A Chance Encounter in Appalachia

A new stitch in the tapestry of life that is Appalachia was added one morning when I got a surprise phone call from a doctor in Boston.

“Did you get my email?” he asked.  There was a sense of urgency in his voice.

His name was completely unfamiliar to me.  After a few moments, however, I found his message tucked inside in my spam folder.

 Dr Sohur had written to me in a desperate effort to find Moni Taylor –

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the “Woman Named Hello.”

Dr Sohur, a neuroscientist now living in Boston, hails from Mauritius – an island nation in the Indian Ocean about 400 miles east of Madagascar.  Ten years ago, he told me, his family held a reunion in – of all places – the Ashevillage.  His parents, who lived in Mauritius, traveled all the way to western North Carolina to partake in the celebration.

And, in the small world way of things, someone in the family hired Moni to photograph the event.

“I am appealing to your kindness,” Dr Sohur said. “I would be appreciative if you would be so kind to connect me to Ms Moni Taylor, for her approval for us to use a picture she took in 2004 of my parents.”

In his search to find her, Dr Sohur had come across Moni’s name on my site.

His father had just died, he explained when we spoke.

And to honor him, Dr Sohur had written a whimsical and moving obituary, which he wanted to illustrate with a photograph of both his father and his mother, who had died a few years earlier – a photograph taken by Moni.

Sohurs By Taylor June 2004

“This is the best couple image we have of them,” he said.

“And I am hoping that this picture would accompany a lyrical prose piece I am writing for the leading English weekly in the island of Mauritius where my parents lived.  In the same vein, I plan to do some pro bono work to decrease diabetes on the island and would like to use this picture as my motivation of what I am doing. Thanks much for any help connecting with Ms. Taylor.”

I hadn’t been in touch with Moni for quite some time, but as the piece was due to be published within days, I sent a message to her as soon as I got off the phone. She responded almost immediately, giving Dr Sohur permission to use her photograph of his parents.

The following week, I received a copy of the printed memorial –

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and marveled at the wonder and magic of feeling connected to total strangers from vastly different cultures, ever so briefly, due to a chance encounter in a little town in Appalachia more than ten years ago.

Lucky indeed.

What Lies Beneath…

One morning, a few months after we moved into the Ashevillage (back when we lived in the house we lived in before moving into Casa Mia), I was standing at the kitchen sink, washing dishes and staring out the window…

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when I saw a car pull into the top of my long driveway.

That wasn’t unusual and so I waited to see if it would drive on down to the house or just turn around – as cars pulling into my driveway often did.

But neither happened.

Instead, I watched as the car door opened and someone got out.  Then whoever that person was walked around to the trunk of the car and pulled out a shovel.

That’s a bit odd, I thought, continuing to soap the dishes and stare out the window.

The stranger closed the trunk and then, shovel in hand, walked down the road along the top of my garden.

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About half way down the the property line, there looms a rather large metal power pole.  It’s not very attractive, but the forsythia has always been so voracious on the hillside

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I figured at some point it would win the battle for control of the landscape and cover up the tower.

The person (I still couldn’t tell if it was a male or female) stopped at the large metal power pole, looked around, and then started digging around the base of it.  In my garden.

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Eyes still glued to the scene unfolding on the hillside, I dried my hands.

My rational self quickly tried to take control of the situation – perhaps it was someone from the city utilities department?  But the not-so-rational voice inside my head didn’t for one moment believe it.  Weird stuff was going on up there, for sure.

The stranger continued digging away feverishly around the base of the power tower.  The dirt flew for a few more moments and then stopped.

The stranger knelt down, pulled something from the pocket of his or her coat, and put it in the ground.

What the heck?!  I wondered.

(Actually, my thought cloud contained a different word, but for the sake of the general readership, I won’t use it here.)

A moment later, the shovel was back at work, covering up the evidence.

Fascinated, I continued to watch.

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A few moments later,  the stranger got up, swept off the dirt from his or her coat, and walked back to the car at the top of my driveway and got in.  The car reversed out of the driveway and drove away.

In case you’re wondering why didn’t I just go out there and ask what was going on –

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well, this is Appalachia and many people in these mountains have guns and I’d heard that on occasion they do actually use them.

