog I was writing for The Charlotte Observer, and I had tasted a wrap-cooked ham, but hadn't cooked one. Barnie says he got the instructions, by the way, from a fellow named Robert Crumpton Sr. of Roxboro and Oxford, so he always gives credit where it's due.

Detailed instructions follow, but here's the short summary: Get a Clifty Farm ham if you can find it (Barnie gets his at the Piggly Wiggly in Danville) and cut off the hock. Save it, but you won't need it to cook the ham.  Put the ham in the big pot and cover it with a couple of inches of water. Turn it on and bring it to a boil. While you're waiting, drink some Irish whiskey and tell some outrageous stories. It won't help the ham cook but it'll fill the time while you're waiting for the pot to boil.  When the pot boils, immediately take it off the stove, wrap the pot in some heavy insulation such as a sleeping bag, tie it all together, and leave it for about 12 hours. The next morning, pull the ham out of the still-hot water, remove the tough outer rind, score the fat in a cross-hatch or diamond pattern, rub in plain old American sugar, and bake it for two hours in the oven at 275 degrees. When it comes out, the flavor will just about knock you down it's so good.

Here's the longer set of instructions. Print 'em out, cook your ham, and remember where you read it first:

This is the world’s best way to cook a country ham.  Guaranteed.  Period.  Scout’s honor.  Cross my heart and hope to die.  And it’s not original.  Of course, I stole it.  And, as luck would have it, it is also the easiest.  Often the case.  We overcomplicate a lot of things.  Cooking a ham is one of them.

Let’s start with the ham itself, and how it was cured. 

There are lots of run-of-the-mill brands, some of them old and famous but still run-of-the-mill, brands that owe their reputations more to glossy catalogues and clever and expensive marketing campaigns than they do to judge-by-eating juries. 

Many of these hams are cured “inside out,” needle-embalmed with nitrate injections.  They are not the best hams -- often more expensive -- but not the best.

Still, these hams eat okay -- unless you’ve eaten ham cured like your granddaddy cured it, ham cured the old way.

He cured his hams “outside in.”  He didn’t know about nitrate injections.  (And if he had, he wouldn’t have done it to his hams!)  He simply packed his fresh in plain salt for six to eight weeks, took them up, washed and dried them, maybe smoked them a little, maybe not, probably peppered them, hung them in cotton sacking in a cool place, out of reach of the dogs, and aged them for several months. 

A note here:  don’t be flummoxed by the term “sugar cured.”  Often salt is mixed with sugar, with pepper, with molasses, with honey -- all kinds of stuff -- and labeled some fancy “cure,” or another, but these things -- including smoke -- be it apple wood, hickory, whatever -- only flavor hams.  What cures, or preserves, a ham is the salt that it absorbs during the curing process. 

Buy whatever brand you want.  For my money, the best country ham in this part of the world, the one closest to what your granddaddy cured, is a Clifty Farm ham, processed for 60 years or so by the Murphey Family, in Paris, Tennessee.  They’re usually available, and reasonably priced, across Southside Virginia around Christmastime.  ($1.79 a pound at the Piggly Wiggly in Danville.)

Okay, now let’s cook that bad boy!

Unwrap the ham and wash it.  Yeah, they all have a little mold.  No big deal.  Really.  It would cause me some concern if it didn’t have mold on it.  Just palm it off with a little warm water.  Two minutes, tops. 

Put the ham in a pot that you have a top for.  I always have to cut the hock off so it will fit the pot I use.  They’ll cut the hock off for you at the grocery store.  If I have to tell you what that hock is good for, stop reading this and move on.  You got no business with a country ham.  Either that, or you’re a Yankee, and threw the ham out when you saw the mold.

Fill the pot with water until the ham is covered with 3-4 inches, put the top on, and bring it to a boil.

Now here is the trick to this:  As soon as it begins to boil, you take it off the stove.  That’s right.  Off the stove when it begins to boil.  Set it somewhere where it will be out of your way. 

Now we’re going to wrap that puppy up.  Pot and all.  You can use most anything -- towels, an old blanket, a quilt, a sleeping bag.  The patio lounge cushion works well.  That’s what I use.  The idea is to insulate the pot so that it holds the heat.

I put an inch or so of newspaper under the pot, the same amount on top, wrap the patio cushion around it, and tie the cushion in place with baling twine.  This doesn’t take five minutes.  Just make sure it’s insulated good.

When you get it wrapped, leave it alone.  Walk away from it.  Forget about it for 12 hours.  Just let it sit.

After 12 hours, remove the wrap, and take the ham out of the pot and put it on a baking pan.  Careful here—even after sitting 12 hours, the water will be too hot for you to put your hands in.

Trim the skin off, score a diamond pattern on the thin layer of encasing fat, rub into it a cup of white sugar, put the ham -- uncovered -- in the oven and bake it for 2 hours at 275 degrees.  And that’s it.  You’re done.  Let it cool before slicing. 

Merry Christmas.  And best to you and yourn

Barnie K. Day
Meadows of Dan, VA

Friday, December 9, 2011

Bringing in the tree

It must have been planted upwards of 30 or 40 years ago.  It grows on an eastern-facing slope just above a little creek way up in the headwaters of what eventually becomes the wide waters of the Roanoke River down in eastern North Carolina.  But up here in the Blue Ridge, it's a spring-fed run, just wide enough to have to take a running jump over it.  I think Hal Strickland planted it in the 1970s not long after he bought the 66-acre farm ("66 acres, more or less," as the deed has it) where we now live.

