As I drove south from my hometown of Whipple, Ohio to the far western reaches of North Carolina, I noticed a lot of changes. The Appalachian foothills I grew up in gradually turned to veritable mountains. I began seeing chains like Piggly Wiggly and Bojangles, and the number of churches per mile skyrocketed. The ghostly figures of trees and telephone poles smothered by kudzu lined the roadside. For the first time in my life, I was really going to plant myself in the south.
Though I’ve traveled quite a bit in the US, southern Appalachia was one region I hadn’t yet explored. When I got my placement in Cherokee County, the westernmost county in North Carolina, it was hard to know what to expect or envision. I knew there would be mountains, and that the people I’d spoken to on the phone had real southern accents, but beyond that, I was pretty lost.
When I rolled into the small town of Andrews at 7 pm after an eight-hour drive, I was pleasantly surprised. A narrow, winding river gorge covered with kudzu spat me out into a wide, flat valley surrounded by mountains, but with enough sky to keep my midwestern heart happy. The apartment I’d found to live in wouldn’t be ready for a couple of weeks, so I was welcomed into the home of an English teacher at Andrews High School (one of two schools I’m serving this year). The southern hospitality was real—we sat on her porch and watched the sun set over the mountains behind a cow pasture, and I felt right at home.
The first days at school were not as overwhelming as I’d thought, even with all of the COVID changes. I took tours of both Hiwassee Dam and Andrews, and settled into my offices. People learned my name right off the bat, and now greet me like an old friend. I even got to visit senior homerooms to introduce myself, which prompted several students to email me requesting meetings. I have been so impressed by their determination and clear goals in the face of so much uncertainty, and am really excited to work with them this year to ensure that their efforts pay off.
As for my unofficial NC orientation, I have been taking advantage of weekends to go exploring and get my bearings. I admired giant old-growth tulip-poplars in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, and went for a dip in the Chatuge Dam reservoir. The other AppCAC advisers—all of them North Carolina natives or transplants—have been very quick to help me orient, especially when it comes to food. I have a “must-try” list about a mile long, have already tasted and enjoyed my first Cheerwine, and am eagerly awaiting my first Cookout experience.
After growing up in my own insular rural community, I was very worried I’d feel like an outsider struggling to break in, but that hasn’t been the case at all—it’s actually been fairly easy. I believe months of pandemic-induced isolation and communication exclusively through the internet (where everyone keeps their opinions out front) had severely reduced my faith in humanity. But after such a warm welcome and smooth transition to Cherokee County and North Carolina, that faith is starting to re-sprout. In the words of Luke Bryan… “Most people are good.”
*Written by Adviser Phoebe Thompson