By Marianne Leek
Hayesville, North Carolina
On summer nights as a teenager, I sometimes climbed out my bedroom window onto the tin roof of my childhood home. I would lie on my back and look up at the stars — a million tiny dots of light blotting the night sky, listening to an orchestra of katydids, cicadas, crickets, and frogs sing their elegies to summer, while the butts of fireflies lit up a trail through the pasture to the pond. And I wondered what life was like outside of my rural, one stop-light town, as the voice of Willie Nelson singing “You Were Always on My Mind” softly drifted from a red transistor radio that sat on the nightstand beside my bed.
I was born in Florida. but we moved to the mountains of western North Carolina when I was in fourth grade. Following Christmas break that year, on the day I was to start school in my new home, we were greeted with a dusting of soft snow, blanketing the countryside and extending winter vacation. It was my introduction to snow.
As spring and summer commenced, I would be introduced to pollen in all her radiant, golden glory - the likes of which I had never experienced. Sneezing, sniffling, and coughing, my involuntary response to hay, ragweed, and goldenrod would ultimately be my undoing, driving me and my single mother to the Mountain People’s Clinic, a nonprofit run by a young doctor committed to helping those who sometimes had a difficult time affording quality health care.
The Mountain People’s Clinic was located at the end of a residential street, similar in many ways to the one described in Harper Lee’s fictional Maycomb County. The waiting room was a living room, complete with a pot-bellied, cast-iron, wood-burning stove. The doctor was like no one I had ever seen. He was mostly bald, with a red beard, wearing round glasses, corduroy bell bottoms, a T-shirt, and no shoes. He was a general practitioner, who was known for delivering babies at home, making house calls, and prescribing a strange mix of natural, herbal remedies. Elixirs, tinctures, and balms — bloodroot for ringworm and eczema, ginger for morning sickness, moonshine to alleviate symptoms of a cold, ginseng for diabetes, and medicinal cannabis, long before it was legal, to treat a myriad of symptoms.
Within the year, the man known to most simply as “Doc” would become my stepfather. We moved into his home, a simple homestead in Appalachia, situated on 17 acres that faced South, backed up to the national forest, and had spring-fed water driven by gravity into our home. No pump needed. The home he had built was a passive solar home, with a dirt floor, complete with an outdoor canning kitchen, drying room, compost pile, root cellar, outhouse, and barn. The outhouse wasn’t really necessary; we had indoor plumbing and one bathroom. It was a “just in case” set-up, stocked with back issues of Mother Earth News for your reading pleasure. We had a garden, dairy goats, chickens, and ducks. He taught self-sufficiency and simplicity.
Having migrated South in his early 30s, this country doctor was a bit of an anomaly, a liberal Yankee and a rare, religious hybrid - part Episcopal, part Buddhist. He talked like a Democrat, looked like a hippie, and healed like a snake-handling backwoods preacher. This unconventional upbringing inspired more than a few of my Baptist classmates to seek me out to talk to me about salvation. One girl, in particular, would call me up after school, and we would talk on the party line about God and Jesus until the neighbor lady would cut in telling us that she had more important phone calls to make. It wasn’t until early in my adulthood that I realized that me and God were just fine. In the deepest trauma of my childhood, he and I had a conversation, hammering out an agreement about my salvation that had nothing to do with a religious denomination and everything to do with my unfaltering faith.
For many years we didn’t have television, books, and music as primary sources of entertainment. And then, one year, quite out of the blue, he decided to build a satellite dish in our backyard, long before satellite signals were scrambled. With his undergrad degree in electrical engineering, I’m pretty sure he was less motivated by access to television than by the simple desire to see if he could. My sheltered peers had no idea MTV, HBO, or Showtime even existed. They all lived in homes with carefully positioned bunny ears in an effort to get the “local” news from Asheville or Atlanta or to watch Joe Montana and the 49ers on Sunday afternoons, and I am quite certain they were better off. Exposed to America’s first VJs on MTV, I saw Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Prince’s “Purple Rain,” and understood how video would kill the radio star. For better or worse, this was my initiation into ’80s pop culture. I longed to dress like the people I saw splashed across the screen in Madonna and Pat Benatar videos. To the Doc’s and my mother’s utter dismay, I teased and sprayed my hair to an all-time high in an attempt to emulate these music icons. My popped collar and yellow Reebok hightops stood out in my rural, Appalachian community. I’m sure I was the laughingstock of the barn animals I fed daily.
Despite Doc’s profession, money wasn’t something we had much of. Frequently, payment for services rendered or babies delivered came in the form of a dozen eggs, a bushel of corn, or a side of beef. I was taught how to clean barn stalls, split wood, weed the garden, fish, milk goats, and bale hay. I was taught the value of hard work. He despised the consumerism that came with the 1980s. When I asked for a dirt bike, he built me an electric bicycle; when I wanted a horse, he gave me a donkey; when I longed for blue swoosh canvas Nike’s and white-tag Levis, I got hand-me-downs.
