Lying in wait, behind the veiled beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, lie dirt roads that makes one want to be impulsive and turn his car onto them to discover what things of wonder have been hidden out of sight for perhaps a long, long time. Twisting routes wind through beautifully peaceful and benign seeming places, but just off to the sides of these not-so-beaten paths are remnants of old homesteads; long abandoned and grape vine-captured, hinting to the passerby that though the mountains take us back to a non-hurried, simpler kind of life, they also offer difficult winters, isolation and hardships that come from not having as many of the creature comforts and conveniences as those living in larger towns and cities.
Time honored traditions live on in these southern mountain towns, and because they’re smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt, prohibition continues to be one of those traditions many still follow. However, there’s another tradition that’s followed, as well, and it has everything to do with concoctions that are born from copper tubing, kettles, sugar and corn. Namely, the making and selling of moonshine, (a.k.a. white lightning, corn liquor, or grain alcohol), all of which is brewed in homemade stills.
Though the business of illegal moonshine-making is often looked at with a blind eye, the law is the law, and, in order to uphold that law, (which prohibits the production and selling of non-taxed alcohol) the Alcoholic Beverages Commission (ABC) officers roam the winding roads on search and destroy missions, hunting for these homemade cooking machines. If the owners and their cohorts of these stills are unlucky enough to be at the site upon arrival of the ABC officers, then it is the sworn duty of these protectors of the law to arrest them all before the officers “bust up” the still. But many of these lawbreakers are able to disappear into the great abundance of hidden nooks and crannies until things cool off. Then they move on to become some other ABC officer’s headache for a while.
In the summer of 1978, when I was beginning my sophomore year at Florida State University, I, along with my Australian boyfriend, Larry, joined my family in the North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains for a couple of weeks respite from the Florida heat. There, my entire family settled in for 14 days and nights of hiking, square dancing, 1000-piece Jigsaw puzzles, nickel-ante poker, cookouts and peach cobbler eating.
Things were just about perfect in those two weeks. Just about, but not quite. It just so happened that we were also nestled in one of those dry counties where legal booze couldn’t be had for many miles around. My family was one who always prepared for life’s little emergencies, so they’d brought plenty of liquor with them from the unrestricted Sunshine state. However, there were a lot of us there that summer – and all of us were of drinking age. Why, what was a game of poker without a beer or two? Or a square dance without a belt under the belt? And, for heaven’s sake, what was a puzzle-puttin’-together-night without a glass or two of one’s favorite spirit? It just seemed to make those pieces fall right into place. And, if they didn’t, well, hell, who cared?
A little more than half way through our vacation that summer, we ran dry. Not a Heineken was to be had, and not a shot of bourbon was to be bought. However, relief was in sight; Asheville, a large and modern mountain city with plenty of liquor stores was just an hour and a half away. Taking on the mission of replenishing supplies were my older cousins Warren and Court, and they asked Larry and me to assist them in their undertaking. It sounded like a good plan to us. After all, if one were to be honest, at 19 years old, which Larry and I both were (my cousins were 28 and 29, respectively), and coming from the fast-paced city, two weeks way up in the mountains could be, well, a bit too quiet. So, the four of us jumped in my uncle’s car, and took off for sights unknown along the mysterious byways of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Several hours later, our mission was accomplished, and we had a trunk full of enough liquor to last through the rest of our poking playing, puzzle-piecing nights. The day was one which chambers of commerce pray for on holidays. With the gift of such a day, and being young, care-free and contented– especially so after the first Bud – we decided to take our time on the trip home, and meander around and up and down the most outlying and isolated roads that we could find.
Warren was at the wheel, being his usual responsible self, while the rest of us were enjoying not being very responsible at all. There we were, winding our way along the graveled and narrowed roads, not paying too much attention to where we actually were but knowing that we were heading in somewhat of the right direction toward home, when Warren spotted in his rear-view mirror a white car tailing our car. He then noticed a blue bubble police light flashing upon the unknown car’s dashboard. “God a mighty,” he exclaimed. “It’s the cops!” Each of us turned around to look out the back window just as Warren snapped, “Don’t turn around!” But, each of us peered out the back window and to our horror realized that it was not the police following us, but ABC officers instead.
When four people are nervously excited, and talk at once, it’s much like listening to a radio that is between stations, so that you’re listening to two or three vying for the signal. All four of us had ideas about what to do, or maybe we were all asking each other what we should do, but there was no way to understand a single word that was being said in that car at that moment in time. Warren kept his cool better than the rest of us, however, and after a half minute or so pulled his father’s car over to the shoulder of the precarious mountain road and shut off the engine.
Larry, my Australian boyfriend, had only been in the United States for a little over a year. And coming from a country where they take their beer seriously – holding it in highest esteem – Larry thought we were being much too skittish about the whole situation. All 6’6” of him unfolded from the backseat when he stepped out of the car while still clutching his cold Budweiser in his enormous hand as the rest of us quickly sat our bottles down on the floor of the car and then stepped out, as well.
“G’day, mates!” Larry greeted the ABC officers approaching out car. To him this was another new and exciting American adventure. Both sets of eyes of the ABC officers widened a bit at the sight and sound of this strange speaking giant and you could almost feel their need to step back. But, they knew who was in charge and they held their ground. “Whatcha all doin’?” asked one of the officers, friendly enough AND suspiciously enough. He reminded me of Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, with a Fu-Manchu mustache, but a shorter crop of hair.
“Well,” cool talking Court responded. “We’ve just made a liquor run to Asheville.” He figured honesty was the best policy, since he anticipated the trunk being opened within the next minute or so, exposing half of that liquor store’s inventory.