I think it's a blue spruce, though my quick consultation with The Sibley Guide to Trees suggests a couple other possibilities. Some relatives nearby look a little bluer. Thing is, it's magnificent. In an area where we are losing some handsome hemlocks, this tree has a lovely shape, broad and tall with a lush coat. It's just the sort of thing the well-to-do folks on Sunset and Country Club drives decorated with hundreds of large colored bulbs in the 1950s when I was growing up in Greensboro, two hours south of here. It would have taken days to get it right, moving those heavy strings of lights around with long poles and extension ladders so that the red and green and gold and blue lights were positioned just right.  Long after seeing the National Christmas Tree lit in Washington, the rich tapestry of the trees at Rockefeller Center in New York and the dazzling Christmas spectacle of Biltmore House all dressed for the season, the memory of those huge trees in Greensboro still evokes a sense of wonder and awe.

Maybe that's why I began to feel a sense of responsibility in the mid-1950s when my dad first consented to let me find and cut and bring in the family tree. "Bring in a good one," he would say. My buddy Ray Manieri and his dad used to go out to a quarry southeast of town and find a suitable cedar, and for years I tagged along, my dad's old U.S. hatchet in hand, bent on a mission of finding the perfect tree.  Never did, but I brought home a number of scratchy, gooey aromatic cedars that from 200 yards looked magnificent, from 50 yards still looked good and from up close looked presentable -- if we could get enough lights and ornaments and tinsel on the thing to fill in the gaps and make it right. My dad, a kind man, would look it over critically, nod once and pronounce it fit: "Finest of its kind," he would say, as his father used to say before him, and his grandfather long before that.

In the late 1950s or early 1960s our Christmas tree went through what I came to think of as The Small Ice Age.  My mom had seen a picture in Look or Life magazine of a perfectly good green tree that had been spray-painted white and hung with royal blue ornaments and royal blue lights. My dad and I had to paint the tree with a couple of cans of white spray paint a day before bringing it inside. The white branches and blue jewelry presented a bright contrast, a modern look that went nicely, I suppose, with the blue and white decor in our little living room.

It was just godawful.  Among other things, it looked cold and hard and uninviting, like a lot of the so-called modern furniture of that period. It made me shiver. And the predominant aroma was not of a green living tree. It was of the chemicals that came along inside the aerosol can of white paint -- noxious, artificial, possibly sacrilegious, surely unAmerican.  It was embarrassing. I knew that The Unwritten Law of the Season held that trees ought to be green and there ought to be plenty of red and green lights on the tree.  The white and the blue were pretty colors, but it never seemed proper to me -- and I feared that the combination would bring us a critical write-up from The Christmas Decoration Board of Review, if not a fine or a stern upbraiding in the public prints.

But as time passed, the white tree and the spray paint and the blue lights went the way of the sack dress and the pillbox hat and the tail fin and the avocado-colored kitchen appliance, and sanity returned to the annual practice of sprucing up the place.

When The Former Party Doll Strickland and I set up housekeeping in the late 1960s, we got our first tree from Kroger in Burlington. It wasn't a lovely tree, but it was green, and it looked good in that little apartment off Trail Two not far from the Interstate.  In future years the tree would get better, and in our first house in the early 1970s, living in the far western corner of Arlington County just within that original square outline of the District of Columbia, a Christmas tree sales lot opened up near the bottom of Patrick Henry Drive just on the edge of a county park and greenway.  It was perfect. And it snowed like crazy. I got out my dad's old Flexible Flyer sled, which he had gotten for Christmas about 1912, and we hauled our new tree up the four blocks to our little box colonial in Dominion Hills.  That sled was the fastest around when I was a kid, but dragging it uphill with a seven-foot tree and a two-year-old boy aboard was slow, hard work. By the time we got it up to our place, I was ready for a couple of glasses of Christmas cheer.

I thought about that long, hard trudge up the hill in the snow the other day when it came time to bring our new nine-foot (stem to stern) Fraser fir into the house. It had sat in a washtub of water for a week, taking up good Patrick County wellwater after we found it on the lot over at Slaughter's in Floyd.  Our back deck is maybe five feet off the ground. And hauling that sodden tree up the steps and into the house was still as full of anticipation as it had been more than 50 years ago, dragging a scraggly cedar across a mile or more of broomsedge and briar before it could be tied atop the car and brought home.

Once in the house it did, indeed, look magnificent -- pretty darn close, I think, to the finest of its kind.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

On Thanksgiving Day, touch hands

William Henry Harrison "Adirondack" Murray was a 19th century clergyman and outdoorsman who, I have read, virtually invented the American outdoors guidebook.  I don't know if that's so, but I do know the man could write.  He wrote a piece about Christmas Day once that my family, many years ago, adopted for Thanksgiving use, too.  And in an era where stores are opening on Thanksgiving Day and many have to go to work, it's an appropriate time to think about what Murray had to say.  Here's what he wrote, with the word Thanksgiving substituted twice where Christmas appears every other day of the year:

Ah friends, dear friends,
years go on and heads get gray,
How fast the guests do go!
Touch hands, touch hands,
With those that stay.
Strong hands to weak,
Old hands to young, around the
Thanksgiving board
touch hands.
The false forget, the foe forgive,
For every guest will go
And every fire burn low
And cabin empty stand.
Forget, forgive,
For who may say that Thanksgiving Day
May ever come to host or guest again.
Touch hands!

~ William Henry Harrison Murray

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gizmos are great, except when they aren't

Every now and then the phone rings and the call sounds familiar. It'll be an installer from Lowes, or a truck driver from Grand Furniture, or the deliveryman from Costco, or maybe the FedEx motor freight driver.

