Mountains are the world’s best hiding places. They can shield you from what’s immediate and threatening and place you closest to what’s most important in a single breath. This, I am certain, was God’s intention; to move or alter one should be a sacrilege. The communities and cultures that emerge at the end of the roads that navigate the folds and ridgelines, and cross the creeks that animate them, are, by design, strongholds for old-world values and charm. Thus my soul is pulled down secondary roads that lead up and away.
For a few hundred miles, as they dive into the southwest corner of Virginia, the Appalachian Mountains find their legs. The highlands to the west begin to expand from the narrow crest that mounts in the central part of the state, and continue to do so as they roll into western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee—the Great Smokey Mountains. Mountain spines and fertile valleys take turns striping the land to the east, giving rise to a number of small mountain towns that once dotted a railroad that wandered the valleys and hollows.
Taylor’s Valley is one such town. Nestled in the palm of the southwest Virginia highlands, the village is as far removed as you can get in just a 15-minute drive from Damascus—affectionately dubbed “Trail Town USA.” Fork Mountain, which separates the two populations geographically, pushes the traveler south into Tennessee along a mountain highway before a ramshackle, faded, wooden sign directs him northward along a pot-holed road back into the state from whence he came.
Visitors—hikers—en route from Springer Mountain, Katahdin-bound on the Appalachian Trail, pass through shortly after making their collective favorite stop in Damascus. Perhaps Virginia’s most popular bike trail, the Virginia Creeper Trail, drives dozens of bikers through town daily. A single-lane bridge spanning Whitetop Laurel Creek—arguably one of the highest quality wild trout streams in the Southeast—is the town’s welcome mat.
Gardens are plentiful; gas stations, nonexistent. Churches outnumber restaurants, which are few; and on a pleasant fall morning it would not be a surprise to find the majority of residences vacated for the comfort of nature. The Game Department’s regular stocking of the creek throughout fall and spring makes the retired man sporting hip-waders, creel, and limber spinning rod a common character—canine companions are optional, but largely endorsed.
It’s a homey place. That’s the impression I got when I opened my car door in a small gravel shoulder by the creek to find my very own dog waiting for me, like a housewarming present for my sojourn. Perky ears and friendly eyes stared me down, a wet nose implored my hands for attention, as I shouldered waders and strung my fly rod, intent on sampling some of the Valley’s aquatic villagers, but not without satisfying its four-legged one.
Golden leaves barreled down the creek pecking at my fly line, catching my fly on occasion. Patience and persistence payed off, though, in the form of four chunky brown trout, flamboyantly adorned with spawning garb.
I released the last fish and looked up to notice an elderly man fishing a good way above me. I stepped out of the river to explore upstream and give the man some space to enjoy the morning, but happened upon him leaning by his aged red pickup, retired from fishing.
“Seems every time I looked you were doubled up with one of them!” he exclaimed.
“The jury’s still out on the luck part of it,” I returned politely.
“Any browns,” he inquired?
“All browns,” I replied,
“Huh,” he returned, hoisting a stringer of four rainbow trout. “They looked pretty good sized. Last year the state did a questionnaire asking people if they’d have lots of small and average fish or fewer bigger fish, and I think they settled on bigger. Works out good for me. I come down here when I can, but I don’t fish any of those other creeks. This one is the prettiest.”
“There’s something to be said for that,” I said. “They say ‘trout don’t live in ugly places.’ Those are some nice fish.”
“Tell me, are you a Christian?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“I thought I could tell it on your person,” he replied, smiling. “Most folks here are. Some of ‘em opened up their home as a café for the bikers. Their chocolate cake won some award in one of them southern magazines.”
Talk of family and fishing petered out after a snack and a wave. I moved upstream to explore, caught a dozen more trout, exchanged waves with the bikers and hikers, and thought a familiar thought: These hills are home. And everything in them.