Mountain to Climb
Posted October 16, 2008
What was the toughest mountain you had to climb as a young person? Perhaps it was the painful divorce of your parents. It could have been the loss of a dear friend. It could have even been a disability. I know this is a very personal theme but please share your stories. We have a very kind and supportive group here on the Carolina Conversations blog.
The toughest mountain I had to climb came after the death of my father. I write about that struggle in my new book Blue Ridge Reunion which features my father's mountain watercolors. Join us at 7:30PM Friday evening at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh as we unveil the book and companion CD with a free concert and multi-media presentation. Here is an excerpt from the book:
I never had a chance to say “goodbye” to my father. Until now.
He was an artist who traveled the back roads of Western NC sketching and painting beautiful vistas and colorful mountain characters. His bucolic images range from majestic mountain ridges to primitive cabins tucked away in smoky coves, to wild and scenic rivers and weathered faces of bonnet- clad women. His eyes were drawn to the simple beauty and elegance of the mountain land and people in the 1940's, 50’s and 60’s.
I share the same name as my father. I also share his love and inspiration. It is the lure of the landscape. It is the magnet of the mountains. It is both the view and the villager, the farm and farmer, the river and ravine. It is both simple and complex but it all boils down to a powerful emotional attraction. It is a love best expressed in art which flows in different streams for different people. My father’s stream was visual art including mostly watercolors. He was also wrote a newspaper column about the colorful characters of the mountains. My stream is a confluence of music, prose and poetry.
I look at the same landscape that overwhelmed my father with emotion, and a melody emerges inside my head. I can’t explain how or why. It just happens. A lyric takes shape of a pristine spring that quenched my thirst as a child after a hearty hike with my father and the sadness I feel today when I cannot share that water with my own son because of pollution.
Tears stream down my face as I scan the wild and rugged beauty of Linville Gorge. Even though I lost him to a sudden illness and untimely death when I was only sixteen I feel the unmistakable presence of my father as I gaze at his two favorite mountains - Table Rock and Hawksbill rising up over the gorge. The feeling is similar to the one I get when I sift through a portfolio of sketches and scribblings never deemed wall worthy by my father.
Sometimes I get goose bumps when I study his watercolors adorning the walls of my mountain cottage and the homes of my sisters Stephanie and Miriam. I feel his gentle touch, yet sandpaper beard. I smell the smoke from his pipe and his manly aftershave and his bourbon highball after a day of hard work. I hear his warm Southern voice so eloquent and dignified. I see his shock of white hair and stately gait, eyes pressed up to binoculars at the end of a steep mountain trail. I still savor the description of my father from Burke County attorney Robert Byrd who said: “William Leslie was the last of the true Southern gentlemen.”
Is it too much to ask to say “goodbye” to the man I loved and admired the most? The opportunity to tell him how much I cared one last time slipped away on a cold and gray autumn weekend. The last time I saw him was in the emergency room at a Charlotte hospital, his body filled with medical tubes after suffering an aneurysm the night before. I heard him call my name. Though his voice was soft and hoarse he sounded surprised and delighted to see me and touch my hand. That was a Friday night.
My mother and other relatives gathered at the hospital insisted that “things would be fine” and that I should return to Morganton 60 miles away and await word on my father’s progress. Oddly, the next three days were filled with an enormous sense of companionship like I have never experienced since. It began with a ride home from the hospital with my minister, the Rev. John Carter. I became shrouded in what I called “a comforting cloud.” My heart ached but I felt strong. The future seemed so uncertain but I didn’t fear it.
Three days later Aunt Annie walked into the living room of my Morganton home to greet me. I remember my words. “Annie, you don’t even need to say it. I know my father is dead. Don’t worry. I will be fine. We need to rally around my mother now.” With two children still in high school and college on the horizon my mother would need all the strength and help she could get.
My mother would live another 30 years. She died in November just like my father and just like both sets of their parents. What are the odds of losing all six parental figures to the killing frost of the same month? I don’t know, but I celebrate the calendar turning to December each year. If I can make it through November I know I’m good for at least another year!
WRAL colleague Bill Burch and his wife Barri vacationed at my mountain cottage near Roaring Gap and returned with glowing reviews of my father’s art work and an intriguing idea for a book. Barrie suggested I write a children’s book and illustrate it with my father’s watercolors.
I really liked the idea and began sketching plots for my children’s story. Sister Miriam even suggested the title Wild Willie based on the nickname she gave me as a sometimes rambunctious brother. I thought about writing of my early disdain for the mountains. Every Sunday it seemed my father would round up the family after church and take us on a picnics to the Blue Ridge Parkway where he would sketch trees. I missed my friends and backyard football games in Morganton. I was forced to create my own games with a deck of cards playing both football and baseball with a stack of 52. I recall groaning about the endless drives on the twisting, winding and stomach- turning roads of Appalachia.
After college and marriage I moved to Houston where I worked in radio news for three years. Houston is where I first discovered my love for the mountains. Barren of trees, the “pancake” landscape of east Texas made me long for the green hills of North Carolina. When we vacationed in NC for holidays I felt compelled to spend as much time as possible driving the roads my father drove during those “boring family outings:” Lake James, Linville, Blowing Rock. The steep land I once detested I now loved. I couldn’t get enough of the scenery.
I thought about basing the book on my love-hate relationship with mountains but then another idea popped up. Why not write a book that both children and adults could enjoy? Why not revisit the favorite vistas of my father and, through meditation, entertain a reunion of spirits? A Blue Ridge Reunion. It might give me an opportunity to finally say “goodbye” to my father. But how do you reconnect with someone you haven’t seen in 40 years? Was it really worth trying?
The powerful experiences that followed generated enormous energy both raw and emotional. In this book I write about those feelings as I share with you the beautiful artwork of my father. The musical dimension of Blue Ridge Reunion is captured on a companion CD. The songs seemed to write themselves. I just got out of the way and let them happen. It has been my most prolific period of song writing and clearly the most satisfying.