And they have pretty much the same question: Where are you?
 Does this look like a road a delivery van would travel on?

It's especially important to people who make their livings finding you and giving you what you've paid for. One fellow pulled up in front of our house after coming up the wrong end of Belcher Mountain Road and having to work his way around some turns as tight as a paper clip.  He shut off the engine, rolled down the window and asked, "Mister, is there another way off this mountain?"  When I told him the Blue Ridge Parkway was just about three miles east and Black Ridge Road just a bit farther, he sighed. "You got to be kidding. I was on Black Ridge two hours ago, before the GPS lost its mind and told me to go down to Woolwine and up the east end of Belcher Mountain Road.

This farm is at the same place it's been for, oh, a century or so. But the problem is that people have lost their ability to read topographic maps or follow directions. They just want to trust the GPS and the computer.  Bad idea.

We learned about this years ago way down on the Neuse River, where we kept a 37-foot cutter with the latest Garmin chartplotter and a computer chip containing the latest maps.  When we ran aground in the river below New Bern, we realized that trusting the GPS also depended on our trusting that the chartmaker years ago put the channel on the correct side of the daymarkers.  But someone had fouled up, putting the channel about 30 feet southeast of where it ought to have been. It took us a while to work our way off the shoal and find the channel.

In the same fashion, the computer-based map services such as Mapquest and Google Maps depend on some mapmaker from long ago to have put the right things down on the topo maps. But neither of those computer services has a brain to ask such questions as: Can a tractor trailer maneuver around those hairpin turns?  Is that dotted line through the woods really a passable road? Is it wide enough for a delivery truck?  Is that dotted line even in the right place?

The answer we've found is sometimes no. Somebody fouled up the maps a long time ago, and the computer -- trusting the old input and without the ability to reason its way through reasonable questions -- assumes the old maps are right and that everything's okay.

A month or so ago an installer was coming out to measure for a new storm door. Well after the appointed hour he called from down in Woolwine.  "Lookahere," he said, "I'm trying to get up to your house and the computer says I'm just a couple of miles away, but I can't find Brammer Spur Road."

 No wonder. Brammer Spur Road isn't a passable road, not for traffic, anyway.  Sure, there's a paved Brammer Spur Road out of Woolwine that turns into a dirt farm road at the base of the mountain and then seems to peter out in the woods. But it's a rocky, rutted track for most of its length, in places well sunken andf badly eroded and narrow, a jeep trail that's passable by foot, horseback or ATV.  And it's blocked off at the Belcher Mountain end by the property owners who don't want folks gallivanting all over the mountainside on a road that is little more than an old trail.

The second problem is that some of the map services I've seen have confused Brammer Spur with another trail that runs along the Blue Ridge Escarpment a ways. It's the Connor Spur Road, but it hasn't been a passable road to motor traffic since Moses was in third grade.  We walked down it 20 years ago, occasionally losing sight of where the trail went, backtracking to find and follow the trail down the hill.  It too sometimes shows up on the computer maps as a passable road.  It isn't.

And the third problem is that even with all the sophisticated gizmos that can figure out latitude and longitude, the computer services can't seem to figure out exactly where we are.  They seem to think we're over near Barnie Day's property, when in fact we're about a mile east of there.

This ought to be easy to fix. But I've spent several hours trying to send email to Google and trying to use its online fix-a-mistake page.  No doubt I've made a mistake trying to use it properly.  Somehow we haven't connected.

But I have to give credit where it's due: the U.S. Postal Service doesn't have any trouble finding us. Whenever there's a bill to be paid, that notice will be on time and in the right box.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Reflections on a beat-up bass

Tell the truth, it looked just awful in full daylight.  It was nicked and dinged and dented and scratched from its wobbly foot to its tarnished brass tuning keys.  The neck had cracked badly at some point and an inexpert repairer had tried to fill it with wood putty and touch it up, a badly botched job. Someone had dabbed shiny little dots along the neck to help them remember, I guess, where certain notes were. The strings were frayed. The bridge was missing part of a corner. The built-in pickup hadn't been picked up in ages.  And someone long ago had painted a marking that looked like some kind of Oriental calligraphy, or so I thought.

It was an old school bass, manufactured in 1946 by the Kay Musical Instrument Co., so named for Henry Kay "Hank" Kuhrmeyer, who bought the company and renamed it in the 1920s and turned out about a jillion inexpensive basses, and some expensive ones, over the years. And it was made the same year I was, so we had a lot in common. We would spend the rest of our days together, I thought.

  I had always like the bass -- had played an old brass Sousaphone and a shiny Conn upright bass in the band at Aycock Junior High School in Greensboro in the late 1950s and early '60s.

And a couple years later when Woody Allen and Fred Birdsong and I formed a little band that would be the next Kingston Trio (it wasn't), I borrowed a friend's dad's old aluminum bass fiddle, painted brown to badly resemble real wood.  Jimmy "Squirrel" Garrison joined us before long and we played all over Greensboro and a few out-of-town dates, including, of all things, a drug store opening in Danville VA and followed up with a live performance on a local radio station there.

We thought we were on our way.  We were -- one to Auburn, one to the Army, one to Lehigh, one to Chapel Hill. But still we got together on holidays and military leaves and summer breaks, and I always promised I'd get a good bass to go with the Martin guitars and Gibson 5-strings and this lovely Santa Cruz that Squirrel made sing.

