Taylor Valley, 1926
I grew up in the Smoky Mountains, where distances were measured in hours instead of miles. My father could point out the nearest cabin to us just by scanning the horizon, seeking a tendril of chimney smoke snaking its way past the tree-line. His family owned Taylor Valley, and an extended family of sisters and cousins all made it their home. As a result, I was never more than a day’s hike from a family relation.
His sense of direction was uncanny. We would hike up the side of a mountain, and when we came to a clearing he’d point in any direction and tell you what you were looking at.
“See over there, Ben?” he’d say. “That’s the State of North Carolina.”
I’d focus in the direction he was pointing and see nothing but waves of green forest, capped with blue haze. “How’d you know it’s not still Tennessee?” I’d say.
His face would break into an aren’t you being silly smile. “Son, you live in these mountains, and you just know where one thing ends and the other begins.”
Every spring Pa took a trip to see how well his ginseng plants were doing in a grove of old trees high above a ravine. The year I turned thirteen, I went with him. We left while the moon and stars were dim memories, in the brief time between night and dawn, the wind talking to the trees, the mountains phantoms in the mist. We followed Cherokee trails that plunged into the thick woods, following the path of least resistance, razor-backing along precipices that brought my stomach to my throat whenever I glanced down.
You’d think hiking would tire my father out, but he never wavered during the trip. He kept up his banter as he loped along, informing me about the history of the Taylors and their adventures. I figured Pa was so good at storytelling because he had learned that the only way to maintain a position in a family so large was to entertain people.
We reached a juncture in the path where Hickory Creek cascaded over large boulders, creating plunging pools, and stopped to fish.
After a good hour of wasting bait, Pa said, “Hey, I want to show ye somethin’.”
I started downstream, thinking this was the direction to take, and he said, “Not that way. That way leads to town.”
I followed him along the creek up a steep hill, past boulders and waterfalls as tall as our cabin. The roaring water drowned any other sounds. I could barely make out what he was yelling to me. Then I glimpsed where he was pointing—a grove of trees above the falls—and gasped in wonder. He waved to me to follow him as he scaled the vertical outcrop of rocks alongside the falls.
Pa had the dexterity of a mountain goat, but I was not as nimble. My shoes were so worn that I couldn’t get a hold on the slippery rocks, so I pulled them off and wedged them into a crevice to retrieve on the way back down. It was easier to grip the rocks with my feet bare, although they got scraped up on the jagged rocks. Every once in a while, Pa looked back to make sure I hadn’t fallen and gave me an encouraging wave of a free hand. I waved back, grasping a limb of a mountain laurel bush for balance.
“Keep climbing and don’t look down,” he called.
Just as he said this, I slipped and tumbled. A laurel bush ripped the back of my shirt, and my bare feet scraped against the sharp stone as I tried to maintain purchase. I landed with a thud on a rock ledge. The fall left me winded; my back ached, and the soles of my feet burned.
“Ye all right down there?” Pa called.
“I guess so,” I called back weakly.
Pa grinned and kept on going. I had no choice but to follow.
When we finally reached the top, we were at the headwaters of the falls. A wide ribbon of water slipped over the granite before plunging over a bank of smooth rock. I stepped into the water to cool my throbbing feet; the icy water stung, then numbed them.
“Come on,” Pa said, walking away from the creek toward the forest.
As we entered the grove of trees, it felt as if a door to a room had shut behind me, hushing the world outside. Pa motioned for me to look up. If I were to describe heaven, that grove of trees above the waterfalls would be it.
Trees so large they towered over us. Tangled limbs reaching for the sky, stretching toward a place no human could reach, their leaves so distant I could barely make them out. Sunlight was sparse, and where a ray did poke through, small plants strained for a taste of it.
I settled my gaze on the ground, open and throbbing with moisture. Dark, green, lush. Dead trees, the length of a tall building, were scattered about. I clambered up the side of one, slipping on moss as thick as a carpet, and soaked it all in. The quiet was like a church service before the preacher started his sermon. After sitting for a few moments without talking, my ears buzzed. “Hear that?” I said.
