Sunday, February 18, 2018

Reliance, Part II

Flip Flop Burgers ( is in a large, wooden building with corn hole boards, chairs, and a fire pit outside.  It's attached to the Hiawassee Whitewater Company (  We walked into the enclosed porch which had been made so by an assembly of about a hundred old window frames, mismatched, stacked on top of and next to each other.  We were immediately greeted by the couple who own the businesses, Mechell and Bryan Mayhew.  Bryan was stoking the flames in a wood burning fireplace and Mechell told us to make ourselves at home.  And that was how I ended up eating a juicy hamburger and fries while pulled up to a fire in my rocking chair, watching the Olympics and listening to country music.  In other words, how I found my home.  Mechell and Bryan told us about how busy they are in the season, and described the bonfires and live music they have on summer weekends.  I can't wait to go back there when it's full of life, but I have to tell you, I was loving this place on a cold winter's day.

After lunch we drove to the Higdon Hotel (1914).  I have a fascination with abandoned buildings, and this one was one of the niftiest I've seen.  Unfortunately, there was a prominent "Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted" sign on the front of the house (photo on Instagram), but we did get to take some pictures and note all of the beautiful details of this building.  I was overwhelmed imagining all of the stories that building could tell.  That's why I adore abandoned buildings.  There are so many words there, so many stories.

We stopped by the Watchman's House (1895) on our way back to the historic district (photo on Instagram).  This building sits just above the train tracks and now serves as a guest house (yes, I will be staying there).  The "Reliance" sign serving the railroad tracks is a great touch.

We drove around the mountain and ended up at a small store with many trucks parked in front.  It advertised BBQ and bait, so we went in and were immediately greeted.  I think it was obvious that we weren't from around there, and honestly, the people looked surprised to see us.  In the back of the store a group of seven or so older men were sitting at tables (meant for the BBQ patrons, I assume) just talking and enjoying.  It reminded me of the convenience store down the road from our family farm and the men who used to sit in the back laughing and drinking.  They were a constant in my childhood until the store was sold to a gas station chain.

The woman at the register was so welcoming to us that I bought a Moon Pie (not that anyone needs a reason to buy a Moon Pie) before we walked around outside a bit.  There was a back deck that I'm sure is full in the season, and a little covered walking bridge that crossed the creek to a well-worn path.

We headed back to Reliance and to our last stop: The Vaughn-Webb House (1888).  This is the house in the photograph that inspired my new manuscript (photo on Instagram).  It had even more character in person.  The blue flower pots had been replaced by dark planters, and there was a beautiful, blue glass ornament on the weather vane that stood up from the front gable.  The grayness of the day cast a darkness upon the house, and I realized immediately that the photograph I had purchased had been enhanced in color.  The ornate gingerbread around the gable and the detailed decorations around the porch spoke to authentic craftsmanship and pride.

I was looking at the curtained windows, considering the characters that people my novel, when a voice broke my reverie.

"Are you guys following me?"

It was the black and white dog and the woman who had picked him up in her truck.

Her name is Tammy, and she takes care of the Webb holdings.  Harold Webb owns the house, the church, the general store, the hotel, and the nearby farm.  Tammy takes care of it all.

We also officially met Gray, the dog, who was incredibly friendly and who knew right away that Jennie is a dog person and so loved her almost to the ground.  He was named Gray, Tammy told us, because "everybody names their dog 'Blue', so he's named 'Gray'".  We chatted with Tammy for a while, learned that Mr. Webb was at home but that he currently had guests, and asked questions about the plants we had seen along our way...plants are Tammy's specialty.  She encouraged us to come back in the summer to see all of the plants in bloom, and she promised that she would remember our faces.

Everyone in Reliance was friendly, welcoming, and above all--happy.  There is an ease of life there, an appreciation for nature, a friendliness of spirit that made these strangers feel like we were part of this place.  And everywhere we went, we found daffodil bulbs in bloom.  I think that was Tammy's touch.

As we drove out of Reliance, I felt inspired, more than I expected to be.  Reliance is alive for me now, and as I inhaled the clean mountain air, I know I took a bit of its character with me.  I am so excited to return to Reliance.  And so excited to let this story flow.

Reliance, Part I

On Saturday morning, my dear friend Jennie and I began the journey to Reliance, Tennessee.  I admit I was like a kid en route to Disney World, but I tried to keep calm for the sake of everyone I was to encounter.

We drove up highway 411 in Georgia and passed into Tennessee.  There were so many fascinating sights along the way.  Perhaps the most intriguing was a Creole restaurant in a cement building on the side of the highway.  I've been around long enough to know that you would either have the absolute best meal of your life at a place like that, or one so offensive you'd pay and run out the door.  We also passed a house with a mannequin standing up in the front lawn, a scarf painted onto her head,  her frozen arm waving at the traffic.  Fascinating.

We turned off 411 onto 30 and were greeted by a yellow sign with a black horse and buggy on it.  I knew there was an Amish community nearby, as its members come to our family farm in the summer to pick their blueberries, but seeing this sign was a treat, and as we curved through the mountains, I began to realize what dangerous territory this was for the Amish.

I had already written that the road leading into Reliance was like a snake, and let me tell you, it was even twistier and turnier than I could have imagined.  We wove around the mountain, through thick, dense woods, and alongside the broad Hiawassee River.  That river has agency, and as it was a dreary, windy day, it was rolling around quite rapidly.  There was power in that water.

