Jeremy B. Jones

Mountain Mobility

It is not just a case of people remaining in one place; it is
of people and their place being entwined.

—Phillip Shaw Palaudan, Victims

Great-great-great-great granddaddy Andrew Maxwell crashed in first, a Scot from Ireland. He grabbed up his land grant stretching across Fruitland after the Revolutionary War, and over time, his children sprawled across the earth, planting seeds and putting the soil to work in the shade of the Blue Ridge Mountains. My Maxwells took over.

The roads I cycle in the afternoons after I finish teaching at the elementary school used to be lined with Maxwell corn and cows and kids. Today the land is spotted in shoddy trailers and pruned apple trees and modest two-story houses, but centuries ago, my people turned and tilled the ground I roll over, spreading themselves across the land until the soil was used up, sections of it sold or traded. Then, they left.

All but my line. Mine stayed put; even after my great-great-great-grandfather was killed in the Civil War, they dug in deeper alongside Clear Creek. And here I am over two-hundred years later, pulled back to this land after spending the last decade running away from it: living in a boxy brown house just above that same thin creek.

Well before my Scots-Irish kin lit on this land 200 years ago, the Cherokee bore trails into the forests and built settlements along the water in the Blue Ridge. They’d made a way and a home with the mountains—they were reconciled with it—and so among the other indigenous groups in the region, the tribes of Cherokee were known as The Mountaineers.

But by the nineteenth century, once treaties and deception and guns had pushed out most of The Mountaineers, my people dug deeper in—the Maxwells and Gilliams and Whitakers and Joneses. And before long, these settlers were no longer newcomers, no longer Scots-Irish or Welsh or anything connecting them to another homeland.

They had all become one: The Mountain Whites.

The term mountain whites wasn’t blanketed upon my people to distinguish them from mountain blacks; there hardly were any slaves or freed blacks in these harsh mountains. Instead, mountain white linked them to the Poor Whites of the South. The Mountain Whites, like the Poor Whites, were something unfamiliar, something other; they were a people for the bottom strata of Southern society.

The Mountain Whites were akin to the Poor Whites in their consistent poverty and subsistence farming. Like most mountaineers, the Poor Whites of the South (also called corn crackers and, later, simply, crackers) survived on anything the land would produce, anything they could pull from the ground. Both groups were seen as incapable of economic or societal evolution, forever at the mercy of hard ground and slow minds.

Yet while the term mountain whites connected us to the Poor Whites, it also meant to separate us. The Poor White accepted slavery easily because he was ever aware that without such an institution, he would be the field hand, the back catching the whip. His paleness was all that kept him from the bottom of the pile. He had arrived to America under some form of servitude. Many Poor Whites hoped to escape absolute poverty through servant emigration, while others were criminals serving their time in the fields of The New World. They came with nothing and lived with less.

But the Mountain Whites took their plight intentionally. They chose these mountains; they staked out their land and survived it. They conquered. They came of free will and fiery blood, and while they were thought to be backwards and strange, they weren’t for pushing around or putting to work.

When I have a day free from teaching elementary school, I drive across the creek and stop in on Grandma and Papaw around noon. Grandma’s usually in the kitchen pulling cornbread from the oven, the stove warming a few pots of vegetables. I like the days like today when a pan sizzles with collard greens and a pot swirls with mashed potatoes, Papaw’s fiddling around in the garage or whistling in his chair, and there’re always extra helpings for me.

I sit while Grandma seasons the greens, and I ask her to tell me about her childhood. As I soon as I ask it, I fear the question is too broad, but she just slaps her thigh as she turns toward me to say, “Jeremy—all I ever did was hoe corn.”

As a child, Grandma went to work as soon as she could. She was the youngest of five Maxwells, so she dug potatoes and strung beans alongside the men down by the creek, and then she set to helping her mom serve noon dinner, cooking the same vegetables she’s fixing me today.

But as she grew, she also worked alongside migrant workers. Her family, like some other Mountain Whites in the beginning of the twentieth century, could afford to hire cheap labor. But like her siblings, Grandma still worked the fields as a child, alongside the hired help—field hand and sodbuster all at once.

These days, nearly all of the migrant workers in our county are Latino, primarily from Mexico and Central America. They’re the parents of my students, the hands tending and packing our apples. But in Grandma’s day, most migrant workers were black, and they were often whole families working any farmland that needed hands. As the mountains grew cold, the workers would travel south, following a harvest line toward Florida, trying to make ends meet by chasing hard labor and amenable climate.