And a homeowner interfering with the burying of evidence in her garden just might be such an occasion, I thought….

So in the end, I did nothing until after the stranger had vanished.

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Then I climbed up the hill to check out the area around the base of the tower, but apart from some disturbed dirt, nothing else seemed amiss.

Several days later, the phone rang.

It was Laurel, the lovely woman from whom I’d bought the house.  She had purchased it to renovate and re-sell, but had not actually lived in it herself.

We chatted for awhile and then I mentioned the stranger with the shovel.

Oh, that was me!  she laughed.

That was you?  I asked, incredulous.  What on earth were you doing?

Burying crystals, she explained.  It was something I meant to do before you moved in to the house, to protect you.

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Concerned about potential negative energies emanating from the large metal power pole, Laurel had handcrafted pieces of orgonite – a mixture of catalyzed fiberglass resin with metal shavings, particles and powders – and buried them around the base.

After a little research, I had a better understanding of her gift.  Orgonite is believed to have positive energy and helps create an electromagnetic-free zone.  Crystals buried pointing away from your own home are thought to help deflect negative energy or transform it into positive energy.

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What an incredibly wonderful introduction to life in the Ashevillage.

Ten years later, I am sure it is still there, buried somewhere under all that forsythia and sending out good vibes to the new inhabitants of the house on the hillside.

How an Absurdist Gypsy Folk Funk Punk band and a dog named Cupcake saved the day

As the door opened, I heard a woman’s voice say, “No!  Don’t let the dogs out!”

Strolling in my neighborhood with my own dogs, I turned my head just in time to see two snarling beasts hurling themselves at us from over a stone wall.  And then they were upon us, growling, gnashing, biting.

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My Golden Doodle tried to hide all 95 pounds of her frantic self between my legs, but my little guy – a Schnoodle named Bandit – was at jaw level and took the brunt of this unexpected attack. Someone later told me he could hear Bandit’s scream a block away.

A few minutes-that-seemed-like-hours later, the owner was able to get her vicious beasts under control. Shaken, but mostly okay (so I thought), we straggled back home to assess the damages.

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Klejne, the Golden Doodle, seemed to have escaped damage, but there was  a bloody gash in the grey fur on Bandit’s backside – scary, but not enough to warrant the expense of a weekend vet visit – I hoped.

Once home, Bandit crept into a dark corner and refused to come out the rest of the day.

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Not even for meals.

Yes, even in Asheville, bad things can and do happen. The interesting thing, however, is to pay attention to what happens in the wake of bad experiences.

Unexpectedly, the first stitch toward mending the upsetting rent in the fabric of the day came in the form of another dog –

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– a 180 lb Mastiff named Cupcake, who, when I happened to pass her by later that afternoon on my way to the market, was snoozing peacefully in the sun.

Tiny blue ribbons adorned her ears.

Surprised by the ribbons, I leaned over the fence to ask Cupcake’s owner, Meg – a neighbor I barely knew, for permission to take a few photographs.

Cupcake just got back from the groomer, Meg said, by way of explanation for the ribbons. And so began an entirely pleasant conversation that ended with an invitation from my new friend to stop back by that evening for a house party. A popular local band – the amazing Sirius.B – musicians who describe themselves as Absurdist Gypsy Folk Funk Punk –

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would be playing, in her house – walking distance from my own!

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Curious to know what Absurdist Gypsy Folk Funk Punk sounded like, I returned later, along with a number of other neighbors.

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The day had already improved immeasurably, but concerns over little Bandit still hovered in my mind.

I still wasn’t sure whether or not his wound needed professional attention. Between songs, I sought out advice from other dog-owning neighbors.

Meanwhile, the strains of Absurdist Gypsy Folk Funk Punk – like musical incense – were floating out beyond Meg’s house, up the block, and over to another street, reaching into the ears of a young nurse sitting on her front porch six or seven houses away – a nurse who just happened to be a big fan of the band.

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Hearing what she knew right away was the music of Sirius.B, she wandered over to join the little throng enjoying the music inside and outside the house of Cupcake.

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When I discovered she was an emergency room nurse, I told her about Bandit’s misfortune. Should I take him to the weekend vet clinic? I asked. By then it was quite late in the evening.

“Let me take a look,” she offered.

