When Minnesotan writer and storyteller, Kevin Kling first learned I was from Georgia he said, "Whoa, you must be a Byron Herbert Reese fan!"
I went to school at Georgia College in Milledgeville, right slap in the middle of the state, so I was obliged to read from the cannon of Middle Georgia's great writers — Flannery O'Connor and Alice Walker.
But I had never read the poetry of North Georgia's Byron Herbert Reese. This is to my regret and to my shame. Reese, a mountain man with the land in his blood, wrote from a great sense of place. How could I have missed him? I mean, I worked all of my college summers in the mountains near Dahlonega. And for years I have directed plays and told stories in Sautee Nacoochee up in White County. I make my way to the hills every chance I get. And I have some mountain blood of my own; my father's people, the Irwins and the Offutts, are from the hills of Tennessee.
(An incorrigible young man from LaFollett was put on a train to "Emory of Oxford" where he met one of the wild girls from nearby Covington. That's how I got here.)
Byron Herbert Reese's book of poems, Bow Down in Jericho, is on my nightstand right now. I am not only feeling the spiritual connection he has with his love of the land, but I understand his hunger for simplicity. (I cut my simplicity teeth on Thomas Merton and writings about St. Francis). My buddy, Kevin Kling is a guy who knows a thing or two about writing from a sense of place. He has steered me in a good direction.
And I have a tangible connection to Byron Herbert Reese. My grandaddy built his road.
My mama, Sara Drucilla "Tootsie" Cook was born in Covington in April of 1923. In that same summer, her father was contracted to build a brand new road over Neel’s Gap on Blood Mountain, down to Blairsville. My grandfather, Will Cook, brought along his wife, Sallie Mae, and their children — including that infant daughter. His family lived in a tarpaper tent.
This was during Prohibition so, upon my grandfather's arrival, he set out to find the local moonshiners. With those men he made an agreement: Will Cook would not report them to the “Federals" (as he was supposed to do) if they did not sell to his workers.
Both parties kept their word. My grandfather went to his grave never revealing their names.
That road, a section of U.S. Highway 129, is now the Byron Herbert Reese Memorial Highway.
And how would "Hub" Reese react to having this thoroughfare named after him? Maybe with something less than ambivalence. In his poem, Roads, he wrote:
A pace or two beyond my door
Are highways racing east and west
I hear their busy traffic roar
Fleet tourists bound on far behests
And monstrous mastodons of freight
Passing in droves before my gate.
He goes on to write...
All marvels of device and speed
But all unsuited to my need.
And this tells us, doesn't it?... that while Reese traveled a bit with teaching stints at Emory University and the University of Georgia, and serving as poet-in-residence at UCLA, he was a reluctant traveler. For financial need (and maybe for love) Reese always came home to farm the family land.
The road construction coming over Blood Mountain, down to Blairsville would have been big news to the mountain people in the summer of 1923. I like to think of a 5-year-old skinny, shy, sensitive boy who may have ventured to see what was happening. I like to think of my grandaddy greeting that boy. (I happily remember what it was like to be a five-year-old in Will Cook's company.) Will may have been walking and surveying the route through the forest with his sons, Bill and Carter. My Uncle Carter, a skinny one as well, would have been the same age as Hub Reese.
A couple of years ago, I made my way up Blood Mountain, "looking for" my grandfather, Will; my grandmother, Sallie Mae; my uncles, Bill and Carter, and my infant mother. I stopped my car at the top of Blood Mountain at the Walasi-Yi Center, a robust, stone Civil Conservation Corps building that is currently an outdoor gear store. This is the first mail stop on the northern trek of the Appalachian Trail, so the picnic tables and rocks are always draped with resting backpackers (a lot of unnecessary gear is shipped home from there). There is an AT plaque that everybody likes to see and take selfies with; it is dedicated to the foot traveler.
I, of course, was looking for a different type of plaque, that of an automotive road builder.
And I found it.
It is a plaque placed in 1925, two years after my grandfather began the highway. It commemorates the opening and dedication of the road by the Nacoochee-Hiawassee Road & Recreation Association. I like to think my grandparents may have been in attendance.
And I found them.
It is a goodly life.
Safe Travels - Andy
A native of Covington GA, Andy Offutt Irwin is a nationally renown storyteller, humorist, singer, songwriter, musician, whistler, and human noise maker. Andy Irwin is a native of Covington and a natural storyteller. He can be reached at email@example.com.