Pa was chewing on the end of a plant. He took it out of his mouth and said, “Insects. They’s eatin’ away at that log you’re sittin’ on. This here is one of the oldest forests you’ll ever see. It’s called Taylor Grove. Been this way since your grandpa came here. He never cut it, and I’ll neither.”
He beamed with a joy I hadn’t seen since Nellie was born, a look of pride and wonder, as if he couldn’t believe something so beautiful could exist in the world, but here it was right in front of him. A ray of light landed on his head, making his silver hair shiny. I swear it looked like a halo surrounding him.
“Who knows about this?” I asked.
“My sisters. Our Pa left me the deed, but my sisters come here a lot. Your Aunt Cornelia used to climb that cliff with me, up until she got married. She’d help me collect ’seng and goldenseal for Bertie.” He pointed to a patch of ginseng. “That ’seng fetches ten dollars a pound if we can git it to the right market. Grows slow, though.”
“It must take a lot of plants to make a pound.”
“It’s the roots, son. You pull the plant, and it has white roots like an old woman’s fist. That’s what we sell to the store in town, and they ship it to Knoxville or someplace, where Chinamen buy it for medicine.”
“Chinamen want our plants?”
“Bertie says they think it has magical powers.”
He shrugged. “I dunno.”
This knowledge gave me a new appreciation for my Pa. He was a hard worker, but as far as I could tell from our humble lifestyle, his ventures were just enough to keep us in clothes and food.
I lay back on the log and felt the cool sponginess of the moss beneath me. The log was big enough to hold my whole body, so I didn’t have the least worry I’d fall off. Pa climbed up to sit next to me, and I gazed up at the dome of trees above, swaying gently in the afternoon breeze. They were giants.
“Seems like it might be awfully hard to get these trees down into the valley,” I said.
Pa nodded in agreement. “Yep. Shore would be. But that don’t mean the Beaufort Lumber Company ain’t tried to get me to sell this place to ’em.” He slapped my pant leg lightly, as if I were now a grown-up who would understand these things.
I sprang up to a sitting position. “How’d they think they’re gonna get these big ol’ trees down into town?”
Pa pointed at the waterfalls. “Alls they have to do is cut a railroad up here and drag them with a skidder to the water. The falls would do the rest. All that water would land them in a spot where the railroad could take ’em to town.”
It was hard for me to grasp that trees the size of churches could be cut down and dragged to the mill in Hickory Run. If just one of them were cut, it would take the rest of them down in the process.
Sensing I didn’t believe him, Pa said, “I’ve seen ’em do it on the other side of this mountain.”
Ma had painted a picture of a foxes’ den and wanted me to take it to Hickory Run and sell it to the owners of Foster’s Inn. She’d been working on the painting for weeks after Sam and I discovered the den while wandering in the woods looking for firewood. It was in a clearing of older trees, gnarled, their roots growing over boulders that scarred the mountain landscape as if they’d been tossed there by giants. One of the boulders was tilted, leaving a passage for a foxes’ den. Once I’d found them, I kept strict vigil over the henhouse because I liked the idea that this little family had made themselves a home in our woods, and they were fun to watch. We didn’t dare tell Pa about it because he’d kill them.
Instead we told Ma, and she wanted to paint them. One day we all hiked there and perched ourselves on a ledge of rock overlooking the spot where they lived. Ma spread a blanket on the ground, and we put something in front of Nellie to keep her amused so we could wait for the fox pups. Ma arranged her easel and canvas, organized her paints.
Sam and I sat patiently on the edge of the ledge, listening to the sounds of the woods, while Ma painted the background. Then it happened. A little red head popped out of the hole in the ground. Then another. Ma never said a word. She was kneeling in front of her canvas, glossy brown eyes determined. Her brush hung poised over the canvas, her mouth parting slightly in awe.
She toiled over the painting after putting Nellie to bed, dabbing with her brush, recalling the scene from that day, the way the sunlight had shafted through the forest canopy, the tinged gray and blue boulders, the darkness of the foxes’ den. She even captured the mischief in the pups’ eyes.
