Susan Edwards – Taking Life One Step at a Time

In the Lord of the Ring series, author J.R.R. Tolkien offers a quote that has become popular with the hiking community: “Not all who wander are lost.” This notion builds on Henry David Thoreau’s observation that “Every walk is a sort of crusade.” Both authors capture a thought expressed by Susan Edwards that hiking is therapeutic for both body and soul.

Susan is a native of Alleghany County, having grown up in the Glade Valley community. She attended Glade Creek School and later Alleghany High. She has been a nurse for 22 years and is currently a nurse practitioner with United Healthcare, primarily working with older patients. Working alongside the patients’ primary care physicians, Susan’s goal is to provide the home health care needed by these individuals that will allow them to remain in their homes as long as possible. Healing is a recurring theme in conversation with Susan. Her provision of care for her patients is obvious. Less obvious is how she has determined to heal herself.

Camping and hiking are activities Susan has enjoyed for many years. She has been aware of the Appalachian Trail (AT) since she was a teenager. In December of 2019, Susan was in a transitional period of life. She did some research and decided a way to test the AT was by utilizing Boots Off Hostel and Campground near Hampton, Tennessee.

For the hiking community, hostels offer amenities that we often take for granted while at home. It is a place for a hot shower and facilities to wash sweaty clothes. It is a chance to eat “real” food and resupply for the next leg of their trip. And most hostels have a building with a warm, soft bed. Susan reached out to Boots Off and scheduled her first trip.

From Boots Off, Susan was shuttled up the trail and then hiked back to the hostel where she slept in a bunkhouse.  After that trip, Susan realized how unprepared she was for that level of hike. She lost two toenails and her knees “killed her” for days afterwards. Despite those negative aspects, Susan was hooked.

Beginning at Springer Mountain, Georgia and ending at Mount Katahdin, Maine, the Appalachian Trail stretches out over 2190 miles as it crosses 14 states. As the trail traverses mountain peaks and descends into valleys, hikers experience almost 500,000 feet in elevation change over the course of the trail. Most “thru hikers,” (those hiking the trail from end to end) begin in Georgia and wind their way north. A smaller number, begin in Maine and work their way south. The trip usually takes 5-7 months. Others choose to hike the trail in sections. These “section hikers” hike as their schedule allows with some taking years to complete the entire trail. Susan is a section hiker.

Susan at Springer Mountain – The white blaze on the left marks the trail

In April 2021, Susan got serious about hiking the AT. After a few other short trips, she fine-tuned her equipment. She discovered that the use of trekking poles took the pressure off her knees. During one of her first full pack trips, her pack weighed 34 pounds. She has since learned what equipment is essential and has trimmed that weight by 12 pounds for a much more manageable pack. Her goal is to schedule three-day trips, utilize shuttles and hostels, and cover 45 miles per trip. She has now hiked 800 miles of trail and hopes to finish the southern section (all the AT south of Harpers Ferry, Maryland) this year. Her long-term goal is to finish the entire trail over the next three years.

Susan is often asked why she hikes and why the AT. She shared that since her daughters are at an age when they are much more independent, it allows her time to do something for herself. She envisions a day when she will gather her grandkids around and share stories of the people, places and adventures gleaned from her time on the trail.

But mostly Susan hikes because of the impact it has had on her life. “When I first begin,” she said recently, “I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the past. Nowadays, I think more about the future. Each one of these sections I’ve hiked has changed me in subtle ways. I’m a different person than I was when I started this journey.” 

In her wanderings Susan Edwards is far from being lost. She is striding purposefully into the future, blazing her own trail. Perhaps she is on a crusade.

Chris Pernell – The Discovery of Home

For some, Alleghany County is a destination, but for Chris Pernell it was the discovery of home at the end of a long and winding road.

Chris and Kelley Pernell

Laurel Springs resident Chris Pernell learned to work at an early age. His father purchased a franchise restaurant, Blimpies, in 1973 in their hometown of Raleigh. At age 8, Chris was going to the restaurant and helping with food preparation. As he recalls this period of life, he laughs and says, “I chopped a lot of lettuce back then.” Laughter flows easily from Chris as he recounts the twists and turns of his life.

After three years of owning Blimpies, Chris’ dad sold out to his partner and opened another restaurant, Deli King, in Wake County. Chris continued to work in the family business through high school, only taking a break during football season. He describes Wake County in those days as still having a small, hometown feel. “Because of working so many years in the restaurant, I felt like I knew everyone in the county,” he said recently.

