There’s a summer place, a farm, forever imprinted on my memory, spacious in its views, lovely in its close-ups, on the gentle slopes of Purchase Mountain in the southern Appalachians. I built a house there at 5,000 feet. That’s high for these parts. Mt. Mitchell, not far from me, is 1,600 feet higher. It’s the highest point on the eastern seaboard between the Mississippi and the Atlantic Ocean. These Appalachians are ancient mountains, some of the oldest on earth. Worn down by the ages from water, frost and the work of the wind, they are gentle, livable mountains. Having a home on top of one is as close to heaven as you can get.
So begins Kathryn K. McNeil in her series of short vignettes, entitled Purchase Knob: Essays from a Mountain Notebook, describing this truly remarkable and historic slice-of-heaven that was home to McNeil for more than 30 years beginning in 1965.
I visited Purchase Knob twice in December 2013. I knew nothing of the history. I knew nothing of McNeil for that matter. All I knew is that what I discovered explains why McNeil had to purchase this property. It is stunning. From the moment you clear the forest and gaze upon the high mountain meadow with panoramic views of the Blue Ridge and Smokies, you will fall for Purchase Knob just as McNeil did.
My regular hiking companion happened to find this book at a yard sale just a week after we had been there and shared it with me for the holidays. McNeil describes what it’s like to become mountain-folk, to fit in, to become part of the community. Her neighbors were hard working and resourceful, a requirement for surviving the rural isolation and harsh winters. McNeil came to love them as dearly as she loved Purchase Knob.
What’s ever wrong gets right here. Just you sit on that porch of yours and look at the mountains. They never change, not like people. You can always trust them. Oh, they may hide once in a while, get clouded up, but they always come back out. It’s like finding old friends again.
That was the advice given to McNeil by mountain sage Amos Wood during a period of depression following the divorce from her husband. And true to Wood’s word, she did recover by being a part of the mountains, getting out to enjoy the trails, to search for rare wildflowers and elusive wildlife, and to become one with her new friends and neighbors who took her back to a time when life was all about sharing.
There’s a rich history in the southern Appalachians; of the hard times and harsh winters, of working together to achieve common goals, of using the land and the forests to survive… far from the hustle and bustle of the large eastern cities. McNeil recognized the importance of celebrating the mountain lifestyle, rather than trying to change it. After all, many of the resident’s heritage is traced back hundreds, if not thousands, of years as evidenced by their Cherokee features.
McNeil was the right person to own this remarkable piece of property, making every effort to blend in, rather than to rule from high above on the hill. McNeil donated the 535-acre property, including her house on the hill, to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2000, but before doing so, she published this book in 1999. Her home now houses the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center that studies the effects of airborne particulants on the local ecology. The Learning Center has averaged about 5,000 visiting scientists, students and teachers each year.
I have witnessed all seasons here. I have seen the hardwoods on the meadow’s edge turn to reds and golds, and after the December wind has done its work, watched it send the leaves spinning in furious circles round and round, tossing them high in the sky and catching them again, pressing them into brown heaps.
I have seen the silhouettes of winter when the apple trees stand bare, their fruit unpicked, hanging like rubies in the cold, clear air, waiting for frosts to turn them brown and dry until they fall, too, and join the dry leaves.
And spring? What a morning May brought me once, when the serviceberry trees, already white with blossoms, turned to sparkling glass in a late freeze. I remember that old mountain caution: “Wait until Mother’s Day before planting.” That was Mother’s Day.
I have only visited Purchase Knob in one season, late fall, having only discovered it in the past couple months. Thanks to McNeil’s flowing descriptions of the seasons at the “Purchase” you can rest assured I will be back many, many times. If you find yourself visiting Purchase Knob, be sure to also find a copy of Purchase Knob: Essays from a Mountain Notebook. Learning more about the history and the background will make your visit an even more enriching and rewarding experience.
Update May 2016: It is with great sadness that I share news of the loss of Kathryn McNeil. She left an indelible legacy on Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In the three years since my first visit to Kathryn’s Purchase Knob, it has become one of my favorite places in the Smokies. I volunteer at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center that used to be her home. I hike along the Cataloochee Divide on a nearly monthly basis. I share her love of “The Purchase.”
Shortly before her passing Kathryn helped create an endowment to fund a full-time, year round Parks as Classrooms Resource Education Ranger position. This kind of permanent funding will empower the park to maximize the resources available at this world class facility and provide more comprehensive, hands-on science education programs for middle and high school students in Western North Carolina. It is a wonderful legacy for a generous friend of the Smokies.