We crossed the eastern continental divide at, I think, 3,100 feet, past the on-ramp for the Blue Ridge Parkway and just ahead of Boone, a college town thronged with well-appointed young people and, apparently, their parents. This area is North Carolina’s high country, evoking a pleasing symmetry: each end of the continent has a place called the high country and each has, at its high points, a hydrological divide, two guideposts directing the downward flow of water to the oceans. The eastern continental divide is less dramatic than the western divide, the Great Divide, because the Appalachian mountain range is much older than the Rockies, formed 480 million years ago to the Rockies’ 65, or so, million. The eastern mountains have much longer to be worn down and smoothed over.
In Boone, a disheveled produce shop had a fully operational frozen-drink machine full of Cheerwine slushies. Outside Boone we looked for Howard’s Knob. Who was Howard and what was the deal with his knob, is what we wanted to find out; Howard’s Knob Park had appeared on a local map and we sought to check it out. On the map it looked close by but the map did not account for elevation, and we — I’m talking about the dog and me — drove up an intensely steep grade, in first gear the entire time. The park turned out to be closed for the season. I could smell the car’s breaks burning by the time we got back down the hill, and I tried not to use them much the rest of the day. Johnny Cash has a good song called “Monteagle Mountain,” about a “long steep grade” leading up and down a mountain in Tennessee on the highway between Nashville and Chattanooga. “Goin’ down Monteagle Mountain on I-24,” he sings. “It’s hell for a trucker when the devil’s at your door.”
The names of roads and streets: Mary Ellen Lane, Red White and Blue Road, Junaluska Road, State of Franklin Road, The Church Road, Doc and Merle Watson Highway. In downtown Boone there is a bronze statue of Doc Watson, sitting on a bench and playing the guitar, and nearby Wilkesboro hosts Merlefest, named in honor of Watson’s son. Merle was killed at age 36, in 1985. He had cut himself on a table saw and drove off in a tractor to get treatment; on his way home, the tractor fell down an embankment and pinned Merle under it. All sorts of music is played at Merlefest except, as Doc Watson said in an interview five years before his own death, “the hard rock.”
Later in the day we drove past a trailhead on the Appalachian Trail where, to my surprise, we’d been before — 15 months earlier, a couple days after New Year’s in 2016, on the way home from Georgia. The weather that day required nothing more than a hoodie. We hiked up a narrow creek gorge through thick tunnels of rhododendron to a waterfall, where we let the dog off the leash. She hopped from rock to rock and, on the way back down the trail, ran circles around us.
Over the border into Tennessee, a parking lot off U.S. Highway 321 looked over Watauga Lake, which was created in the 1940s by the Tennessee Valley Authority. As with other TVA dam-building projects, an abandoned town sits at the bottom of the reservoir: Butler, Tennessee. Its hundreds of residents relocated and named their new community, too, Butler: “The Town That Would Not Drown.” The dog and I walked back into the woods, where some trees had placards naming them as “bearing trees,” which I’d never heard of before. Bearing trees help surveyors locate property corners, it turns out, and these rose out of a forest floor thick with thorny vines, and they had on them inscribable fields labeled “DIRECTION” and “DISTANCE,” which weren’t filled in. A tree without its bearings! Just imagine.
A song: Faron Young, “If I Ever Fall in Love (With a Honky Tonk Girl)”