/ Nonfiction /
Staring at the tiny log cabin in front of me reminds me of a box sent from a loved one, something charming that smells like home as I get out of the car to stretch my legs from the long journey behind me. I pick up a pinecone, which lay decorating the earth. The fresh pine scent tickles my nose. I see a fox as he turns off the gravel road to nose through the Rhododendron in full bloom. Their sweet scent saturates the earth, and I feel elated. A tear spills from my eye as I help my mother out of the car. After the long trip to get here, her arthritis has flared up and she looks more frail than usual. A buried sadness seems to seep into everything around me. For years this was my most desolate moment: missing the person who brought me here. In solitude, I stand here clutching the key to cabin twenty-one as if it holds a deep secret to my happiness. My heart beats faster as I turn the key into the lock to open the door. I see my father’s face. In one minute, he was handsome and lively. In the next, he was a ghost.
When I was ten, my father suddenly died of an aneurysm at forty-five. One night he went to work and never came home. I awoke to hear my mother asking the person on the other end of the phone if my father was conscious. My sister and I waited all night while my mother and brother went to the hospital. The whole week after he collapsed, he remained in the hospital in a coma and never woke up. My father was an alcoholic for as long as I remember, and he had his usual shot of whiskey before leaving. I remember watching him from the window on a snowy night as he backed out of the driveway in his truck. As he turned and waved goodbye his hands seemed like dying weeds as he disappeared into the darkness.
Our visits to his hometown in the mountains ended with his death. Twenty years after his death, I found my way back to this place that was his home. It was on an impulse one day, and I have returned every summer after that.
* * *
While visiting my older brother in Charlotte one summer, my mother, sister, younger brother, and I decided to take a road trip north to my father’s home. Arriving in the rural area of Western North Carolina, his spirit seemed to be everywhere. Instantly transporting us back to a time full of family festivities and camping trips with cousins, aunts, and uncles
After my father’s death, my siblings, my mother, and I grieved differently, each loving him yet hating him for leaving us. Angry that he let alcohol damage us all, but still missing the person he was before the stranglehold of addiction suffocated him. My sister threw herself into sewing and gardening, my brothers submerged themselves into sports, and life continued. There is a significant age gap between them and me. I was the baby, yet I felt like an only child. My family loved and cherished me, but feelings of isolation remained throughout my life.
We drove down winding roads and stopped at a small house by a stream where my uncle’s house still stood. We sent my mother to knock on the door. We held our breath for what seemed like an eternity for someone to answer. As the door opened, a familiar face appeared, and there was instant recognition between my mother and cousin. The tears of those missing years started to flow, and the lost time ceased to exist.
My father grew up in these mountains with his parents, three brothers, and two sisters. All of them lived in the tiny tin roof house without running water. It was a hard life; the brothers worked in the surrounding tobacco fields they owned. Legend has it that my grandfather used to run moonshine in the hills. We never had any proof of the allegation, but it would explain how the brother's love for alcohol came about. The family is all gone now, most from alcohol-related illnesses. I like to remember them in happier years, and I imagine my father as a child running barefoot and carefree in his natural habitat. As a little girl, I often stood in the front yard of my father's childhood home, forgetting my loneliness as the enchanted countryside transfixed me.
The pastures surrounding the house were rich with perpetual color. The land was vibrant and as the sun glistened. Nearby creeks roared against the rocks raging downstream into the abyss. My father and his brothers plunged into the icy waters on hot days, swimming until dusk. At dawn, nature's choir and the earth's sounds permeated the atmosphere. The mist covered the world around us, mustering endless charm. The fog was thick every morning until the sun came out and bathed the valley in realms of gold. On rainy days, I sat at a window listening to the chirps of birds I could not see.
My father moved north to Cleveland, Ohio, to find work. In his younger days. It was here that he met my mother and her traditional Greek family. They fell instantly in love, and she ran away from her strict family at seventeen to get married by a Justice of the Peace. They had happy years as a family, although his love remained in the mountains. I often wonder what he would say if he could see it now, and I dream of conversations we will never have. The world here continues to evolve as life constantly ebbs and flows through time, and it still is bittersweet without him.
