The Evolving Species

Stairway to Heaven

A resting place in life’s long journey

By Claudia Watson

This morning I made a point of waking before sunrise and padding off in a pair of old boot socks to the little deck at my place in Seven Devils, up in the high country. I grabbed a nubby sweater against the air of a late October morning and stepped into the day with my hands wrapped around a cup of hot tea. 

A veil of fog clings to the valley at the base of Grandfather Mountain. The distant mountain ridge surrenders to the sunrise, unleashing a canvas of color. This early on a Sunday morning there won’t be many leaf gawkers, and it’s perfect for my journey down a road to a spot that’s become, over 20 years, a pilgrimage.

My husband, Roger, and I would bike a narrow, practically flat paved road that hugs the South Fork of the New River. We’d travel along Railroad Grade Road, a 20-mile trip from the general store in Todd to the tiny community of Fleetwood and back. Our first ride down this road was 23 years ago on an early June morning, riding new cross-country bikes — his, black; mine, green — wedding gifts to each other that spring. 

With our lunches and water bottles tucked into our backpacks, we idly explored the winding river valley, protected by steep slopes covered with Christmas tree farms and dotted with old homesteads and lush meadows. A fox looked up, startled from his morning kill. A small herd of whitetail deer dashed from a roadside thicket to the river, nearly knocking me from my bike. We teamed up to shoo a wandering cow back into her pasture, closing the gate behind her.

About midway in our ride, Roger yelled back to me, “Hey babe, look at that,” pointing to a cast concrete stairway leaning against one of two towering tulip poplars. The steps were an invitation to stop and sit a spell in the shade and enjoy the long view of the clear river rambling 30 feet below. 

But it was the trees and the placement of the stairs that offered more fascination as they held onto a narrow spit of earth. The one-lane road, which was originally the rail track for the Virginia Creeper, barely squeezed between the river and a rocky outcrop. The only sign of neighbors was a sprawling farmstead at the river’s broad bend, and a tidy brick home tucked into the hillside farther down the road that was guarded by a frisky border collie.

That tiny grass outcropping above the New River became a favorite way station whenever we returned to the high country. Often, after fly-fishing the river or streams nearby, we’d return to the spot, settle into our camp chairs, and enjoy lunch or a late afternoon beer and the constant chatter of life — the hopes, the dreams, the blessings. Even during our winter trips, we’d make time to huddle together on the cold concrete steps, if only for minutes.

It was on a summer’s day while sitting on the steps looking up through the tulip poplar’s canopies — a mosaic of green hues against the blue sky — that I dubbed the location, without much thought, Stairway to Heaven, marking it with a pencil in our dog-eared map book where we cataloged favorite fishing spots and trails.

Though we couldn’t figure out how the steps arrived where they were, we sensed the specialness of the place. Over the course of 20 years or so, the steps became part of our journey. When we arrived at the spot four years ago in October, we saw one of the two tulip poplars was gone, only the stump remaining. Thankfully, the old moss-covered stairway was still there leaning against the solitary tree dressed in its bright yellow glory. We took out our camp chairs to enjoy the sun-kissed day as the leaves danced in the air.

The border collie at the nearby house, less frisky in time, began barking but finally gave up and went to rest with its owner, a silver-haired woman sitting on the porch. I wanted to walk down the road and ask her about the steps, but Roger felt it was intrusive. He preferred our creative musings. With our belongings packed into the car, I gathered a handful of jewel-colored leaves. Roger paused, looking at me, “Hey babe,” he said, motioning me to join him on the steps.

He sat on the top step, and I sat on the one below leaning into him as he wrapped his arms around me. I felt him suck in a deep breath as if to hold back tears, and he buried his head into my neck and whispered, “Babe, you’ve made me so happy. I don’t know how I’d ever go on without you. I love you so much.” We stayed a few minutes, wiped our tears and moved on, waving at the old woman and her dog as we drove off.

On a pretty spring morning the following May, I approached the familiar turn in the road and winced when I saw the stairway and pulled off to the grassy spot. For the first time, I was alone. That past October was our last together. My beloved died the day after Christmas. I pulled the camp chair from the car and sat looking at the river valley bursting with life and hesitated, wondering how I’d ever go on as the tulip poplar’s soft yellow blossoms fell around me.

Then, with a quiet prayer, I opened my hand and let some of him catch the wind and become one with this place — as much as the tulip poplar, the birdsong, and the ancient river. Soon, the little dog down the road began barking. I saw the silver-haired woman on her porch and, without a thought, walked to the edge of her property and asked, “Can you tell me about that spot?” pointing to the tree and the steps. “We’ve been coming here for over 20 years and wondering about those steps.”

Patting her leg, she laughed “Oh, lots of people wonder ’bout them. They came from the house over there,” pointing up the road. “My brother lives there, and he took off a porch and steps, just rested ’em up against the tree years ago.”

It was such an ordinary story. 

“Folks come here all the time and take photos sittin’ on the steps,” she added. I told her about our contrived story of a great storm and flood that deposited them in such an unlikely place. “No,” she said with a shake of her head, “the river’s never been that high, honey.”

“We named them the Stairway to Heaven,” I offered.

Her lips broke into a smile, “Well, that’s right nice. I like that.”

I told her that I had lost my husband. “I understand, dear, I lost my husband just five years ago,” she sighed. “Honey, life’s not easy, but this here, it’s a peaceful place until we get up there to see ’em again.”

On an October morning nearly four years later, I am out the door. Navigating the narrow, pothole-strewn road, my heart racing until I turn the last bend and see the tulip poplar and the steps and find my spot under the tree. With nary a breeze, it unleashes a cascade of golden leaves upon me.  PS

Claudia Watson is a Pinehurst resident and a longtime contributor to PineStraw and The Pilot

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