At the time Pa was living in town, helping to build the Community Hall, so he didn’t know about the painting or the den.
Cousin Floyd lived up the mountain road and went to town regularly, passing our cabin at least twice a week on his way back and forth. Ma let us take the painting to town with him. I wrapped it in burlap, placed it alongside Floyd, and climbed into his flatbed with Sam. The road was bumpy, even though Floyd and some of Pa’s other cousins had recently cleared it of vines and brush and patched up the holes that formed after spring storms. We clutched the sides of the flatbed, staying put as best we could, but it didn’t help much. By the time we got to town, my mouth and nostrils were filled with dust, my head was pounding from being tossed around, and I felt dizzy.
Floyd dropped us off in front of Foster’s Inn. “You boys meet me back here at exactly four o’clock. Got it?”
“Sure thing,” I said.
“And stay out of trouble,” he said.
We retrieved our packs, which Ma had filled with sandwiches and apples. Floyd put the truck in gear and left us in a cloud of smoke.
Outside Foster’s Inn was a large sign in the window, calling for the development of a National Park in the Smoky Mountains. “A park will bring clean air, tourism, and economic opportunity!” it said in bold letters.
Sam tugged my arm impatiently, so I followed him inside to find Mr. Foster. The Inn was just as I remembered it: plush, warm, golden, with ceilings as high as a young beech tree. I warned Sam not to talk as we walked to the front desk with the painting.
Mr. Foster was behind the desk in a sharp suit and tie. His hair was slicked back with oil, and he was wearing a cologne I could smell from five feet away. At first he didn’t recognize me—it had been over a year since I’d last come with Ma—but when he did, he glanced over our heads in search of her.
I lowered my voice so he would know I was serious and laid the painting on the counter between us. “Hello, Mr. Foster. I’m Ben Taylor. My ma asked me to give this to you. She couldn’t come this time.”
He hesitated at first, then opened the burlap to reveal the painting, which was about the width of his shoulders. He contemplated it with admiration. “This will surely sell,” he said. “Tell her I’ll hang it up in the parlor and see if we get any offers for it.”
“Thank you,” I said.
I pulled Sam along behind me toward the exit, but I knew he’d be lured into looking into the parlor, just the way I’d been last time I visited. It had a chandelier covered in glass pendants that twinkled in the electric lights, several wingback chairs, a velvet couch, and a fireplace that would fill up the back wall of our cabin. People were drinking their mid-morning tea.
“Holy smokes!” he said, gaping into the room.
“Come on,” I said. “We can’t go in there.”
We were tired and hungry from the long ride, so we planted ourselves underneath a large oak outside the Inn to eat our sandwiches and watch the comings and goings of the town-folk. The late June sun beat down on the unpaved road. Cars, horses, wagons, and people kicked up the dirt, sending it into the air in clouds of honey-colored dust that swirled in the wind. The Inn sat on the main street of Hickory Run, as it still does today. Pa had told me once that Hickory Run was like a teenager busting out of his pants. I hadn’t understand at first what he meant, but now I did. There was so much energy. A few men ambled by on crutches, some with missing limbs as a result of their service in the Great War. Mrs. Reed, our Cherokee neighbor, and her daughter passed by with baskets on their backs filled to the brim with plants from the forest. I thought I smelled ramps. They were headed to the General Store to barter for supplies.
A group of tourists stepped off the porch of the Inn, carrying large packs on their backs. I hadn’t thought women had the time to go on leisure hikes in the mountains, but there they were, bouncing off the steps with their short bobbed hair, knickers, long wool socks, and sturdy boots. They dressed just like the men they were flirting with.
The ladies of the town bustled by, some with children in tow, in and out of the General Store and the Post Office. We gawked at the children. How similar they were to us, yet how different! Their clothes were store-bought and new. They didn’t wear dreary browns and grays like we did, made from rough-hewn wools and cotton. The girls wore dresses the color of the sky, the boys wore plaid shirts. The ladies wore fancy hats with feathers sticking out of them. As they passed us, I saw the children watching us with a mixture of envy and contempt. One boy said to his mother, “Hillbillies.”
