The drive to Blood Mountain spoke. It was morning. Your Daddy drove; I sat with you in the Scion’s backseat as we twined through Cherokee National Forest, beside the Ocoee. Sunlight danced on your cheeks. You slept, calm as an eddy. Golden hues dyed the air. The leaves were starting to change. Some had fallen and were floating, red and taupe, on the river. “Water stars,” your Daddy said.
Big rapids ahead set the stage for kayakers in helmets and wetsuits to paddle and surf. Purple and green boats bobbed up and down like seesaws. It must have been loud in the whitewater. But our drive was quiet as sleep. Few cars took this road. Trees like elders bowed.
An hour in we stopped at the Citgo off US-64 for snacks. Ruffles Cheddar and Sour Cream, Snickers, Coke, Lipton Green Tea—junk food, some might call it. I said, “It’s Saturday. We can do what we want.”
At the North Carolina, Georgia border we passed Foster’s Flea Market, where mothers with young children swarmed produce stands, and old men in straw hats tapped their feet to folk. We reached the Byron Reece Trailhead at noon. The parking lot was full. Cars stacked behind us while we waited for the couple with a chocolate lab to leave to slip into their spot. Blood Mountain was rocky and steep. I toted you the two miles up in a gray front carrier. Mountain laurels shaded the trail. It was overcast, but I sweated like a cold soda can in sun. The hiking bounced you as if you were riding a horse. Somehow, you slept the whole way.
I nursed you at the top, where granite slabs replaced trees, and views of the Blue Ridge Mountains rolled in. Your eyelashes grazed my chest. I looked out, sitting on stone behind your Daddy who, as always, served as our shield. Our elevation was 4,458 feet. The mountains beyond crawled over each other like migrating turtles. They waved wide and far as the sea.
Before hiking back, we entered the stone shelter built in the 1930s by the CCC. Inside was cool and dark. How many Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, I wondered, have slept within these walls? A father and son stepped in after us, tied their hammock to a hand hewn beam. It thundered. “Can we stay here until the storm passes?” asked the boy. “Sure we can, son. I brought cookies.”
The thunder continued. “Think we’ll be okay?” I asked your Daddy on our descent. Levi, as your mother, my utmost duty is to keep you safe.
“We’ll be fine,” your Daddy said. “It’s just the angels bowling.”
On our drive home we stopped at Sunrise Grocery, where obese pumpkins lounged around the screened porch, below the wooden sign that read, “World Famous Boiled Peanuts.” The fattest pumpkin cost forty-five dollars and was easily the size of a supermoon. I placed your palm on its fleshy orange ridges, sat you on its peak. Had that pumpkin been hollowed out, it would have swallowed you whole.
Inside, the store sold specialty items like local honeys and jams, peach and blackberry ciders. We bought the world famous boiled peanuts, which the clerk ladled straight from the Dutch oven into a paper bag that instantly started to steam. Your Daddy, who’d never had boiled peanuts before, was surprised they came with the shell. “Not the best food while driving,” he said. Still, he ate them to the bottom of the bag.