National Geographic : 1958 Jun
all them y'ars of grape and brier twining 'em. I reared sons and they pitched in. Hit took my working lifetime and some of theirs." I had passed and greeted his sons' fam ilies on my climb to the cabin. One small, weathered gray house, I noticed, stood shut tered within a fenced enclosure. A bearing apple tree, a clipped lawn, and neat rows of flowers and vegetables spelled living; yet the house was closed and silent. I asked Bill Blevins about that. "I moved up here after my wife died," he said. "I keep the old place as hit was when she were living. Hit stood, that cabin, for a hun dred y'ars on Billy Gibbs's land over the hog back. Under that sheathing is the old Gibbs cabin, poplar logs two and a half foot wide. Hit were wastin' empty, and I asked Billy Gibbs to price hit. 'Eighteen dollars,' he said. 'Billy,' I said, 'you've made yourself a bar gain.' But I had. We toted hit over the hog back log by log, set 'em up and sheathed 'em, and hit'll stand come another hundred y'ars." A Mountain Man Wins a Livelihood A patch of fields and woods seems an un likely source of hard cash in trade with the outside world. Yet Bill Blevins has sold wild ginger root to eastern herb companies and ginseng root for export to China; also the pelts of bear, deer, squirrel, skunk; rock for school buildings; the perennial staple, tobacco; and the work of his hands in building chimneys and in carpentering. Skilled hands and sharp eyes are the tools of survival in the mountains. But the econ omy of the Blue Ridge is based most solidly on the land and its minerals. Phil Ray, descendant of 18th-century Tommy Ray who first settled in the region, told me how his grandfather found one of the richest mica deposits in North Carolina. "Grandpa came across Indian stone tools under the roots of a big storm-felled pine. That meant mica. There are a lot of old diggings and spoil heaps in the mountains. Trees grow on them that were saplings when the first white people came. Grandpa's In dians could only scratch the surface with their tomahawks, but they kindly pointed out to him a vein which still yields mica more than 200 feet down." Scientists of Grandpa Ray's time linked the Blue Ridge diggings with mica ornaments buried in the graves of Mississippi mound builders. The shining sheets of mica-ruby, rum, green, or olive, splitting miraculously to the gossamer thinness of a bee's wing 858 Halfway up the stiff climb we paused were held so sacred that Indians traveled hun dreds of wilderness miles to dig them. My boys and I followed their trail up to the Ray mines on Bowlens Pyramid, not as mica miners but as amateur jewel hunters. Halfway up the stiff climb we paused to drink from the Widow Banks's spring and to pass "Howdy" with her. "Why," asked one of the boys, "do people live so high up?" A good question to consider while straining up a rocky trail to a cabin on a mountain side, occupied by a lady past her climbing years. I have asked it myself and received several answers. The quiet. The being out of sight of another's chimney smoke. The air. The clear water. The mountains to look at.