Southern Gothic

I met a woman at a campground who offered me a place to stay while I hiked a bit of the nearby Appalachian Trail. When I went to visit her, I didn’t find the trail; what I found was a family feud of the Tennessee mountain kind. You know what I am talking about, you’ve seen it in a dozen movies — the backwoods family that hates each other but hates everyone else more. This was the first place I’ve stayed that I wasn’t 100% sure I was going to be able to extricate myself. (Techincally, I was in North Carolina, but the mountain bordered on Tennessee.)

The visit started out fine. Since most of the characters in this southern gothic drama did not live in the woman’s house (she provided a second house for her mean-as-rattlesnake-venom mom, her indolent sister and autistic nephew) the first twenty hours were fine. We had a nice visit in the evening, and the next morning I hiked for an hour on her private trail.

We’d found a stray Irish setter at the grocery store that first evening, and despite her bad back, she spent two hours hunched over a tub cleaning the thing. She woke in considerable pain, took some pain pills, and fell asleep during the day. Her family came up during the day, got all excited and called an ambulance, even though all she needed was to sleep it off. I told them she didn’t want to go to the hospital, and so it was. As soon as she awoke and realized where she was, she left and walked twenty miles back home.

I stayed an extra day because she needed help, but that night, when her mother sent up food for the woman and her father (although the woman supports both her parents, they can’t stand each other, so the father lives with his daughter) she didn’t send any for me. Apparently, I had committed some horrible faux pas by sticking my words in where they didn’t belong.

It doesn’t sound like much in the retelling, but it was unnerving, and a bit uncomfortable, especially when I was increasingly given tasks. I felt bad for the woman — she’d gotten screwed not only by her family but by her attorneys and bankers to the tune of four houses and forty acres (apparently they tried to get all of that extremely valuable mountain property, but she finally managed to stop the land grab before they got the remaining forty acres).

But none of that was my problem, and I couldn’t allow anyone to make it mine.

I left the next day (escaped!) before anyone else was awake. (It was nine o’clock, so my sneaking out was only half the case.)

Still, as chilling as the visit was, I am glad I went. The episode falls under the heading of “experience,” and that is what I got — a glimpse of the painful reality that lies beneath the serene beauty we often accept as truth.


(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)