Backroads: It’s More Than a Wilderness

View from Twenty Minute Cliff

“Hey Dad, what’s down there?”

“Nothing, son, it’s just a big wilderness.”

I was sitting on a rock ledge below the retaining wall, hidden from the eyes of the father and son who were discussing the view from Twenty Minute Cliff at milepost 19 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Just three miles from my home at Love, this is the place I come when I want a bit of peace. Many’s the time I’ve packed an early breakfast and eaten it out on the rocks, watching the golden sun come up over the shadowed ridges and then driven back later in the evening to enjoy hot coffee from a thermos and watch the same red sun sink slowly behind the darkening mountains.

I never tire of looking down at the deep crevice separating Fork Mountain and Dowell’s Ridge, which runs from Montebello through the Tye River Valley below. It was the home of so many people I knew and heard about since moving here in 1980.

That’s why I found the conversation between the father and son so poignant. Unknowingly, all the father saw was an uninhabited, endless wilderness of trees. Looking down the steep slopes, my eyes saw an entirely different picture; one heaped with memories.

The first time I realized that the view I enjoyed from the cliff was vastly different from what it used to look like was the time I took my neighbor, Johnny Coffey, then in his 90s, for a ride to the overlook. Johnny, with a sweeping motion of his hand, said the one sentence that has never ceased to amaze me all these years later.

“It’s hard to believe that seventy-five years ago you could look out and see no trees on those mountains.” What was he talking about; as far as the eye could see, every ridge was covered in a dense forest. Thinking I had not heard him correctly, I asked for more details.

“Why, when I was a young boy, the mountains here were covered with Kentucky bluegrass, grazing land for people’s cattle and sheep. There were a few hammocks of trees here and there for shade for the animals, but for the most part, it was all open land and you could see folks’ homeplaces along Fork Mountain and down below at White Rock.” I instinctively glanced downward at the white house far below that belonged to Hercy and Burgess Coffey. It was now the only visible house you could see from the cliff. It was said the overlook got its name from the people of White Rock who used it as a timepiece, knowing when the evening sun hit the rock face, they had exactly 20 minutes before dusk would fall. Twenty minutes in which to shut the door to the hen house and herd the cows and sheep into the safety of the barn for the night.

In addition to the Coffeys, families by the name of Fitzgerald, Allen, Taylor, Campbell and Carr lived on these steep ridges, carving out a self-sufficient living from the rocky land.

What a treasure-trove of memories I’ve had, driving up the North Fork of the Tye River, visiting Preacher Billy Morris who lived in the old Mitchell Fitzgerald home. And attending family reunions at Raymond and Maggie Allen’s remote camp up on Durham’s Run or the Ramsey reunion held at Burgess Coffey’s White Rock home. I watched Annie Carr make a batch of biscuits and pop them in her woodstove with an invitation to stay and have one when they came out all hot and flaky. Annie had a perfect view of Squaremouth Rocks from the porch of her home. The jagged rocks are located on a steep cliff at the end of Chicken Holler, with a square opening leading into a small cave. This cave is thought to have been inhabited by Native American Indians before the Scots/Irish people began settling in the mountainous area. I always got a thrill calling Annie to say I’d be walking back to the rocks and if she saw me from her porch, to wave. And there she’d be, furiously waving a red bandana when she saw me standing on top of Squaremouth. And many were the times I made the trip over to White Rock the night before trout season opened to listen to old-time mountain music being played at the different camps up and down the river and visiting with the folks who played everyone’s favorites like Red Wing and Barbara Allen. 

Johnny would make the old church revivals come alive in my mind as he’d tell of people walking to the “night meetings” with lanterns in hand. He said, “Why there were so many folks walking to church back then that the mountains glittered like a million lightening bugs.”

Time has a way of changing everything. One generation’s memories are never the same as the one before. And seventy-five years can make an amazing difference between one man seeing a “wilderness” and another seeing “home.” 


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