We passed a sign that read, "Reliance, Unincorporated", and the house in my photograph appeared immediately on the right.  I won't reenact the moment for you, but let's just say my enthusiasm was clear.  We drove on to get the whole picture before we began to explore, and so passed the Union Baptist Church and drove into an park that offered a boat launch, picnic tables, and a rental store closed for the season.  As we turned in, a beautiful dog with coarse, black and white hair began to run alongside our car and then pulled away once we were in the park.  He would turn out to be our guide of sorts.

Stretching above the park is a railroad track on a bridge.  It comes out of the forest and crosses over the river before running alongside the mountain.  On this day, the parking lot was empty and we saw not a soul, so we stood enjoying the natural beauty around us, and I walked to the launch and dipped my hands in the water since this river plays such a central role in my novel.  It felt right to commune with it for at least a moment.

Our attention was caught by the sound of a pickup truck and someone hollering at the dog who was still racing around the park entrance.  A woman got out of the truck, lifted the dog in, and made her way to where Jennie and I stood.  She pulled up to Jennie and I arrived in time to hear her: "I hope this dog didn't give y'all no trouble."  We assured her that he was fine and with a smile she pulled away.

Next, we visited the Union Baptist Church, built in 1899 (picture on Insta @meganprewittkoon).  We were captivated by the foundation, which is composed of stacks of rocks that lift the building away from the ground.  I imagine it was to prevent flooding since the church is perched at the river's edge.  The building has a rich history as a church, a Masonic Lodge, and now a community center.  The doors are absolutely beautiful, and were absolutely locked on this day, so we peered in the windows to see the pews, an antique settee, and what looked like an old piano/organ.  The sconces on the walls held antique lamps.  Behind the church were some old bridge trestles (We later discovered they were from the original bridge to cross the river.  The trestles were all over the town, often used as gates or fencing.) as well as a lemon tree that had long, massive briars growing around the center of the plant, which produced a round, citrusy fruit that looked unlike any lemon I'd ever seen.

We visited the Webb Bros store next (photo on Insta).  Unfortunately, it was closed, but inside I could see historic artifacts, Reliance t-shirts, and outdoor gear for rent.  The store served as a general store/post office/library in the past, and said it would reopen in March.  All the more reason to return!

At this point we crossed the river on the new (1992) bridge and stopped off at Flip Flop Burgers, the only business we'd seen open thus far.

Read on in Part II

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Books for the Road

Next weekend I will be packing my bags for a research trip to Reliance, Tennessee.  My friend Jennie and I are heading into the mountains with a playlist of mountain music and no itinerary.  I like to think we're like Truman Capote and Harper Lee.

I've been reading a lot to prepare for this trip.  Several months ago, I began reading Our Southern Highlanders by Horace Kephart and The United States of Appalachia by Jeff Biggers.  I'm now adding Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, and everything by Ron Rash to the list.

But I've also been reading books with voices that are new to me, and books by some of my favorites.  Here's what I've finished recently, and what I'm currently reading:

Recently Finished:

The Hate U Give by Angie Brown: What a powerful book.  Written through the point of view of an African-American teenager who watches as her best friend is shot by a police officer, this novel looks society's stereotypes in the face and scoffs.  I honestly learned so much from this book.  It presented me with complex views on situations and lifestyles that I had grossly oversimplified.  THIS BOOK IS IMPORTANT.  Read it.

Ugly by Robert Hoge:  When my daughter finished reading this book, I heard her slam it shut and then the sound of her running feet in the hallway.  She came into my room, thrust the book into my hands, and insisted I read it immediately.  Fans of Wonder will like this book as well, a nonfiction account of a man who was born with a tumor on his face, and his quest to reclaim the word "ugly".

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine: I have never read extensive works of prose poetry, and now I think I've spoiled myself with this one.  What a powerful testament to what it means to be a citizen of color in the United States.  Bold, creative, heartbreaking, strong.  We need this story now.

Letter to My Daughter (and Amazing Peace) by Maya Angelou: I've been on an Angelou kick recently.  Her words bring me comfort and hope, but also make me uncomfortable when they should.  Letter to My Daughter is a handbook for life.  I need to purchase a copy for myself and every man or woman raising a daughter.  I'll even make it a package deal with Enough by Kate Conner (which I was reading at this time last year).

Reading Now:

On Living by Kerry Egan: Nonfiction collection of stories by a hospice chaplain.  Just over halfway through and I have already made positive changes to my life and my perspective. When's the last time I considered how amazing my hands are?  And in case you think this book would be a downer, you're wrong.  It's inspiring.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: I'm struggling here.  I know, I know.  This book is right up my alley.  It won the National Book Award.  I don't get it either.  But I'm not giving up!

The Play of Death by Oliver Potzsch: I absolutely adore The Hangman's Daughter series.  Historical, mysterious, funny, and full of characters I enjoy spending time with.

What I'm Teaching Now:
A Streetcar Named Desire: And not only so I can justify showing the movie every year.  This play is spectacular.
Modern Poetry: Have I mentioned yet how much I adore ee cummings?
LaLa Land: One of the great joys of teaching a film class is watching as half of the class is singing along while the other half looks as if they're slowly dying every time someone bursts into song.

As you can see, I have so many words in my life.  It's the way I love to live.  Actually, perhaps it's the way I have to live.  And I love it.