Two other neighbors, having heard the story, tagged along on our short walk back to my place, stopping along the way at the nurse’s house for emergency medical supplies.

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And that is how, a short while later, the four of us came to be performing spontaneous Schnoodle triage on my sofa by the spotlight of a handheld iPhone.

This compassionate care by three people who only hours earlier had been complete strangers to me, resulted in a happy and mended little Bandit.

After they left, I watched him snoozing peacefully, thinking of the day’s unexpected kindnesses – the invitation to a house party with great music, meeting new friends and neighbors, the midnight nursing to fix him up –

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none of which would have happened but for the luck of encountering a giant Cupcake with little blue ribbons on her ears.

Hiking with Puffins – on the Appalachian Trail?

Would you hike with these guys?

If you are an Appalachian Trail hiker, you might be able to do just that if the International Appalachian Trail, a multinational committee, gets its way!

Would you hike with these guys?

If you are an Appalachian Trail hiker, you might be able to do just that if the International Appalachian Trail, a multinational committee, gets its way.

And, if they are successful in extending the path from Maine to Iceland, the additional miles will raise the bar considerably for through-hikers.

At 2180 miles, the AT is already one of the longest footpaths in the world.

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Beginning at Springer Mountain in Georgia, it traverses the crests and valleys of the entire Appalachian mountain range which meanders through fourteen states before ending in Katahdin, Maine.

Geological evidence suggests, however, that the mountains that are home to Appalachia were once part of the Central Pangean Mountains – back when North America and Western Europe were one continent (about 250 million years ago.)

With the break-up of Pangaea, the various mountain ranges drifted apart, eventually becoming different continents and countries.

Fueled by the desire to build mutual understanding between people of different nationalities, IAT enthusiasts propose an extended hiking path that would hop scotch along the ridges of the former Central Pangean Mountains, passing through Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and into Iceland –

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before continuing on through Norway, Denmark, Scotland, and beyond.

Which means, that in addition to looking like this…

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the AT will now also look …

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like this.

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And, in addition to black bears, elk, moose, porcupines, snakes, foxes, and salamanders –

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IAT hikers may also be sharing their trek with puffins and wild Icelandic horses.

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They may even have to scramble across a glacier or two – and camp out on beds of hardened lava.

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But one advantage of having the IAT run through Iceland is the opportunity for 20-hour long hike days –

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because this is what midnight looks like in Iceland – at least during summer months.

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Is this a good idea? Let us hear your thoughts!

It Takes An (Appalachian) Village

Most days, late in the afternoon, my dogs and I take a several mile ramble through the neighborhoods of Asheville.

Sometimes we walk with friends and sometimes we’re on our own,

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 but we almost always run into dogs and people we know.

We walk past bungalows and castles,

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and up and down the mountainsides.

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And if something is ever bothering my brain, or if I just have the blues, a mountain walk with the pups seems to take care of it –

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thanks to the fresh air and the conversations along the way.

Last summer, my aging (but spritely) mother moved in with me,

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and I found myself taking these walks a little more often.

She moved in at my invitation, and I had the best of intentions when I suggested it, eager as I was for her to experience the wonders and delights of life in the southern highlands of Appalachia.

And so…

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I took her to my favorite coffee shops, wine bars,

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restaurants and book stores – all of which quickly became

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her favorite coffee shops, wine bars, and restaurants.

We went out to hear live music whenever we could.

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She liked one band so much, she grabbed their tip jar and worked the room –

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much to their delight.

On weekends, we drove out through the mountains to nearby small towns.

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She marveled at,

and enjoyed,

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everything.

In order to accommodate this new world order, however,

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Casa Mia had to go through some necessary repairs and renovations.

Likewise, my lifestyle had to take a major shift.

Every day was now “take your mother to work day” and I sometimes found myself with a less than perfect attitude about it all.

Ideas for positive solutions were all around me, however, and although it took awhile for me to notice it –

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Zach, a chef down the street, listened patiently in his garden one day as I stressed about the goings-on at Casa Mia.

When I paused to take a breath, he looked at me and smiled gently.

“This too,” he said.

“Shall pass?” I asked hopefully, finishing the sentence for him.