These workers were mostly Southern, descendants of slaves and then sharecroppers, and so Grandma, a Mountain White 150 years removed from Scotland, worked the fields of her childhood alongside black families barely 50 years removed from slavery.

But in the ’40s, she found herself, not yet a teenager, down in those bottoms pulling corn and picking beans with funny-sounding white men. As she tells it, the men were all blond and tall and tongue-tied and handsome:

“We just worked down there with everybody. It didn’t matter who you were. In the field, you worked.”

She tells me of one hot day: She leaves work of the field to help her mama start dinner. On the way to the house, she spots one of these men—a boy really, barely 20—creeping from the Maxwell cellar. In his arms, he cradles a jar of canned peaches, and as she spies him around the corner of the house, he stops, sticks his whole hand in the jar, and swallows down a slimy handful of peaches. He swiftly tightens the lid and stuffs the jar in his pants after he wipes his mouth clean.

She leans against the edge of the house, only watching him.

Her older sister, Carolyn, trudges up the hill to the house behind Grandma as the boy drifts back to the field, peaches in his pants.

What are you doing? Carolyn, the older sister born into bossiness, asks.

Walking, Grandma snaps, turning briskly back to the house and aiming for the front door.

She never told on that boy for thieving, never shared the story:

“I reckon he needed something sweet,” she says. “Plus, he was kindly cute.”

She worked the fields with the corners of her eyes aimed at that boy. He was tall and strong, mysterious and silent. She may’ve been too young to know who he was then, but it mightn’t have mattered. Her crush and the other Germans sweating in the Maxwell field that summer were all Nazis, prisoners of World War II. They would show up in the mornings, heaped in the back of a truck; some would hop off at the Maxwell Farm and the truck would head on up the road, delivering the German labor to other farms.

The Germans were held on the other side of town in a POW camp that opened on Independence Day—July 4, 1944. The 263 men stored off of a road leading to the Pisgah Forest were the new labor. They fell to the bottom of the social ladder, below the Mountain Whites, below the migrants, and so their backs bent to toil our soil.

They pulled our food from the land. They allowed farmers like my great-grandfather, William Maxwell, to sell extra produce at the Curb Market. They brought an economic boost to our soil during war on theirs.

The stability of the Maxwell farm helped Grandma and her sister attend college in Brevard and then Cullowhee. Grandma met my grandfather working at a dairy in Waynesville:

“I saw him riding up and down the road on his little pinto pony, and I thought he was right cute.”

Soon, she graduated, started teaching, married and a built sturdy, comfortable life: a brick home and yard. Today, just across the road from their ranch-style house sits a newly situated mobile home, right on the edge of the former Maxwell Farm. An old car and a fishing boat stand guard in the trailer’s yard. Deeper into Fruitland, at the foot of the mountains, patches of trailer parks house migrant families who’ve left behind former lives in Latin America to bring our apple trees to fruition. They all make homes on this land given to Andrew Maxwell after it was taken from the Cherokee.

The class division marked by the road in front of Grandma’s—the line between the trailers and the houses—is palpable across Fruitland. On the other side of the pasture in front of my two-story house on Gilliam Road stand two trailers. One family lives in them both simultaneously, and surrounding the trailers are scraps of machines, wheel-less cars, kids’ toys. The yard is littered with brokenness. Yesterday I watched the mom mow their small plot of grass, while holding a diapered baby with one arm and the steering wheel with the other.

I’ve never met these people even though I can see their trailers from the window and I’ve been living in this house for months. When I let my dog loose, he often circumvents the horse pasture’s fence to run up the road to these neighbors’ plot. But I stand by the barn on our land and call him back, without getting too close.

As a boy on Jones land—just across the creek from the Maxwell farm—I grew up ever-aware of the lines between houses and trailers. We Joneses all lived in houses, but the Wilkies, our neighbors living near Highway 64, subsisted in mobile homes.

As boys, my cousins and I would walk out the edge of the hayfield, near the end of our land, and yell. Eventually, the Wilkie boys would emerge from the end of our road, where they lived in a series of trailers above their apple house. We’d soon line up and start calling fake football plays and hitting each other up and down the hayfield.

