I know you’ve been waiting for the rest of the story. I had to wait until I really felt like I knew how to tell it, to explain the enormity of it.
Our house is for sale. The clothing line will be closed at the end of the month and Brett* is walking away from his business in CA. We are selling almost everything we own except for sentimental family items.
And at the beginning of the summer we will be moving from the California desert (with population 600,000+)…..2,159 miles to Bryson City, North Carolina (population 1,500)….to live at a small, country inn.
It’s a story that starts 35 years ago, when my grandfather first visited the Hemlock. As a family, we visited the Hemlock in 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1983. We stopped going after my grandmother died, but I always thought about it. Our stays at the Hemlock were the only vacations I really remembered as a young child. We’d gone to Disneyworld, the beach….all the usual stops….but none of those created the vivid memories like the Hemlock did.
Fast forward 30 years, to last summer. Boo and I were flying back to the east coast to visit my family in Charlotte, North Carolina. I really wanted to do something different with her and the first thought that came to my mind was the Hemlock, only I didn’t know if it was still there.
I looked up the Inn and was surprised to learn, not only was it still there, it was still owned by the same family. I made reservations for Boo and I….my mom, sister and my brother’s family too.
In July, driving up the long winding driveway to the Inn I didn’t know what to expect, and it was like I was driving into my past. I had so many images in my head, but childhood memories can sometimes be like little warped vignettes. As we pulled into the gravel parking space, right up front, it felt like I was coming home to a place that had been secretly pulling at me for years.
I felt a shift in me at the Hemlock last summer. I asked (jokingly at the time) if Mort would rent me a cottage for a few months the following summer so that I could finish up a book I’ve been working on. On the plane ride back to the desert I pulled out a book that turned out to be the last book my dad was reading before he died (another long story). As Boo slept next to me, I wrote in my journal:
Journal 8/21/13 – I’m dreading going back to the desert. My heart was left somewhere between the Hemlock Inn, Linville and Charlotte. But what would we do? Where would Sienna go to school? Where would we live? God, please give me some answers. Help me see the direction you want me to go.
It must have been obvious, because when Brett picked Boo and I up at the airport, the first thing he asked was “you didn’t want to come home did you?”
Back in the desert, life went back to normal but I kept thinking about the inn. I kept in touch with Lainey and Mort every so often. I found Boo playing Hemlock Inn with her Barbies, she had named Barbie and Ken, what else but: Lainey and Mr. Mort.
Around October, I got an email from Lainey:
Lainey: Dear Sweet Ashley, You have been on my mind lately. Have you sold your house yet? Ha. No pressure. There is a log cabin for sale on the property next to us (that we used to own). I may send you a picture of it. We also will likely have the little cottage in the woods available. It is a cute one with 2 bedrooms. I am still dreaming…and scheming! Ha. Around October,
Me (literally a few minutes later): Crazy. I was JUST thinking about you! That’s so weird….seriously…..we have been talking about moving back to NC one day. There is a property for sale next door to my mother. What are the schools like there? Sure send me some photos.
Lainey trekked out in the rainy, cold weather to snap a few photos. I showed them to Brett and his reaction was: Is there an outhouse to go with it?!
I didn’t want to lead Mort and Lainey on so as exciting as it all sounded, I told them to not count on us staying for more than a few weeks during the summer. It was fun to think about, “dreaming and scheming” as Lainey would say, but there were too many things holding us back.
Then November rolled around, and all those things holding us back seemed to miraculously resolve themselves. It felt like we were being shown over and over that the Hemlock wasn’t just a big dream, it was meant to be. Then one day:
Brett: I am okay with moving.
Me: You ARE?! Me too! Whoa. I’m think I might hyperventilate. I’m calling Lainey RIGHT NOW…..before you can change your mind.