“Nope.  Just ‘this too,'” he said.  “Everything that is already going on in your life, and now – this, too.”

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“It’s a Buddhist mantra,” he explained with a benevolent smile.

I thanked him politely and moved on, feeling less than consoled.

But his words stayed with me (dammit) – taunting me to accept them.

A few days later, I ran into another neighbor and once again,

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 my concerns came tumbling out.

She listened, then said kindly, “You don’t have to do this,” giving me the idea that change might even be possible.

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More walks and more ideas.  Help was springing up everywhere.

  A former geriatric nurse volunteered to come sit with my mother whenever I needed a break.  Others shared their loving (and often humorous) experiences taking care of their elderly parents.

Retired missionaries living across the street and the women from the shelter next door (the ones remaking their own lives!) all kept an eye out for her.

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One reason I had taken the elderly (but spritely) mother in was to show my kids this is how we take care of one another.

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But it quickly became apparent – as I watched my kids fence and parry her quirky ways and limitations with their gentle teasing and humor – that they were the teachers, not me.

Over time, walk by walk, piece by piece, words, advice and suggestions began to come together, forming a framework of support and ideas.  The answers were all around me, the village was responding.

The final piece in the puzzle turned out to have actually been the very first piece – I just hadn’t realized it at the time.

Several months before my aging (but spritely) mother had arrived at Casa Mia, the almost always patient Tom had taken a detour one day (a not unusual occurrence) so that he could show me the retirement home his grandfather had lived in for many years.  It was already dark out and I humored him, but didn’t pay much attention at the time.

By magical coincidence, it turned out this same village within a village was also the home of another mother –

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belonging to one of the craftsmen currently working on the transformation of Casa Mia.

And so, my aging (but spritely) mother and I went to see this home for similarly aging and spritely elders and discovered

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 it was the perfect solution!

On the morning of New Year’s Eve, the aging (but spritely) mother moved back out, and into her very own garden apartment on a neighboring mountain.

Last weekend, I took her out for the afternoon and after a tasty tavern lunch, we strolled around her new little town, looking at the shops.

Eventually, we wandered into a local art gallery and there, in the back room, leaning up against the wall, was a small framed painting by Ashevillage plein air artist Colleen Webster

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the exact scene from the wine bar where my aging (but spritely) mother had, just months earlier, passed the tips bowl for the musicians.

It was the perfect souvenir of our months living together 🙂

Gorilla in the Mist ~ Kayaking Appalachia

You can hear the Gorilla long before you see it. It has a mighty roar, as if waiting to claim its next victim.

For hikers, there’s only one way to reach the Gorilla –

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a not-for-the-faint-of-heart scramble down 1600 feet of steep mountainside, clinging to exposed roots and frayed ropes –

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in order to reach the “Garden of the Gods” and the Green River Narrows, through which Gorilla flows.

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And that is how I spent this past Saturday, scrambling down a steep mountainside in the company of good friends.

But hikers like us have it easy compared with what awaits kayakers.

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Just 35 miles south of Asheville, the Green River Narrows was first successfully navigated in 1988. One of the most extreme kayaking runs in the Eastern US, it is now a rite of passage for serious paddlers.

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Because for kayakers, the opportunity to “huck” themselves off the Gorilla – a Class V rapids with five segments (Pencil Sharpener, The Notch, The Flume, Scream Machine, and Nies’ Pieces) –

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is just irresistible.

So irresistible, it made National Geographic’s Ultimate Adventure Bucket List in 2014.

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The source of the Green River Narrows’ ferociousness is the Tuxedo Power station, which lies upstream. The Tuxedo periodically releases water at a rate of up to 216 cubic feet per second over this canyon of ancient Appalachian bedrock, creating a fierce playground for paddlers.

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Gorilla, one of the “Big Three” rapids on the river, is perhaps the most visually impressive.

It starts with a narrow 4-foot slot that is immediately followed by two waterfalls –

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“The Flume” and the “Scream Machine” – for a total drop of 28 feet.

A famous training ground for extreme kayaking, the Green River is legendary and the pinnacle of many kayakers’ careers.

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Each November, many of the world’s best paddlers descend on the Green to participate in the annual Green Race, considered by many to be the most competitive and coveted whitewater race on the planet. Kayaker Grady Kellog describes the experience:

“The Green is a river where anyone can have a bad day –

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(but) it’s a magnificent run that will have you high on adrenaline for days.”