The mother’s eyes narrowed on us as if we were going to jump up and steal her bag. I don’t think Sam heard, though, because he was gawking at everybody as if they were from the moon. His mouth was half-open as he munched on his sandwich.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s go see the General Store. Ma gave me a nickel and told me to buy her some thread and a needle for sewing.”
The Stewart General Store was first built in 1850 and dominated the main street until it burned down in 1920 (some say it was arson), then was rebuilt the following year with the insurance money. It had pine plank floors that creaked when you walked on them and ran the length of a large barn. It was filled with gadgets, household goods, and foods that we had never had the luxury of trying.
A woman sat at one of their new sewing machines, watching a demonstration by Mrs. Stewart, the owner’s wife. The customer asked a lot of questions as she tested the device. It was attached to an electric motor, and the lady gasped, astonished by it speed. At one point she bungled up the fabric she was stitching because she couldn’t keep up. I thought about Ma at her machine, which was operated by a treadle. This new machine would save her lots of time.
Because I’d dawdled so long, I lost sight of Sam. I ran from one end of the store to the other, searching until I found him at the counter, wantonly staring at the big jars of candy sticks.
“Can we buy one of these?”
“No. I gotta get this needle and thread Ma wanted.”
The nickel Ma had given me was burning a hole in my pocket. How I would have loved to buy a candy stick! They were so bright. Deep red, green, and caramel candies with swirls of taffy. My mouth watered, remembering the sweet gooey taste of them from Christmas.
I handed the paper Ma had given me to the clerk, and he found what she was seeking, placed the items in a small bag, and took my nickel. That was the end of it as far as I could see. But as we swung around to leave, we found ourselves smack in front of Pa’s sister, Aunt Cornelia Beaufort, and her twin sons, Jimmy Jr. and John.
“Why, hello,” she said, startled. “Aren’t you Bob’s sons? Ben and Sam?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied. “Hello, Aunt Cornelia.”
We didn’t see much of Aunt Cornelia or her family, even though her husband, Jimmy Sr., owned the local lumber company and most of the town. She lived in a fancy house at the end of the lane and never invited us over. I’m not sure my Pa would’ve accepted an invitation anyway. He didn’t talk as if he liked Jimmy Beaufort Sr.
Aunt Cornelia’s head canted back, surprised. “You remember me, then?”
It had been a long time since I’d seen her. She never came up the mountain anymore, even to visit her sisters, but the last time I was in town Ma had pointed her out to me, walking in the distance. She had seen Ma and me, standing at the bottom of the porch steps at Foster’s Inn, but she hadn’t made the effort to cross the street and say hello, and neither had Ma.
“I don’t think you’ve met your cousins. This is Jimmy Jr., and this is John.”
The boys were my age. They had icy blue eyes that penetrated like arrows, and each mumbled a hello, peering around us toward the candy.
“Show your manners, boys. Shake hands,” Aunt Cornelia instructed.
We all reached out our hands to shake half-heartedly. Jimmy Jr. wiped his on his trousers after shaking mine, so I did the same.
“What brings you to town?” she said. Her eyes were just like Pa’s, dark brown and framed by lush lashes. They were shadowed by dark circles, though, making her appear older than Pa, even though I knew she was a decade younger. And unlike Pa’s eyes, hers were flat; they lacked something—joy.
“Cousin Floyd brought us. We had to deliver a painting for Ma at Foster’s Inn and buy her something here at the store.”
“Your mother still finds time to paint with all of you children scurrying underfoot?” Aunt Cornelia’s lips curled into a crooked smile.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.
“Where are your shoes?” Jimmy Jr. said, so loud that other people looked down at my feet.
I felt the blood rise to my cheeks.
Sam came to my defense. “He ain’t got any. Left them at the cliff where the big trees grow!”
