Where the Mountains Meet the Sky by Nora Burton
I was visiting Gatlinburg, Tennessee when twenty-five inches of snow fell at Newfound Gap, a mountain pass in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The snowstorm occurred two days after superstorm Sandy made landfall in New Jersey. After the Hurricane ravaged the east coast, it moved inland and collided with a cold front that had pushed in hard from the west. The result was an early winter snow storm that left all the peaks and massifs covered in snow. Because it was late October, red and yellow leaves still clung to surprised trees. The cold exhale of winter seemed out of place among the bright colors of autumn.
My friends and I had come to Gatlinburg for a week's vacation, the highlight of which, for me, was to drive over the Smokies into North Carolina. We stayed away from town in a snug cottage owned by an artist. Her life's work—watercolor paintings of the mountains—covered the walls; her love of the mountains evident in every room.
I cannot remember a time when I have not loved the mountains. I was born in Virgie, Kentucky but my parents moved north to Detroit when I was three weeks old. My father was desperate to leave the life of a coal miner far behind, so he found a job at a steel mill in downriver Detroit. Even though we lived in Detroit my parents remained close to the mountains and to the family who remained in Eastern Kentucky. Every summer and sometimes at Christmas my father would lock the door of the house we lived in while my mother herded me and my three younger siblings into the car. Then, as dawn’s light slowly filled the sky we would begin the long drive down US 23. We drove south to the place my mother always called home, Pike County, Kentucky. As our car twisted through Ohio and finally into Kentucky, I sat in the back seat barely able to contain my excitement. I loved the mountains, the sight of them, the smell of them, the feel of them. I thought the mountains strong and invincible, felt that they must be guardians; strong and silent sentinels. I believed then that God lived in that place where the mountains meet the sky.
As a young bride, I brought my new, flatlander husband to Pike County one snowy January weekend to visit my grandmother. We stayed with her at her small home on Indian Creek in Virgie. It was Bill's first trip to Eastern Kentucky. It was after dark and bitter cold when we arrived but Bill stood on Grandma's front porch, leaning forward on the black wrought iron rail, his head tilted back, his eyes scanning the tops of the snow-covered mountains, mesmerized by the stars that shone white hot in the black night sky. I stood by the door with my grandmother, braced against the cold, watching my husband, watching his exhaled breath turn to a thin grey vapor in the cold, crisp air. We stood that way, Bill watching the mountains and me watching Bill until Grandma called out, “Lord Children, I’m cold. Let’s go inside.”
Bill turned away from the porch rail, saw me standing near the door, grinned and said, "This place is amazing."
The next morning, we sat in Grandma's kitchen, amid the solid cherry cabinets and her prized pink and purple African violets that sat on the windowsill. We ate breakfast as the sun rose pale and yellow, over snow-covered mountains. I spread my grandmother's homemade strawberry jam on toast and watched red berries glide slowly across brown, fresh baked bread.
We had been married thirty-two years the day I went with him to the hospital emergency room. . . It was a beautiful Sunday morning in early June, a day when summer's first blush hung shy, like a new bride, over
Despite the snow and superstorm Sandy, my friends and I decided to leave the comfort of the little cottage and continue our planned trip over the Smokies into North Carolina. Before his sudden death, my husband and I had charted this drive over the mountains. We would sit for hours sometimes, looking at maps, talking, laughing, imagining, the things we would do when we would finally find the time. It was a trip we would never take. Bill was 56 when he developed a pulmonary embolism and died. We had been married thirty-two years the day I went with him to the hospital emergency room. I remember how surprised I was when my husband died. It was a beautiful Sunday morning in early June, a day when summer's first blush hung shy, like a new bride, over the horizon. Bill was not feeling well and thought he had a bad cold. As we walked up to the triage desk I was confident that all he needed was an antibiotic to make him well again. I remember that Bill lay on a gurney in the treatment room awaiting the doctor's diagnosis and I sat in a green chair beside him, when a blood clot in his lung moved into his heart with such speed that my mind could not comprehend what had happened. It was several minutes before I understood that my husband had stopped breathing.
As my friends and I drove up the mountain, traffic was bumper to bumper; our car one of many in a procession of pilgrims. Even though my husband had been dead for five years, I was still cloaked in grief, part of me frozen with loss. As we drove, I wondered why everyone was traveling, why they were braving the snow, what they hoped to find at the top of the mountain. The cars moved forward like a multi-colored snake. As I looked out of the back-seat window, I saw a black crow fly in lazy circles until it moved off toward the valley. White steam rose from a natural spring that gushed from the side of the mountain.
As we headed up to Newfound Gap, the road twisted around a creek whose clear water tumbled downhill past snow-covered rocks. Mountain peaks shimmered white in the distance, and the valley lay in shadow below. The snow fell without a sound, quieting the land like death does the human heart.
I wondered as we drove about the people who had crossed these mountains before there were roads, before there were trucks with oversized shovels to scrape away the snow. I wondered if anyone had made this crossing in a wagon, if they carried treasures like red strawberry jam, or furniture, or a favorite piece of clothing. I wondered about their fears, about what they had to leave behind as they made their way up the mountain. I tried to imagine why they risked traveling in the first place and why they endured the danger. I wondered if they were like me, trying to find someone they had lost.
At the top of the mountain, at Newfound Gap, my friend parked the car in the area designated for visitor parking. I got out of the car, wanting to explore. The concrete paths that led from the parking lot to the visitor's center and then to hiking trails were ice covered and treacherous. Snow swirled in the air around me. With no land mass to hinder them, the last winds of the storm that had damaged the East Coast blew hard across the tops of the mountains. Walking was difficult, each step I took deliberate and careful on the slick and sliding snow. When I reached the end of a path I stood at an overlook. My cheeks burned with cold. I looked down into the valley; wind whipped my clothing, and snow slapped my face. On top of the mountain in a world made white and shining, the wind moved in my ears like a high, lonesome whistle. I leaned against the guard rail, hopeless, heartbroken, lost in despair.
After a few minutes the sound of the wind began to change and I heard words mix with the whine of the wind. The words I heard spin in my head on that cold mountaintop in Tennessee were the same ones I had chosen for my husband’s headstone. They were the words I had forgotten as I navigated the frozen landscape of grief. I had tried out many combinations of words for his headstone before I finally decided to have “Love is Forever” inscribed right under his name. I chose that phrase because Bill often said that “when we breathe our last breath love is the only thing that will matter, love is the only thing that will last forever.”
Yet, as I lived day after day without Bill, those three words lost their meaning. Love, if it did live in me was buried, trapped in my grief-frozen heart. But as I stood on that snow-covered mountaintop in Tennessee, I heard those words once again and I remembered what I had always known but had forgotten. The words fell around me like snowflakes, and mixed with snow already on the ground. Then in the way that miracles often come, unannounced and unexpected, I heard as I stood on that white and shining mountaintop, the forever voices of all those I have loved and lost: my grandmother, my mother, my husband, my baby who died unborn. I felt their love swirl around and over me, fill my ears; illuminate me and I felt my grief begin to thaw.
I could not move away from the mountain top. I stayed there mesmerized until yellow rays of sunlight broke through clouds that seemed close enough to touch. I stood until pale sunlight landed in soft puddles on winter frozen ground. I remained on top of the mountain until I could stand the cold no longer, until I knew I had to leave. Even though I loved them all, still love them all, it seemed right to leave them there, with the wind on top of the mountain, in that white and shining place where the mountains meet the sky.
Returning to the warmth of the car, my friends and I continued our drive over the mountain. We crossed into North Carolina and rode down the other side of the mountain, toward Cherokee.
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