It was years before I found what I wanted and could pay cash money. As knocked up as it was, it put out this amazing sound, full, ripe, authoritative and easy on these stubby fingers I inherited from South Carolina forebears.  I put a new Fishman pickup on it to put a direct injection into this dandy Bose sound system we scraped up the money to help fill Yankee Stadium in case we got invited to bring our music to Gotham. Never did, but we played some fun places over the years in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and, just briefly, Tennessee. Here's a photo of that old bass posing with me, Woody, and Squirrel one night up in the Cane Creek Valley outside Asheville in 2005.  In the dim light of that evening the bass looked a lot better than it did during the day.

That old Kay just would fit in the bed of my pickup truck, and we logged quite a few miles in it before a lightning bolt struck our new house in 2010 one June night when no one was within five miles, and everything burned to cinders.  Never found a trace of the Kay.

Three months later we were in California for our niece's wedding in a lovely, ancient redwood forest. The band was a wonderful group called the California Honey Drops, and the bass player was making this old bass with some dings and dents do things I could only dream about. When the band took a break I wandered over to take a look. It was a 1947 Kay, he told me.  "Funny thing," he went on. "I have this expensive as hell bass at home, and when I play it at performance, people come up to me and ask, 'Why aren't you playing that old bass? It sounds a whole lot better than that fancy one.'"

I knew what he meant. Some of those old Kays could make a joyful noise.

And I thought about that old Kay when this week's New Yorker magazine arrived in the mail.  The cover shows a little kid with a little violin case looking in the door of a studio, where a composer was working on a score on a baby grand, surround by seven or eight big old bass fiddles and a timpani of some sort.  Sure, maybe they were full-sized cellos or something, but to my mind they looked like acoustic basses -- doghouse basses, some folks call 'em, or uprights.  I know how that kid felt. I never really learned to play the Kay that well, but it was forgiving enough that if you could pick out the right notes often enough and throw in a little run every now and then on the back beat, you could play bluegrass, folk, blues and even a bit of what Squirrel liked to call, with a grin and a glint in his eye, acoustic listening music.

A while back I found a fellow over in Elk Creek, VA, who had  lovely looking bass for sale -- a 2004  Engelhardt, the successor company to the maker once known as Kay.  It's a beautiful thing -- rosewood neck, shiny brass tuners, flawless varnish, not a nick on it.

Shoot, I'm almost afraid to pick it up. I'm hard on instruments, and that old beat-up Kay was kind of like me -- scarred around the garboard strakes, worn about the scrollwork and not quite as upright as it once was.  But the tone's nice and the action is a bit more suited to my fingers, and when I draw a bow across those G, D, A and E strings, it makes a most satisfying bass line.  I believe I'll go see right now if I can still find the progression for "Abilene" and "Make Me a Pallet."    It was around here somewhere, last time I looked.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

You don't miss your water 'til the spring runs dry

Tucked into the folds of the Patrick County countryside is a springhouse that has served generations of Connors and Woods and other families that lived in the little frame two-story farmhouse a few feet away. The springhouse, now nearly hidden from view by greenbrier, blueberry bushes and a lush growth of stubborn vines and weeds, was not just a water supply but also the refrigeration for families who farmed the high pastures and rocky bottoms, raised a few dairy cows and cultivated apples for the better part of a century.  And the spring would have been a good place for native Indians to hunt game as deer and other creatures of the woods came to water in the long times before the springhouse went up.  My father-in-law once told me he had found several arrowheads along the little creek that flowed down from the spring and the nearby seeps that helped feed what is know as the North Prong of the North Fork of the Mayo River. 

You can't see the springhouse, hidden in foliage in the picture, above, that  Dave Bennett took in August. But at some point in the 20th century the spring was enclosed in concrete half-walls, and a gabled roof was built atop -- just about the size of a modern dormer -- to keep vegetation and leaves out and to provide shelter and shade to the cool waters that burbled up from the ground. Eight years ago my father-in-law asked me to pick up some roofing material because the old shingles were falling to pieces. I got some green corrugated fiberglass roofing from Lowes and commenced to have an awful time fastening it down to the ancient oak purlins.  They had dried and weathered to approximately the hardness of cast iron, or so it felt, and nailing those roofing sheets down was a miserable job.  But the roof went on and the springhouse looked good.

Buford Wood, who died a few years ago but who lived with his family in the nearby house many years ago, once told me that the spring ran low a few years but never dried up.  My father-in-law, who died last year, had poured a small concrete basin in the floor of the springhouse to collect enough water so that he could run it through a half-inch flexible pipe down to the garden, a couple of  hundred feet downhill.  He had a wire mesh intake for the water, and connected the other end of the pipe to a wooden sink with an old bronze faucet at the garden end. There they could wash the garden produce in the sink or get a drink of cool water on a hot day without worrying about creek mud, bugs or things that ought not be in the water.  In a dry summer they ran hoses from the sink to irrigate the tomatoes, corn, broccoli,eggplants, lima beans and half-runners.

A few weeks ago as we were putting the garden to bed or the year I turned the faucet on for a quick splash -- and got nothing but air.  While the nearby creek was still running with a steady trickle of water, nothing was coming down the pipe. A quick walk up the hill showed why: the intake pipe was out of the water because the water level itself had dropped to barely half an inch in the bottom of the basin.  This was no huge cause for alarm. After all, the growing season was over, and we had had a mighty dry period his summer that ended only when the remnants of a tropical storm blew through and dropped five inches or so of rain.

The other day I checked the spring again and the basin was dry this time, although I could hear the creek the spring fed as water hurried downhill. It's hard to see where that water originates, but it has to be close by under the thicket of weeds.

