From Haywood to Vietnam — and back again

By Stina Sieg | Sep 29, 2011

A few nights ago, I was sitting on damp grass in the Canton countryside and watching a world I’d never seen unfold all around me.

To my left, people were piling potluck vittles onto their plates, and in front of me a group of musicians was beginning to form, though their banjos and guitars and fiddles were still in their cases. This could have been a family reunion or maybe a church gathering if it hadn’t been for that large, steaming vat of boiling green liquid just a few feet away.

I was at one of David Burnette’s sweet sorghum-making parties — his last one of the year, actually — and I remember wishing that I could soak everything in and retain every aspect of that evening. I was enchanted, bowled over, grateful to be there and have the opportunity to watch such an old-time tradition come alive.

Over the hours, as the night and syrup grew darker, I began thinking of something else as well. It started as just a little twinge, a slight itch in the back of my mind. By the time I was heading home, my jar of sticky-sweet syrup riding shotgun, a few words had taken over my head.

This is what I’m leaving, I thought, filled with near-equal parts fear, excitement and gratitude.

Now, let me explain that I’m not moving or quitting my job at the paper. I am, as I explained often at that party, taking a solo trip to Vietnam for almost a month.

To answer the question more than one person asked at the open-air shindig, I don’t really know why I’m going, only that I want to. I suppose it has most to do with finding a cheap ticket out of Asheville, but that doesn’t seem like any kind of answer. Perhaps I’m doing this, as I told a few folks, because I’m curious. That doesn’t sound much more eloquent, but I can’t help it.

For better or for worse, I have been a traveler as long as I can remember. Maybe I had nothing to do with it even, and my parents are to blame. I like to tell anecdotes about how I, as a 2-month-old, traveled across Canada in a sidecar. I was in my mother’s arms, and my dad was steering the motorcycle. When I was 9, my family of four traveled around the country for two years. To make a complex story simple, my father was creating a photography project at the time, and he used those miles and years to capture images of people we met along the way. We were constantly on the move then, and I loved it. I remember feeling such elation as we’d pull out of an RV park and hit the open road. That, I always felt, was where the excitement was. Even then, I understood that travel is enthralling and addictive, and once you start, it’s hard to let it go.

This is all a roundabout means of saying that while I still feel this way to a point, some change is afoot. I am still seduced by the unknown, obviously, or else I wouldn’t be leaving this Thursday. But something about living here, amongst so many people with deep, proud roots has affected me in ways that are continually surprising. It’s not that I don’t want to leave. It’s just that I’m excited to come back.

For someone who has lived seven places in the last seven years, that’s a big deal, and it’s actually kind of scary to admit. It’s like being in a relationship with someone nice and sweet and slowly realizing that this might be serious.

That’s where I was at the other night, as I snapped pictures and chatted away at David’s party, a tradition in his family for more than 20 years. I was struck by how I’d never seen anything quite like it. It was so open and welcoming, with everyone from old-timers to young city people hanging out, eating and listening to folksy mountain music. People honestly looked tickled to be skimming impurities off gallons of bubbling, soon-to-be-thick syrup. I stayed for several hours, had many a conversation and ate more food than I care to say.

When the late hour and my full belly finally convinced me to go on my way, I was struck at how sad I was to be leaving. Driving back to Waynesville, I wanted to think about my upcoming trip. I wanted to plan things and fantasize about faraway lands but couldn’t. With hardly any frame of reference, I realized I had no idea where this journey was taking me. All I knew for sure was where I was returning, and that was enough to make me smile for miles down the quiet and empty highway.

Stina will be gone from Sept. 29 through Oct. 26. In the interim, a few of her stories (written in advance) will be published in The Mountaineer and The Guide. Follow her journey (and read of past ones) on her blog,