To us, the first miracle was our re-connection. While we had been best friends in high school in Ohio, we had moved to different states where we pursued educations, careers and other relationships.
I had first discovered Asheville and Western North Carolina in the 1970’s, drawn to the beauty of the area. As the years went by, I became more concerned as increased growth began to threaten what I loved most, the wild character of the mountains.
Meanwhile, John had been living in New York, working for non-profits, helping to protect over 20,000 acres of land for parks and trails. An avid rock climber, John and I met up when he came on a climbing trip to the mountains of Western North Carolina in the late 1990’s. He, too, fell in love with the southern mountains. We fell in love as well and were eventually married.
The second miracle occurred in 2003, when John was driving back to Asheville from a climbing trip in California. In Denver, he spontaneously decided to visit Wanda Stone, a dear friend of his mother’s. There John met Wanda’s son-in-law, Gary Gantner, who was leaving in an hour to fly back to his job in Australia. Learning that John was headed to North Carolina, he mentioned that his family had owned some mountain property there for nearly 100 years, and might be getting ready to sell it.
When John returned home, he wasted no time bushwhacking his way into this overgrown land in the heart of Hickory Nut Gorge that had not been occupied for over 60 years. He discovered a wild jewel with tumbling waterfalls along the tumultuous Hickory Nut Creek, overgrown stone walls of a farmhouse and the ruins of an old gristmill. His love for the place was immediate, and he began wondering if there might be some way to be able to buy and protect it. We spent the next year and a half figuring out how to do just that.
Miracle number 3 was the addition of my sister and brother-in-law, Lynne and Tom Wiley, as partners in the project. Tom had repeatedly told us to keep an eye out for a piece of land in the mountains. When told about the land in Hickory Nut Gorge, Tom, whose nickname is H. Bear, was especially excited when he heard it was located on the side of Little Bearwallow Mountain. Tom also became fascinated with the idea of restoring the old gristmill. John rescued an 1840’s cabin from the Winston Salem area and brought it to the mountains to sit on top of the old gristmill site. We rebuilt the log cabin and added a waterwheel. We found some granite grinding stones in Indiana made back in the mid-1800’s and put them inside the mill.
Over the next 18 months, additional miracles began to unfold as more land became available to add to this special protected paradise. When an adjacent apple orchard on the creek came up for sale, Tom’s nephew David Kuckuk stepped in to help acquire it. This kept another thousand feet of the stream wild and natural, plus added over a hundred apple trees and a small vineyard. A rustic cabin on the creek was later restored.
Then above the orchard, another 30 acres was acquired with the help of two of John’s friends from New Jersey, Ed Goodell and Lynne Katzmann. This crucial parcel provided a key trail linkage into the 600-acre Florence Nature Preserve.
Altogether, this group of family and friends has protected a total of 270 acres of land in Upper Hickory Nut Gorge. It includes cascading creeks, the orchard and vineyard, a diverse forest with 40 species of trees, miles of hiking trails, soaring cliffs, and one of the best wildflower areas in the county.
Another miracle occurred as we became collaborators with Conserving Carolina, an amazing group of folks who share our vision for land protection and public access to the gems of Hickory Nut Gorge. In 2006 we worked with them to create a 35 acre conservation easement surrounding Hickory Nut Forest. In 2012, we sold 30 acres to them for new trail head parking and access to the Florence Nature Preserve. The next year, we sold another 100 acres of mountain land and beautiful cliffs to them for a new trail corridor from the valley trail head up to the top of Bearwallow Mountain. They are great neighbors to have and we are so glad that this collaboration enables many more people to enjoy the place we call home.
The year 2017 was a challenging one indeed. John was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He faced this challenge in the same way he faced all things in his life – with courage and determination to find a solution to the problems it was creating for him. We spent the majority of the year searching for ways to reverse the debilitating symptoms of this illness, but it was an impossible task. John passed away in February of 2018.
Two months before he died. Conserving Carolina honored John’s work in Hickory Nut Gorge with a ribbon cutting celebration commemorating the completion of the Wildcat Rock Trail, which crosses Hickory Nut Forest land and is part of the larger trail system John had envisioned that will eventually allow people to hike throughout the upper gorge and down to Chimney Rock State Park. The ribbon cutting event also honored John’s placement of an additional 38 acres of our land into conservation easement. In addition, Conserving Carolina designated the rock face at Little Bearwallow Falls as the John Myers Climbing Area. Though John’s health was declining at the time of the ribbon cutting/dedication, he was able to attend and was humbled by the overwhelming love and gratitude expressed by those honoring his life’s work.
John will be dearly missed, but his vision lives on in the land he loved and preserved, in the community he created, and in the access he made possible for others to come and enjoy the beauty that exists in this special place. As one of his eulogists said, “John invited us to listen when Grace calls us to greater service – to be persistent against the odds and birth dreams that most people would not have the mettle to set into motion or have the merit or command the trust to bring them to fruition.”
Miracles continue to occur, and you are invited to come experience this sacred land, live in its midst, and join in the stewardship to keep this place magnificent, wild and beautiful for generations to come.