“In high school, a friend developed a theory he called ‘the Pull,'” author Jeremy Jones writes in his debut memoir, Bearwallow. Like a giant magnet, this hypothetical phenomenon draws natives of rural Henderson County back to the mountains, whether they want to return or not: “Nothing was to be done about the Pull, if you were within its grasp.”
Jones, it seems, is not immune. To be clear, he’s traveled far: to Costa Rica and Honduras as well as Iowa and South Carolina. But he always seems to land back in North Carolina’s apple country. Accordingly, he has just moved back.
“Here, you feel kind of covered up. And I know for some people it makes them claustrophobic, but for me it feels more comforting,” he says. The flatness of Iowa City and then Charleston, S.C., left him exposed. The winters in the former were too cold and, in the latter, too warm. It just wasn’t right. “Even though we loved Charleston and were happy there, I knew exactly what mile marker the mountains would appear on the landscape, coming up Interstate 26.”
Jones doesn’t fit the stereotype of the mountain boy coming back home. In fact, Bearwallow‘s three-way balance of memoir, travelogue and folk history plumbs the identity crisis of the author as well as the region. In 2005, a then-24-year-old Jones had just returned from teaching English in the Honduran mountains to be an English as a Second Language instructor at Edneyville Elementary. Back in the small mountain community where he grew up, Jones soon discovered the titular peak could soon have an exclusive gated community atop it. And he was suddenly on a first-name basis with his elementary school teachers, who were now his co-workers. The mountains were changing, and so was he. So he wrote a book.
While Bearwallow doesn’t answer whether the region should resist development or what it means to have deep local roots, Jones’ ruminations on familial, personal and regional history are detailed, honest and thorough. His book is less a collection of answers and more a window to the introspection that apparently dominated the author’s 24th year.
“One of the driving forces was that question: ‘Now that this world is way more opened up than it has ever been, what should happen, culturally?’” he says. “What should it look like, and is there any value in hanging onto the way things were? Or should we embrace this sort of new, open world?” One reason, historically, that people came here was to fade into the mountains and hide — from loyalists in the late 1700s to Unionists during the Civil War — and that still plays a role in locals’ attachment to their land and guardedness around newcomers, Jones says.
Yet the mountains’ increased accessibility, even as far back as an 1800s railroad climbing Saluda Grade where Interstate 26 runs today, led to high-dollar vacation and retirement homes in places like Flat Rock. “A lot of Charlestonians, very well-to-do plantation owners, vacationed here as early as the early 19th century,” Jones says. “Even the Sandburg house in Flat Rock was formerly the house of the first secretary of the Confederate treasury during the Civil War.”
What set the proposed community atop Bearwallow Mountain apart, though, was that it violated invisible lines of development. Jones’ family’s area — Edneyville and Fruitland — had remained agricultural, even as second homes cropped up elsewhere in the county. “Flat Rock just happened,” Jones says of the prevalence of pricier homes in that community. “It’s been happening for so long, but certainly in a slower way than someone showing up and putting up 300 houses in a span of less than a year.”
The economic downturn and housing bubble collapse scuttled the Bearwallow gated community, even within the timeframe of Jones’ book. There have been other developments, but no major ones, and many locals in their 50s and 60s — Jones’ parents’ generation — are holding onto their apple farms, “But none of their kids want to take things over.”
Jones has come back not to farm but to work as an assistant English professor at Western Carolina University: “I’m mostly just hoping to steal some of Ron Rash’s mojo,” he laughs. And he’s moving out of Henderson County and into Asheville soon — an improvement on the long commute to Cullowhee, though it takes him away from his family land again. At WCU, he’ll teach nonfiction writing to students who, like him, may face similar regional identity crises. Many of them grew up insulated from their ancestors’ toil, though certain of elusive meaning in the lost world of rural, isolated Appalachia.
“I am of the lucky-but-discontented generation,” Jones writes in Bearwallow. “But now, barely an adult, I’m trying to return to a world that barely exists.”
WHO Jeremy Jones reading, book signing and old-time banjo music
WHERE Malaprop’s, malaprops.com
WHEN Thursday, July 17, at 7 p.m. Free.