Do I know you?
The way her eyes narrow says it all. She’s walking toward me as I drive across Myers Street and raise my hand in the customary (hereabouts) greeting-in-passing.
Her face bears the stamp of our mountain country: weathered skin, strong bones, creases at the corners of those pale blue eyes that traveled across the North Atlantic a couple of centuries ago, the creases proof of years of outdoor work.
Her gray hair is neat and nondescript and she is wearing a purple sweatsuit, a nice one. She is clearly not someone who steps out for a trip to the post office or a walk around the block without some forethought.
What’s it to you, I hear her thinking as I put my hand back on the wheel. Not for her this Johnny-come-lately habit of waving at strangers. Back in the day, you only greeted people you actually knew, from church or school or perhaps the grocery store, and that’s good enough for her. None of this raising a hand or doing the two-finger waggle now popular on our narrow county roads as two vehicles weave past each other.
I stand reproved. She is right. I’m not from here, even though I was born in this very town more than sixty years ago. I am not a “from-here.” My family were outlanders, “come heres,” and from the North to boot, which sometimes still matters here.
She is not. She is from here, and these mountains are truly her home, their shifting patterns of light and shadow ingrained in her being from so far before birth that she has to stop and count the generations. And count them she can. They are buried in a family cemetery somewhere in the county, or in old church cemeteries with names like Ebenezer or New Providence.
I want to protest. I grew up here. I too know the light and the shadow, and I see – or rather hear, coming back from the flatlands where I spent most of my adulthood – how in the mountains, the sound only travels from one end of the hollow to the other. It does not travel miles, the way it does over flat land, so that you might hear the noise of a highway five miles distant if the wind is blowing your way.
Not here. Here, you will only hear what the mountains let you hear. You will not hear the dog or the child or the highway from the other side of the ridge line.
And I want to tell her that I too see how their colors change, these mountains, how right now they wait for fall’s flaming brilliance but will soon lie brown and sleeping in the winter sun. How the spines of their leafless trees stand up like prickly fur. How they will turn pale green in spring, darker in summer, flame bright again in autumn. How we can walk their trails and listen to the birds call.
But we won’t have that conversation, she and I. There are many divisions besides ridgelines in these mountains. She is of the tribe J.D. Vance calls his “hill people,” and I know it is a term of hard-earned and well-deserved respect. But we won’t have that conversation either. Her purple sweatsuit recedes in my rearview mirror, and we go on into our respective days.
Photo caption: Looking across Rockbridge County to the Blue Ridge from the top of the road where I live … this is her ancestral land. I’m just a “come here,” but it is my land too.