Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (9/19) — Chapter Nine, Garland (3/3)

NOW AND THEN we’re drawn to sacred places conducive to respectful contemplation of life and the universal spirit. The photo at left was taken at midday on Sunday after an hour-long walk. At right, Timberley poses below hazy Table Rock almost 40 years ago.


BOONE, N.C. (Jan. 13, 2020) – Oh, to travel back in time. That has been on my mind lately, not really regretting anything so much as wondering what life would be like now if I’d plotted different routes at various crossroads I’ve encountered in the past. Yes, I’m in a Robert Frosty, Road Not Taken-ish kind of mood.

Yesterday I felt what baseball philosopher Yogi Berra called “déjà vu all over again”—time-traveling backwards in my mind, anyway—as Timberley and I walked a section of road at the new Fonta Flora State Trail and County Park near Lake James in Burke County. Throughout the late morning and early afternoon of our outing, I caught glimpses of places that were once so important to the much younger version of me: Shortoff, Table Rock and Hawksbill mountains above the Linville Gorge.

Those are promontories—distinctive landmarks visible for miles and miles—that are easily recognized along the western skyline from Morganton and towns much farther east. One old friend regularly takes snapshots of Table Rock from spots in Caldwell and Catawba counties, and posts them on Facebook for all his friends to enjoy. Despite the ubiquity of that mountain’s image—especially around Morganton—there’s nothing like standing on it or near it. Native Americans called it Attacoa, the altar of the Great Spirit, every day, all day and all night, not just on Sunday mornings.

I TOOK THIS PHOTO of Table Rock sometime in the 1980s when I could actually hike in the Linville Gorge. Though it can also be seen from other counties, this image is synonymous with Burke County.

Being relatively close to those sacred places again, where friends and I had backpacked and camped years ago whenever we had time to break away from school or jobs wherever we happened to be living then in Western North Carolina, made me regret being so old and broken-down now, and wish I could hit the trails and climb the ridges like we twentysomethings once did. Believe it or not, Timberley and I were emergency medical technicians and certified members of the Burke County Rescue Squad’s mountain rescue team in the 1980s. How’s that for irony?

I could tell any number of tall tales about our exploits in those mountains back then—and maybe I will tell a few of them later—but that isn’t the main point of this essay. What I am trying to say is that even though everyone takes a unique route in their individual journeys from cradle to grave, the leaf-strewn paths and red-dirt roads we set out on—since most of us don’t bushwhack or trail-blaze all that much—eventually lead us to highways and byways built and maintained by intentional travelers and accidental tourists alike. The real question is: How many “loop” trails or “circle” roads do our treks through life allow us?

Or, in the language of time travelers, how can we relive—or recapture the essence of—important parts of our past once we’ve moved on, learned through experience, and basically become different persons?

I know of only one individual who actually lived the same day twice, and it happened to be one of my favorite days of the year—Thanksgiving Day. In my book, that holiday has 4-F status, like my father’s military classification during World War II, only more festive and fun: family, food, football and forgiveness.

That time-traveler was Morganton newspaper publisher Beatrice Cobb, whose around-the-world airline trip in late 1948 I’ve already written about. She and traveling companion Corinne Cook ate one Turkey Day feast provided by Pan American World Airways during a refueling stop on Nov. 25, 1948, on Wake Island in the Pacific Ocean, then crossed the International Date Line, landed in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Nov. 24, 1948, and ate another bona fide Thanksgiving meal the next day at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

WELCOMED TO HONOLULU with floral leis, war correspondents Beatrice Cobb (left) and Corinne Cook experienced the aloha spirit in Hawaii, some 11 years before it became our 50th state.

The two ladies, both of them respected newspaperwomen, used their five-day layover in Honolulu to rest and to catch up on their travel letters home, which were published in The News Herald of Morganton and The Texas Mesquiter of Mesquite, Texas. Miss Cobb’s letters were later collected in a book entitled On a Clipper Trip Around the World. Sitting that Thanksgiving afternoon—her second one in two days—on the veranda of her hotel at Waikiki Beach, Miss Cobb wrote: “In the background of the azure-blue bay, Diamond Head keeps an almost grim watch over the scene—a sentinal in the Pacific almost as well known as the [Rock of] Gibraltar of the Mediterranean.” Or like Table Rock of her home county.

