Confronting the elements

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The snow started yesterday and continues today. The impact has been widely felt in Watauga County.

Watauga County Schools closed yesterday. Appalachian State University canceled afternoon finals, a decision that institution does not take lightly. The town of Boone canceled the Christmas parade, which was to be held this morning.

Mountain roads, hilly, twisting and steep, are unforgiving in the snow. There are reports that there were multiple car accidents yesterday (thankfully, no serious injuries or fatalities).

I think of the the first European visitor to this region, Rev. August Gottlieb Spangenberg, who decided to explore the mountains of western North Carolina in December. After an arduous climb, he and his team found a beautiful meadow to pitch their tents.

Of course a storm blew up.

“We pitched our tent, but scarcely had we finished when such a fierce wind storm burst upon us, that we could scarcely protect ourselves against it. I can not remember that I have ever in Winter anywhere encountered so hard, or so cold a wind. The ground was soon covered with snow ankle deep—& the water froze for us aside the fire. Our people became thoroughly disheartened.

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The snow has halted the normal pace of life today. But as the snow continues fall, I am reminded of those early settlers who came with nothing, who had no shelter from the storms, and despite the challenges brought by the unforgiving mountains and the harsh winter weather, put down roots here and created a community in the mountains….

 

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“Mountains rising like waves in a storm…”

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A view of Appalachian Mountains taken from the Green Mountain Overlook (elevation 4134 ft.) 

The Appalachian Mountains rise up majestically from the foothills, a seemingly endless stretch of land that rises and falls, rises and falls into the distance. These are some of the oldest mountains in the world, approximately 300 to 500 million years old.

Boone, Watauga County’s largest town, is at 3,333 feet above sea level. The highest peaks in Watauga rise up to nearly 6,000 feet. They may be ‘shorties” compared to the Rockies, but when the settlers first set out to explore the western reaches of America, the Appalachian Mountains were a significant barrier to westward expansion and settlement.

Until the 20th century, Watauga was one of the three “lost provinces” of western North Carolina – along with Allegheny and Ashe Counties – mountain areas so remote and so difficult to access that the joke was “the only way to get there was to be born there.”

When you return home to Watauga County after a trip off the mountain, it’s a reminder, always, of the challenges faced by the initial settlers to this region. The car engine groans under the weight of the climb. The turns are sharp. The ascent is steep. In a car, it takes about 45 minutes or so to get back up the mountain from the nearest town in the foothills below. Looking at the undulating waves of mountains that stretch into the distance and the heavily wooded forests that still remain in this area, it is almost impossible to imagine the settlers winding through this area in their wagons.

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One of the first European people to explore this area was August Gottlieb Spangenberg, a German-born Moravian Bishop who came to America on a mission to establish a Moravian church in the New World. Land in North Carolina was cheap and plentiful and Spangenberg found himself exploring western North Carolina to determine the best location for his church. In 1752, he set out from Yadkin Valley to head up into the mountains.

His journey was arduous and dangerous. Reading his diary provides insights into the challenges faced by the original settlers of Watauga County:

“Dec 3. 1752. From the Camp on a River in an old Indian field, wh. is either the Head, or a branch of New River, wh. flows through N. C. to Va & into the Miss. River. Here we have at length arrived after a very toilsome journey, over fearful mountains & dangerous cliffs. A hunter whom we had taken along to show us the way to the Yadkin, missed the right path, & we came into a region from wh. there was no outlet, except by climbing up an indescribably steep mountain. Part of the way we had to crawl on hands and feet; sometimes we had to take the baggage & saddles & the horses, & drag them up the mountains (for the horses were in danger of falling down backward—as we had once had an experience) & sometimes we had to pull the horses up, while they trembled & quivered like leaves.”

