by Doug Ferguson|
Tucked away between the weathered peaks of the Appalachians lies a village where a clear mountain stream pauses for a moment before rushing on and over the confines of a moss-covered dam.
A stone inn overlooks the frigid waters of Lake Susan, the small pond that is created by the mountain stream. In October, the pond forms a reflecting pool for the fall foliage -- an autumnal gathering for countless puddles of color that blend together like a kaleidoscope beneath a brilliant blue sky.
About this time of year, when the cool morning air is laced with the scent of a woodfire for the first time, my mind often turns to that little village and the memories it holds for me. Montreat, North Carolina is a Presbyterian retreat, and every fall for as long as I can remember, my family has gathered there for a weekend of fellowship beneath the rolling mountains and tie-dyed trees.
Even as the kids grew older and left our home in Charlotte for college and grad school, we always have managed to find one weekend in which to gather together in that little mountain town. Many a birthday has been celebrated there, and I can remember more than a few hikes to the top of Lookout Mountain for family photographs high above the valley floor.
When the skies turned cloudy and sent us scurrying inside to escape a cold rain, some of us would gather to play cards beneath the covered porch of the house where we stayed. Others would retreat to the warmth of the living room and huddle around an ancient television, struggling with broken knobs and bent antennas to find a college football game. A battle would rage between whether to watch Florida State (my grandma's favorite) or Carolina, the alma mater of my sister and me. Needless to say, Carolina usually won the day (although it seldom won the game).
When I was younger, my little brother and I would wander down to the mountain stream and explore its winding path beneath the outstretched limbs of oaks and maples. Jumping from stone to stone, we would take care not to let our feet slip into the stream's icy grasp. Inevitably, however, one or both of us would take an unexpected bath, and we would be sent scrambling back to the house where my mom would shake her head at the mess we had made.
The little stream seemed almost magical to me then. At night, as I gathered my blankets around me, I would open my window to hear its rapid progress through the valley. With my little brother and whatever friends were staying with us at the time, I used to pretend that strange creatures lived in the stream, hiding in the culvert beneath the road. Although we never actually saw them, we imagined that the creatures lurked just behind the shadows, frolicking in the waters that we found too cold to touch.
After dinner, when the sun dipped behind the mountains, the darkness that followed would spark my overactive imagination. And as I returned from a trip to the general store or from a walk around Lake Susan, I would hurry past the darkened culvert without daring to look back.
Maybe I was afraid that if I looked over my shoulder, I finally would see those fantastic creatures pouring out of the culvert and into the night air behind me. Or perhaps I was even more afraid that I would see nothing at all, and my childhood fantasy would be dashed forever against the rocks in the stream. Either way, as I rushed up the steep steps and into the safety of the house, the creatures remained unseen and all too real to me.
I don't recall if I ever told my parents about those mythical creatures in the mountain stream, but I do remember how safe I felt as soon as I saw them standing beneath the warm lights of the living room. Just being in the same room with them was enough to chase away fears of even the most frightening monsters, whether they hid in some culvert beneath a road or in the recesses of a dark closet in my bedroom.
My parents have never lost that ability to make me feel safe, regardless of what dangers lurk in the dark. Even as I grow older and the monsters I face grow more real, every trip home -- or to our little mountain retreat -- brings with it a sense of security that stays with me long after I leave.
It's not that Mom and Dad really can chase away the monsters anymore -- there are some creatures, such as AIDS, that even parents cannot touch. It's just that her reassuring presence lets me know that whatever demons I might face, they are going to be there with me. That knowledge gives me the strength to fight my demons face-to-face, instead of running by them without daring to look back.
On the way home from Montreat after our weekend together, my family always stops at a little roadside stand to buy some fresh apple cider. We buy several gallons, and freeze the containers we don't use right away. My mom serves it at family gatherings for the rest of the year and into the next, and every taste brings back memories of the special times we've had together in our little mountain retreat.
I'll usually take some cider back with me to school in Chapel Hill, as well. It serves as a little taste of home when my family seems so far away. Every sip I take reminds me that although I may be haunted by monsters I never could imagine in my youth, I always will be secure in the love of my family's arms. And no matter where I might roam in the future, that little mountain stream -- and the many memories Montreat holds -- will always be waiting for me, nestled between the rolling Appalachian peaks.