This is our first fall living full-time on the mountain, and I don't know if this represents a permanent change or merely a seasonal shortage.  But as I put away the hoses for the year and brought the last of the buckets and watering cans inside the old house for storage, I sent up a hopeful prayer that in the spring we'd see springhouse water running again  -- on its way down the mountain in time to help feed the Dan River and the Roanoke River and, a couple hundred miles east, Albemarle Sound and the Atlantic Ocean.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ice storm in the Blue Ridge

When the temperature dropped to 32 Friday night on Belcher Mountain, it iced up fast.  We have more than 1/2 inch of ice on some limbs and a lot of trees are bowed over nearly to the ground.   Reminds me of that early December ice storm in Raleigh in 2002, but with fewer limbs on the trees, we don't have anywhere near the damage.
Thing is, it's only Oct. 29 -- and winter's almost two months away. Yikes!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

When Northern Lights come South

It was about this time of year in that fall of 1960. I was 14, and Troop 2004 from Greensboro's First Presbyterian Church was taking its second camping trip that October.  A lot of troops in my hometown took maybe one trip a month; we went every other week, fulfilling our Scoutmaster's vision of seeing one end of North Carolina to the other -- and a lot of South Carolina and Virginia as well.

We had left after school that Friday afternoon and it was pitch black by the time we got up to the area where we could camp for the weekend somewhere near Table Rock in western North Carolina. I think we were in a state forest, though it might have been federal land. It was so dark we barely found our way in. There was no moon, and we had to hike in near total dark to find a campsite for a dozen tents. We had already had dinner along the way, so at least we didn't have to cook. That night the wind came up howling, and more than one of us found ourselves waking up in collapsed tents.  We were on a steep slope, and a few found it hard to stay in place.

That next day was absolutely gorgeous. We hiked around the forest, found places where we imagined we might be able to see foxfire or maybe even the Brown Mountain Light -- probably way too far, but we had no clue -- and worked up huge appetites.  That evening the winds did not drop, and Broadus Troxler, our scoutmaster, worried  that the wind would carry sparks and set the woods on fire. It had been a dry fall, and the last thing anyone needed was a forest fire.

That afternoon we had hiked along a short stub of an old logging road, flat enough and wide enough and just protected enough that we could make cookfires. So we hiked back to that site in the dark to collect firewood and cook a hot meal . It was good to be out of the full force of the wind, a relief, actually, and we enjoyed the heat from the fires as we had the usual deep conversations carried on by 12 13 and 14-year-old boys.

Until, that is, someone looked up the mountainside that was blocking the wind and saw an awful sight.  The sky above the mountain was red and orange and pulsing, and we knew what it was right way. "Good Lord," someone hollered, "the mountain is on fire. We've got to get out of here."

There ensued a mad scramble to collect food and frying pans and coats and backpacks and make a mad dash for the cars, parked way down at the bottom of the mountain, so we could get out of the forest before the winds blew the fire down on top of us.  The Scoutmasters wanted to make sure we didn't panic, so he had us fall in by patrols, dress right and cover down in the dark and set off on route step. We would make an orderly, if hurried withdrawal.

Halfway down the mountain we ran into a lone figure, a forest ranger who knew we were camping in that area and who knew we'd be anxious. No, it wasn't a forest fire, he said, but it was an unusual event. What we were seeing, he told us,was the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights,  that on some rare occasions could be seen in the South.  We hiked back up the mountain and spent the rest of the evening gazing at that nearly incredible phenomenon.

The other day Jorge Valencia's story in The Roanoke Times brought back that half-century old memory in his lead paragraph -- referring to skywatchers "who may have mistaken it for a mountain fire in the Alleghany Highlands."

I can vouch for any skywatchers who thought it might herald a fire. Indeed it was a fire, but in the sky, a solar storm that Monday night was seen as far south as Arkansas, the paper reported.   I have been told that on some occasions the Northern Lights have been seen as far south as Florida.  Maybe so. But I can tell you for a certainty that seeing the Northern Lights on a cold windy night on the side of a dark mountain is enough to make your jaw drop -- and make you want to run for safety.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bringing back the American Chestnut

For those who still mourn the loss of the American Chestnut and who hope researchers can come up with a way to revive that lovely tree, Hanna Miller's story in the News & Observer and Charlotte Observer Monday was good news indeed. Here's a link. The good news is there's lots of promise and early signs of progress. The bad news is that we won't know, perhaps for half a century, according to one researcher, if they've really succeeded.

As Miller reported, "You can only declare continued optimism rather than victory at least for another 50 years or so," says Dr. Fred Hebard, staff pathologist for The American Chestnut Foundation's research station in Meadowview, Va. "When those things are 100 feet tall, you can definitely declare victory."

It's important in so many ways, particularly to the mountain economy.  Life in the Blue Ridge was made especially hard when the blight struck in the late 1920s and began killing off a noble three that provided so much for mountain families: food for the family, mast for animals of the forest, a cash income, lovely wood that was easy to work yet made strong furniture, and as one book once described it, was so light that even "porch babies" could move it around.

When the blight struck, the government advised land owners to cut down their chestnuts and salvage the wood before the blight ruined it. That turned out to be a terrible mistake, because the blight would not have killed every tree. In fact there are many hundreds of survivors spread over the Mid-Atlantic states. I know of one not too far from where I write, and have read of many others. Scientists have taken samples of these trees in their efforts to figure out why some trees are resistant to the blight -- and how those samples can be used to develop hardier trees.

