By Martha Woodroof
Singers Glen, Virginia
I grew up camping in the North Carolina mountains. Every spring, my Dad rousted my older sister and me outside while it was still cold at night and not always warm during the day. We slept in a tent. We peed in the woods. We hiked and hiked some more — always going up, as I remember it.
Our reward was to watch the forest wake up after winter. Hepaticas, Dutchman’s breeches, dog’s-tooth violets, trilliums bloomed in sequence. To me, they were all opening acts for late spring’s main event, Kalmia latifolia, eastern mountain laurel. As a child, I firmly believed in magic, and those great thickets of laurel affirmed my faith as nothing else did. Whap! How could a Fairy Godperson not be involved in such sudden and hopeful spring beauty?
The mountain laurel of my childhood was both a plant and a place. It grew tree-size when there was enough light and space, while in damp places, vast thickets of laurel became all but impenetrable. I’ve always loved both adventures and hideaways, so I’d worm into one of those thickets, find a place where I could crouch under a roof of just-barely pink blossoms, and for a moment have the adventure of my own magical place.
The mountain folks called such thickets laurel hells, and at 6 or 7 their use of the H-word shocked me. Plus, in this context it made no sense — furnaces and bad lightning storms were hellish, not mountain laurel. Once I got older, I did some research and learned a trapper and hunter named Huggins supposedly spent three days lost inside a mountain laurel thicket. Higgins was in hell, they said. And somehow “hell” had stayed attached to “laurel” ever since. At least in the mountains of North Carolina.
It seems to me there are two kinds of people: cultivated rhododendron people and wild mountain laurel people. Cultivated rhododendron people are comfortable with manicured lawns and manicured lives. Mountain laurel people are willing to poke their noses out of the box and into the woods. Me? I’ve always been a mountain laurel person through and through.
Three decades out of childhood and below broke, I got married for the third time. Charlie (another mountain laurel person) had a little money and wanted to buy land. We’d find an old trailer, he said, put it on our own land and homestead.
Homestead? Me? In my mid-40s? Charlie had many practical skills while mine were mostly impractical. I thought about camping as a child, how cold and wet it could be, even in the so-called “spring.” And what was homesteading but year-round camping?
“Why not?” I said, summoning my inner yeehaw, reminding myself I was a mountain laurel person.
At the time, we lived in Amherst County, Virginia. Land there isn’t cheap, so it took a while to find anything we could afford. As I remember it, winter passed, spring came; nothing. Then Carrie Bethel down at the Best Bet heard we were looking and told Charlie about a tract cut out of a logging forest. It was being sold cheap, she said.
Carrie gave Charlie a contact number. He phoned and got the details: 11.5 steep acres of woods, reachable only by a muddy track and surrounded by thousands of acres of more easily-accessible trees. It was on the steep, eastern side of Buffalo Ridge where the soil was so poor and rocky that not much had changed since the Cherokees hunted buffalo there.
Charlie and I drove out to look at it on a bright Saturday morning in late April. He took one look at the muddy tract and decided we should leave the truck and walk in.
The land was about a quarter of a mile in. Charlie had gotten hold of a plat, and we used it to take a serious look around; two middle-aged kids playing house, arranging our lives in the middle of the woods.
We’ll buy a cheap trailer and put it here.
As soon as we have the money, we’ll dig a well here and put in a septic field in here.
A cleared power right-of-way split the property. Charlie spotted a deer track on the other side of it. He consulted his plat. A creek ran across the bottom edge of our might-be land. How could a deer track not lead to it? How could we not follow it into the woods and see?
Charlie led the way down the steep suggestion of a path. I’m clumsy (except when dancing), so I was concentrating on my feet when Charlie called out, “Look!”
I looked, and — whap! — magic was back. Adventures beckoned. I was a kid again. We stood at the edge of a sharp drop-off. Below us spread the top of a full-blown, fully blooming laurel hell. So large, I couldn’t see the end of it in either direction.
We hiked on. The deer path was twisted and steep; hairpinning its way down. Charlie and I had to brace ourselves, any graceless way we could, to get over roots and rocks and make it safely to the gates of laurel hell. We pushed our way in, and there we were, hidden away under an almost-pink big top of blossoms. I guess mountain laurel’s magic powers don’t dim with age, because I remember feeling certain this was a magic place — Charlie’s and my magic place — even if we were all but broke and middle-aged.
And yes, there was a creek. Charlie consulted the plat. According to it, the creek was spring-born not all that far upstream. As he and I have always liked creating adventurous destinations, we set off.
Happily, it was an adventure. Sometimes we walked along the creek; sometimes we walked in the creek. We turned sideways and wiggled our way through laurel trunks. We surprised birds and squirrels and startled a snake or two. We got mud on our shoes and blossoms in our hair. I remember wondering if I'd ever been this happy.
Half a mile upstream, however, we came upon a still, and that was as far as looking for the spring went. One of the golden rules of the South is you do not mess with anyone’s moonshine operation. Ever. I was not disappointed, however. In my book, finding a still is as good as finding a spring when it comes to adventures.
And so we turned around.
And splashed and squirmed and wriggled our way back through the magical mountain laurel to the 11.5 acres we already owned in our hearts.