For hikers, the adrenaline rush is also there –

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and can be safely appreciated (and photographed) from solid ground.

Curious to know more?  Check out the following videos and websites ~

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QsHMeGDpxQk

http://alltrails.com/trail/us/south-carolina/green-river-narrows

In memory of Boyce Greer of LiquidLogic ~ friend & kayak enthusiast.

© dating appalachia dot com & kristin fellows photography

A Woman Named “Hello”

 Not long after I moved to Asheville, I met an extraordinary and courageous photographer named Moni Taylor, who shared with me not only her insights into Appalachian ways of being and culture, but also her unique (and many!) perspectives on life.

We met one another at a coffee shop just down the hill from my house and right away got to talking about photography.

At the time, Moni lived in a charming cottage that was the architectural and handcrafted embodiment of her own personality –

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she called it her little”hobbit house.”

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A few days after we met, she invited me over to her house to show me some of her latest work.

Shot primarily in black and white, the subject matter was so upsetting, I could hardly bear to look at it.

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At the same time, I could hardly look away.

Moni was working as a neonatal nurse at the local hospital when I met her.  And that was where she captured her most moving photographs.

With love and great compassion, Moni Taylor had documented the tiniest of lives – the ones that lasted only moments.

What began as a gift of memories for one set of grieving parents grew over time into a series of portraits of lost babies, a collection of photographs she eventually put together in a book with the poetry of her thoughts on loss and remembrance.

Moved by her work, I wrote a feature article on Moni and her photography for Mountain Xpress, a local paper.

In addition to our talks about photography, I learned a lot about life from Moni.  I loved our coffee shop chats.  I loved the hours spent sitting curled up in an easy chair at her place, or mine, sipping tea, listening to her stories.

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 I could listen to her thoughts on people and men and life and the world for hours.  She has a colorful manner of speaking that is unique, even by Appalachian standards.

But by the time I’d met Moni, she was growing restless with life in our small town.  Her kids were grown and she was ready to get back to traveling as much as possible.

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She was ready for new adventures.

After some thought, she decided to join the Peace Corps.

“I had been thinking about a life change and the Peace Corps was definitely on my brain.  I thought about it when I was younger and then life stepped in,” she told me.  “But now it’s a perfect time for me to wander.”

Much to her surprise, Moni was assigned to Malawi – the third poorest country in the world.

The idea of a nurse/photographer from Appalachia setting out to help people half way around the world seemed to me like a great storyline for a documentary film.

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And so, with the help of friends, we began documenting her life in the weeks leading up to her departure as she said goodbye to friends and family.

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Before leaving Asheville, Moni did something people around here often do,

but that she herself had never done before –

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She got a tattoo.

And not a small one either.

A devout Catholic, Moni had the likeness of the Virgin Mary inked into her skin, along with the names of her four children.

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“So the Blessed Mother will always have my back,” she said with a grin.

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And then, Moni set off for two years in Africa with her backpack, her camera and a heart full of good intentions.

“When it comes to travel and adventure, I am fearless,” she said, shortly before leaving.

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“I took my daughter to see the Grand Canyon when she was ten, just because I wanted her to see it.  And we drove.  And people said, ‘Why didn’t you fly?’  And I said, because I wanted to see the earth between here and there.  And it was fascinating and I loved it.

“So as far as being fearless and doing things, I’ve always had that.”

“And I never have ever regretted one dime I’ve ever spent on travel.  It just feeds your spirit, it adds layers to your soul.  And adds layers to your whole life that nobody can take away.”

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“And so I’m convinced I will come back richer and fuller.  And it’s going to be okay.”

After she arrived in Malawi, one of her first discoveries was that her nickname – Moni – means “hello” in the local dialect.

What a perfect name for the film on this rare bird from Appalachia, I thought –

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“A Woman Named Hello.”

I started making plans to visit her in Malawi to continue documenting her story.

But the emotional and physical realities of a Peace Corps life in one of the world’s poorest country took their toll on her spirit.

“I miss all that wonderful stuff that is the complete support of the best friends…” she wrote in the journal she kept of her experiences there.  “I need it like air these days …..

