On a cold fog-shrouded Monday morning in late September, I headed down the Blue Ridge Parkway at 5,000 feet up, past the Pinnacles of Dan towards the North Carolina state line. Beneath me, the two-wheeled three-banger hummed along at 45 miles per hour while the visibility on this two-lane mountain road could not have been more than ten or fifteen feet. Fog gave way to thick clouds, which gave way to more fog, which then turned into more clouds. There is a difference, clouds are thicker, colder, whiter and wetter.
Fancy Gap, Pipers Gap, Low Gap and Roaring Gap all came and went. At Deep Gap I barely negotiated the near invisible turn that exited down off the Parkway southeast in a dense steady rain towards New Hope, Harmony and then into Davie County. There, Mocksville, the county seat, offered a respite before my final leg. As luck would have it, at verdant Mocksville, the sun appeared and peeked in and out for the rest of the day. With the morning's less than perfect conditions behind me, I felt blessed and guided.
Earlier, in the spring of that year, I decided that it was time to make my first pilgrimage to the Toots Johnson grave site -- to offer my proper respect and pay homage to a great man. I had heard that Toots was buried down south, and now, some sixteen years after his death, that was still about all I knew. A research mission was definitely in order. I would start at Toots' last known address.
A couple of Saturday afternoons later, Dick Brown and I drove into the city of Detroit to find the house belonging to Toots' first cousin, Charles. It was in this house that Toots spent the last years of his life. It was here where he continued to make plaitza brooms from the oak leaves that Dick Brown delivered throughout that final summer and fall.
As we steered the car from Joy Road onto Sorrento Street, the residential neighborhood ignited our memories and within minutes we recognized Charles' house. We knocked on the door several times but there was no answer. Then we heard a voice call out, "He ain't home."
We turned around to see a burly fellow sitting on his front porch across the street. We walked over to him, introduced ourselves and stated our business. Darrell, the neighbor, knew all about Toots Johnson and his cousin Charles. I left my name and phone number with Darrell, which he promised to deliver to Charles. Later that afternoon, I received a telephone call from Charles!
I could tell from Charles' clear and exact speaking voice that he was an educated and erudite man. He remembered Dick Brown and me, was grateful that we stopped by to visit and sorry that he missed us. When I inquired about the Toots grave site, Charles was a wealth of information. Coincidentally, Charles was planning his own yearly visit to his cousin's resting place within the next month.
Charles said that Toots was buried in a small church cemetery in Smith Grove, North Carolina. He told me I wouldn't find Smith Grove on the map and he was right. Smith Grove was indeed, absent from any typical North Carolina state map. Of course, as a geographer, I had more detailed maps and wasn't too concerned. As long as I had a place name, I figured I was good to go. But Charles gave me detailed instructions anyway, and I received them gladly. He said I had to find Highway 158 east out of Mocksville. And if I crossed the Yadkin River, then I went too far. Charles was confident I would locate the cemetery and find Toots where he was laid to rest in the front row next to the church.
Charles told me that Toots was buried alongside the rest of his family. There was a sister still living in nearby Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who apparently remained cantankerous, refusing to give up driving, even though she had just turned 93 years of age. Toots also had another sister and a brother nicknamed "Bid" who we remembered Toots speaking of often. Charles laughed at such a silly nickname, and he couldn't remember how Toots' brother earned it or what his real name was. They all lived their lives way down in Carolina, so far away from Detroit and the Oakland baths.
I couldn't thank Charles enough. Soon after our conversation, I retired to my map library with a glass of sherry in one hand and a bowl full of Early Morning Pipe in the other. [Sheesh!--Ed.] I dug up an atlas and gazetteer of North Carolina. Right there on page 36, I found the tiny hamlet of Smith Grove, nothing more than a t-shaped intersection, really, smack-dab on US Highway 158, equidistant between Mocksville and the Yadkin River, just as Charles had said. I spent the next few months staring at that map almost daily, mentally planning my motorcycle trip, and trying to get a handle on what I felt was a calling, perhaps by divine influence.
As I gassed up the bike in Mocksville shortly before noon, I looked up at the clearing skies. Mocksville, population 5,000, elevation 900 feet, at the intersection of US-64 and US-601, bustled with car and truck traffic. A few blocks away, at the quieter town square, I stopped for a bite and a cup of coffee at of all things, an Internet cafe and noticed US-158 (Main Street) pointing northeast toward my destination.
I descended from Mocksville on Highway 158 onto the North Carolina Piedmont, a broad stretch of rolling hills separated by bounding creeks, providing fertile farming back to the time of the colonial settlers. My best estimate put Smith Grove exactly seven miles ahead. With each passing mile, I keenly anticipated the meeting of an old friend, one I hadn't seen for many many years.
As I crossed a nameless creek, the road immediately dropped 300 feet. Just as quickly, at Maine, it rose to 900 feet. A mile and a half later, I again dropped 300 feet as I crossed Dutchman Creek, and then roller-coastered back up and back down at Cedar Creek. I then ascended back to 900 feet on the plateau at Smith Grove. I slowed from 50 miles per hour down to 25 and searched for churches and burial grounds. I knew I was close.
