Highlands! The only 'Highlands' I've ever spent time in we just called 'the mountains,' but you have to say it a particular way, sort of like 'ma'untns' -- that's close, anyway, even if not quite there. There's a certain lilt in your voice that you've got to have if you're going to sound like you belong there.

I can't really claim to be from there, you understand, although I have family there -- lots of family, aunts and uncles and cousins (so many cousins, I'm not sure I've found them all yet), and of course, at the time I'm talking about, there were my grandparents.

Mama (she was actually my grandmother, but everyone called her 'Mama') lived alone (except for my oldest uncle, the moonshiner) in an old farmhouse tucked away in a valley that my grandfather owned. Papa (same deal as 'Mama' -- and just for the record, my own parents were 'Mom' and 'Dad') spent most of his time at his sister's place, since Mama would allow him to visit -- if we were visiting, since we were the relatives from farthest away -- but if he stayed, he had to sleep on the couch in the living room. I think I got the idea fairly quickly that if we weren't visiting, he was persona non grata -- they didn't get along all that well.

People in the city have a hard time believing me when I talk about Mama's house. There were a living room, three bedrooms (hers, my uncle's, and everyone else's, with three big beds and lots of quilts), and a lean-to kitchen and dining room. The heat came from a fireplace in the living room and a wood burning stove in the kitchen, and light was from kerosene lamps. Water was piped into the yard from the spring up the hill above the 'convenience' -- which wasn't really all that convenient if the weather was bad. I used to joke that of course my grandmother had running water -- if she needed water, one of us ran out to the cistern in front with a bucket and got some. (And I've never tasted better water anywhere.) Imagine a tiny tow-headed five-year-old staggering out the door with a bucket almost as big as he was and coming back with about a pint of water inside -- that was all I could manage at that point. I wasn't a large child, by any means.

Anyway, when I was young we'd spend fairly lengthy periods at Mama's, usually in spring and summer, just living there. There were me and a bunch of cousins who lived nearby ('nearby' in this case meaning my uncle's house, about a twenty-minute walk up the road) and were all within a year or two of my age, plus my younger sister and their younger sister who always, as is the case with younger siblings, tagged along. I didn't wear shoes unless we were going into town (none of us did), which itself was a major event. When we went into town, everyone got dressed up. That's just the way it was.

But mostly we just ran loose in the woods, scaring the bejesus out of whatever lived there. And getting scared in our turn -- there was one time I remember very clearly, when I was about ten, when we were up the hill in a particularly thick patch of rhododendron, and suddenly there was a shadow and a rustle moving away, and then dead silence. The silence was from us -- we were paralyzed. To this day, there's no way you're going to convince any of us that it wasn't a bear.

And since it was summer, we went swimming. Our usual place was the Round Hole, which was just what it claimed to be -- a place where the creek widened out into a bowl of calm water, shielded by a big boat-shaped rock at the head, way off through the orchard and down a short trail. Mom sent an older cousin to yell at us once for making so much noise -- they could hear us at the house, maybe a mile away. We were a rambunctious bunch.

There were others -- the Long Hole, up the road a bit, not as much fun except that it had fish. And one place just above the turn-off to my uncle's house, at the bottom of a hill. (The road was actually cut into the hill about halfway up.) It didn't have a name that I know of, but it was like a place out of a fantasy novel -- cool, shady, quiet, and faintly mysterious, surrounded by tall pines. That's if you could get to it without killing yourself -- that hill was steep.

I should explain about that road -- a gravel road that got graded every couple of years. Papa owned the valley, except for the few acres my uncle owned at the head, and there was a national forest beyond that. If a car came by, which happened maybe three times a week at the most, it was probably someone we knew coming to visit (or the ranger looking for my uncle -- he'd always stop to talk). And we could always hear them coming, the way we could sit on the front porch and watch the afternoon rains coming up the valley. If we didn't know them, we figured they were city people going camping in the national forest. No matter -- you always waved.

That's my 'highlands,' or a little bit of them. You'd call them 'southern Appalachia.' It's where I spent a chunk of my growing up time -- learned to pitch in, to do for myself, climb the side of a road cut, handle a gun (rifle and handgun, and I'm a very good shot), split firewood without cutting my foot off, avoid packs of feral dogs and snakes (there were a lot more snakes than dogs). And I spent a lot of time just rambling, with the cousins and alone, looking at what was there. That was the best part.