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This environment is so different than any I could ever imagine myself living in ….. I have thought a million times, ‘why was I sent here?'”

Disheartened and ill, Moni left Africa and the Peace Corps before I could get there.

These days, she continues to travel and share her nursing skills, her passion for photography, and her Appalachian-rooted world view with people in different cultures and countries.

Periodically – and always without warning – Moni will appear on my doorstep

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 and tell me all about her latest adventures.

[All photography by Kristin Fellows with the exception of the black & white photo, which is by Moni Taylor, and the one of Moni in Malawi, for which I have no photo credit]

The Mystery of the Grave Is Revealed!

“I came to tell you she is NOT buried in your backyard!” said the man standing in my front garden.

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I work from home and there are few things more annoying than having people drop in unexpectedly, especially when I’m on a tight deadline.

But when a stranger starts a conversation with those words … maybe it’s time to take a break and hear what he has to say.

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“Are you the owner of this house?” he asked.

“Who wants to know?” I responded, cautiously.

“I’m Harry Giezentanner!” he said.

I knew the name. The Giezentanners had owned my house many decades ago.

Giezentanner was also the name on the gravestone in my garden.

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When I bought this old house, no one warned me it came with a grave. Even the next door neighbors seemed taken by surprise with its discovery.

My daughter promptly googled the little girl’s name for more information and came up with a different grave for the same little girl – same names and dates, but in Tennessee. Further research revealed a third gravestone with the same information, but now the birth and death dates were both off by a year.

We were puzzled. Where was she? Who was she? And what had happened to her?

Fragments of information came slowly to light.

A neighbor’s former wife – also in the Giezentanner family – had told me what she knew about Mable Ruth the day before Harry appeared in my front garden. She assured me that Mable Ruth’s parents, the Nannie Lou and L H Giezentanner on the gravestone, were living in Marshall, a half hour up the river from Asheville, when their little girl died. Harry confirmed that.

During our conversation, I noticed he often looked past my shoulder, curious about the house.

So I invited him in.

It had been decades since he’d seen it. As if in a dream state, he wandered from room to room, sharing memories of his grandparents.

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Some time after Harry’s visit, I came across a newspaper write-up with the full details of the tragedy.

On the 13th of July, 1928, The News-Record in Madison County reported the story of Mable Ruth’s death. It was front page news.

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“The community was greatly surprised and terribly shocked Thursday afternoon to hear of the sudden death of little Mable Ruth Giezentanner, who was stuck by a Buick roadster Thursday afternoon and fatally injured…. The accident occurred … where Mr Giezentanner, who holds a position with the Southern Railway as telegraph operator, works.

“Mrs Giezentanner and the child had gone to Rollins in a taxi driven by Mr Romeo Ferguson, to carry Mr Giezentanner’s lunch to him. Eye witnesses said that the child stepped from the taxi and walked around in front of the roadster which struck her, the accident being declared unavoidable. It is said that the roadster was traveling about 15 or 20 miles per hour.

“The driver of the roadster stopped and picked up the child and came back to Marshall with the parents. The driver of the car was accompanied by his wife, both being from a North State, and they were both nearly prostrated with grief by the horrible occurrences. The child was carried to the Marshall hospital where she died shortly after.

“Little Mable Ruth was a sweet, pretty little girl, much beloved around Marshall, and she will be greatly missed by all who knew her.”

Harry assured me that little Mable Ruth (who would have been his aunt) was actually buried in Tennessee, and the marker in my garden is just that – a memorial stone placed there by grieving parents.

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Bears Everywhere!

You don’t have to be able to outrun a bear, Tom once told me –

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you just have to be able to run faster than your friends.

He threw his head back and laughed. (He often finds his jokes a lot funnier than I do.)

Here’s another piece of advice: “It’s important to be able to distinguish the difference between the skat of black bears and the skat of grizzlies,” he says. “Black bear poop has nuts & seeds & smells like berries.”

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“Grizzly bear skat has little bells & smells like pepper spray.”

Mountain humor.

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Bears are everywhere in Asheville, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologist Mike Carraway was recently quoted in the local paper as saying. “If we gave you a map showing the bears’ movements, it would be a solid map of Asheville. The east and northeast and south have more bears, but there are pretty much bears everywhere.”

