Ten years ago this month, I went to the mountains of western North Carolina to report for CNN.com on the search for suspected bomber Eric Rudolph. After two and a half years futile years in the gloomy Nantahala National Forest, the mammoth federal task force had dwindled to a few FBI agents in a small office in a national guard armory.
While the Rudolph story was interesting— the search ended a few months later, and Rudolph wasn’t caught for another two and a half years — it was the town of Andrews that captured my imagination.
Andrews was a struggling community of 700 families with a median income of about $20,000 a year. Half the storefronts were empty, and only a handful of businesses employed more than two or three people. There was competition 10 miles down the four-lane in Murphy, the bustling county seat, where a new Walmart had just opened, and you couldn’t help but think that Andrews was on life-support.
And yet there was something about the place that struck a chord in my heart. The town is tucked into a valley framed by massive, tree-covered ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains that humble human pretensions with their steadfast strength. The rolling farmland is picturesque and so peaceful that late one afternoon I parked next to a pasture and sat in stillness so immense I swear I could feel the earth breathe.
One evening after dinner I drove slowly past a skinny, bearded man peddling a bike lazily down a side street while cradling a baby in his left arm.
“He’s asleep,” I said.
He grinned, a gap showing where his front teeth should be, and said, “Works ever’ time.”
There was a coffee shop in the hotel where I stayed, and a handful of locals gathered there every morning for coffee and conversation. They invited me to join them, and I discovered that they were proud of their town and resentful that the international media had portrayed them as toothless rubes with tobacco juice on their chins.
One of the mainstays of the group was Scott Freel, a lanky, laconic redhead with a goatee whose hobby was riding and training cutting horses. Freel ran the biggest business in town, a builders’ supply store, and was a member of the town’s “first family.”
A sign on a bridge west of town read, “Margaret Freel Bridge.” The Margaret in this case was Freel’s mother, but he was also married to a woman named Margaret. The latter was from Alabama, and their family room was festooned with Crimson Tide memorabilia.
‘Everyone knows your business’
Freel and I were sitting in his office one afternoon discussing small town life, and he admitted it was a mixed blessing.
“The thing about a town like this,” he said in a long, slow drawl, “is that everyone here knows your business, or thinks they do. But if you have a problem, you wouldn’t believe how many friends you’ve got.”
That conversation came to mind this morning when I got an email from my friend Barbara. Barbara was responding to an email I forwarded to those who are praying for my daughter, Kiersten. Kiersten had cancer surgery recently and must undergo chemotherapy. She had commented in the email I had forwarded about the prospect of losing her hair and having to find a wig.
Barbara wrote to say that Raquel Welch has a nice line of wigs, and that occasionally she wears one herself.
Human Nature Finds a Way
A few hours later, my friend Fran, who recently had a double mastectomy herself, emailed that her plastic surgeon recommends the herb arnica montana for swelling.
These are the kind of things one woman would tell another if they ran into each other at the post office in Andrews, because people in Andrews always have time to stop and visit. But Barbara and Fran live in suburban Atlanta, Kiersten lives in suburban Boston, and in the city we’re all too busy to stop and visit.
Through the internet, however, we have created a network of people who pray for Kiersten and send her suggestions. That network stretches from Massachusetts to California, and from Michigan to Georgia.
It’s not the same as Andrews, of course, where the way of life — at least to an outsider — has a simplicity and continuity that city life cannot duplicate. But no matter where we are and no matter how difficult the circumstances, human nature prevails and people find a way to help people.