Reflecting on those high school days, Chris readily confesses that he “liked to have fun.” In calculating what qualified as fun and what didn’t, he determined that high school wasn’t fun, so he dropped out. He worked for a friend in a food equipment business and later spent a few months in Florida.

When he returned from Florida, he decided it was time to make some changes in his life. He got his GED and enrolled in NC State University (NCSU). He spent the next seven years working through his undergraduate and master’s degrees.

After college, Chris took a job with Novo Nordisk, a pharmaceutical company that now specializes in diabetes medicines. Back then, Novo had a food group, and Chris worked in the industrial enzymes division. He left Novo for a research and development position with Kraft Foods in Chicago.

Chris says that he regretted that decision after two weeks in Chicago, but he stuck with Kraft for 2½ years before moving back to Wake County. Back home again, Chris worked a short stint with Burt’s Bees, an international, personal care product company. Then in another shift of direction, he managed a dry wall distributorship for several years.

While doing his graduate work at N.C. State University, Chris also worked for the university. After his dry wall experience, he returned to NCSU and for the next seven years managed a research lab in the college’s Food Science department.

In 2012, the college developed a small beer brewery that focused much of its research on the development of various types of yeast. Chris filled various roles from laboratory manager to brewery manager, brewer and Brewing Science Instructor.

He points out that much of the technology in the food industry was first discovered by the brewing industry. As an example, Louis Pasteur’s discovery of the milk pasteurization process took place through his research of how yeast and microorganisms cause fermentation in beer.

When NCSU shut down the campus on March 13, 2020, because of C0VID, their staff were directed to work from home. In May of 2015, Chris had bought a house in Laurel Springs. He and his girlfriend, Kelley, had fallen in love with Alleghany County and now with the quality of the local Internet, he could teach his classes from Alleghany as easily as Wake County. In December of 2020 they moved here full-time and married in 2021.

Chris has once again made a slight shift in direction. He is now with University extension through NCSU, but not a part of our county extension group, and continues to work remotely with the acidified foods group. His role is to help primarily home-based businesses who want to sell pickled vegetables, or barbeque and hot sauces – foods with a pH level of less than 4.6 – ensure that their processes and products meet the standards set by the N.C. Department of Agriculture. He finds the work rewarding because he is helping entrepreneurs become successful.

Chris and Kelley have immersed themselves in Alleghany County. Kelley has taken a position as general manager of Alleghany CARES. Chris described one of their favorite activities as “we porch.” That is, they enjoy sitting on their porch soaking up the stillness that is absolutely Alleghany.

Amanda Wiles – A Life that Changed Directions

The British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, once described how a jeweler displays a diamond on black velvet when showing the gem to a customer. As the facets and angles of the diamond catch and reflect the light, its full brilliance is amplified by the contrast of the dark background. Such is the life of Amanda Wiles.

Amanda’s family has Alleghany roots, but they spent much of her childhood in Wilkes County. As she talks about her early family life, Amanda describes an environment of addiction and domestic violence. There were instances of suicide in her extended family. “While I was a good student,” she said recently, “I definitely fit the modern label of ‘at risk youth.’” As she entered her middle school years in Wilkesboro, she began acting out in a variety of ways. “I wasn’t a bad kid,” she continues, “But, I was moving in a bad direction.”

When she was 13, Amanda and her family moved back to Alleghany County. She had trouble adjusting to her new school and struggled to fit in. She continued to act out and set her mind on dropping out of school as soon as she turned 16.  As she relates her story, Amanda becomes reflective. “You know how there are pivotal instances in your life that go unnoticed at the moment, but seem obvious in hindsight,” she asks rhetorically? “I had two of those moments as a 14 year-old.”

The first was a visit from David “Squeak” Edwards. Edwards later became the Alleghany County sheriff, but he was a probation officer when he paid a visit to Amanda. He had caught wind of the group Amanda was spending time with and saw where she was heading unless she shifted direction. She recalls Edwards telling her that she was much too smart to be traveling the path she was on.

Her true life changing moment occurred when she met Jamie Wiles. As Amanda describes their teenage relationship she says, “Jamie was stable. He went to church with his family, and he treated me well. Jamie gave me a glimpse of what a relationship could and should be.”  At this point of the conversation Amanda laughs, “I know that all sounds crazy.” Then she adds more seriously, “It points to how chaotic my childhood was and how steadying Jamie was for me.”  But true to her plan, Amanda dropped out of high school at 16 and she and Jamie were married. She describes them working 2-3 jobs to make ends meet. Again, she laughs and says, “That’s what you have to do when you do dumb things.”

