Back at milepost 382, the Southern Highland Craft Guild's Allanstand Folk Art Center refines my definition of craftwork, which previously embraced tacky stained-glass suncatchers, quilted pot holders, and wind chimes made from rusted auto parts. In the 19th century, mountain folk discovered that travelers (and a few experts from the Smithsonian Institution) would pay cash money for poplar-bark berry pails, corn-husk dolls, handmade dulcimers, and cross-stitched bedspreads. Since then, a brisk trade with the summer people has kept the old handicraft traditions thriving and attracted new artisans to the mountains. (Look for Luther Thomas's yellow-birch brooms, Nanette Davidson's rag- weave runners, and Billie Ruth Sudduth's white-oak baskets.)
Matt Jones is a lowlander. Raised in Charleston, he exchanged low-country humidity for the red-hot fires of a massive brick kiln, built four summers ago at his Big Sandy Mush farmhouse outside Leicester. He may have apprenticed at Cornwall Bridge Pottery in Connecticut, but Jones takes his creative cue from primitive mountain mud-slingers. My cousin Jane has two of his massive clay planters on the porch of her North Carolina mountain house, and even though I detest pottery, their earthy glazes and simple lines make me reconsider a drive on Early's Mountain Road to Jones's studio in a secret valley in Buncombe County. Arriving as a heavy skeptic, I depart with a heavier load of flower urns. Not to mention a receipt for a huge temple bell, exactly like the one hanging from a pear tree in Jones's front yard.
Bible camps, tent revivals, Episcopal retreat communities, hard-shell Baptists, Moravians, Angel Touch psychic healers. Why do certain places in the world attract a deeply religious, if not downright fringe, population?This corner of North Carolina has more churches than deer ticks on a bloodhound. (A sign outside my favorite: GOD'S FILLING STATION. COME IN AND BE BLESSED.) Standing in line at a convenience store in Brevard, waiting to pay for an IBC root beer and a tank of gas, I overhear a conversation between two sales reps in suits. "I could tell we were in a different culture," says one, putting his money on the counter. "We all stopped and prayed at lunch." The guy behind the register looks up and says firmly, "Amen, brother."
Deener Matthews, who turned her family's summerhouse into a moun-taintop lodge, says the blessing every night at the 21-year-old Swag, 13 miles outside Waynesville. Her husband, Dan, is rector at Trinity Church, Wall Street, in downtown Manhattan, and she plays hostess at the Swag during the season. A little nondenominational grace at dinner never hurt anyone, and it's a small price to pay for the congenial gathering at this rustic inn that, at 5,000 feet, literally butts up against Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The 15 guest rooms face a mountain meadow, or bald, and the walls are covered with mounted animals (grouse, bears, deer), not hunting trophies, as I first suspect, but reclaimed roadkill.
Walking out the breezeway, I grab a bottle of Coke from the old cooler and head down the rough stone steps to a clearing called Gooseberry Knob, where I watch the "smoke" rise off the streams that flow through Jonathan Creek Valley. I look east; from this lofty perspective, patches of light and clouds scudding across the Black Mountains seem like pebbles skipping over the surface of a pond. My thoughts turn metaphysical: no wonder this rippled landscape inspires the faithful. If you look south, you can spot Cold Mountain in the distance. By early July, the Smokies are blanketed with pale pink Catawba rhododendron, white mountain laurel, and orange flame azalea. George Ellison, a lanky naturalist with a dry sense of humor, leads Swag guests on occasional bird walks, pointing out goldfinches and red-tailed hawks and also stopping to explain the medicinal uses of squawroot and sassafras.
Deener packs me a picnic lunch for the two-hour drive to Robbinsville, in the far western corner of the state. There the Cherohala Skyway dovetails at Santeetlah Gap past Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, an old-growth sanctuary thick with giant yellow poplars and beeches. Kilmer, a poet and journalist who was killed in action during World War I, wrote the simple ode "Trees," which every grade-school kid was once required to recite on Earth Day. Reading his words on a wooden plaque at the trailhead actually puts a lump in my agnostic throat.
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree. . . .
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
I'm a sucker for nature imagery.