By Jesse Walter Birdwell © 1990
Issue: July, 1990
Roan Mountain is located in Carter County, Tennessee and Avery and Mitchell Counties in North Carolina.
The first time I went to Roan Mountain was with my daddy. I don't know the exact year, but I would have been just a little fellow. It would have been one of those special days that was filled with childhood glee when a father and son spend time together. We would have been visiting our native Tennessee as we took time to gaze out over the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains that our ancestors had settled in almost 200 years before. Our day trip would find us back in my father's native town of Johnson City.
I remember returning to Roan Mountain as a teenager. I had attempted a year of school at a nearby college and would venture up to Roan on occasion. I remember one day in particular when a thunderous wind blew clouds fiercely across the bald. The evergreens hummed as they were combed by the steady force of the icy wind. It was a day that nothing could be seen and it was a struggle to remember that the sun was shining high above the clouds that enveloped me. The cold cut deep into my being and the solitude pressed against my thoughts. Only my memories kept me warm and I left there with the hope of returning at another time.
My daddy died in '74. I had married my childhood sweetheart and we had two daughters. Their memory of their grandfather is that of a kindly old man that lived in Tennessee. The old man who rewarded them for being quiet with sparking new pennies and who would always bring them candy treats from his walks to town. They didn't know him long but they knew him well. We buried him on a hillside outside of town. It was time for me to go back to Roan.
It was a clear day in June. The rhododendrons were in bloom and their fragrance laced the mountain ridges with their perfume. White clouds dotted the sky. I sought solitude on a grassy bald way above the road. I sat there for hours and watched my heart rain on the mountain and a river of tears filled the valley below. I was too old to be a boy and too young to be a man.
Several years would pass until I could return to the mountain. My daughters were teenagers now and we were visiting my mother. We took a day trip up to Roan in our old station wagon. My daughters were arguing about who's turn it was to sleep in Grandmother's bedroom. Their attention turned to me as they called for a reason why we had stopped. They complained bitterly when I told them that we were going "up there." My wife and I started up the trail as the girls put on their coats. They scaled the split rail fence as the wind mussed up their hair and they were soon to realize that their jeans were too tight for hiking. After several pauses and a few parental analogies about how this pilgrimage was symbolic of the struggles of life, we neared the top. We huffed and puffed in the thin air and yet the incessant chattering continued calling for a rational explanation about why we were there.
As the entire horizon became visible I teased their imaginations with the prospect that we might be able to find the long lost remains of the historical "Cloudland Hotel" that had graced Roan Mountain nearly 100 years ago. I told them about the hundreds of people who had gazed at this same horizon and that these were the mountains that my great-great-great-grandfather had pioneered to get to what is now Sullivan County back in the late 1700's. I reminded them that there might even be an Indian or a wolf or even a big black bear still roaming around these parts. They laughed nervously as they scanned the grassy bald to see if anything moved. I walked alone for a few minutes but heard them laughing as they played tag with their mother on the open plane. I stood there and gazed out over my beautiful mountains and thanked the Lord for all our blessings.
Then I realized I was being hunted and was soon to fall victim of tickling. They attacked and I fought tooth and nail but soon I was overcome with hysteria. The next thing I knew I was being ridden like a horsey like we used to do when they were kids. I surrendered and begged mercy from my three. We soon gathered our thoughts and started down.
As we approached the parking lot we could see smoke billowing up through the treetops of a nearby ridge. A big campfire was burning deep in the woods and several families were having a mountain picnic. Women and children were carrying food and supplies up the trail toward their fellowship. We could hear men laughing and tuning stringed instruments as they decided what they would play. Then a banjo broke into a lead with the whole group following in behind. And then before us was a good ole foot stomp'n, hand clap'n, hillbilly bluegrass jamboree! It was a beautiful ending to a perfect day.
Then a turning point came in our lives in the summer of '86. Our girls had graduated from high school and were starting college. Somehow we had all managed to live together in relative peace as a family under the same roof. My wife and I had both worked over the years to keep up with expenses. A mole on my wife's forearm had changed to a darker color and we were soon confronted with the reality that it was cancerous.
The spring of '88 found us beyond all physical treatment. The doctors had taken a "wait-and-see" attitude. We were cautiously optimistic about the future. We had driven to Tennessee again and it was time to go to the mountain.
We pulled into the parking lot. We were emotionally bankrupt and financially exhausted. We drug our weary souls toward the summit. Our pilgrimage was now symbolized by our struggle to climb the mountain once more. It took us an eternity to reach the bald. With our faithful dogs as our companions we finally reached that point where the entire horizon could be seen again. And there we prayed.
What has evolved from that day is a story that is still unfolding and remains to be told. Our daughters have struck out on their own and are planning their own families. It looks like we'll be grandparents ourselves before too long and I'm already dreaming of the days to come when this gray headed old man will be pull'n into that parking lot and zipp'n up some little jackets and pull'n up some little hoods and putt'n on some mittens and tie'n little sneakers. And I'll hear an angel's voice say, "Where we go'n Grandpa?" And I'll say, "Sweetheart, we're go'n back to Roan Mountain.