It was in December that I called Lainey. I told her that I wanted to explore options for living at the inn. Lainey said she couldn’t believe that I had called, because of the timing. Mort was discouraged and wondering what the future was going to be. We’d talked before about how much times had changed and small inns were struggling. How does a small, rustic inn survive in a modern culture like ours? How do you convince a world that craves new things, more things, accumulation to choose simplicity over technology and extravagance? I didn’t have all the answers but I did know that I had this clear vision of a thriving Hemlock. I just had the gut feeling about it. I’ve stayed in lots of places over the years, inns, historic hotels, B&Bs all over Ireland and Scotland, but the Hemlock is different for some reason: it’s as if it has a pulse.
As we discussed options for living in one of the cottages I explained that we didn’t want to just live there, we wanted to help out. Maybe Mort and Lainey could let us have honorary “assistant innkeeper” titles when they needed us to. We didn’t want to be just guests, we wanted to immerse ourselves in the beating heart and inner workings of such a place…because when I’m there I feel like the Hemlock represents all that is right in this broken world we live in.
There was just one small hitch in the whole plan….Brett hadn’t yet been to Hemlock Inn or Bryson City. He was going off of photos, stories and Boo’s new memories. He said, “I trust you” but I wanted us to make the decision together and in order to make such a huge commitment, we needed to visit as soon as possible….so we flew mid-January to the Hemlock.
We knew that the inn would be closed the weekend we visited but Mort and Lainey welcomed us into their home (with fresh cookies out of the oven!) We talked for hours and hours by the fire about dreams for the inn and what our life would be like living there. We visited the elementary school and were greeted by, “oh yes, Lainey stopped by yesterday to let us know you might want a tour.” We drove all over Bryson City, touring and talking to locals, looking for things like the post office and the hardware store, envisioning what our life might be like there:
And of course we looked for the obscure backroads too:
Me: Stop! Look at those old gravestones!
Brett: You know why I love exploring with you?
Brett: Because you choose all the places….you can find stuff in the middle of nowhere. And I just get to experience it.
(the memory I have of taking the above photo is me lying down in a graveyard while a woman stared Brett down in our rental car)
Long story short: Brett was sold. He loved the small town of Bryson City. He loved the Hemlock. And he loved Mort and Lainey.
So now our house is for sale. I discovered flowers and a heart this morning left by the sign by a friend. I’ve been slowly selling almost everything in it….except for sentimental items I’m keeping for Boo, and of course my millions of books.
Brett: So I guess I need to hire movers just to move your books cross country?
A close friend recently said to me: I know you aren’t related to the innkeepers, but the way you talk about it, it’s as if the Hemlock’s DNA runs in your veins. You need to go and tell the story.
I want to tell the story.
So we are moving to the Hemlock Inn for a year, maybe more. We have no plans for life beyond the Hemlock yet. We will be living on the grounds of a small inn where guests come and go. Mort says I will be the “writer in residence.” I like that. I am a story teller, so I’ll be telling the stories of our life at a 1950’s motor inn and small town life through writing, photography and film.
We’ll be living in a small cottage called the Woody cottage….that has a whole story too….but I’ll get there. I’m excited to redecorate the cottage and make it our own. Boo is more excited to renovate the treehouse that Mort and Lainey’s boys grew up with.
Boo, Brett and I will be eating most of our meals at the Hemlock and it will give us a chance to meet new people and hear their stories. Mealtime is one of the highlights at the Hemlock: breakfast is at 8:30am and Dinner is at 6:30pm every night except Sunday, and you know it’s time because there’s a dinner bell, usually rung by a young guest. All the guests eat together at large family style tables with lazy susans in the center, and only after a short blessing is said. I can’t wait to sneak into the kitchen to share some secrets and maybe learn to cook a dish or two myself….or even just how to cook in general. Everything at the Hemlock is made from scratch. The inn even makes its own breadcrumbs….I thought breadcrumbs just came in a can. See how much I have to learn?
