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36 degrees / 20'n 81 degrees / 42'w
I had a dream one night, not long ago, that I saw Doc Watson canoeing over a mountain in the dark. He was in the middle of the boat and doing some strong paddling. His head was tilted down a little bit, to the right. You couldn't tell he was blind; his eyes were intent. There was moonlight in his hair.
Mr. Watson was coming off the crest of a ridge riding a fast, splashing current. I still haven't questioned how the canoe got over the mountain or how the river contrived to be running uphill. The joy of the dream was that he was out for a ride — sensing the full moon, leaning into each stroke with the water cold on his arms.
He would be listening to the river's gurgle and plonk and the bell-toned night call of the Carolina wren. He'd recognize the black oak's leaf rustle. And there'd come the faint cry of a baby, from back up in the trees: most likely the wind but some might say a cougar.
The sounds would gather into guitar chords and melody, and later Doc would play someplace in town, play a song like "Deep River Blues," and somebody standing against the back wall would shake his head and say, "It's like he just finds the music in the air."
I recognized the terrain of this dream: Snake Mountain reaches above five thousand feet in a corner of North Carolina and it would stand clear in a moonlit sky. Doc Watson lives in Deep Gap, not far away.
He grew up not being able to see but he heard the very center of music in the bird songs and the wind harmonies in the white pines along the pastures. Once he strung a wire in the barn so that it would sound a C and he could find songs on it. The Grand Ole Opry would be on the radio Saturday nights and later he heard enough rock and roll to be thought of as an electric guitar player but the old-time music held strong.
When all the family would come together after church they'd play the remembered tunes; an uncle would get his fiddle from the truck, one of the girls would lay out a dulcimer. The talk would be of mountains and farming. It was two close centuries ago that a Watson forebear left the Scottish Highlands.
Doc's grandmother, summer afternoons on the front porch, liked to sing hymns as she snapped the green beans for supper:
O, they tell me of a home far beyond the skies, O, they tell me of a home far away; O, they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise, O, they tell me of an unclouded day.
The North Carolina map in the glove box of my Jeep is a depiction of roads, a drawing of landscapes dominated by highways. Back at the turn of the century a map would feature the rail lines. And earlier still, in Daniel Boone's time, the maps were of waterways — territories defined by the creeks and rivers curving through the hills.
If you squint a bit you can find the New River on the modern state maps, and follow it north. It rises both in Watauga and Ashe Counties, in northwestern North Carolina, then becomes a single line winding into Virginia past Galax, through Radford, and over to the town of Narrows before entering West Virginia and moving up to Hinton, Prince, and Fayetteville, then ending at Gauley Bridge, where the New and Gauley Rivers join as the Kanawha. From there, downstream, run the broad meanderings of the Ohio, the Mississippi.
Move up to a larger-scale map — the U.S. Geological Survey 1:24 000 topographic — and you'll find the actual beginnings of the New (even the houses are shown, as tiny black squares).
The river's origin is divided. Look at the Boone Quadrangle map to find where the South Fork gets its start, up near the town of Blowing Rock. The water comes off the hillside and down through a golf course. It's just below the Blue Ridge Parkway, along the Eastern Continental Divide; rain falling on the other side of the road would head toward the Atlantic.
The golf course outside of Blowing Rock marks the southernmost flow of the New, the farthest from the river's end, and some would call that the source point. Other geographers — the ones I agree with — say the highest source is where you mark the beginning of a river. And that takes us to the Zionville Quadrangle, to locate the North Fork, on Snake Mountain.
One morning in sunshine I drove up a narrow, newly paved road, then a twistier stone-and-dirt path, for a visit with a couple — Dave and Betty Martin — who spend every summer just below Snake Mountain's rounded peak. They have a weathered wooden shed, a dependable garden, nearby spring water, and, at the moment, two dogs.
"Hey there, morning." Dave and Betty had the same crinkly, tanned smile, and gray hair touched with white. It was past nine o'clock and they'd slept late. They wore jeans. They were barefoot. The dogs snuffled and pranced in the drying grass.
The summit of Snake Mountain is at 5,574 feet. Tennessee is on the other side. There are beech trees along the top ridge and sugar and red maples below. The hillside is in pasture, the scattered hay bales — the summer's first cutting — stand drying. Dave Martin sees this with a painter's eye, in pale blues, veiled white, muted greens and browns.
He brought out some of his watercolor work, done on scroll paper with Chinese brushes. The lines circled and soared —clouds became falling water and trees became forest.
Much later, when I was back at home looking at a series of topo maps on the wall, I was reminded of Dave's paintings; the rhythm was the same, the wanderings of the hills and watercourses. The only harsh, nonlyrical lines on the maps were those showing the highways and power lines.
Dave said he'd had a show of his watercolors once, "off the mountain" — an exhibit in the North Carolina city where they live. He was disappointed in the paintings. Vibrancy was lost. The light was off somehow. The next summer he brought them back to Snake Mountain, where they revived.
This year the Martins have been grumbling about the state's decision to pave the back-county road that climbs past the turnoff to their cabin. "What the highway department never tells you is that the gravel roads don't kill people, can't get up enough speed. If a drunk goes off the road he just goes into a fence."
Back down the mountain two miles is a community settled long ago by families that tended to differ.
"Pottertown," Dave says, "has the worst reputation in the hills of people feuding, or shooting their relatives. Up until about ten years ago the police wouldn't come over here except on Sunday afternoons. For us, one of the most interesting things in coming back every spring was finding out who'd been killed. They're still clannish; they tell these stories that happened a hundred years ago and get the young people all fired up. We've made good friends though, and we've always felt safe. Never lost anything, never had anything stolen. Most of the people who would tend to rob you would be afraid to come over here."
From the Hardcover edition.