Paddling the Toe River
Hiking in the Pisgah Forest
“Take me home, country road…”
Crossing the Divide
By Jana Seitz
<The Toe River Valley offers everything I love: mountains to climb, caves to explore, rivers to paddle, and amazing tales to hear.>
During the recent trials of our great nation, I hit the road to think about
it all, driving south through the cradle of the Civil War to the Eastern Continental Divide in North Carolina. The landscape changed with every new state, as did the radio news: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, and finally North Carolina. The first leg through Newark, the week demonstrations were at their height, was a bit nerve-wracking with kids screaming down the interstate in their souped-up mini cars darting in and out of traffic, ready to explode with their rage. But the further I got from the big cities the more relaxed things became.
I’ve since done a little recon on the Continental Divide, as I knew only the one down the backbone of the country in the Rockies. Turns out there are six “continental divides” in the United States, a “divide” being defined as that which separates watersheds. The Eastern Divide (also called the Appalachian Divide) is an invisible line that represents where water on either side of it will flow. It separates the Atlantic Seaboard watershed from the Gulf of Mexico watershed, spanning the country from just south of Lake Ontario through Florida. The Appalachian Mountains and the Piedmont Plateau house its peaks, with Mount Mitchell, N.C., being the highest. All water (snow, rain, lakes, streams, and rivers) on the eastern/southern side of the divide drains to the Atlantic Ocean and that on the western/northern side to the Gulf of Mexico. It all seems a perfect parallel to where we find ourselves today. Water, like beliefs, falls to one side or the other.
I crossed the divide to meet up with two Louisiana girlfriends who left New Orleans when I left Rye, each reaching our destination eleven hours later at a halfway point between North and South. We landed in the middle (something I wish more of us could do these days) where we holed up for a few days and caught up on the news of the world while hiking, paddling, cooking, and drinking.
We also caught the short blooming season of the mountain laurel, an evangelical sermon in a church parking lot (Covid-style), a glimpse of a bear in the woods, and gorgeous sunsets from the screened porch on a mountain top. Childhood friends find a way to weather differences of opinion and politics because they choose to. And because you truly can put yourselves in each other’s shoes and walk around a bit since you have known the lay of their land for years.
My friend’s house is in the Toe River Valley, smack dab in the middle of the Black Mountain Range of the Pisgah National Forest. It’s stunningly beautiful and offers everything I love: mountains to climb, caves to explore, rivers to paddle, and amazing tales to hear. The valley was once a meeting place of warring tribes, the Catawba to the east of the Blue Ridge and the Cherokee to the west. They came to the valley to hunt and fish — and to fight when necessary. It was a neutral territory where men came to settle their differences and to provide for their families, a thing we could certainly use about now.
How the Toe got its name is a classic cautionary tale. “Toe” is derived from Estatoe, the name of a Catawba princess who fell in love with a Cherokee brave, her enemy. They ran away together but were caught on a high bluff overlooking the river where they jumped hand in hand to their deaths. Let’s not do this. We’ve always had our differences as a nation, and we’ve always settled them. We pay a high price when we don’t learn from our history.
Travelling the country while reading its stories gives great insight. The land itself creates and tells the story, the history. Old, abandoned mines riddle the Toe Valley, painting a picture of rich deposits of feldspar and red rum mica. Shuttered grinding plants tell the tale of a bygone industry. Tourism is writing the current chapter of North Carolina, beckoning with misty mountains and tumbling waters. Take a chapter out of this book when you can. What’s the purpose of travel if not to learn?