Yesterday’s heavy rain has moved on and this morning cold air has taken its place. The rolling green hills of Ohio reach out to the tree line and the tallest of those trees scrape the cloud bottoms. Heavy grey clouds, laden with the last few drops of summer, racing to the northwest. In the east there’s a warm glow, enough light to see Otis bolting across the rain slick earth.
Behind the glass door, her aunt’s TV blares the latest news on a missing woman before glorifying another bumbling, incompetent President. Our journey home is almost complete, and I’ve never been more homesick. I want to feel that first rush of Autumn’s air on my own property, drink my friend’s roasted coffee from my own mug, contemplate my relationship with God, and listen to the leaves of my own trees as they give way to that first chill.
I was born in New Orleans, one of our country’s great cities. It sits in a deepening crescent of the Mississippi River, and its heat, humidity and flowing water have created a culture of food, music and art that’s attracted visitors from across the earth. It’s a city whose natives are fiercely proud and they’ll argue about everything that’s important to me: regional cuisine, the natural world, great music, and essential writers. And somehow, I’m not at home in New Orleans. My 26 years in south Louisiana didn’t give me the roots that my friends have, and my visits have always felt like that, a visit. Not to my home, but to the place I grew up.
A week ago, in northwest Alabama, we crossed into the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains, the mountain range that spans the Southeast. From the Talladega forest to the Shenandoah range, this is the land that has fed my roots. This is the land where I really learned to cook, to think, to understand. I’ve climbed to the top of its mountains, I’ve swam in its rivers and lakes, slept under its stars. This is where I’ve left blood and bone as a competitive cyclist. This is the land of Chanterelle and Oyster mushrooms, of Rainbow trout and salt-cured ham, of corn grits and paw paws, black walnuts and peaches. The rivers of Appalachia have nurtured the Cherokee, bolstered its fields, encouraged its explorers, and softened its rocks. The waters of the Chattooga, Keowee, and Middle Saluda sparkle as they rush over ancient granite, limestone, and shale and the sound of that rushing water is the sound of my home. This is the place where I’ve sought out excellence, in my cooking and in my writing. This is the land that’s given me my scars, my sorrows, my aches and pains, my triumphs and joys.
I feel the tug of my home in the tannic bite of wild persimmons, the brightly colored cyclists and our muscular thighs, the pungent aroma of simmering collard greens, and the weight of the forest’s air. I long to see the sunrise over my pasture, pull potatoes from my garden, simmer a pot of stone ground grits, sip bourbon with my neighbor, chop hickory with my axe, and scrape the dirt of my home from my boots. Greenville isn’t perfect, and it certainly isn’t New Orleans. It is the place where my roots run deepest, where my memories, and my future belong.