Some years ago I discovered that the old outbuildings on our farm were made of chestnut and cherry planks. Outside they are weathered silver and gray from decades of exposure to the winds and sleet and snow and rain. But if you can get the nails out and run those board through a planer, a gorgeous rich tan board emerges that looks good and takes well to woodworking. I've got a few of those planks set by. When when time allows I'll harvest a few more off old sheds and small barns that, as I watch out the morning window, seem to lean away from the prevailing winds more each day. It won't be long before they lie down again in the soil that nourished and gave them life in the early part of the 20th century.

Friday, October 14, 2011

And then the clouds parted....

We were spoiled by a long run of good weather and spectacular mountain scenery, and what I'm convinced was the prettiest fall foliage in memory, when the clouds closed in Tuesday and brought heavy rains to the Virginia mountaintop.   We rarely saw the other side of the hayfield while the heavens were going forth and multiplying -- over 4 inches, according to my $4.95 Farmer's Hardware rain gauge on the deck.  We thought the weather was clearing late Thursday, but more rain came in the night -- and then the northwest winds started blowing. With them came the sun, slowing drying out sodden fields and puddled roads and revealing some lovely sights we were afraid had blown away with the gale.

What a difference.  The winds keep blowing and the leaves are falling -- or rather scooting sideways, coming from the direction of Blacksburg and by now landing, I'm pretty sure, in Winston-Salem and stations south.

But by golly it's still gorgeous out there on Belcher Mountain Road, and that part of Black Ridge Road between the Blue Ridge Parkway and Canning Factory Road is one eye-popper after another. I hate to see those lovely leaves blow away, but the end of the leaves also means that things are clearer. We can see further into the woods, and well beyond. From our front-porch rockers in summer we see lush maples and oaks and chestnut oaks and thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron. But when the leaves retire for the season, we see the highest peak in Patrick County, where once our friend Judy Burnett Davis once thought of building a home, and which we still call Judy's knob.   We can just begin to see the profile of that noble hill as the leaves come down.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Had to sail north to get warm

We're back from a 12-day trip up the East Coast and on Maine's Penobscot Bay for a week of sailing on the Schooner Heritage ( and found the dadgummedest thing: warm weather. It's howling here in the Blue Ridge with temps in the low 40s; the week before we left for the Frigid North the daytime highs were in the 50s, so we loaded up all our heavy clothes because we knew if it was chilly in the South, it would be frozen in the north.

 Wrong.  It was warm in Maryland, where we stopped off to see old friends, and warmer yet in Boston, where we took in the last Red Sox home game of the year during its late-season collapse and ultimate failure to make the American League playoffs.  The Sox pulled off one miracle in an otherwise lovely evening at Fenway: they made the Baltimore Orioles look really good.

Then two days later we were standing on the wharf at Rockland, Maine's North End Shipyard, getting ready to board the Heritage, a lovely topsail schooner built and commissioned in 1984 by Capts. Doug and Linda Lee, who figured out how to make a living by taking people sailing on a genuine replica of a 19th century sailing vessel.  They did it right: There's no engine to propel the ship, but there is a yawl boat with a Ford six-cylinder engine, hung on stern davist, that can be lowered into the water to push the ship along when the wind has died. And there's an elderly make-and-break donkey engine (named Joe, of course) to raise the anchor as well as to raise the sails.   Meals are cooked on a big cast iron woodstove, fired by billets of oak and hardwood that have aged three seasons, and the ship's cooks rise before dawn each day to put on the coffee and begin baking the day's fresh breads, pies and cobblers before the anchor comes up and the day's wind draws the 5,000 square feet of sail over to port or starboard.

We've made this trip three times now and it's among the most fun things we've done on vacation. Doug Lee is not only a ship's captain but also a marine architect, a cabinetmaker, an author, a blacksmith, an expert mechanic and a pretty fair businessman, but also a crackerjack teller of tales -- all of them true stories, of course, including hilarious tales of his father's best friend Archie and his various deeds along the Maine coast.

And, of course, it was hot up yonder. We were down to tee shirts and flip flops in the middle of the bay, and shedding jackets every day after the cool morning fogs burned off.

There's a fleet of these coasting schooners, as they're called, up in Maine, and Doug and Linda Lee like to sail at every opportunity. Watching them handle the ship as they ghost along under the Deer Isle Bridge spanning Eggemoggin Reach is fascinating. The ship's mast, jutting 102 feet up, is higher than the bridge's superstructure, and to pass underneath requires lowering the ship's topmast a few feet. That mast is on a track built especially for the purpose, and seeing the crew scamper up the ratlines to let the topmast down is quite a show. It looks like you're going to hit the bridge, but there's just room to slide along beneath and go on to other sailing grounds in Blue Hill Bay, Fox Thoroughfare and other old waters that have been home to sailors and lobstermen for years.

Memorable -- and toasty.  The thought of that Maine sun warms me on a raw early fall day in the Blue Ridge.

Monday, September 19, 2011

'Spirits of Just Men' lets the sun shine on moonshine in the Blue Ridge

Charles Thompson is a lecturer in cultural anthropology at Duke University in Durham and education and curriculum director at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies.  All that sounds pretty academic, and it is. But Thompson is this, too: a son of Franklin County, Va., and heir to an Appalachian tradition that federal and state revenuers tried to stamp out of existence with a punitive tax policy that aimed to tax unregulated alcoholic beverage makers during one of the worst economic crises in American history.
His new book, "Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World," (University of Illinois Press, 2011, $23.95) is a fascinating account of how remote mountain farmers revived their ancestors' Irish and Scottish whiskey-making skills and used the profits to keep their families together and on the farm.  They had to fight not only regional poverty, but also government policy bent on either taxing them heavily or, from time to time, putting moonshiners out of business.  These families had little use for a government that seemed to be happy to tax them without giving them much in return.

