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Carolina On My Mind

My great-aunt Kathleen was a road hog. With an imperious wave she'd dismiss any vehicles slowing her brand-new Cadillac's relentless trajectory on the narrow byways that soar and dip through the Great Smoky Mountains west of Asheville. When thwarted by slowpokes, her favorite saying was, "Scoot, scoot. Scoot on down the road." Every time she took a sharp switchback down a holler, I'd clutch my sister, Kaki, as the two of us bounced around on the brocaded upholstery in the back seat of her great white shark. (Seat belts?Not back then.) As teenagers, in 1971, we spent two weeks roaring through tiny North Carolina mountain towns and honky-tonk tourist traps with Aunt Kat and my grandmother. On that trip I dripped chocolate ice cream on my great-aunt's immaculate car seat, bought a silver-and-turquoise ring at the Cherokee Indian Reservation, and had an epic battle with Nana over a plastic rain poncho at Ghost Town in the Sky.

Kaki and I are not the only family members to have made this seasonal journey between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the 520,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For generations, my clan and others like it have escaped the triple-digit heat of Charleston, Atlanta, or Savannah for cooler altitudes in western North Carolina. In 1887, one distant cousin wrote long letters to her fiancé back home about the moonlit walks, the picnics, the ice cream socials, and the prayer meetings she attended with her parents during their annual stay in Saluda, a town hovering just above the South Carolina state line.

Back then, whole communities catered to the "summer people." They'd turn up in June to occupy genteel boardinghouses and resort hotels in Flat Rock, Tryon, Asheville, and Hendersonville, and left when the maples colored in late September. Mountain folk called them lowlanders. Considering the craggy peaks in these parts, formed 250 million years ago toward the end of the Paleozoic Era, it doesn't seem fair to call the locals hillbillies in return. Descendants of the first settlers—a tidal wave of rambunctious Scotch-Irish, English, German, Welsh, and Dutch immigrants—they began spilling into the Appalachian backcountry on the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road during the 1720's, slowly squeezing out the Cherokee, introducing shape-note singing and moonshine stills to a virgin wilderness of towering chestnut trees and clear mountain streams.

On an early-summer drive, I'm scooting into the high country again, to see if anything has changed in the past 30-odd years. Turns out, not much. Climbing Interstate 26, which beelines from Charleston to the eastern ramparts of the Appalachians, I tune the car radio to WNCW 88.7 to catch the Carter Family trilling "Keep on the Sunny Side." For the next couple of weeks I listen as the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, the Cox Family, Doc Watson, and the Whites blanket the mountain airwaves with the kind of roots music now dubbed Americana by record-label executives. Perhaps I should have ground gears up the old Saluda Grade (Highway 176), the route my grandmother and sister and I took on our grueling eight-hour bus ride from Charleston to rendezvous with Aunt Kat near her home in Knoxville. Back then, sick with diesel fumes and dehydrated from the heat, I gazed out the bus window at a solid wall of kudzu vines cascading next to this famously steep road. Never in my life had I seen so much tangled greenery. But now I find it more exciting to exit I-26 and whip down the 50 curves between Saluda and Tryon. (After all, as a teenager, I sat behind a pro.) These 30 years later, kudzu still throttles the hillside.

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