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A Fond Look Back
For the past 5½ years I have had the great fortune to hear dozens of stories from individuals and families about the meaningful connection that they hold with their land and this region. Even better, I have had the opportunity to share those stories — tales of why protecting the natural heritage of our mountains is so deeply important to them — with you.
My hope is that you have been moved by them and after reading, developed an increasing sense of why conservation of our lands and waters is so important. And why protecting these mountains means so much to so many.
Busy juggling my duties at Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) of communications and outreach, writing stories, and also developing our trails program, I have failed to take an opportunity to look back on the many interviews I’ve conducted, images captured, and stories written (not to mention deadlines missed — my continued apologies to the editor).
Now I would like to reflect on what they have meant to me, and more importantly, how they may have inspired you. If you are new to this column or haven’t been reading it since its inception, perhaps you will consider going back to read the stories of those I’ve conveyed. And even if you have, consider going back to reread some of your favorites. They’re all available at BlueRidgeNow.com as well as CMLC’s website, carolinamountain.org (under the tab Protected Areas and “Stories”).
One of my first stories narrated the impact of first-ever CMLC conservation easement donor John Humphrey. I wrote of Humphrey back when he was just a young duck at the age of 95. Earlier this summer, he became a centenarian. His contributions to this region and its natural places have only become more storied since I first met him.
Each day I view the 150-year old oak tree named in his honor outside CMLC’s office building, and recall writing how it appropriately symbolizes John: “Roots that run deep in the land while its trunk stands strong among ever-present change. Its branches are forever reaching for new heights. It's a perfect tribute to John Humphrey, a hero of conservation in Western North Carolina.”
One of many memories that I cherish is sitting on the cabin porch with Sandy Schenck — one of our community’s great storytellers — and absorbing the lore of his Green River Preserve property, of which 2,600 acres is protected by CMLC. I chronicled Schenck’s legends and history at least three times, yet many more remain unwritten.
I remain amused at the account I wrote of P.T. Barnum as the responsible entity for bringing white squirrels to Western North Carolina via CMLC-conserved Rockbrook Camp. This ruffled the feathers of a few Transylvanians, but at least when I get disgruntled letters I know that someone is paying attention.
I always maintained that I’m merely conveying stories that were told to me by others, which means that some of my columns were surely more of legend. It turns out that the disagreement over how those endearing white critters came to our mountains only adds to their charm.
Many of the individuals who I wrote about became my close friends and mentors.
Tommy Hartzog, who conserved 96 acres of Youngs Mountain in Lake Lure through CMLC and continues to help me while developing a trail network on the peak, taught me to have patience to achieve what is important to you.
“Good things like this tend to take an awful long time,” Hartzog said. “But it is worth the wait.”
Rick Merrill was a developer turned conservationist who claimed to be “atoning for his sins” through his deep involvement in CMLC. He not only protected eight acres of his own property with a conservation easement, he helped me become more deeply rooted in this community by counseling me on the purchase of my home.
Al and Barb Pung, who volunteered more than 1,500 collective hours of their time to CMLC in just the past two years, have become particularly dear friends to me, not to mention personal role models and heroes.
Speaking of friends, the most difficult column I authored was just earlier this year. I shared the story about the loss of my dear friend Kayah Gaydish. I was overcome by emotion typing each paragraph as tears streamed down from my eyes and onto the keyboard. No one was so selflessly devoted to caring for our region's trails and public lands as Kayah. No one was such a devoted friend to so many.
I was devastated by her unexpected death, but honored to tell you about such an amazing human being. Kayah made me a better steward of our mountains and trails but also a better friend and person. I hope she inspired you to be the same.
Bearwallow Mountain was the topic or setting of nearly a dozen of my stories. I enjoyed researching and writing those tales the most, as that mountain is sacred to so many — including me. My fascination with Bearwallow will only continue to grow, as will my longing to keep protecting it.
CMLC’s efforts — and those of our many partners, community supporters, and its generous landowners — have led to the permanent protection of that tall, venerable summit where the views seem to go on forever. Subsequently protected are the countless memories and stories attached to that iconic peak.
Moreover, the conservation of the mountain also led to its permanent public accessibility by trail. It also proved to be the catalyst for a budding public trail network in the Hickory Nut Gorge so that our entire community may forever continue to visit and seek inspiration and rejuvenation from its natural treasures — all in our proverbial backyard.
I have become increasingly convinced that getting people out on protected land and touching it, feeling it, and being deeply impacted by it is one of the most effective means of fostering a connection and appreciation with the natural world. I can write stories about these amazing places — which allows others to perhaps inspire you — but nothing compares to visiting these places yourself and allowing the landscape to permeate into your soul.
In this column I previously wrote of trails and parks, citing a report from the soon to be century-old National Park Service, which insisted that “trails can enrich the quality of life for individuals, make communities more livable, and protect, nurture and showcase America's grandeur by traversing areas of natural beauty, distinctive geography, historic significance and ecological diversity.”
That report concluded “trails are important for the nation's health, economy, resource protection and education." I believe this more than ever.
So convinced am I of this, and so passionate to help further facilitate access to these protected places, that I will will soon be dedicating my all of my time to them in a new role as CMLC’s trails and recreational lands director.
In October, I will be passing the reins of Stories of the Land to CMLC’s new Communications and Marketing Manager Katie Onheiber. She will continue sharing stories about our region’s protected landscape and its meaning to those who live, work, and play here. I’m looking forward to hearing those stories, and you should be, too.
Thank you to everyone who shared their stories with me and the memories and inspiration that resulted, and thank you to all those that read them. I’ll see you out on the trail!