One summer, while attending a family reunion, we discovered Roan Mountain, State Park, found just over the mountain from his home in East Tennessee. Looking at the cozy cabins embellishing the hillside, my mom and I knew this would be our home for future trips.
Summertime in the park fills up with families, nature lovers, and avid hikers. Rich, diverse backgrounds make conversations flow easily between guests. Our common thread is that we are eager to escape our stressful daily lives. It is easy to forget one’s identity while seeking self-renewal and enlightenment.
The morning after arriving, I wake to daylight peering through my window. The birds shake the morning dew off their feathers as they sing a sweet song filling my consciousness with joy. The deer graze in hushed silences among the hillsides. White puffy clouds lost in the blue cream of oblivion against the sky. Sunlight seeps past a thick canopy of branches reaching into the damp mountain earth.
My mother and I drink coffee on the porch. We sit in our rocking chairs; she shares stories of her and my father’s trips here and how they eloped. I cherish the time I have had with her. She has been my parent and best friend throughout my life, and I desperately want to hold on to her. My fear of abandonment still runs deep.
My mother and I are the only ones making the trip now. Family trips have faded, but we are grateful for our "girl's trip" together yearly. We look forward to visiting friends and family, hiking together, and camp activities that fill our hours.
We hike a section of The Appalachian Trail that winds through the park to Carver’s Gap, an area with vast views of where the trail connects to Georgia and on to Maine. It is a treeless rock-filled summit illuminated with wildflowers. On a sunny day, I can see my father's home. The sheer beauty grips me, and the silence is deafening. Snapping my camera phone, clicking like paparazzi pouncing on its prey, I try to freeze this moment in time. I feel sad because I know this is all I have left to bring back when my time ends here.
When the day’s adrenaline has emptied away, we follow it up with laughter and reminiscing as we feast on s’mores over a campfire at dusk. Cousins set up camp at the campground across the street, and there is always an extra tent for me to bunk in if my nature goddess stirs.
Throughout my life, I always believed that I had done everything right. Tragedy belonged to other people. Since my father vanished from my life early on, I realized that grief attached to me that day. It became a part of me, like an extra limb. As I grow older, I feel blessed to be able to return here every summer. I discover new things about myself in this sacred space near my father's essence. I remember him lovingly, without anger, and before he became nothing but a shadow to me.
Each summer I am here, I continue to have epiphanies in the most surprising places. Once clutching a rope on a swinging mountain bridge, too scared to move, I promised myself I would leave my toxic job, go back to school, earn a degree, and start a new career at 50. I am still earning that degree, but happy I am on a new life path. I learned to come to terms with my emotions while rafting down a river or writing poetry in my tent at night, drinking vino. At night I gaze at the moon, gathering my strength to face my fears of being alone or just lonely. I am learning to live for myself instead of just existing.
The lock clicks as the door to the cabin closes behind me for another year. It is the end of our week, packed and ready to return to our everyday lives. I feel like I am abandoning a dear friend or wearing out my welcome. I imagine who will move in next. This cabin has seen people come and go, bidding goodbye while alluring others back.
For me, this is a place to reconnect with my father's energy that still lives here. Lovingly, my mother and I keep making happy memories, sometimes with amusing calamities (But that is another story I will happily tell later) and, on occasion, tears.
Our car turns the corner out of the parking lot onto the highway, taking us back to Florida I look over at my mother, who is now eighty-seven years old, survived a heart attack, and lives with debilitating arthritis, yet is always happy to be sitting on the porch of cabin twenty-one. As she likes to say, “Its’s my spiritual place.” On the drive back we begin once again to plan our next visit. The ranger yells to us, “See ya'll next year!" as he waves goodbye. All the emotional echoes of my life live here. Cabin twenty-one will always be a part of my existence and I remain forever grateful. I secretly pray that our paths will lead us back here for years to come.