A Place to Root
For Oxford American magazine
In East Tennessee, just south of the Kentucky border, Clear Fork Creek carves out a little valley from the Cumberland Plateau. There’s a road through the valley, tracing the creek, and folks live along it, clustered into unincorporated communities. Thickly forested mountains rise up quick and steep on either side, and cut out of those mountains is hollow after hollow, and more folks live back up in them, where time and light are funny.
A woman named Carol Judy keeps an isolated home in Tussy Cut hollow and spends her days in the surrounding woods. I met Carol in Knoxville, sixty miles to the south, at a Saturday crafts market in my neighborhood last summer. She had brought sassafras tea to share with anyone who cared for some. I did, because I had never tried sassafras tea and had recently heard my grandmother reminisce about how her mother would dig up the roots and brew tea from them. The cup Carol gave me was how I imagined it would be: simple, but rich, and sweet with the taste of earth. She watched me as I sipped. “You like it?” she asked, eyebrows raised, smiling. I nodded warmly. She had dug the roots herself, she said. Carol reminded me of a hobbit, with a round nose and face and big alert eyes. She had a vitality and sense of good humor about her that made me curious. She told me where she lived and invited me to visit sometime.
In the spring, I looked her up and she said to come when the days got long and things turned green. So in the warm and swelling early days of June, I drove north into the mountains to see her.