  Folks from around Wilkesboro, N.C. understand the longtime distrust of mountain folks for g-men. Wilkes County was a center of moonshine production and its transportation system -- using high-powered passenger cars with special tanks holding illicit booze to get the product to markets in big cities -- has been linked to the rise of auto racing and the eventual creation of what we now know as NASCAR. Junior Johnson is said to have learned how to drive fast while moving booze to market.
  But it was Franklin County, VA., that many have long called the moonshine capital of the world. And it was there that Charlie Thompson's forbears were involved in either trying to stop moonshining, hauling it, or selling supplies that helped moonshiners make whiskey.  He takes readers through the Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935, which helped publicize the far reach of the backwoods still industry, and also made it clearer that moonshining was mostly illegal for those moonshiners who refused to pay protection money to law enforcement officials whose job it was to bust up the industry.
 I was particularly struck with Charlie Thompson's accounting of how Appalachian farmers in remote areas with few opportunities to get products to market turned to moonshining for hard cash. While farm families could raise most of the food they needed to survive and could barter for some things, there were few ways to earn cash for other necessities such as shoes for the kids.  By the time of the Great Depression, almost every family in the rural enclave of Endicott "made money from whiskey, either from selling the ingredients to make it, providing the equipment to manufacture or haul it, or bootlegging or driving it to its destination. Most did so because of the pressures of having to live on too little land as the local population increased and income dwindled per farm. Making whiskey was the only reliable way to make money to allow one to stay in one place at least a while longer."
  You'd think someone in the government would have thought of ways to help out these farmers -- especially if they could make a good product, get some income out of it and lift a region that had struggled for decades. In fact, a few visionary souls had something like that in mind, Thompson reports, but their ideas were rejected. After Prohibition ended, big liquor squeezed little producers out of the market and took over manufacturing and production.  Of course, eventually small-batch producers of fine whiskey began to thrive, but it would be many decades before that happened, and now it looks like big liquor controls most of them, too.
On the other hand, Thompson writes, "No one has ever been able to eradicate moonshine from Franklin County." 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

More scorched trees down

One of the things we love most about these hills are the stout old trees -- mature oaks, maples, poplars and chestnut oaks that provide a verdant shade through the summer months and a raucous backdrop of color each fall before going into winter quarters, ranks on ranks of gray sentinels waiting out the cold season.  One of the things we hate most about the fire of June 2010 was the toll it has taken on this part of the forest. By my rough count we have lost 35 of the trees surrounding the house that burned down that evening.

This week we took down eight of them, including a beauty of a maple that measured 43 inches across its nearly heart-shaped stump.  The ground shook when these huge trees fell to Richard Boyd's chain saws, but he told us more than a year ago these trees might not make it.  We took down 22 before the builder began reconstruction last fall, and five or so more in mid-project.  But the ones we brought down this week we had hoped might find a way to survive.  In the spring it seemed possible. Each of the trees put out a strong early showing of leaves, and we hoped for a damp year to help them along.  Instead we had a moderately dry year on our hills, and by the time this fall's storms brought heavy rain our way, these trees were shedding bark almost as if they were molting.  The brown leaves told the story.

We may lose more. There's a badly-scorched poplar just off our bedroom steps.  Its leaves look healthy, but it was closest to the hot side of the first, and why it still stands I don't know.  Stubborn, I reckon.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Birds of summer

Living out here in a rural area has given us more things to see than in the city.  Just the other day two large turkeys were wobbling along in front of our deck.  Sadie barked them off before I could grab a camera. And up at the front gate, a bluebird would fly out from its box on a fencepost whenever we approached. That flash of brilliant blue with a distinctive orange marking would take my breath away. But I never got a photo of those, either.

Up closer to the house we've had quite a show this year. Some good friends gave us a goldfinch feeder with a spiral perch along the cylinder, and filled with thistle seed it does a terrific job attracting those impossibly bright finches.  Dave Bennett caught three of them on the feeder a couple weeks ago.

And my friend David Rice clued me in a couple years ago had to get hummingbirds to pick our feeder: Don't use that pre-packaged red stuff.  Just add a cup of sugar to four cups of water, microwave the stuff so it's clearly dissolved, and get ready to watch the hummingbird wars.  When we put out three feeders, our hummers love to buzz one another as others swoop in and out of the gnarled branches of a mountain laurel where we hang the feeders.  If you're not looking you can tell when they're around. The distinctive hum of these critters is addictive.  Dave Bennett got a nice picture of a hummingbird, too.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Buddy, can you spare a PTO auger?

A couple miles west of here and a mile or so north lies Rocky Knob, a well-known feature of the Blue Ridge Parkway and, long ago, an overnight stop for some on the Appalachian Trail before it was moved further west. I've been coming up to this part of Patrick County, VA,  and the Parkway since childhood days, when my family stayed just down the road at the Rocky Knob Housekeeping Cabins at the head of the Rock Castle Gorge. These are enchanted hills for me, places where my sister and I played with the will o' the wisps on foggy summer evenings half a century and more ago, and it's one of the few places on earth that would draw me from my native land of North Carolina.

