Sometimes, you just need a change of scenery, the simplest of explanations why we are leaving Maggie Valley and moving to Murrells Inlet.
Some of you, I suspect, perceive that as a drastic change.
After all, our home in Maggie Valley is nestled on the top of a mountain at one of the highest elevations (4772’) on the east coast. And our new home in Murrells Inlet is barely above sea level on the edge of a salt marsh within line of sight of the Atlantic Ocean.
Sure, I could point to the similarities. We can walk from our house in Maggie to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in minutes, but we can walk from the Murrells Inlet house to Huntington Beach State Park in even less time. And one location is whipped by the unpredictable weather of the Appalachian Mountains while the other deals with the ever-changing ocean climate.
But the reality is that I see much more in common between the two locations than those surface issues. And to see things from my perspective you need to first understand a more basic question—where am I from?
For many people, the answer to that question is simple. Some still live in their hometowns. Others have moved from their childhood home but have strong memories of their roots.
In my case, the answer is more complicated. I consider a region as my home, not so much a single town. And the reason for that is my connection to so many towns.
Isn’t the place of my birth my hometown? Technically, maybe, but I only lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, for the first two weeks of my life. Long enough to sing Rocky Top and shout “Go Vols,” but not long enough to build a strong connection.
Or, let’s be honest, to build memories.
The first five years of my life were similar. We moved up and down the I-85 corridor from as far south as Greenville, South Carolina, up to Burlington, North Carolina, before settling into Gastonia, North Carolina, halfway through my kindergarten year.
A slight pause here to drag up a childhood scar. My first kindergarten visited the fire department two weeks after we moved. My second kindergarten toured the fire department before I arrived. In my mind, every other five-year-old on the face of the planet got to turn on the lights and sirens, blow the air horn, and slide down the pole, depriving me and only me of the experience. Things like this stay with you for the rest of your life and are great fodder for an imaginative mind.
We lived in Gastonia until I graduated high school—long enough for me to call it “Gastony” like everyone else—so it is probably as much a hometown as any. But the town today, essentially a suburb of Charlotte, is quite different.
Back then, Gastonia was a bustling textile town with factories scattered everywhere with only the slightest whiff of the demise of manufacturing to come. And across the river, Charlotte was a smallish city planting the seeds of its eventual boom times. So Charlotte exploded in growth while Gastonia and all the southern towns like it saw their manufacturing economy slip overseas.
To further complicate my roots, throughout those years growing up in the “Gas Town,” I spent my summers at my grandfather’s house in Nashville, Tennessee. Today it might seem laughable that living near the intersection of Hillsboro Pike and Old Hickory Boulevard was the country, but we spent our summer days playing in a burbling creek, hanging out in horse barns, and eating fresh vegetables straight out of his garden.
So, did I grow up in Gastonia or Nashville?
And how about the college years? My summers were spent working in Rutherford County, North Carolina—outdoors around the clock as a camp counselor while the school year was in Hickory, North Carolina (a furniture town watching its manufacturing leave just like textiles left Gastonia).
My adult life was no less confusing. Though based in Charlotte most of those years, my work career took me far around the globe. Because of the project nature of work, I have been blessed to work for extended periods of time in great international cities like Hong Kong and Rotterdam, smaller towns like Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, Germersheim, Germany, and Adelaide, Australia, and U.S. cities such as New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Philadelphia.
Maggie Valley came into the picture nearly 20 years ago when we bought a small weekend home and quickly fell into a pattern of spending every weekend in the mountains. Since I spent my weekdays in airplanes and hotels, it didn’t take long for Maggie to become our only home.
About six years ago, I walked out of an airport for the final time and away from a finance career. Instead of the jetsetting life, which is nowhere near as glamorous as it sounds, I settled into my study in Maggie and produced my first novel, The Lottery.
Of all of the towns I have spent days in, the question remains—where am I from?
All those places influenced who I am, but the places where I have lived share a commonality—they are a part of the Southern U.S.
And my years of travels and the project assignments in towns around the world taught me that people, no matter where they are from, have similar interests and desires. Each have differences to celebrate and we Southerners have our own unique ways of embracing our world.
So, if you ask me where I am from, my answer is that I am from the South. And, specifically, from the Carolinas (and Tennessee), the region where I spent my formative years. The mountains. The piedmont. And the coast.
Growing up in the Carolinas, “the beach” meant one place—Myrtle Beach. Sandy beaches. Gentle surf. Ocean breezes. Endless hotels. The Pavilion with its bumper cars, roller coasters, and carousel. Crowded sidewalks along Ocean Boulevard.
As I grew older and less interested in the mobs, my stays moved to the southern part of the Grand Strand. For the last several years, those vacations have been by RV in Huntington Beach State Park, a pristine natural area with an array of wildlife.
While visiting Huntington Beach this past spring, we discovered a nearby house sitting on the edge of the salt marsh, its deck facing the park we love. A short walk / bike ride down the greenway leads into the park. The trail is flat, something my older knees appreciate after years of scrambling over rocks in the mountains.
The picture that accompanies this post is the view of the sunrise this past Sunday morning from the back deck of the house. That view was the final selling point for us.
And so we bought the house.
This summer, we have bounced between mountains and coast, planning renovations on the new house (which needed a good bit of tender loving care as parts of it were in disrepair), watching contractors swarm the project, and preparing the old house for sale. We have made tons of progress, even to the point that this essay itself was written in my new office overlooking the marsh. A heron is perched on a tree branch, eyeing me as I type.
With my focus on the move, I am behind schedule on everything else. Lost and Found will get published, but it has gathered some dust in the last weeks. And, of course, I am not close to reading the number of books I normally accomplish.
Despite the disruptions, we are excited about the change and are getting acclimated. The dogs are enjoying their frequent walks (as are we). I will get back to a full-time writing schedule over the next few weeks.
The remaining obvious question—will future books continue to be set in the mountains? Hopefully, my answer to where am I from can help paint that picture. Lost and Found is set in the heart of the mountains, starting with a snowy scene in the infamous Pigeon River Gorge and along Interstate 40 at the Tennessee / North Carolina state line.
I want to revisit the serial novel Pestilence, posted online some time ago. As those few faithful who were reading my work back then will remember, the story is set in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Other stories venture out of the mountains, but never far. One such tale involves a journey from the mountains to the coast, a story I can flush out even more now with my own travel.
My earliest non-published novel written over three decades ago, not counting the horrible ones that will never see the light of day, focuses on a boy who can just see the gleaming skyscrapers of Charlotte from his small industrial town. That setting might sound familiar to anyone who grew up in the mill towns surrounding the banking center.
Regardless of the exact setting, they all have something in common. They are about the people from the towns and city where I am from. The places I know.
I hope you will visit those places with me.
Happy Reading from Murrells Inlet, South Carolina.