Our games were usually friendly enough, but the Wilkies were the enemies of our boyhood imaginings. We set Tinker Toy traps for them in the woods; we plotted many lines of defense—trip lines, hidden holes—to keep them away from our land. They never crossed onto our plot uninvited—probably never cared too—but we felt sure they would try to seize our territory or take from us or sneak into our hideouts. And they weren’t welcome.

Even though we’d meet up during summer vacation and clobber each other, I didn’t associate with the Wilkies at school, don’t even remember saying hey in the hall. We never ventured onto their land to form our games; we just hollered from our field, knowing where the line between us lay.

Even our dogs didn’t get along with Wilkie dogs. They’d sometimes circle, hair raised, in that same hayfield, and fight to slobbery, bloody ends.

Our parents never stopped to chat with the Wilkies as we pulled onto Highway 64 from the driveway. We’d see the father, wild thick beard and dirty t-shirt, picking up palettes of apples with the tractor or sitting in front of the apple house in a rusted-out metal chair. We’d sometimes wave, but we didn’t stop to ask about family or chat about the weather. The Wilkies’ narrow stretch of land along 64 marked a boundary we didn’t cross, physically or socially. It meant danger—the end of our land, the highway, the unknown.

When I was a boy, my uncle planted a line of pine trees along the hayfield to more clearly mark the boundary from Jones land to Wilkie land. Today, the pines have grown tall enough to hide any trace of the Wilkies from our property—a natural wall.

Behind the wall, the family sells apples and other produce from a brown, garage-like building at the end of the road, beside our mailboxes. Further down 64, they have a few rows of apple trees, but much of what they sell they buy from other orchards and farms. They’re farmers and middlemen all at once. Outside of the apple house stand their trailers and old trucks and shells of machines. When one of the kids marries or reaches adulthood, they stick another trailer above the apple house. The Wilkies, like us, stuck to their piece of earth, living in each other’s backyards, perpetually staying put. Four trailers now stand off 64, climbing up the hill, backed by a row of immense pines.

Even though we filled our woods with Wilkie-aimed traps, and even though our parents concealed the Wilkies with trees and careful eyes, Grandma and Granddaddy maintained relations with them. Granddaddy used to stop his old truck at the end of the road to shoot the breeze outside the apple house in the afternoons. They would gift Grandma a bushel of apples from time to time, and she’d return thanks in the form of an apple cobbler. But we next-generation Joneses, next-generation Mountaineers, learned to push them away, to roll up our windows pulling out of the drive.

These days, when I drive to my childhood land, I turn off 64, and grow curious about the Wilkie plot. I tip my cap or wave at them when we make eye contact. But most days they don’t look at me. I wonder if they even know who, or whose, I am after years of being away. Maybe it’s obvious from the dress shirt I wear pulling in the driveway after a day at school. Maybe my newish SUV marks me, places me on the Jones land, sets me in a house instead of a trailer. Maybe they just don’t care.

Today, after I leave Grandma and Maxwell land, I turn up the driveway past the Wilkie plot and try to trace what it is about them that kept us at bay, with upturned noses and fearful eyes. Of course, it’s painfully obvious to me now as a twenty-four-year-old man coming home after years away. We drive newer cars. We built a pool behind our house. Our parents work in town, wearing ties not NASCAR t-shirts. We’re better.

But we’re all Mountain Whites. We’re all scraps of Scots-Irish. We have the same homeland, here and abroad. We’re the same.

Yet, in the generations from Grandma to me, something changed. We’re no longer laborers, no longer dependent on those apple trees surrounding our land. We’re no longer victims or stewards of the soil. We don’t need handwritten signs along the road reading Corn, Tomatoes, Half-Runners to make ends meet. We’ve moved on.

And even with all my newfound idealism as a man returning to and exploring this homeland of mine, teaching ESL to the children of trailing-living migrant workers, I breathe easier on the other side of the pines, heading toward the sturdiness of a house. I instinctively rush past Wilkie land, afraid of getting caught or stuck in our gritty, shared past.

Jeremy B. Jones’ “Mountain Mobility” comes from his forthcoming book, Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland (John F. Blair, June 2014). His other essays have been named Notable in Best American Essays (2009 and 2011) and appear in various literary magazines, including Crab Orchard Review, Quarterly West, and Defunct. While he hails from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, he teaches writing in the lowlands, at Charleston Southern University in South Carolina.