Because things move slowly at the inn, we’ll have plenty of time to explore the surrounding area and really immerse ourselves in the small town life. The Cherokee Indian Reservation is only a few miles away. Maybe I can finally meet Princess Patty again. Deep Creek will be visited often. There’s hiking, fishing, tubing and kayaking. The Tuckasegee river runs right through town and the Nantahala Outdoor Center is nearby. Fontana Lake and Dam are pretty close. Brett will be exploring the mountain biking scene (we made sure to meet the owner of Bryson City Bicycles when we visited in January). I’ll have fun making detailed maps of my obscure, eclectic local road trips…looking for things to photograph and explore…because those are the best kind. I want to plan on having workshops/retreats on writing, blogging, photography…..all things creative. Boo wants me to recreate the treasure maps that Mr. Shell, Lainey’s father, used to make for me when he was the innkeeper years ago.
It can be a little scary stepping out onto such a new path, but at the same time I think we are rewriting everything we’ve ever been taught about success and what’s important in life. We are moving our daughter from a wonderful private school, from every opportunity in an affluent town, to a very small town with very little industry outside of tourism. But for so long I’ve felt caught in this conflicting world of messages, I’m breaking free for good. Part of a prayer of confession in church one Sunday not long ago:
…we are bound to the regimens of calendars and limits of bank accounts…
The message was about being open and saying yes to where you are being led. Making our own lives available to others. Making our world a little smaller and become increasingly un-attached to things, all the while connecting ourselves to something larger. There’s that saying: truth which is told is quick to be forgotten, but truth discovered lasts a lifetime. I think that’s the best education we could ever give Boo. I want my child to become faithful in the little things, so that one day she will realize those little things are really the big things. I’m on a mission to engage myself deeply with the world, and to teach her (and Brett, a willing participant) along with me. Boo asked me last night if she could have an iPad….I told her she could have snowshoes instead. She liked that idea. She’s never seen a leaf change color, witnessed a change in seasons, or even worn a winter coat. It will be a whole year of firsts. Boo said visiting the Hemlock was her favorite part of the whole summer. Now she’ll be living there….and it will be part of her DNA too.
I’ve always wanted to live in a small town with lots of places to explore nearby. I’ve always wanted to have small, intimate workshops and retreats…and the Hemlock gives me an instant venue to work towards that.
The Hemlock isn’t for everyone. The rooms are simple and rustic, no TV or phones.* Guests might have to share a dinner table with a family they don’t know (yet). There’s no spa or room service. It’s a rustic, country inn.
*There’s WiFi in case of emergency. How would I blog and share without Internet?
But the Hemlock, with 26 rooms nestled on a mountaintop, and 57 acres overlooking the often “smokey” valley, sets itself apart from the expensive vacation spots we are sold 24/7 on the TV. The Hemlock is a special place, an unchanging retreat from a changing world. Time stands still. You forget to count the days.
You might be wondering what Boo thinks about all of this. We were nervous to tell her because she loves her school and her friends. I finally found the perfect chance when we were watching an episode of the Waltons one night:
Me: That looks kind of like the mountains of N.C., like where the Hemlock Inn is.
Boo: It does.
Me: What would you think about moving to the Hemlock Inn?
Boo: Would it be like we are trading our life for the Waltons?
Me: In some ways.
Boo: Do I get to ride a schoolbus?
Me: If you want to.
I hope some of you will come and stay, visit for a while. Enjoy the view and southern, home-style cooking. Boo will be directing Hemlock “summer camp” I’m sure. We are looking so forward to changing leaves and snow as well. Brett will probably be building something, conquering the bike trails, or fishing:
“Many of us would probably be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect”
―A River Runs Through It
And you’ll probably find me right on the front porch:
You can find more photos and stories I’ve written about the Hemlock at the following links:
A few helpful links:
P.S. If you love books about small town life, read the Bryson City Tales. It’s a true story written by a young doctor’s first year of medical practice in Bryson City. The Hemlock Inn and the Shell family are part of the story. A fun read. There are 2 follow up books to it as well: Bryson City Seasons and Bryson City Secrets.
*Note: Mr. LBB will now be Brett. We felt it was better to make that change so you get to know him a little better over time. Boo is still Boo.