Over the years my storytelling adventures have taken me in and around, over and beyond places I would never have traveled. One of my best stories comes from the Appalachian Mountains, Beech Mountain to be exact. I would like to share that one with you today.
The opportunity came my way to spend the day in the mountains with Ray and Rosa Hicks, years ago, after I received my first Lilly Teacher Creativity Grant. I was new to this field, and I did not immediately know who they were or the profound impact this day would have on the rest of my life.
It was April and I took my family with me. We stayed overnight by the Daniel Boone State Park so the boys could wander around hiking and running before the eventful day. On the morning of the visit we packed our lunches and made our way deep into the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. At times the road was just big enough for one vehicle and we were hoping that would be ours. There were places the road was washed out and we could barely make the turn.
I had prepared the boys for the day, telling them about Ray and Rosa. Ray was a mountain storyteller who preferred folks come to the mountains to visit him. He did not drive, or even own a car. They lived off the land with neither running water nor electricity. My boys could relate to that as we were living off the land as well!
Ray was one of the last living Appalachian storytellers with a thick brogue. I told the boys they could run and play, but needed to spend time listening to these tales.
We finally arrived at the rustic cabin on Beech Mountain. Ray, tall and gaunt, was sitting outside in his rocking chair in the morning sun. He was rolling cigarettes and wearing overalls. We parked the old van and walked up, introducing ourselves. His wife, Rosa, came out to meet us. She was petite, with her long black hair pinned up on top of her head. They showed us around their homestead, complete with a pot belly stove in the front room, which was their bedroom as well. The small kitchen was furnished with a wood cook stove. The shelves were full of canned goods all put up by Rosa. We toured her lovely garden, blooming with spring flowers and the beginnings of spinach and lettuce.
On this April day the apple trees around the cabin were in full bloom. We spread an old quilt out in front of the cabin and the day began. Story after story, we were entertained by Ray’s tales. As he told stories the wind blew the apple blossoms around and scattered them on the quilt and our shoulders. At the end of each tale Ray would laugh and laugh and then go on to another story!
As the day continued, the boys helped gather wood, washed up in the stream where the pipe of water brought a continuous flow into a large hollowed out tree, and chased butterflies through the orchard.
Ray’s cousin, Stanley, lived nearby so we took a quick excursion down the mountain where I purchased one of his hand-crafted dulcimers. Stanley is featured in the Fox Fire books. By day’s end it was time to leave. The sun was setting in the mountains as we waved farewell to Ray and Rosa. We carried home a jar of Rosa’s jam, and Ray’s stories to last a lifetime.
Throughout the years I have spent time with Ray and Rosa at storytelling festivals. Someone would always drive up to the mountains to pick them up and carry them down. Once, Ray was flown to Washington D.C. to do a recording of his stories at the Smithsonian. Usually though, the Smithsonian went to Ray! He earned one dollar at his first storytelling gig, but money didn’t matter to him.
During the years Ray told stories, Rosa was outside the tent selling jams and potholders.
Ray Hicks died in 2003. Ray and his voice was not just a great loss to his family, but also to the storytelling community in which we all belong.
This week Rosa died at age 83.
Everyone who was able to attend the funeral was asked to bring stories, food to share for the potluck and instruments for music.
They are buried side by side on Beech Mountain.
Farewell my friends.