John From Haywood County

About an hour’s drive from Asheville, NC, on the Tennessee border is a bald mountain known as Max Patch. Situated along the Appalachian Trail, it is reputed to have exquisite vistas and cool trails (here “cool” also refers to the temperatures). I say “reputed” because, despite my best intentions, I have yet to experience this hiking Mecca.

It’s not that I didn’t try. One morning while in Asheville not too long ago Mrs. Lewis and I set out for Max Patch, to experience its beauty and learn some new trails. What we learned instead was something much more valuable. Here’s the abridged version.

We left the highway as the GPS instructed and got onto a beautiful country road, the kind John Denver once mused about. The pavement soon became gravel – no worries, the GPS seemed to anticipate that. Soon after, we were informed we’d be turning left in 750 feet, and sure enough, as we approached, a “road” appeared on the left. Now to this point, I had no reason to distrust Google Maps. Everything seemed perfectly on schedule, and she (the Google Maps lady) had heretofore never disappointed me.

I made the left and within moments began to suspect we were in serious trouble. My white rented Toyota Corolla (the name of the rental car company has been withheld to protect my credit rating) was quickly no match for the narrow muddy rutted road that had become our new home. A few more feet and I began looking for a place to turn around, but before I knew what was happening, I found myself staring directly at a steel gate blocking any further progress, a steel gate, by the way, with the largest padlock this city slicker has ever seen.

What happened next still haunts me. Lacking confidence in both the ability of my car to gain sufficient traction (it had poured the night before so the road was submerged) and my own ability to back all the way out, I decided to execute what might be called a three (hundred?) point turn. (Though parallel parking has never been my thing, I was always quite good at the 3-point turn, so even if it was going to take me more tries than three, I figured I’d be okay … eventually.)

Readers, especially those who know me, which is to say everyone who reads this blog, will not be surprised that it was only a matter of minutes before I was now perfectly horizontal across the narrow muddy rutted road, unable to go forward (owing to a large tree followed by a sheer cliff) or backward (thanks to a muddy, slippery mountain side). Truly I had met both my rock and my hard place at the selfsame moment on the selfsame North Carolina back road.

As you might imagine, all was calm between Mrs. Lewis and me. We embraced with the cool headedness that often accompanies moments of crises. “Oh well,” I said cheerily, “perhaps we’ll see Max Patch another time.” No name calling, no accusations, no “woulda shoulda coulda’s.” Peace and tranquility abode. Okay, maybe my memory is a bit faulty on this one.

Anyway, it became clear that we had no choice but to hike out, re-trekking on foot the narrow muddy rutted road, back to the gravel, in hopes of finding a bar – not the libation kind, though that might have been welcome – but the cell phone kind, because at that point not only were we stranded we had no way to share the happy news. Can you hear me now?

As we returned to the comforting crunch of gravel we noted, as if in a horror film, a hand lettered wooden sign, nailed to a tree with the words “Max Patch” in faded white paint, pointing in a slightly different direction than we had just come from. Sometimes things are best left unsaid.

We walked on that car-less gravel road for God knows how long, until finally, I thought I heard the sound of something other than mosquitoes buzzing. Recalling the lessons I learned years ago from Tonto, I fell prostrate, placed my ear to the stones only to jump up in just enough time to avoid being hit by an approaching car. Mustering my mountain suave, I hailed the driver, a young woman with two kids in her superannuated Nissan on their way, you guessed it, to Max Patch, and asked if she happened to have a working cell phone. “Not out here,” she noted bemusedly. I explained our situation, fully expecting her to shrug her tattoo covered shoulders when she proffered what would be the first of several surprises that day.

“I’m a first responder for Haywood County,” she said, checking to make sure that (except for my pride) we were uninjured. And though her walkie-talkie also had no reception, she offered, even on her day off, to turn around and drive (what turned out to be miles) back to the local fire department, where she assured me “one of our guys” would come back with an emergency vehicle that would be able to tow our now plunged Toyota out of its muddied morass.

Mustering the only dignity I had left, I offered to pay this nice lady for her troubles. She pshawed and told me “this is what I do.” During the 30 minutes (that felt like days) when I was certain she’d never come back, I got to thinking. All the cash in my cargo shorts, to say nothing of the impressive collection of credit cards in my backpack, and the fully charged battery in my latest-edition iPhone meant nothing. Equally as useless at that moment were my doctorate, my Zegna suits, and my impressive list of publications. We were stranded and I was just beginning to learn a lesson about humility and rethinking my own assumptions.

