Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Old Farm

I wrote this as an English paper when I was in college. It's a brief description of the old dairy farm on Jonathan Creek and the hike to the top of the mountains that overlook Maggie Valley and Lake Junaluska. I need to edit it some but I hope you enjoy it. By the way, the farm is slowly being crowded out by housing that has encroached from virtually every side. I truly miss the way it was. This description is no longer accurate because of the housing going in all around the farm. The view is now spoiled. Imagine it as it was. I have not returned since the year after I wrote this to that high lonely ridge. There is a housing development between the Farm and the ridge and it makes me sick to see it. The picture to the right is not of the place described but another part of the Blue Ridge.

The Old Farm

Feelings of nostalgia stir up fond memories as I pull off the main highway onto the rutted gravel road that led into the old dairy farm. My dad had worked here before he joined the Army and left, and when we were growing up, we had spent many of our weekends here in the summer and fall. We hunted, fished, joked, laughed and played along the banks of Jonathan Creek and on the farm, all the way to the highest ridge. In my mind there is no prettier place on earth than this old farm in mid-October. I remember frosts so thick that every leaf looked like a crystal formation built on a colorful foundation. I remember bright hickory leaves that tumbled and floated down all around as the wind blew up across the face of the mountain. I remember pre-dawn stars that were undimmed by man made light or pollution and shined like blue fire in black velvet. I remember so much and yet so little.

It is almost a pilgrimage, a sabbatical if you will. Every year when the leaves are at their peak of color, I feel drawn to this place with an irresistible pull. I can no more stay away than I can change color.

The road winds around the low ridge and into a sheltered valley that is mostly pasture but turns to woods near the top of the mountain. It then turns up by an unpainted board fence that is warped and sun-bleached from years of exposure to the harsh mountain weather. The fence connects to the old milking barn where the cows were once milked daily. The faded white block of the building and the flaking paint reminds me just how old this building must be. It is quite a shock to me to notice that the roof is falling in on one end and the door is breaking loose from its hinges. Last time I was here I had not noticed, but the barn had been abandoned and all the milking equipment moved to some new stalls built against a steep bank behind the old barn. Gypsum weed and thistles had taken over the barnyard giving the whole place a run-down look.

I carefully ease on by the barn up to the calving stall. Several newborn calves lay just inside the gate, their black and white coats standing out in sharp contrast to the golden hay. I slow down to count them. Six. When they get a little bigger they will be transferred across the road into a holding pasture until they are big enough to join the rest of the herd roaming the pastured hillsides.

Around the corner, and I head for the wire gate in the electric fence. The road is partially blocked by a shiny, new Ford tractor. Bright blue and white and barely dirty, it couldn’t be more than a few weeks old. If it had been here long, the sticky mud and cow manure would be splattered all over it. Things get filthy fast here on the farm.

As I pass the tractor the musty smell of manure seems to flow in from all sides. All the cattle pass through this gap to go to the milking stalls and the mud and manure are deep, soggy and slick. I smile as I remember falling in this mess once, years ago. Yuck! I quickly pass through and reach the silo where the silage is stored for winter cattle feed. Made up of ground up corn, stalks and all, the silage has a sweet-sour smell that on one hand rather stinks, but on the other is one of the smells that make memories of hunting here so distinctive.

Through the fence and up the hill to the place I normally park, then out and on my feet to hike on to the top. There are a number of access roads cut into the sides of the mountains, and I quickly follow one to the crest of the mountain. From there I enter a deeply shaded and ancient forest. The trees are tall, towering high overhead and stretching down deep into the shaded hollows. The canopy of leaves overhead block most of the sun, and very little makes it to the forest floor. Dead logs and loose rocks litter the ground, and the rhododendrons grow in dark green clumps all around. I imagine this is what these mountains looked like three hundred years ago when the pioneers first moved into this area. Standing very still, I wait. Soon the squirrels and a couple of chipmunks begin to move about foraging for nuts that have falling from the oaks and hickory trees. I watch for a moment, then move on up to the ridge.

Looking ahead I see my goal. There is a high knoll on the middle ridge of the mountain that is nearly bare aside from the green grass that covers it. It is easily my favorite place on earth when autumn sets the mountains on fire with the turning leaves. I mount the knoll eagerly, and though dragging for my breath from exertion in the thin air at this altitude, I press on to the top.
Finally, I stand high above Maggie Valley taking in the breath-taking view. I’ve been here hundreds of times but it never gets old. Mountains roll like waves toward the horizon, overlapping and fading with the distance. The trees light up the hillsides in vivid fall colors that defy description. Oaks splash deep red and burnt brown stains across the scene, while hickories light up in brilliant yellows in every hollow and on every ridge. Maples are flame orange touched with crimson. Dogwoods, sourwoods, and other shrubs dot bright red spots in the under brush. A cool breeze blows down the valley rustling the leaves. To the east, Lake Junaluska shimmers in the morning sun, while to the west the high rugged peaks of the Soco mountains thrust up into the clear blue sky. I drink it in, soaking up the crisp autumn air and the smells of the farm. I love it here.

I spend what seems like hours here, yet at the same time it goes by all to quickly, then knowing I must soon head home, I turn back by a different route to find my truck. My thoughts stay behind on the empty ridge for quite some time.

James Lee Frady (c) 2/17/2009