So Miss Cobb experienced the same day—or same festive meal, anyway—twice, traveling backwards in time with help from mankind’s insistence on tracking the sun’s position in our window of sky and manipulating the machines that report and predict it. It’s like that odd hour we time-changers fall back with in November and spring forward past in April.

Speaking of saving daylight and spending it in paradise, if there’s one place I could choose to spend an extra hour of my life—with loved ones, of course—it would be in Hawaii, specifically in the Haleakala mountain upcountry of Maui where we visited one of Timberley’s cousins in the summer of 2007. For 10 days we rented an ohana (guest) house on the golf course in Pukalani, located partway up the west slope of 10,000-foot Haleakala, an extinct volcano. Back then, cousin Anastasia Gilliam, who lived in neighboring Makawao, was lead singer of the rock band Voodoo Suns, so she had several afternoons to show us around her wonder-filled island. A couple of nights we heard her solo gigs at the Four Seasons.

One afternoon the three of us piled into our rented SUV and drove the 50-odd miles of Hana Highway from Paia, where our musical hero Willie Nelson lives, to Hana, where another idol, George Harrison, owned a home. It’s the Road to Hana, on the National Register of Historic Places, with its 46 one-lane bridges and 620 curves through lush, tropical rainforest, many of the concrete and steel bridges dating back to 1910, according to Wikipedia. About 25 miles on past Hana, we visited the grave of perhaps the 20th century’s foremost celebrity, aviator Charles Lindbergh, in a lonely Kipahulu churchyard. Just steps from Lindbergh’s final resting place beneath volcanic rocks was the most beautiful ocean view on the island, of the rocky shore where Harrison filmed his music video for “This Is Love.”

IN LATE JUNE 2007, Timberley and cousin Anastasia take in the view from a county park near Charles Lindbergh’s grave (lower left) beyond the Road to Hana (lower right).

Dying of cancer at New York City’s Columbia Hospital in the summer of 1974, Lindbergh determined to spend whatever time he had left at his vacation home near Hana. In his posthumously published (and somewhat ironic) Autobiography of Values, the Lone Eagle wrote: “Who could prefer a gravestone in a city’s crowded cemetery to the unmarked, everchanging, everlasting beauty of the ocean?” He also was reported to have said, “I would rather spend one day on Maui than 30 days in the hospital.” When told at Columbia that his death was imminent, he asked to be flown to the Hana coast and there he spent the last eight days of his illustrious, though contradictory, life. His gravestone at Palapala Ho’omau Church bears the epitaph he selected for himself: “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea.” To complete the thought, the next verse of the 139th Psalm reads: “Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.” That latter verse isn’t inscribed on the gravestone.

This morning I looked closely at the photos I’d taken of Lindbergh’s grave, and I was surprised to see, for the first time, a withered lei, a garland of faded orchids, lying on the lava rock covering the plot.

At the time of our trip to Hawaii, I was researching a novel that I never got around to writing and, now, probably never will. Instead, I wrote a different fiction manuscript called Anywhere Like Heaven, which, despite its magical realism, is perhaps the most autobiographical work of fiction I’ve ever attempted. It’s set in a town like Morganton, and its protagonist is an 18-year-old boy who is dealing with the cancer death of his younger brother, as well as the emotional abandonment of his bereaved parents. In the novel, the depressed teenager spends the summer with his grandmother as he works at the local newspaper, where he and a new friend, the story’s narrator, try to solve the small Southern town’s most shameful murder case. A sacred mountain like Table Rock even makes an appearance in this as of yet unpublished novel.

SUNRISE ON HALEAKALA, or “House of the Rising Sun” in Hawaiian, introduced us during our summer visit to the Maui micro-climate most like the Boone weather we experience in late fall or early spring. (Photo by Timberley Adams)

After about a year of rejection slips and unanswered queries, I decided that my novel-writing days were probably over, and that I should finally concede that what Saul Bellow wrote to me years ago was right—that fiction wouldn’t save me from anything. So I eventually decided to quit trying to write fiction, as real life is quite strange enough—and even magical enough at times—to be interesting. Thank you, Mr. Bellow.

And thank you, wise man Yogi Berra, for the quotation that continues to define our lives, as recently as this past Sunday. “When you come to a fork in the road,” Yogi advises, “take it.” Wise words to live by, any day of the week.