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Of Bison and Barbecue Queens

--as published in the Asheville Citizen Times

Every year or so our family travels to the Golden State to volunteer at a family camp where we lived and worked in the early 2000's. The camp is remote, refreshingly free of wi-fi, and blighted by sightings of bald eagle, dolphin, gray whale, mule deer and an occasional Bison (if you've forgotten, Buffalo are from Africa). It's the perfect place for a Lord of the Flies sequel--where kid's go wild in the absence of internet parenting--and a place where stuff  just happens. Just ask Bryan. 

Bryan was out for his habitual early-morning jog. It was June 26, and his summer morning loop around camp was suddenly interrupted by a 1500 pound Bison. Unable to rectify his mistake--placing himself 20-yards in front of a highly under-estimated killing machine--he tried to slowly back up. He hummed a tune, he smiled. And then he made another mistake. He ran.


Charging full bore, the Bison caught Bryan on the back of his thighs, missing his gluetus maximus, tossed him 10-ft in the air and dropped him into a shrub. Barely cognizant that dagger-like horns had miraculously missed him, Bryan scrambled from the shrub and prepared for another attack. The bison was gone.

Warily stumbling down the trail, Bryan wandered into camp an hour later. The shaky, bandaged and somewhat lucid bison-survivor told me his story as kids gathered around to gawk at his wounds.


And so it went, an average day at Camp Lord of the Flies.


If you're thinking this could never happen in North Carolina, you'd be wrong. Not only can you gander at eagle, dolphin, whale and deer, but a few hundred years ago, a Bison could have just-as-easily tossed you off the trail. Bison once roamed our mountains, foothills and pine forests. So much so, that our predecessors killed them off in belligerently indifferent numbers. Just like they did in California.


Although few would be inclined to draw correlations between a state known for it's high-tech surfing bazillion-aires and a state with an annual surplus of Barbecue Queens, over the years and miles, I've discovered California and North Carolina actually have a lot in common.


Of course, there's the wildlife correlations I've alluded to--along with bison, CA and NC once shared grizzly bear, mountain lion, elk and a large collection of animals either hunted-to-oblivion or eliminated by time and weather.


Then there's the rugged coastlines, the fertile valleys, the bold mountains... and "the 40." The Highway--Freeway by California standards--that connects us, coast to coast.


Notwithstanding these physical connections, we've quite a few historical commonalities as well.

I was reminded of this recently as I stood in line at the Black Mountain Dollar Store. A man I would generously call "hillbilly"--adorned in filthy overalls, a scruffy beard, tobacco-stained baseball cap and a possessing the general aroma of dirt--was cheerfully gabbing with the cashier. As I tuned-in to the conversation (registering at around 3000 decibels, it wasn't too hard to do), he was describing his most recent gold mining attempt. "Yep, you gotta know where to look... and then you just gotta stick with it; I been panning for over 30-year now, and I probably found more than $150,000."

My interest was suddenly keen. Catching up with him after purchasing my dog food, I inquired about his operation. Right out of the gate, he threw me a greenhorn curveball. "Do you know where the first gold rush happened?" Being a history buff, I responded confidently, "I believe it was just east of Charlotte." Unfazed by my answer, he practically shouted back, "It was North Carolina!... most people don't know that."

Along with gold rushes, CA and NC also share a rich history in rogues and scalawags, otherwise known as people trying to escape things like taxes, mortgage payments and the inconvenience of paying with cash. Arriving by sea and land, a few of these forefathers took solace in carving their livelihood from the wild, often building upon their bad reputations by absconding with the property of others (Mexicans and Native Americans, respectively). But let's not dwell on the negative.

One of the more uplifting bonds between CA and NC comes at the unlikely hands of a tree.

When Stephan Endlicher, an Austrian botanist, published his findings on the gigantic trees of the Sierra Nevadas, he chose to honor Chief Sequoyah of the NC Cherokee. Being an accomplished botanist and linguist, Endlicher appears to have likened the greatness of the tree to the brilliance of Sequoyah, who drafted the first Native American alphabet. Time would drop the "yah" and add an "ia", but the massive Sequoia tree stands as a permanent botanical reference to a native of NC.


Though separated by a continent, CA and NC are wonderfully, strangely, linked. So the next time you happen upon a black bear in the neighborhood, remember Bryan and California---enjoy the view, hum a tune, smile, back away, don't run. And be glad, as I am, that you live in North Carolina; where there's plenty of wild places and wild history to explore... and a perfect abundance of hillbillies and Barbecue Queens.

--Ben Fortson

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