At 21, Amanda breezed through her GED with little studying. Her 20s were filled with several futureless jobs and raising their family. At 29, she began thinking about going to college with an eye on becoming a police officer. Jamie wasn’t thrilled about her becoming a police officer but viewed her return to college as a positive step. She completed her associates degree, and then enrolled in a criminal justice program offered at Wilkes Community College (WCC) by Gardner-Webb University. Amanda describes these as financially difficult years for their family. It required her to make tough choices about what she valued most. She had to give up a nice car with payments for an old one. It required her to accept grants and loans for college tuition. Government subsistence programs helped fill the gaps as they stretched every dollar.

But the rewards came quickly. Amanda began teaching criminal justice part-time at the Ashe Campus of WCC in 2013. She continued her education and received a master’s degree from Liberty University which lead to a full-time teaching position with WCC in 2017.

Her new job helped create the opportunity for Jamie to open his own garage, Jamie’s Auto Solutions. Amanda laughs once more and says, “Of course as with most everything in our lives, opening a new business wasn’t easy. The day we opened; our checking account was overdrawn by $7.00. Jamie had to change oil using ramps for several weeks. But we looked long-term and made it work.” Amanda helps manage the books and both their children, Auston and Courtney, work at the garage.

As we assess our lives and those around us, we often take a short-term view of how we define success. It is tempting to place labels on others that mark where they are at that specific moment in time. In the case of children, those labels can have a negative impact that follows them into adulthood. Unfortunately, many of us have spoken some version of, “She won’t ever amount to much” about a child who is struggling in a challenging situation. Amanda Wiles’ life forces us to challenge those assumptions and instead look for the sparkles of a diamond against a dark background.

Madison Story – Setting the Bar High for Alleghany Youth

Madison Story exudes an energy that is difficult to describe and that is somewhat unsettling. That energy isn’t intimidating in the usual sense of the word. Her easy smile sets one at ease. And then she once again utters a phrase that weaves the threads of a conversation together and offers a glimpse at the source of that energy:

“We have to set the bar high.”

That philosophy of high expectations is central to Madison’s approach to life. It’s an approach she takes in her role as a middle school teacher and as an active member of our community.

Madison is a native of Alleghany County. She grew up in Sparta, graduating from Alleghany High School in 2010 and later from Appalachian State University. Her husband, Josh, is also an Alleghany High (2008) and ASU graduate. They were high school sweethearts.

After beginning her teaching career at Sparta Elementary, Madison took a middle school position at Piney Creek School. Because of the intimate size of the student population, Madison gets to know every student at the school as they progress from kindergarten to 8th grade. She learns their names and about their families, and their needs as students. By the time they reach her middle school classroom, the students know she values and cares about all aspects of their lives. Madison speaks in glowing terms of the support the Piney Creek community gives the students, staff and school. “It’s not unusual,” she said recently, “for a someone in the community to call me and mention they are heading to Winston Salem.” They ask, “Is there anything you need for your classroom?” She points out that often as not, this is someone who doesn’t have a student in school but views it a community responsibility to support local students. “Our community sets the bar high,” she adds.

Sometime back, the Storys enjoyed a family vacation in Morehead City. As the parents of toddlers, they were keen on finding activities that were child appropriate. In a city park they came across a splash pad. In addition to the obvious enjoyment for her children, Madison recognized the value in having a safe space where young families can interact and develop relationships.

After returning home, Madison contacted the recreation director for Morehead City for details about their splash pad. She then contacted Sparta Town manager Ryan Wilmoth to pitch the idea to him. Madison was surprised to learn that Wilmoth had similar thoughts and had received a private donation of $50,000 to be used toward a splash pad project in Sparta. Wilmoth explained that they needed an additional $40,000 to build a basic, bare bones pad.

Madison and a group of concerned community members formed the Alleghany Youth Activities Committee and took to social media to raise the needed $40,000. Madison emphasizes this was a group effort and they were surprised by how quickly they raised those funds. She went back to Wilmoth and asked for a quote for a “shoot for the stars” facility. Wilmoth brought back a quote of $235,000 for a dream pad. Madison’s response was, “There is no need to aim low. Let’s set the bar high.”