Spangenberg inexplicably traveled up the “indescribably steep mountain” in middle of winter. He and his small team of travelers camped on beds of leaves, pulled horses up steep slopes, encountered uncrossable rivers filled with rocks and “precipitously steep banks.” They rejoiced when they found a beautiful meadow to set up camp, but a storm blew up as soon as they pitched their tents:

“We pitched our tent, but scarcely had we finished when such a fierce wind storm burst upon us, that we could scarcely protect ourselves against it. I can not remember that I have ever in Winter anywhere encountered so hard, or so cold a wind. The ground was soon covered with snow ankle deep—& the water froze for us aside the fire. Our people became thoroughly disheartened. Our horses would certainly perish & we with them. The next day we had fine sunshine, & then warmer days though the nights were ‘horribly’ cold.”

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When they reached the top of the mountain, the views were glorious.

“Arrived on the top at last, we saw hundreds of mountain peaks all around us, presenting a spectacle like ocean waves in a storm.”

In the end, the mountains proved too challenging for the Bishop in search of a home for his church. He left the mountains and returned to the Yadkin Valley area where the Moravians continue to have a presence in Winston-Salem. In his diary, Spangenberg gives us a detailed account of the difficulties of traveling into the mountains – and he also shares his vision of the mountains as “ocean waves in a storm.” 

In reading of Spangenberg’s “very toilsome journey, over fearful mountains & dangerous cliffs,” one thinks of the original settlers to this area – the families that hauled all they owned up the mountain, cleared the land of trees and rocks, built new communities in the mountains and it’s clear that the original settlers of Watauga County were a breed all their own, leaving the verdant valleys of the lowlands and settling down in a remote, isolated and beautiful part of the world. More on that to come… 

Faith in the farmland

IMG_4133“Jesus Saves” 

The barn tilts dramatically to one side. The side of the shed makes a statement of faith: “Jesus Saves” – with an arrow pointing up to the Carolina sky.

God has weight here in Watauga. Dozens of churches dot the landscape. Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse is one of the largest employers in the area.

Prayer matters. God matters. And Jesus saves…

At the intersection of tradition and progress

Watauga County is considered a rural county but the area has seen significant growth in the last few years, driven in part by Appalachian State’s focus on increasing enrollment. At the dawn of the 21st century, Watauga’s population was 42,695. That number has grown significantly – in 2016, the county’s population was almost 54,000  people.

This rapid growth in what has been a traditional, rural community brings conflict, seen in the fierce debates over how to develop the land. How much student housing does Watauga County need? How many asphalt plants? These matters are hotly debated and expensively litigated…

 

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Overlooking a cow pasture and some homes to see construction on the new building for Appalachian State’s Beaver College of Health Sciences.

A beautiful place to call home…

I come from wandering stock – my mother was an immigrant from Ireland; my paternal grandmother came to America as a child, a refugee from anti-Jewish pogroms in Tsarist Russia. My husband and I grew up in the Midwest; moving to the South in 2011 after a lifetime in Chicagoland was a significant migration for us.

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The neighborhood

We landed in Watauga County, North Carolina, not far from the Tennessee border. The Appalachian mountains define the geography of the region. These are some of the oldest mountains in the world, rugged, beautiful, worn down by age. (A Colorado tourist referred to the Appalachian Mountains as “shorties – and compared to the Rockies, they are.) 

Tourism represents a significant portion of the economy in Watauga – the impact of tourism in 2015 was $231.44 million. The county is dotted with “choose-and-cut” Christmas tree farms that bring in an estimated economic impact of about $14 million.

What we found in Watauga County were many people like us – migrants, people who moved here for a variety of reasons  – the view, a job, family.

But we also met people whose families have lived here for centuries. We’ve heard rumors that it’s possible you could perhaps buy land that was deeded to the seller’s family by King George III.

Watauga County is a place people migrate to, but it’s also a place some families never leave.

Welcome to Watauga!

It’s two hours from the nearest airport, a rural county in western North Carolina. It’s one of the three “lost provinces” of Western North Carolina, a region so remote and so rugged that to get there, you had to be born there, as the joke once went.

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It’s a place where you may just find a couple of renegade cows in your backyard.

It’s Watauga County, North Carolina. Population: almost 54,000. Home to Appalachian State University, part of the University of North Carolina system of public universities. Considered by some to be one of the most influential counties in America.

And it’s the subject of this blog…