To Jane and John, the first miracle was their re-connection. While they had been best friends in high school in Ohio, they had moved to different states where they pursued educations, careers and other relationships.
Jane had first discovered Asheville and Western North Carolina in the 1970’s, drawn to the beauty of the area. As the years went by, she became more concerned as increased growth began to threaten what she 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 met up with Jane 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. He and Jane 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. John and Jane then spent the next year and a half figuring out how to do just that.
Miracle number 3 was the addition of Jane’s sister and brother-in-law, Lynne and Tom Wiley, as partners in the project. Tom had repeatedly told Jane and John 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. We are continuing to restore the gristmill and have a goal to get the mill in working condition again.
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 the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, 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.
So this is our story. With all that has happened so far, we feel it is still just the beginning of many more wonderful miracles yet to unfold. We invite you to come experience this sacred land, live in its midst, and join us in becoming stewards to keep this place magnificent, wild and beautiful for generations to come.
John Myers and Jane Lawson