Archived Mountain Voices

Casual, unplanned — and heavenly

You don’t have to live in a cabin to get cabin fever. You can come down with a bad case of cabin fever — which I think of as  “the doldrums” — even if you live in a snazzy mansion. Indeed, I often come down with them right here in my office, on the town square in Bryson City.

The term ”the doldrums” is perfectly descriptive of that listless state of mind and body into which one can seemingly falls at any moment for no specific reason; indeed, if you’ve got a specific cause for your spiritual malaise, you’re “depressed,” which isn’t the same thing.

My dictionary defines the doldrums (a term that is correctly plural in form and usually preceded by “the”) as a period of inactivity with the following symptoms: listlessness, low spirits, gloomy feelings, and being generally “down in the dumps.”

The Oxford English Dictionary quotes a 19th century gentleman named C. Keene as having observed that “The great thing is to avoid ‘the Doldrums.’” Well, that’s seemingly sound advice, but the difficult thing about them is that — like a bothersome guest — they’re usually upon you before you know they’re coming.  I’d amend Mr. Keene’s observation to “The great thing is to know how to rid yourself of the doldrums.”

The OED quotes yet another 19th century gentleman as having found that “A glass of brandy and water is a panacea for the doldrums.” That’s a time-honored prescription, but if you reach for the juice too often when you get the blahs you’re going to have real problems.

The only surefire remedy for the doldrums is a good stroll ... not “a hike” — a bothersome term that implies planning and the toting of heavy loads for some distance. No agenda. No destination. Don’t hurry. Don’t carry anything. Go alone. A stroll can be executed at any distance more than 440-yards and less than a mile. Break a sweat and you’re disqualified. When in doubt, slow down. Pretty soon the doldrums will get bored and go find someone who’s sitting down at a desk.

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The view from my office window is limited to the front of the fire department across the street, the tree line of a ridge back of town, and a thin slice of sky to the south. This morning, I’ve already checked the email, voice mail and snail mail. But I can’t seem to settle down to the task at hand, which is writing this column. Deadline looming. I feel fidgety and a little irritated. I’ve got the doldrums. What I need is a little stroll before settling down.

When we go out with a set objective — to observe birds or flowers or fall colors or deer sign, whatever — that objective limits our range of comprehension. While looking at the purple-crested “zoombee” up in a hemlock, we fail to spot the polka-dotted elephant in the underbrush.

Sometimes it’s worthwhile just to get out and see what pops up. Now, at times, no matter how adroitly you stroll along, nothing happens. That’s life; indeed, there are strolling purists who maintain that the ultimate strolls are those in which absolutely “nothing” happens. But generally, something pops up. Let’s see.

October skies. The morning sun catches the gold enamel on the old courthouse clock tower just so. Generally, it’s best to stroll on flat ground, but my feet carry me up the hill behind town to a patch of scrub pine that has overgrown a barren site where some excavation work took place years ago. Under these pines in fall, amanita mushrooms flourish. Their varied hues — ranging from lemon to pink to orange to lime — are gaudy, probably a warning of sorts of the deadly toxins contained therein. Exotic and menacing, they are beautiful in the same way that a thick-bodied black-and-yellow timber rattler is truly beautiful. Amanita’s and rattlers both favor dry, barren, exposed habitats ... and both give warnings to intruders: one with color, the other with sound.

Back down by the Tuckaseigee River, the town’s main bridge attracts a variety of strollers and walkers. The walkers hustle on across, headed for the shops or the railroad depot. The strollers are moving at a pace that allows them to peer over the rail into the river below.

The Tuckasegee is emerald green. A multi-colored tapestry of fall leaves floats on the surface.  Some have become slightly waterlogged and swirl downstream just below the surface.  Others gather in piles on the bottom. A school of brightly-hued bream floats in the quiet pool just upstream from the bridge, making rings where they break the surface to feed.

Joint-weed, virgin’s-bower, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, and other plants cover the hog-wire fence beside the building supply store along the north side of the river. There are morning glories in four shades — blue, purple, red, white — are color forms of the same species. We call them “common” morning glory, but there’s nothing common about them.

My favorite grass is foxtail grass. The curve of their bristly fruiting cluster (the fox’s tail) is accentuated in fall as the weight of the forming seeds causes them to arc. When backlit by sunlight, they shimmer like ornaments. I suppose some gardeners consider foxtail grass to be a weed, but that — as with most things — is all in the eye of the beholder.

The 150-foot swinging bridge leading from the north bank of the river over to Bryson City Island Park — located several hundred yards upstream from the town square — is just about impossible to avoid when you’re out strolling around. You don’t have to think about the bridge to wind up on it ... your feet just naturally take you there.

A footpath winds around the western tip of the island that ought to be marked: “Stroller’s Only — No Walking, No Jogging, No Biking.” On the inland side of the island, the river is a narrow channel that once served as the “boom” area for a timber operation that floated logs down Deep Creek out of the high Smokies. Overhung with giant oaks and tulip poplars, it’s now a peaceful spot.

On the river side of the island, the water crashes through a cascade called “Devil’s Dip.” Kayakers like to fool around here, but today none are present. Instead, a group of 25 or so cedar waxwings are putting on an aerial show as they hawk insects in the bright sunlight out over the water. I’ve read about waxwings feeding in this fashion but have never actually observed them doing so.

The loose family group of young and mature birds has chosen a sycamore as their perch tree. I can see their heads moving as they follow the flight of whatever insect is hatching out. From time to time, one or more of the birds leaves the tree to feed.

They don’t just fly out and grab an insect. That’d be too easy. Waxwings do everything with style.They climb steeply and descend in leisurely, sweeping arcs upstream as if riding a roller coaster, catching a chosen morsel at the peak of each arc.  

Back in the office again ... strolling concluded for the day ... doldrums at bay ... time to crank it up. Out over the fire station, beyond the far ridge, my thin slice of sky is October blue.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in October 2002.


George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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