Western North Carolina Woman

hickory nut gorge
by john myers

When Jane returned to Asheville, I continued for three more months rock climbing in the High Sierras in California. On the drive back home, I stopped to visit a family friend in Denver. There I met her son-in-law, who was also in transit, leaving 30 minutes later for six months of work in Australia. During that brief, chance encounter I learned that his family had owned a tract of land for generations in the tiny hamlet of Gerton, and might be willing to sell it. Since neither one of us knew where Gerton was, we pulled out a road atlas and discovered it was only 15 miles from Asheville.

As soon as I returned to the North Carolina mountains, I hiked into the land. It was an overgrown forest nestled on the side of Little Bearwallow Mountain in the Hickory Nut Gorge with a beautiful, tumbling creek running through it. I spent hours bushwhacking my way through briars and discovered the old stone ruins of a farmhouse and gristmill on the banks of the creek. It was such a magical place, and I immediately fell in love with it.

Over the next year and a half, I negotiated with the sellers and with the bank. While we were working on getting the financing, the neighbor above offered to sell us her land as well, with nearly a dozen rocky cliffs and a 100-foot waterfall. In December 2004, with the help of my wife, her sister and brother-in-law, my mother and the bank, we were finally able to buy it.

While we would have preferred to keep all the land wild and natural, the arrangement with the bank required us to create a small number of home sites on a portion of the land. Having spent the last 16 years working with non-profits and land trusts buying and protecting over 20,000 acres for parks and trails, I had never before created home sites. I probably walked the land a hundred times, getting to know it and listening to it, before finally deciding to use only 25 acres of the total 230 acres for the home sites. Jane and I sense the land is charged with a powerful, sacred energy, and we feel a great responsibility as its stewards. We want to keep it as beautiful as we found it, while also letting others enjoy it.

Since community and local history are important to us, we have reached out to meet many of our local neighbors, who are wonderful people. Marjorie and her daughter Nita run the only store in town, Nita’s Grocery. They have lived their whole lives in Hickory Nut Gorge and have shared many wonderful stories with us. Hazel and Harold are our neighbors next door. Hazel actually lived in the old farmhouse on our land when she was a little girl. She told us about each room of the house, the gristmill, milking the cows, and the pastureland that has since returned to forest. Another neighbor told us the story of Furman and his pet ox, who were the last ones to live in the farmhouse before it collapsed. Furman lived in one room and his beloved ox lived in the other!

We made an interesting discovery that the hamlet of Gerton is surrounded on three sides by the eastern continental divide. From the air these ridges and this part of the gorge form the shape of a heart, and the location of the old farmhouse is right at the base of this heart. We built a fire circle here with moss-covered stones between the two old stone chimneys, and use this as a gathering place.

The more time we spend on the land, the more we want to share it with others. An idea has been growing to create a sacred retreat site here, which could be used for various events and workshops, and for educating children and adults on ways we can all live more sustainably and peacefully on this precious earth.
Our initial vision has expanded to try to maintain the natural beauty of Hickory Nut Gorge as much as possible and create hiking trails running the length of the gorge. With the help of several friends, we have been able to protect another 40 acres including 1000 feet of Hickory Nut Creek and an old apple orchard. I am also part of a coalition of non-profit groups working to expand the new Hickory Nut Gorge State Park near Lake Lure.

We feel a sense of great urgency to act now to protect these uniquely beautiful lands. So much unchecked development is already occurring at Lake Lure and beginning to spread into the gorge. We are reaching out to find like-minded people to help in keeping these lands wild in this magnificent, mountain gorge and to further expand Hickory Nut Gorge State Park.

It is an amazing journey to be part of this process, and I have met so many wonderful people. I am constantly surprised, as help has come from unexpected sources when we need it. Even the land just appeared to us, as it was never for sale. If I had arrived to visit my friend an hour later, I would never have even known about it.

This project has become the core of my current personal/spiritual journey. When the occasional doubts or fears arise, I just need to walk along the stream to remember why I am doing this work. I’ve never worked harder, learned more, had to solve more problems, or had more fun.

Every day I continue to watch in awe as this vision and dream unfolds, and I get to see the power that comes from offering our work with as much love as possible.

John Myers has worked for many years with non-profits and land trusts buying land for parks and trails. He has also been a rock climber for 40 years and recently negotiated the successful purchase of Laurel Knob, a 1200-foot high granite dome near Cashiers, NC, by the Carolina Climbers Coalition. He lives in Asheville with his wife Jane Lawson and his calico cat and new black lab puppy.
[ hickorynutforest.com; 828-252-6258 ]


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