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Carolina Calling: When a Southern state finally feels like home

The question came to me during a spring sunset in the Blue Ridge Mountains, pink and purple clouds painted across the sky, a campfire flickering before me. The beauty slowed my breath, and I wondered: How exactly did I get here? 

It was my last night at a writing retreat an hour north of Asheville, N.C., where I spent a week working on a novel in a cabin with floor to ceiling windows, handmade furniture, and no cell service. 

When one of the hosts showed up with marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate bars, Josh, a poet, yelped. “Oh my god I haven’t had a s’more in forever.”

Josh lived in New York City, where I’d once lived, and he was about to move away, which I’d done fifteen years earlier. Most people move to Manhattan to chase a dream, but I left for mine, a graduate degree in creative writing from the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was excited and scared—I’d lived most of my life in Washington D.C. and New York City and had very little experience with non-urban life. Although the Midwest winters were harsh, I came to love living in a laidback college town with plenty of culture and a lot less of the hassle, expense, and pretension I’d tired of. 

Eventually I left Iowa City for Chicago, which I left for Chapel Hill, arriving in July heat and humidity. The song that summer was “Wagon Wheel,” Darius Rucker’s version. As my spouse and I explored our new habitat, we heard it everywhere—on Franklin Street pouring out of passing cars, in restaurants as we delighted in hush puppies, and at the bar where everyone stopped their conversations to roar in unison I’m hoping for Raleigh I can see my baby tonight.

We drove east to the ocean, where I stood at the edge of the land, mesmerized by the liminal space between earth and water. The surf roared louder than my thoughts, the waves a wordless baptism. During the day, the sun stunned me into stillness and rest. At night, stars filled the vast, dark sky, demure and powerful.

We went west and climbed mountains, their sturdy presence grounding me even as ascending sped up my heart. At summits I sipped crisp air and gaped at the rolling horizon, feeling simultaneously small and unmistakably connected to the unfathomable universe.

After Josh and I wiped sticky strands of marshmallow from our chins, a guy picked up a guitar and started singing a song I knew by heart but hadn’t heard in years: Headin’ down south to the land of the pines, I’m thumbin’ my way into North Caroline.

Wagon Wheel—which is about a hitchhiker trying to get from New England to his lover in Raleigh—has its own wandering history. The lyrics were written by Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show in the 1990s, based on a line recorded by Bob Dylan in the 70s. However, Dylan credited the phrase rock me mama to Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, who recorded a song with that title in 1944, but Crudup said that it came from Bill Broonzy, who recorded it in 1928. It took nearly a hundred years to make the song we belted that night, our audience a chain of mountains formed hundreds of millions of years ago.

When I arrived in North Carolina, I didn’t think, oh yeah, this is it, this is the place I want to live forever. I assumed I’d stay until the universe pushed me in a new direction. But that night, as the last few wisps of lavender light dissolved into dark blue and another chorus rose – rock me mama like the wind and the rain, rock me mama like a southbound train – I realized that North Carolina was my home.

I cried quietly as the song wound down and this revelation sank in. I thought about the decade I’d lived in North Carolina. The strong, solid mountains had brought me quiet clarity and inspiration, the ocean reckless joy, and the still and soothing woods close to home were my sanctuary, the pines swaying in the wind like old friends waving hello. 

The next morning I drove back to Chapel Hill, to my life. To peaceful porches and calming trails. To the birds in the trees and the deer on the lawn. To the buzzy campus and quiet bookstores that ignite me, the coffee shops where I think and write. To all the friends who’d once been strangers, the people who loved me, brought me joy, and shouldered me through hard times, who during the pandemic roasted marshmallows at my backyard fire pit, while the roots I hadn’t known I’d planted sunk deeper into the steady earth. 

Cover photo: Photo courtesy of Wildacres Retreat

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