Fu-Manchu’s partner was a taller, rounder fellow who smiled easily, which made me very uneasy. He had small, dark eyes, which seemed even smaller set within his big head and frame, and they darted around quickly as he measured us up. I just knew he smelled “city” on us.
“Listen,” Fu said. “Dave and I was just fixin’ to go down the side of the mountain here.” He pointed off the side of the road from where we were standing. “We’re aiming to check out a still. Y’all want to come on down there with us?”
While Fu extended the invitation, Dave walked back to the trunk of their cruiser, opened the lid, and fished around inside. Several seconds later, he slammed it closed and the noise lifted high up and against the mountains, returning to us in an eerie echo. Then, Dave returned to the group carrying an axe and a shotgun.
Now, this didn’t look good. This didn’t look good at all. There are moments in life that seem to last an eternity. They seem to slow down to the point that if they go any slower then they’ll be going in reverse. Such was the case at that moment in time, on that hot August afternoon, outside of Yancey County, North Carolina. My head snapped around to look at my boyfriend and cousins, and instead of the presumed and collective “No, thank you sir”, which I expected would be forthcoming from all invited, Larry answered with a resounding, “Yeah, man!” Court – Mr. Smooth and curious – echoed Larry’s affirmative answer, and Warren -Mr. Cautious (and wise, as far as I was concerned) – said “No, thanks. I’ll just wait up here with the car.” And, I, being of sound mind, and hoping to keep body the same, too, softly answered that I’d stay behind with Warren. With that being settled, the ones going into the back woods abyss took off down the side of the mountain, while the ones who had sense enough to stay up on the road, watched them go.
No sooner were the four over the edge and out of sight when I rushed around the car to my remaining cousin. “Have ya got the car keys, Warren?! Have ya got the keys?” He nervously assured me that he did. We discussed the possibility that we might have to run for our lives, dependent upon what happened within the next few minutes over that mountain side. Then terrified, but quiet, we waited. It seemed that all mountain sounds were stilled, as though the birds stopped singing, and the breeze quit making wind chimes out of the Poplar leaves. Or maybe they hadn’t stopped at all, but our ears were so tuned in to the potential, and likelihood, of sharp, deadly sounds rising from below that we had tuned the every day sounds out. And so, when that quiet was suddenly shattered by those anticipated explosive sounds it unnerved us to the core. We heard three shots of gun fire; Bang! Bang! Bang! And I jumped with each bang, as did Warren. He quickly withdrew the car keys from his pocket, and stepped closer to the driver’s door.
“What are we gonna do?!” I whispered in a high whine, standing so close to my cousin that we looked like an odd set of Siamese Twins.
“We’ve got to wait for a few minutes, and see if they come back up,”
Then, we heard the most awful smashing and slamming noises that this terrified, city-fied girl has ever heard. “What are they doing, Warren?” I was almost in tears by then.
“I don’t know,” he whispered through tight lips. “But they have five minutes to get back up here or we’re going for help.” He didn’t say another word, nor did I as I imagined what might be going on at that moment.
My body was as taunt as a sail in a stiff wind. I could barely breathe. I remember feeling as though my feet weren’t fully resting on the gravel road, as though they were in flight mode already. My hands rested on the side of the hood as I strained my eyes hoping to see the tops of my loved ones’ heads come cresting over the side of the mountain. And then… they did.
Up bounded Larry, smiling like he’d just opened his best Christmas present ever. Next up was Court, looking smug and all-knowing, grinning at Warren and me like we were the biggest chickens to ever cluck in the barnyard. Right behind the two of them came Dave and Fu, looking plain tickled.
Larry sauntered on over to me, extending something from his hand. I took it and looked at a developing Polaroid Instamatic picture. There, in that fuzzy photo, I began to make out the images of Court and Larry, standing to either side of Fu, while Dave took a picture of the three of them standing before a busted up still. Fu had his arms across each man’s shoulders, and all three of them were smiling from ear to ear. Leaning against Fu’s leg was an axe, and on the ground was the shotgun – the instruments used to disassemble the still. Larry, Court, Dave and Fu were bonded busting-up-still-buddies forever more. Warren and I didn’t care that we were excluded from that circle of merry men, we were just exceedingly relieved that everyone had come back up the mountain in the same shape in which they had gone down. After a few pats on the backs between the new boys’ club, and “thank-yous” extended all around, (Fu and Dave had no way of knowing that I was thanking them for allowing us the opportunity to live), we all said our good-byes and parted ways.
It’s the end of August once again, nearly forty years later, and many things have changed. That beautiful young Australian boyfriend is just a warm memory now, living back in Australia with an Australian wife and four grown children. My two cousins live their own middle-aged lives, though we’re still very close and lucky enough to get together fairly often. Oddly enough, I live about fifteen miles from that same area where the still was destroyed; just outside of Yancey County. And tucked up in my attic somewhere is a worn, beige scrapbook that holds a Polaroid picture of three very different men who came together for a brief moment in time to appreciate and share one of the many traditions of the mountain people.
Today, as I wind my way along those still-beautiful mountain roads, and see gray wisps of smoke spiraling up through the Poplars and pines, I wonder if they are streaming from some homestead’s fireplace or cook stove that’s not yet given itself up to the choking, persistent kudzu. Or, perhaps, it’s a gray glimpse of a way of life that refuses to be snuffed out. All things considered, I think that’s only fair. Some things should remain secret and sacred in these hills and hollows. And, if we city people are really lucky, we might be players in one of them for a second in time.