Wilmoth took the project to the Sparta Town council and they supported the project with both funding and advocacy. Another individual stepped forward with a substantial donation. This has led to a current balance of $210,000 toward the project. The committee is gearing up for one last fundraising push in April with the Splash Pad Lottery. The goal is to have the facility operational by Memorial Day.

As Madison describes the group’s vision for the pad, it is anchored in community. “We [the community] say we want our young families to stay here in Alleghany County. That requires activities for children and places where parents can get to know each other. I hear some of the objections around town to this project and questions about how much this will cost to operate and maintain. I tend to focus on what it costs us when young families move away.”

There’s that energy again – the challenge to set the bar set high.

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If you would like to contribute to this project, donations are being accepted at the Sparta town office. More information can be found on the Alleghany Youth Activities Committee’s Facebook page.

Bill Osborne – Small Farm Advocate

A simple chat about a frigid, January day kindled a memory for Bill Osborne. A memory of hogs.

“When I was a kid, we raised seven hogs a year to sell,” he begins. “We would butcher the first one around Thanksgiving and then spread the rest out over the course of the winter.” Bill goes on to explain that after they had killed the hog, they would scald the hide with boiling water and then scrape off the hair. After it was scraped clean, they would hang the hog and an individual would come by to purchase the whole hog for processing. He said they referred to the practice as “selling from the pole.” As he describes the entire process, it was obvious that the recollection was a flood of memories of old ways and times past. More important was the remembrance of a community coming together around a communal activity. “It seems like everybody showed up to help,” he said.

This memory twists and winds together thoughts that surface in any conversation with Bill Osborne. He is clearly an advocate for family farms and a self-sufficient lifestyle. He is deeply embedded in his community. The strongest theme of all is one of the importance of family.

Bill married his bride Jill when he was only 18 years old and she was 16½. Those were some tough years for a young couple. “There were times when we would have to sell a cull cow to make ends meet,” he recalls. “But, those hard times definitely helped us appreciate the good times even more.”

Bill and Jill

Bill and his brother, David, took over the operation of the family dairy in the 1970s. When David decided to go to college, Bill bought out David’s share of the farm. But when Bill talks about partners on the farm, the conversation always drifts back to his immediate family.

“My daughter, Tammy, never particularly liked driving a tractor. There was one day she was on the tractor most of the day when we were getting up hay. Over the course of the day, the lug nuts worked loose and the wheel came off,” Bill laughs. “After that, I told everybody that she can drive the wheels off a tractor.”

A story about his son, Todd, reflects the dangers around the farm. “Todd was mixing up milk replacers in the pump room. He slipped on some oil and his finger found its way into a pulley. I wrapped the finger up in paper towel and drove him to the emergency room. They sewed the severed finger back on and it grew back just fine.”

Tammy and Todd

Bill speaks glowingly of his wife Jill. “When I was away, she basically ran the operation.” He adds a compliment that can be best appreciated by those who have spent time on a farm, “I’ll tell you in all seriousness, Jill is as good of truck driver and silage hauler as anybody in the county.”

By the mid-1990, dairy farming was getting increasingly difficult. Environmental regulations created a quagmire of expensive upgrades and the twice daily milking schedule made it difficult to have much life off the farm. In 1995, Bill and Jill decided to close the dairy. They focused on tobacco and their greenhouse operation where they grew tobacco seedlings, strawberries and some cabbage.

These days Bill has once again adjusted his farming – this time to cigar tobacco. The plants he grows function as the wrapping leaves for cigars. It is a labor-intensive process and requires near perfect leaves, but he is optimistic that is a good direction for the farm.

US Congresswoman Virginia Foxx and Bill

When asked about the future of agriculture in our community, predictably he comes back to a theme of self-sufficiency. He points to the shrinking number of meat processing facilities and how local farmers have little input on the prices of the livestock they raise. He is concerned that more of our beef and pork comes from foreign sources. He worries that the empty shelves we sometimes see in the grocery store are a harbinger of things to come.

An alternative he envisions is shortening the link between the producers and consumers. Bill is a strong advocate for a vibrate farmers market where customers can talk directly with the farmers about their products. He recognizes an increase in demand for food that is free from preservatives. It brings to mind those cold winter days of his youth when those hog killings were a community event and farmers “sold from the pole.”

Maybe that’s why he still raises a hog for slaughter each year. In addition to great sausage, it is a strong connection to the days of his childhood when the highlight after a long, cold day was a supper of fresh pork tenderloin – locally sourced food before that became a phrase. Perhaps that is less a look into the past and more a glimpse of the future.