When “nice lady” returned (I’m embarrassed to say I never got her name) she was followed, as promised, by John in his big red truck. In addition to being a volunteer firefighter in Haywood County, John also saves lives and property all over the world as a US Forest Service firefighter, battling those huge wildfires we hear about on the news. Turns out, John was a hero to others long before he touched my life.

During the next several hours John: (i) drove us back out to the site of that narrow muddy rutted road, only to determine his big red truck was much too large for the task at hand, (ii) returned us to his fire department, where he swapped the county’s emergency vehicle for his personal pickup truck, and (iii) then made yet another trip, this time all the way to the scene of our abandoned vehicle. At one point, during our odyssey, I gathered from an overheard radio transmission that John had other commitments that day, which, without thinking twice, he simply put on hold to help out his pitiful charges.

Though our conversations were economical, to say the least, I did learn a bit about his life, his arrested alcoholism (he was now 24 and had given up drinking three years earlier), his girl friend, his distrust of GPS’s, the gun culture he treasured, and quite a bit more. In case you were wondering, throughout it all I chose not to reciprocate by discussing my life, my religious worldview, or my latest areas of academic research.

As we approached the vehicle, John, in what seemed like one fluid motion, put his truck in park and dove headfirst into the mud to affix the chains underneath our formerly white Toyota. I will spare you the harrowing details that followed, but spinning wheels, intense G-force, burning rubber and repeated heart palpitations don’t begin to describe it all. John’s impressive array of ingenuity, tenacity, and sheer determination ultimately straightened the car, with nary a scratch to any bumper or axle. Because I was still too wimpy and more than a bit shell-shocked to try to back out myself, John improvised a one-man Pas de deux in which he backed up his truck, then my car, then his truck, then my car, and so on, until he found a place to turn us both around.

It was clear to me that this man, whom I never would have met given the normal trajectories of our lives, had rescued us from what could have been a disaster. As our time together was coming to an end, it seemed that the only thing I could do to express my appreciation was to pay him for the unprecedented amount of time he spent with us. While I don’t know anything about his financial situation I can only imagine that some additional dollars might have been helpful. Yet, just as with “nice lady,” he emphatically refused to accept any pecuniary gesture of our gratitude. This time, however, we weren’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer.

I insisted; he refused. Then Mrs. Lewis implored, and he refused again. We appealed to his sense of chivalry and begged him to use the money to take his girlfriend to dinner(s). Again he declined. Finally, I suggested that if he didn’t want to take the money for himself, he could contribute it to charity. A smile illumined his otherwise stoic visage. “I’ll give it to the fire department!” he proclaimed. At long last an agreement had been reached, and in that instance the eternally grateful Lewises of Chicago and Asheville became the largest single donors to the Haywood County, NC Fire Department, an enduring source of pride for both of us.

So what does all this mean? Among the lessons I learned that day these five seem the most poignant.

First, when it comes to GPS’s, Ronald Reagan was right, trust but verify.

Second, while money might buy you access in the big city, it “dudn’t do squat” in the backwoods. The same might be said about an academic pedigree.

Third, the best time to back up is the first moment the thought occurs to you (at least insofar as narrow muddy rutted roads are concerned).

Fourth, we’ve got to get over ourselves. Tons of ink have already been spilled about how “silo-ed” and balkanized we are as a nation. I’m not sure this rant has anything more to contribute. But what I learned from “nice lady” and John from Haywood County that day is that there are really good, kind, generous people in this country, including those I might too quickly be inclined to stereotype. Rural people aren’t stupid and they’re not necessarily hostile to city folks either.

I’m pretty sure the two people we met on our trip to Max Patch weren’t credentialed or cosmopolitan by many people’s standards, including, to be truthful, my own. They probably don’t drink fine single malt, and I would guess that we like different movies, music and television shows. I didn’t ask, but I don’t think there were a lot of political progressives in the surrounding woods. And while these are normally pretty important metrics for me, that day I learned that they don’t tell the whole story by any means.  

I’ve always known I live comfortably ensconced in a bubble, and my trip to Max Patch was hardly the beginning of my move to the other side. But what that adventure did teach me is that people who live in other bubbles often treasure the same things I do – generosity, kindness, helpfulness, and a sense of responsibility to their fellow human beings. They also know that there are things more important in life than money.

I don’t mean to overstate the issue or to sound too preachy. I’m still pretty sure that if John and I sat down to discuss gun control, immigration, or the environment, there’d be plenty to disagree about. But I hope the next time I conflate a twang with low intellect or rush to dismiss a resident of rural America as a mindless, heartless redneck that the images of “nice lady” and John from Haywood County jump into my head and make me think again.

Fifth, if you’re going to take a rental car down a narrow muddy rutted road the day after a storm, it shouldn’t be white.

Hal Lewis

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