This made the twins burst out laughing, until Aunt Cornelia, sensing my distress, shushed them. “Your Pa still goes up there sengin’, does he?”
I was shocked by how she said that, with a twang like Pa. I had forgotten for a moment that she was a Taylor and had visited the grove of trees above the waterfall, the crop of ginseng.
“I, uh…don’t know,” I said, keeping Pa’s secret.
She smirked. “Would you boys like a candy?” I suppose she was making amends for her twins’ bad behavior.
“Theys… Theys…” John spoke so quietly it was hard to grasp that he had a stutter, but he was trying to say something to Jimmy Jr. “Gon…”
It was painful to watch him try to express just a few syllables.
“Of course they want some candy,” Cornelia said, sighing.
“No, thank—” I started, but Sam interrupted me: “Yes!”
I elbowed him, which made him cry out and the twins laugh.
Aunt Cornelia didn’t wait for me to protest; she sashayed to the counter, her dress the color of a goldfinch, flowing like sheets in the wind. The hem showed off her calves, as thin as a willow branch.
What a contrast she was to her sisters. Aunt Bertie and the others wore stiff gingham dresses that fell to the floor. Even Ma’s skirts didn’t show much of her legs. And the shoes! My aunts’ and Ma’s shoes were made of dark leather that buttoned in front, their heels low to the ground so they didn’t teeter over while doing their chores. Cornelia’s, however, were blue and high-heeled, and the toe of each one was festooned with a bow.
My other aunts were stocky, but Cornelia was as thin as a rail. And she had a nervous energy, skittish like a hen. She asked for a jar of Aunt Ophelia’s honey, then motioned to the candy jars. The owner reached in and took out four sticks. She turned to hand us each one with a false smile.
We thanked her, and I shoved Sam out the door, ashamed of taking it, ashamed of not having shoes. I pulled Sam along as we went in search of Pa.
Based on actual events, The Truth of Who You Are explores the secrets families keep to protect what they hold dear. Ben Taylor narrates the story of his life, beginning when he is thirteen years old and growing up in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. His family are farmers who own most of Taylor Valley—land coveted by lumber companies, who want to exploit it, and the U.S. government, which is trying to buy up properties for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Ben’s father clings to what he owns, including a large patch of old-growth hickory and chestnut trees.
When the Depression hits, Ben takes a job with the US Civilian Conservation Corps. He joins hundreds of other young men, planting thousands of trees and building bridges and roads. It is during this time that Ben causes a tragic accident, which puts him in a dilemma: does he allow his best friend to take the fall so he can keep his position?
The story concludes at the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, when Ben reconnects with his friend from the Corps.
I started researching and writing this story after visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and learning about the men who worked for the US Civilian Conservation Corps from 1932-36. The Park hosted many of their camps. During their tenure, these men planted hundreds of thousands of trees and built bridges, roads, cabins, and latrines. Indeed, the men of the Corps built New Found Gap Road, the main road that runs through the Park from North Carolina to Tennessee. I was also drawn to the stories of the people who lived in the Park before they were relocated—bought or forced out by the US government to make way for the National Park. I discovered their oral histories in books at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center in Townsend, TN. Many of these people lived in Cades Cove, an abandoned community that is now a cultural heritage site in the Park.
As a professor of ecology, I like to bring readers’ attention to the natural world around them, and this story allowed me to mix my background in environmental science with historical fiction. I also have an affinity for the mountains. My last three novels (the Durant Family Saga trilogy) are set in the Adirondack Mountains during the Gilded Age, when tourists were flocking to the region for refuge from industrialization in the cities.
Sheila Myers is a professor at Cayuga Community College in the Finger Lakes region of New York. She has four published novels. Her most recent one, The Night is Done, won the 2017 Best Book of Fiction award from the Adirondack Center for Writing and received a starred Kirkus Review. Her essays are published in Adirondack Life Magazine, Women Writers Women’s Books, and History News Network. Her short stories are published in Crossing Genres and The Stone Canoe Literary Magazine. Her website is www.sheilamyers.com.
Embark, Issue 12, April 2020