Up on the right, I zeroed in on a church and its graveyard. However, this turned out to be a large and beautiful stone castle; a Methodist church, with an equally well-manicured cemetery. I stopped and looked around. Could this be the final resting place of Toots Johnson? A little voice inside my head said that maybe I should keep going as something just wasn't right with this picture. About a mile up Highway 158 and on the left, I came across a wooden sign next to a gravel path that said "Smith Grove A.M.E. Zion Church, Worship 11:00am, Reverend Morgan Glenn, Pastor." This African Methodist Episcopal Zion church had to be it!
My bike crawled 100 yards up the rising gravel path and as I reached the ridgetop, I caught my first glimpse of an ancient white clapboard church with a wooden cupola and an adjacent scattered graveyard. There was no sign of life. I quickly shut down the motorcycle, disembarked and walked briskly to the front row of headstones in search of the Johnson name.
There were many Johnsons alright as I scanned each one looking for Toots or Eugene, his real name, but I could not find him. I asked myself, "How is this possible?" I then read the face of every tombstone and the further away I moved from the front row, the more anxious I became. I doubled back to the front row and stood in disbelief. I had traveled so far to get here, how could this not be the place? And then I noticed something unusual--a stick almost two feet tall sticking out of the ground. I walked over to it.
Success! Cousin Charles apparently left me a sign from his visit several months earlier. I mistakenly expected a tombstone, instead I looked down at my boots to see a bronze memorial plaque covered with dirt and obscured by grass. I brushed away the overgrowth and stared amazed at a simple military grave marker--the appropriate final tribute to Eugene "Toots" Johnson--Private First Class, US Army, World War II--Born March 10, 1909, Died January 22, 1987.
My eyes welled-up with tears and my heart filled with emotion. I knelt beside the grave and proceeded with a lengthy tribute to my dear departed friend. I told Toots how much I loved him and how much I missed him. I tried several times to stand up and leave, but could not. The recollections of a wonderful man who made a lasting impression on me kept me at his graveside for more than an hour. Convinced I had said everything I wanted to say, and on behalf of everybody I knew that knew him, I stood up, straightened my hand, brought it to my forehead, and saluted Toots for eternity. "Toots Johnson, I salute you."
I examined the rest of the graveyard and found graves dating back to the early 20th century. I found an ancient abandoned privy and headstones of every shape and some no larger than a four inch square brick. Every few feet and from every angle, I turned to look back at Toot's grave and the church that rose in the background. Throughout, the only sound I heard was the wind rustling through the trees. I was alone in a reclusive graveyard, which would have felt even more unsettling if not for the midday light.
Before leaving this hallowed ground, I walked around the locked church. The church's windows were colorful leaded glass. The cornerstone read "Smith Grove AME Zion. Constructed 1900. Remodeled 1959. Rev GL Moore Pastor." I would have to return some time for Sunday services, wearing a coat and tie, more respectful of my surroundings.
I threw my leg over the seat, fired-up the motorbike, and headed due west back up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. My plan was to camp later that evening at Balsam Mountain in the upper elevations of the Smokies. The campground was several hours away leaving me plenty of time to think about what I had just experienced.
It was a beautiful fall afternoon in North Carolina as I motored along state Route 90 through Statesville, Taylorsville and Lenoir to Blowing Rock. The wind drummed my helmet, bugs splattered upon my face shield, occasional oncoming traffic roared by a few feet away, and the engine turned between my legs, all in the usual cacophonous motorcycling environment. But this time there was a noticeable difference as I steered effortlessly through relative peace and quiet brought on by the recent sacred visit. No matter how many miles I traveled, I was still back at the graveyard listening to a friend I had not seen for many many years.
The Toots I remembered, buzzed me into the bathhouse, made the plaitza brooms, cooked everyone's dinner and sat with me until I left with the last bathhouse patrons slightly before midnight. There was a lot of time spent together and a lot of conversation and laughter as well. And now I was back with Toots at his ultimate resting place. As the hours passed atop the Parkway, and with Toots occupying most of my thoughts, it was as though I just saw him yesterday--his presence was that apparent.
With sunset approaching, I stopped for supplies in Maggie Valley. The campground was less than an hour away. It had been quite a day, unlike any other. I was sad, the sadness that comes from missing a loved one, but I also felt the joy of accomplishment. I achieved my goal. My goal of seeing Toots again.
A narrow twisting road took me to the top of the mountain where I pitched my tent in dwindling light. Heavy fog began to roll in, marring what would have been a night close to the visible stars. The temperature took a nose dive. The dampness made starting a campfire difficult, but not impossible. I perched upon a camp stool prodding the small fire.
After an hour of poking, I finally gave up. I was alone in the absolute silent darkness. I felt a little edgy, a little unsure. I reached for my flashlight and hatchet, but the hand held light was useless in the atmospheric pea soup. Then I heard a rustling sound to my left, followed by something scampering from left to right. Then I heard the rustling noise again, only this time it sounded like a big creature, maybe even bigger than me.
To my astonishment, a full moon rose lighting up the fog like a hissing steam room, only brighter and colder. The campsite was bathed in moonlight, almost enough to read by. My thoughts drifted safely back to Toots, my dear friend Toots Johnson.