But running into one often happens when you least expect it.

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Like the afternoon I happened to glance out my living room windows and saw a large black shape that wasn’t normally in the garden.

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A black cub had sauntered into my yard to snack on fallen apples. I grabbed my camera and sat on the back deck, listening to him as he snuffled and munched contentedly, taking photographs with shaky and cold fingers.

Or the time I was gardening, and happened to turn around in time to see a large black dog run down my neighbors’ driveway. But then I realized, oh right,

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they don’t have a dog.

Watching out for bears is something to ponder here when you ride bikes – just ask Tom, who once had to fend one off while out riding along a mountain ridge.

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Or jog on the local roads.

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And even when (and how) you put out the trash.

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You may even need to yield to a family of bears when driving.

But folks around here weren’t always that accommodating. Years ago, bear pens were built in areas or gaps where bears had been seen. Bear hunters would stack up logs and rig a trip line attached to bait. When a bear pulled at the bait the logs would fall on the bear, killing it.

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These days, bears are, for the most part, respected and tolerated and many of these areas have since been put to better use as scenic overlooks and trail heads. People have learned to give bears a respectful amount of distance for co-existence and “a lot of people are pretty much OK with it,” Carraway says.

So has Asheville become a bear mecca?

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“We have bears moving in and bears moving out,” Carraway says. “Some are staying in a small area, and some are moving around.  And “some young bears born in the city wind up leaving.” Pretty much like human offspring.

This recent bear study – a collaboration between NC State University and the NC Wildlife Resources Commission – also found that town bears generally are healthier and better fed than their country cousins because they are supplementing their natural food with food from human sources.

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But then, anyone who’s accidentally discovered that Asheville bears like coconut water,

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 already knew that.

© dating appalachia & kristin fellows photography

Christmas in Appalachia

For several weeks now, I have been on the lookout for moments to photograph that (at least to me) show the customs, culture and spirit of “Christmas in Appalachia.”

But so far, all I’d been able to find…

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 was Santa and Mrs Claus breakfasting at the Moose Café (a popular farm to table restaurant),

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an aging elf trying to transport wrapping paper on his bicycle,

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and a young mermaid surprising Santa – none of which were what I had in mind.

The days passed and suddenly Christmas was upon us. Tom and I drove up to his parents’ farm for dinner.

They live in a picturesque holler, a small valley that lies between mountains in Yancey County.  This wasn’t my first visit here, but I had never before seen it at dusk.

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 Their home, with the windows glowing and smoke coming out of the chimney, set against a backdrop of mountains, looked like a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting.

Tom is a fifth generation Appalachian and this entire valley was once owned by his great-great-grandparents. Over the years, the land was subdivided and then subdivided again among the siblings of each successive generation.

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Family descendants still live in homes and on farms throughout the valley.

During the 45-minute drive up the mountains, I saw a few possibilities for the photographs I’d been after. But it wasn’t until we walked inside the family farmhouse

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that I realized I had finally found exactly what I had been looking for.

Each room was decorated for the season and table was beautifully set with Tom mother’s Christmas china.

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Mouth-watering smells filled the air and pretty soon, a feast of ham, garlic cheesy grits, sweet potatoes, and oyster casserole was laid out before us.

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And for desert, there was a delicious homemade fruit cake (made with applesauce) – a recipe from Tom’s great grandmother.

Farm, family, food, and celebration – it was all right there.

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And it had been all along.

Want a taste of Appalachian Christmas?  Try Tom’s great grandmother’s recipe!

Granny Young’s Applesauce Fruit Cake

  • 1-1/2 cups brown sugar
  • 1 quart applesauce
  • 1/2 lb butter, melted
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 cup figs, 1 cup dates, 1 cup nuts – chopped
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 3/4 tsp cloves
  • 3/4 tsp allspice
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 3 cups plain flour
  • 3 tsp soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Mix nuts, fruit, sugar and spices together in a large mixing bowl.  Stir melted butter into mixture, then flour and soda. Mix well. Pour into a well-greased and floured tube pan and bake in a 350 degree oven for one hour and 15 minutes (or until done.)

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Merry Christmas from Appalachia!