By John Thomas Tuft

I am driving through the mountains of western North Carolina, following the Cullasaja River from Franklin to Highlands along US64. The Cullasaja flows from the Tuckasegee to the Little Tennessee through the Cullasaja Gorge in Macon County in the Nantahala National Forest. And if you think the names are tongue twisters, the road itself might make you a bit queasy. Lots of sheer rock walls on one side of endless blind curves following rusty guardrails along steep drop offs into the river gorge. At one point you can make a tiny detour to drive under Bridal Veil Falls, if you’re so inclined, though if you’re not childlike be prepared to be disappointed. Turning off at Turtle Pond Road, I climb Little Scaly Mountain, following the gravel one and a half lane trail through thickly wooded forest, wending back and forth across the Georgia state line until all that matters is that I’m on The Mountain. For some reason I may never discern, I am drawn to an unmarked dirt lane that wends and winds and climbs some more before it dead ends at Brother Joe Bob Carl’s Gas and Gospel Stop.

It’s a ramshackle affair with an antique service station visible gas pump sitting proudly all shined up and standing at rigid attention before a wooden building that crouches against the fierce winds, just like the stunted white oak trees that surround it and looking every bit of the centuries of weathering that the humbled trees also exhibit. All are surrounded by a carpet of lichens that seem to part and bow before the footsteps of Brother Joe Bob Carl as he steps out of the battered door, and casts a wary eye towards a weary traveler. How do I know that it’s him? The hand lettered sign leaning against the pump tells me so. It is the first of many signs…and wonders of that day.

“Gas or gospel?” he asks with the look of a mischievous elf. “Some of both,” is all I can think to say. The antique service station visible gas pump whirls and gurgles while he whistles a tune that seems so very familiar somehow…but I still can’t quite place it to this day. “Let me ask ya sumthin’,” says Brother Joe Bob Carl. “Does a singer own the song? Does a reader own the story?” He takes off his camo cap and scratches at the salt and pepper hair underneath. “Does a piano’s keys own the melody? Or, more to your point,” though I wasn’t aware I’d been making one, he continues, “Does a writer own the alphabet?” I’m astonished, and it shows. He meets my confused shrug with a laugh. “I’m just riddlin’ you. Don’t pay me no nevermind.” He goes back to his tune and tops off the tank. “Nice truck,” he murmurs, before motioning to me to follow.

We go through the door, squeeze between racks of every last known knickknack, urgent Amazon purchases, and body improvement aids from the last twelve decades and enter a dingy office. He continues on to the rear, kneels and opens a small door, and crawls through. Still whistling that tune. I get on my hands and knees and crawl into the darkness. It is cold and damp and uncomfortable, but I stay tuned to his…okay, you got me, his tune. Finally, I emerge into the light to find Brother Joe Bob Carl perched on a small ledge, feet dangling over the edge, a couple thousand feet above the Cullasaja River. I gingerly sit beside him, my terror of heights notwithstanding, and peer down between my feet. In one glance I magically see the specter of the might and fury of the Cullasaja Falls thundering over impossible rocks, as well as the wonder and dancing of Dry Falls, the majesty and awe of the tree covered slopes and peaks.

“What do you see?” asks Brother Joe Bob Carl. At least I think he said that. I look into his eyes, then down below, then back to his eyes. “Power,” I offer. He nods. I look again, then back to his eyes. For some reason, although I never see his lips move, that tune fills my head. “Beauty,” is all I can say. He closes his eyes. The afternoon stretches on. A movement catches the corner of my eye and I watch a hawk floating on the breezes and updrafts. I grow uncomfortable when it seems like the hawk is the one doing the watching. Of me. I close my eyes in fear. When I open them, I’m startled to see Brother Joe Bob Carl gazing at me, his hand over his heart. And I know. “Longing,” I say. “I see longing. My own.”

He smiles and reaches into the pouch at his side. He removes a piece of cloth, neatly folded. A book with gold imprint. And two sticks of wood. Brother Joe Bob Carl carefully arranges them before me on that high ledge. “When you are ready,” he says, “you will know where to go, what to do.” Then he took off his cap, scratched his head some more, and crawled back the way we’d come. I sat there for the longest time before knowing. I left them there. And followed the echo of his tune.

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.