The sun was low in the sky and the woods dusky as my husband and I hiked the Milam’s Gap trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains one summer evening. How green and still it was among the hay-scented fern, and the twilight mild and sweet, like a melody softly played. Few birds called. The flutelike trill of a thrush sounded overheard and a robin flew into the ancient apple trees that mark the beginning of the walk. Gnarled, lichen-encrusted, branches thrust high above us.
Milam’s Gap apple trees are far removed from the modern day dwarfs. These relics from the past were planted by the mountain people who once lived here and were coveted as the apples for cider and apple butter making. An old mountain woman told me. The ridges and hollows still bear the names of these stalwart souls, like Lewis and Dean Mountain, Hensley, Kemp and Corbin Hollow, Hannah Run Trail, and Mary’s Rock.
More menacing names, Rattlesnake Point, Dark Hollow and Ghost Forest also remain. The invisible presence of these people seemed to linger in these woods where their log homes once nestled, smoke rising from the old stone hearths, corn cakes sizzling on the griddle. What must life have been like for those hardy folks? Cold much of the time, and hard, I should think.
I envisioned the women and girls in calico dresses, the men and boys in worn pants and overalls, gathering chestnuts, hazelnuts and wild berries, clearing patches of ground to grow corn and vegetable gardens, sorghum for molasses, struggling to keep a few pigs, chickens, and cows alive. A bear snatching the pig the family had been fattening to supplement their winter diet must have been quite a loss. Trips to town would have been arduous and rare, the supplies purchased slim: perhaps flour, sugar, salt and cornflakes for a special treat, cloth, gun powder and shot for hunting. Timber, orchards, livestock and the lucrative moonshine trade helped to supplement what was quite a self-sufficient lifestyle.
Doctors were hard to come by and the people often doctored themselves. Anyone who was a healer, whether with plants, charms or incantations, would have been highly sought after. Some healers specialized in one thing, like wart removal, or in the stopping of blood from a gushing wound. Others claimed to have special stones called mad stones to cure the dreaded bite of a rabid animal. We can only imagine this long gone time.
The elderly woman who once lived near Milam’s Gap (referred to above) gave me an exceedingly fragrant herb she called the vicks vapor rub plant. It’s scent is very like that of Vicks. She also gave me a rose-scented geranium, both of which I still have. The geranium fragrance is appealingly rosy and the little mauve-colored flowers last in water forever.
*Pic is of Dark Hollow Falls at Milam’s Gap.