Exactly a year ago, Pam and I hooked-up a big U-Haul and trekked south to Old Fort, North Carolina, hoping that the magic we’d glimpsed over the last ten years of visiting the place was really real. And… for the first six months, I waxed effusively in these essays about all the good things there are down here. Taxes one- tenth what they were; heating bills? It makes me giggle, housing prices…giddying. But that wasn’t why we moved. It was the people. Over and over and over…it was the people.
Candidly, during all this wonderfulness, a small cadre of our northern friends warned me: “You’re still in your honeymoon phase, Henry. Give it a full year and THEN tell us what you think of everything.”
Well, it’s been over a year now and in a way my northern friends were right. It’s not precisely what we expected. Honestly, it’s about five times better than we’d even hoped for…even dreamed of. Seriously so.
It’s also important that you keep in mind that Pam and I have traveled extensively both privately and in the military, living for years in Japan, visiting many foreign lands and living north, west, south and east in America. Through all of those decades, I can say that for us, Old Fort is as close to Utopia as we can imagine. It’s a profound sleeper. And still, it comes back to the people, the graciousness, the humor, the kindness and the acceptance of us as we actually are. We’re still in amazement, every single day.
Brigadoon… Brigadoon was a mythical place that you couldn’t actually set out for. You had to take a wrong turn somewhere, get lost and then if you were really lucky, you just might find it. We were really lucky.
You drive down I-40 through picture-postcard land. It is the stuff of John Denver and James Taylor songs, through rolling mountains and twisting hills which are to-die-for in the autumn. But then you take a tiny exit off an exit, with that Brigadoon-like quality to it. You can easily miss it completely, though if you catch that quick 180-degree turn off the exit onto Catawba River Road, the magic begins. The road meanders into a forest where you follow a river for three miles, just past the Thomas’ house where the road comes to an abrupt halt, then leads to 350-foot water falls which truly belong in a movie set. People come from all over America to see the falls. The big question, however, is: Who actually lives here?
The answer to that question, like Brigadoon, is that somehow, some kind of magic has taken place. Call it grace if you like. Or call it class. John F. Kennedy defined class, not by money, not by power, but with a simple elegant concept:
Class equals Grace under Pressure. Loosely translated: Class is that rare ability to maintain your graciousness and integrity and humor even when the chips are down…even when life has dealt you some pretty bad cards. Having spent what is now close to seven decades on this planet, I can assure you, this is the best yardstick of class. Let’s get to it.
My Neighbors around the bend: The Thomas Family: Pat and Margaret Jaynes Thomas live in the last house before you reach the falls. They have lived here for over 30 years in a beautiful home which Pat built from scratch, though his background is in engineering and teaching robots how to perform complex duties.
When you meet him, Pat is the quintessential enigma. Until you get to know him, he is a serious man of few words. Work with him for a month, however, and his ultra-dry sense of humor comes out, here and there and you begin to realize you’re getting to know a very special person. More on Pat in a minute.
Margaret Jaynes Thomas: Most people, particularly from up north, will never comprehend her graciousness. They’ll think I’m exaggerating. Margaret is a LOT of person to live up to. The closest comparison I can think of is a scene from The Wizard of Oz when the beautiful GOOD fairy from the north drifts down in a pink bubble and a wand, welcoming Dorothy to the Land of Oz.
Pam and I have yet to meet someone as kind as Margaret and I’m pretty sure we never will. Margaret happens to have taught essentially everyone in McDowell County how to swim…and continues to do so. Margaret’s like the cheerleader in high school that all the guys were sweet on, but the girls liked her, too, because she was a genuinely good person…a rare combination. Patrick, their son, is a musician in his own right, as well as a teacher of calculus, with a beautiful doctor for a wife. Pat and Margaret have done well.
We met by accident at a tiny restaurant in Old Fort, and they have introduced us to some of North Carolina’s culinary treasures. At some point, I mentioned my dream of erecting a huge three-masted Johnny Depp- schooner up in the trees, with wild magical sails that would glow in the darkness. What I expected was a raised eyebrow. Old Fort is a conservative town. What I got and have continued to get was exactly the opposite. Without missing a beat, Pat said, and I quote, “When do we start?” I explained that we’d spent a pretty heavy-duty chunk of money getting the house fixed-up and that I wasn’t hiring anyone at the moment. Pat said, “I’m not in this for the money. This project interests me. When do we start?”
The Odd Couple: Pat and I could not have more different backgrounds. Pat’s is a world of micrometers and computer precision. Mine is…well…as an artist, the prime directive is to create a bit of magic out of bronze and copper, paint and God-knows-what. Moon Dancer had to be strong and safe, but it also had to have magic. To that end, we had to do a “little dance” with my requesting the near-impossible and Pat figuring out how to accomplish it.
On days off, occasionally the four of us bounce around from restaurant to restaurant, swapping stories. I learned that Pat can play a wicked harmonica…even while driving on I-40, and that he plays bluegrass and country and gospel guitar and has a voice that sounds like it’s been aged in a charred oak whiskey keg. He’s got the chops. He also has the vision.
At some point, without a word being spoken, Moon Dancer morphed. It was no longer a configuration of timbers screwed and bolted together. It had been born and had become its own entity. Pat sensed it first. He stood at the railing looking down to the huge sculpture field, the river and the road, and he said, “Ya know…this wouldn’t make a half-bad stage to perform on if you wanted to have some bluegrass.” With Pat’s penchant for understatement, this was high praise. Within minutes a new dialogue had begun. Me: “We’ll need amps…big speakers.” Pat: “Yup. I got ’em. And I also have my son, Patrick, who is a one heck of a musician.” Me: “Do you think…?” Pat just smiled, then said. “Yup.”
A ship was born, a ship that floats high above the field below. Its mission? To enchant visitors, either with its beauty and beautiful view…or more importantly, with the musicians of all shapes and sizes, abilities and humor. And Pam and I would like to say that without Pat to honcho the project, there would be nothing up in the trees on that knoll. Thanks Pat!
We’re moving forward with the concept. What’s part of the magic of Catawba River Road is the falls, but more importantly, the nerve or artery that helps make this place special. Though Catawba is a tiny, winding, picturesque country road, it’s the life blood, with people meandering down, having come from all over the country to see amazing falls. The irony is, they don’t even know that the people here are better and more special than the famous waterfalls.
My other neighbors? In the years and years of writing essays, I’ve written only three about three exceptional individuals. One was a Greek gentleman named Jimmy who built a world for his family in America. The other one was about Rick and Debbie Acrivos, who live down the road and are extremely special in their own way, plus it was Rick who dug the foundation for Moon Dancer. And Pete Carswell, my neighbor to my left, is the man you really want when those chips are down. He’s full of piss and vinegar…in the good way. He’s a tough-as-nails ex-Marine, and he’s also Mensa with enough common sense for ten people. Oh, he’s also a professional psychologist. Somehow it all fits together. Passers-by have no idea at all how special the people on this road are.
We’re hoping that Moon Dancer is adopted by the people and becomes a place to sing, dance, tell a story, recite a poem…let off steam. That’s the goal.
P.S. Here’s hoping we’ll see y’all soon way up on board the deck of Moon Dancer! When you come aboard, you’ll have to look around a bit to see Pat’s initials, PLT carved into the wood. I kidded him that he’s already an artist…big swoopy letters and you can’t tell if they’re right-side up or up-side down. That’s how ya do it!