I remember riding home with him in his beat-up, yellow Toyota truck, stopping to make house calls to those who couldn’t or wouldn’t travel the 20 minutes to Hayesville. Some didn’t drive, some couldn’t afford medical care, some didn’t trust doctors, but they trusted “Doc.” We stopped in on folks, and he carried into every home his relic of a doctor’s bag, an old-fashioned one he inherited from his father. He would take out his stethoscope, listen to their heart, and often recommend a simple natural remedy as opposed to a prescription of antibiotics, and he would tell them to call him if they didn’t feel better by the next day.
More often than not, in exchange for payment, his patients would invite him to stay for dinner, usually a combination of soup beans and cornbread, with whatever vegetables had most recently been picked or canned from the garden. One day in late spring, I remember sitting in the one-room home of a neighbor’s, the wood stove heating it close to 80 degrees, thumbing through a National Geographic the patient’s grandchild had left behind, fascinated by the cover featuring Mount St. Helens’ 1980 volcanic eruption. I turned the pages, studied each photo of ash-covered land, and wondered why someone would refuse to leave their home at the foot of the mountain while the world erupted around them, ash covering the small town like a worn gray blanket.
When I reached the eighth grade, my stepfather announced we would go on a cross-country road trip. It would go from our home straight to California, then follow the Pacific Coast Highway up to the Northwest, cross briefly into Canada, travel through Montana and the Dakota’s, make our way to New England, weave our way back down South through the Shenandoah Valley and finally down the Blue Ridge Parkway, toward home. I would miss some school, but the trip would enrich my education. It would be an epic lesson in geography, history, science, and literature — cross-curriculum learning at its finest, long before that was a thing. An advocate for education and learning, he assigned me summer reading — The Catcher in the Rye, Death Be Not Proud, To Kill a Mockingbird, and a variety of short stories. I have a vivid memory of my heart shattering for the first time in response to the written word. It happened when I read James Hurst’s story “The Scarlet Ibis,” somewhere between Taos, New Mexico, and the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
That summer, we traveled in a refurbished white Volvo sedan with a yellow canoe tied to the roof. This was before cell phones, satellite navigation, or the internet. Our road trip was planned with the assistance of Rand McNally’s trusted book of maps. We had highlighted, made handwritten notes of points of interest written in the margins, and circled routes that snaked across America. Most nights we pitched a tent, built a small campfire, and just talked.
In Oregon, we stopped to see a family who lived in an enormous Army surplus tent deep in the woods. I was fascinated by their teenage children, wild and free, who didn’t attend public school, spent their free time reading and exploring nature, and who attempted to convince my middle school self that Cheap Trick was a band worth listening to. We were still living in a world beautifully untouched and undistracted by social media, text messages, and Netflix.
I was introduced to our country’s National Park system. I got to hike in Mesa Verde and the Grand Canyon; I saw Mount Rainier and the Cascade Mountains, but none could compare to Glacier National Park. The majestic beauty of Going to the Sun Road was like nothing I had ever seen. I remember going into the gift store — a rare treat — and pooling my earnings to purchase a small book on the history of the park.
That summer, I stood in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah at the same time, walked around the rim of the dormant Capulin Volcano, and got lost outside of Shiprock, New Mexico. I stood on a hill in San Francisco and learned what it meant to watch the fog roll in, as it covered the bay in a thick, moody cloud of white. I camped in northern California under the stars in July, only to wake up the next morning with frost on my sleeping bag. I swam in Lake Chelan, and to my adolescent horror saw nude sunbathers on the shores of Lake Tahoe. I visited Canada, found a fossil in Montana, and walked across prairieland in the Dakotas. I hiked to the top of Mt. Washington, the highest point in the Northeast. I listened to loons sing their melancholy dirge while gliding across the waters of Squam Lake, New Hampshire. I saw the exact moment the sun set from Skyline Drive, overlooking the Shenandoah Valley. And I realized that no place was quite as beautiful as the place I called home — the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina.
Like many things in my childhood, the marriage between my stepfather and mother was on shaky ground, and by the summer before my sophomore year, it had ended. My mother and I moved to a small rental on the other side of the county. These new circumstances left me highly qualified for a Job Training Partnership Act position at our school’s cafeteria that summer. Not understanding what that meant, I wore my newfound employment like a badge of honor around my “less qualified” peers. Thanks to Claiborne Pell, I attended college and became a teacher at the same high school from which I graduated years earlier in the rural, one-stoplight Southern town I never really left. In many respects, my career has been an ode to my childhood, a celebration of growth and seasons, of progress and history, of milestones and meaning. Mine is an “all y’all matter” type of profession.
I can’t attest that all these events happened in the exact order I set them down in writing today. That’s the thing about memory. Sometimes accurate, sometimes not, it’s a strange amalgam of experiences melded, and it becomes exponentially stronger over time.
Sometimes, usually in late summer, I am taken back to those evenings when I would climb out my window onto the tin roof of my childhood home and look up at the stars, and I think about the man who refused to leave his home at the foot of Mount St. Helens, and I understand the full meaning of his rebellion. Because there’s a part within each of us that never quite leaves home.