The Secrets of Santeetlah

This is my place.

Just like the dozens of other mountains, and lakes and pine-capped forest that every other man and woman on earth claim. We pick up rocks, place our feet in water, and call it ours.

We tell stories of the life-changing experiences we had climbing the Rockies or exploring the wilds of Alaska, but those are never things that belonged to us in the first place.

Still, we tell the stories and remember back when the winds of Colorado whipped our cheekbones, or where the waters of the Kodiak were the only time we’ve ever felt at peace, but we can’t hold on to those moments.

The mountains we conquered; we only climbed. And the rivers we loved and called our own only flowed past us, not through us like we imagined.

Weeks later, all these memories and feelings get fuzzy. They fade from the crisp, clear image they once were. All we’re left with is a dreamscape that we retreat to when the summers of South Georgia get too hot.

And it’s in this ebb and flow of reality and dream that I find myself in- that I find Santeetlah in. If I close my eyes, I can feel the heat of a fire pop behind my back, and smell the ash of cigarettes flicked into an empty beer bottle. I can feel the cold sting of the North Carolina mountain rain and hear the creak of old wood furniture underneath newcomers.

It was my first visit to Santeetlah, a small pristine lake that quietly sits on the edge of the Nantahala National Forest. A place of solitude and quietude that settled in needles of the pine.

This was the place where I fell in love. But not with someone, not yet. I fell in love with the cool, placid water that lapped against the dock, and the frigid October winds that found their way to me at the beginning of September.

I sat on the deck, coffee in sleeve, sleeves covering both my hands, basking in the late-summer frost. Nothing could have prepared me for it, or anything that was to come that weekend.

I’ve never been partial to the outdoors. The brow and back sweat that accompanies the long summer days and the yellow-pollen air of spring have always caused me to lock the door and shutter my windows.

But when the autumn months come, and that quiet and familiar chill greets me like an old friend, I’m home. This time, in an unfamiliar place.

It almost doesn’t feel real. I have to remind myself of the way US-129 N rocked my car back and forth as I twisted around its curves. That I didn’t imagine myself jumping off a bridge into the 60-degree water below, gasping for breath from the 20-foot drop. It wasn’t a moment where I felt beautiful or even brave. I just felt in control, for a brief second, of myself, and that was enough for me.

Santeetlah shared her bright, misty mornings and late-night dances in the kitchen. She gave me a calm more placid than the edge of her shores and a longing for something I never knew I was missing.

She’ll hold all the things I can’t remember and tell you about all the things I can’t find the words for.

Because I can’t describe the house I pulled up to that rainy September night, but I can tell you about the little pinpricks I felt on the soles of my bare feet from the gravel of the neighbor’s driveway.

I can tell you about the glow of the kitchen lights that bounced off the thick wood panels of the deck and how it was that light, and not my sweatshirt that kept me warm.

I could even describe how each sip of whiskey, beer, and wine burned my throat and how each cigarette burned memories into my skin that can’t be flicked away like ash.

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