But a smart fellow would have paid more attention to that "rock" in "Rocky Knob."  I don't know how these yeoman farmers carved out a living on the hillsides of this area, but I can tell you that one of their best crops had to be rocks. We've got ancient piles of them near every corner of our fields, put there long ago by the folks who farmed this land. All kinds of rocks. Big rocks. Little rocks. Heavy rocks, Quartz rocks. Some igneous stuff. And, I swear, the kind of granite they use to build monuments in Washington.

OK, it's been a long time since I took Geology 31 down at Chapel Hill. And maybe it wasn't granite. But I've been digging a hole for weeks for a corner 6x6 post for a wing on the tractor barn and the ratio of rocks to dirt appears to be about 80-20.  Maybe higher.  I was hoping to get down three feet for this post but I finally hit what looks like bedrock. And in contrast to the quartz and the layers of some gray upheavals that was shatter when struck with a sledge or hammered enough with a spud bar, this stuff just gives off sparks and sits there.

I thought I'd be digging these eight holes, as well as another eight or so for a new garage, with a borrowed auger that runs off the Power Take Off  shaft of a 35-horse Diesel tractor. First I thought a fellow was going to bring me one when he came to cut down four large trees, but he got a regular job and never showed. A contractor who was coming to do something else was going to bring his auger on his lowboy trailer, but he came and went without it.  I've looked through CraigsList trying to find a decent price on one, but none are 12 or 18-inch-bits.

We know something about augers on this farm. Years ago two friends and I went three ways on an Earthquake auger, a gas-powered handheld auger that will, in nice clean dirt, dig a posthole three feet deep in a matter of minutes.  But when it binds up on a big tree root or the wrong size rock, it can send one  of the two individuals it takes to properly run the thing on a head-over-heels trip, as it did to the former Party Doll Strickland the first time we used it back in 2004.  And with a lot of rocks in the ground, about the only thing that works is the spud bar.  If you've used one, you know what I mean. You can dig rocks out, pry them out, and sometimes chip them to pieces, but it's a lot of work.  And with two holes dug and at least 14 to go, I'm thinking about calling a well driller. I worked for Bainbridge and Dance Well Drilling in Guilford College during my youth, and those boys know right how to grind through layers of rock. And I don't recall ever seeing a spud bar on a drill rig.  Shoot, who knows? Might even hit water. Or oil.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Pix from the hills, after the the fire to the new place

September 2010, after the demolition of fire debris

October 2010, foundation and subfloor in

Oct. 24, 2010 -- timberframe up

A girl, her dog, a pickup, a trailer, a yard fire and a glass of wine.

Winter 2011

Sunrise in April 2011

Martha B. and Sadie in June 2011

Almost done. July 2011

Thursday, September 1, 2011

September in the Blue Ridge

Up here at about 3,200 feet altitude, autumn has been nudging at our heels for weeks now. The heat of July and early August has eased, the locusts have been turning rusty for a months and way up at their tips a few of our trees on Belcher Mountain have turned crimson among the heavy greens of late summer. The hayfields that gave up a fine crop of grass in June have dried up, and only the cabbage palm, thistle and locust shoots have thrived. Days are shorter, nights a little crisper, and each day we get closer to finishing a year-long rebuilding project prompted by a devastating fire in June of 2010 that burned to cinders the two-year-old long home we had planned for decades.

Yesterday Ed Erwin and Luis Izaquirre poured a concrete base for the stone walkway from our gravel drive to the front steps of a timberframe home covered with Hardieplank and Hardieshingle siding -- a material made of fiber and concrete that's reported to be much more resistant to fire than white pine logs soaked in two coats of oil.  Martha and I finished putting up the stovepipe for the Woodstock Soapstone Stove, and Tobie Blankenship got the over-sink pendant light in the kitchen going.  The list of to-dos is shorter: New wings on each side of the barn to store all the excess stuff we couldn't figure out how to get rid of; a two-car garage to be built before winter weather sets in; and more trees that were killed by the fire have to be taken down by the end of the year.  We lost dozens of mature shade trees in that devastating fire, but had hopes for a number of trees that leafed out in the spring. Alas four more of those on the field side of the house have dried up, and one of them is shedding bark every day.  And then there's a driveway -- torn up by fire trucks, demolition haulers, concrete trucks, cranes and a veritable mechanized division of pickup trucks driven by contractors, subcontractors and specialists of every sort. Even our ruts have ruts.  I may finally learn how to use that big heavy box blade behind the tractor.

But we've no complaints. After more than four decades of covering politics and public policy for the Greensboro Daily News, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, Roanoke Times, Greensboro News & Record, N.C. Insight Magazine and The Charlotte Observer, I formally retired at the end of July. (see for a link to my last column at the Observer -- and all the other 755 or so writings on This Old State, the blog I wrote for the Observer for five years.)  Martha B. retired from the Wake County Department of Health and Human Services in April, and we moved up the hills in June with our 8-year-old French Brittany Spaniel named Sadie.  We talk of putting in an apple orchard next year and I'm looking for a bluegrass band to sit in with, soon as I find the sweet spots on the keyboard of an Englehart string bass that replaced my 1946 Kay school bass that perished in the fire.

And sometime this fall I'll go back to work for a couple of days each week -- no more, I hope -- doing research and writing for a few clients of Rocky Knob Writery LLC.  I'll split time between the mountains and a town house in Greensboro, but the plan is to take life at a slower pace and enjoy what sure are some of the prettiest mountains in all Creation.  We'll put up a few photos from time to time to help make the point, but for today, there are holes to dig for 6x6 posts through ground so tough that only a spud bar will make any kind of headway. I can feel the muscle aches now.