I pronounce it apple-at-chin. Most folks in the north, and the west, really everyone except the locals, pronounce it appal-eh-shin. But to a child of the trail, mountains, and culture, apple-at-chin resides in the heart.
It’s a mysterious place littered with deciduous and evergreen trees, exposed rock formations, rivers, secret creeks and waterfalls, tobacco fields, cow pastures, hollers, shannies, suburbs, and an occasional mansion.
The Appalachian Mountains are a pair of your dad’s worn out jeans from the 70s. They lack the starch crispness of the Rockies; instead they are faded, worn, and soft for the most part. They’ve been lived in, carved out by a tough group of folksy people who still moonshine, wash clothes in barrels, use the word pawpaw, play dulcimers, and mine coal.
The Blue Ridge, nestled in the southern Appalachia, has more newts and salamanders than anywhere in the world. A forester said this was due to the ice age stopping just north of the region, pushing the amphibians to creek valleys and hollows, never creeping south far enough to kill them off. Salamanders you’ll see. Newts are a different story; you have to keep a keen eye and know which rocks to turn over in creek beds to find them.
Those are my favorite, the newts, their sleek, mucoused skin, slender, fragile bodies, quick movements. They live in Purgatory Creek. When Styles Falls is low I hike along the creek and up boulders under the waterfall mist to dig in the sand. I once found about 20 there, with the help of 12 elementary kids, wide-eyed laughing summer campers.
The Wildflour, a small restaurant along Route 11, displays Michael Harrington’s black and white collection of photographs of “Appalachian Folk.” They are a gray-scaled glimpse into life here, including personalities such as Homer Davenport who crushes up wild onions and applies them to the snakebite to "draw out the poison,” and Julia Anders who catches fish for her cat seven days a week from a nearby bluegill pond. Their faces are old, weathered, and leathery, each wrinkle and glare of their eye drawing you into stories of wood-burning cook stoves, barefoot summers, and dairy farming.
Harrington resides near Marion, about a 45-minute drive from Damascus “Trail Town USA,” where thru-hikers can stroll along the Appalachian Trail (aka the main sidewalk through town). Damascus is also home to “Trail Days,” the AT festival held the first weekend after Mother’s Day where backpackers can talk to gear reps, listen to music, and swap stories of “trail magic” before they continue North and develop the “Virginia Blues.” Thru-hikers are in Virginia more miles than any other state from Maine to Georgia along the trail, 549.9 of 2,174.9 miles.
These mountains are some of the oldest in the world, and in their southern regions we do things a little differently. Crawl-dads roam, Ale 8 soda boasts a caffeine content equivalent to 8 cups of coffee, bull frogs’
cow-like croaks trick children into thinking the dairy is 3 miles closer than it really is, spring peepers come out around March, a mountaineer is always free; but if you’re going to come around here, I suggest pronouncing it apple-at-chin, you’ll make friends a lot faster.