Call of the Valley: Lynn Underwood

Shelly Frome
Special to The Black Mountain News

It goes without saying that we all tend to reach out for mutual support, to exchange a bit of fellowship or just to pass the time of day. However, you may encounter newcomers sitting on a bench or taking a stroll around Lake Tomahawk who are somewhat reluctant to engage.

For instance, there’s the Russian lady who now and then, in her native tongue, offers to give someone’s dog a blessing (my golden-doodle Baxter included). She seems to feel self-conscious and keeps to herself. A shopkeeper from New Mexico who had a vague notion she might find a softer, greener landscape in the Blue Ridge is reluctant to share that, concerned that people will consider her impractical.

Another woman with medical issues drove down from the upper Midwest intent on settling close to the saltwater beaches of Florida. But passing through this valley, she felt a nameless vortex and decided to stay for a while to see what happens. She’s wary of disclosing this fact, however, and limits her greetings to a quick nod or smile.

Most recently, we have Lynn Underwood who arrived from California and bought a house, sight unseen, close to Lake Tomahawk in order to have a nice place to walk her dog. She has no clear idea why she ventured clear across the country, but she doesn’t trust explanations anyway because they don’t get her anywhere.

It’s not that others wouldn’t understand, one wants to tell her. Newbies sometimes have to be told that no one’s presence has to be justified. A mysterious pull is just as valid as having longstanding roots, just as valid as the enticing vista surrounding a retirement community or a love of hiking trails.

In fact, it’s a given that this valley is a place where your standing in the community or what you’re doing here has no real bearing on how you’re perceived. Some have gone so far as to say that because of the love of diversity, the more “far out” someone’s outlook, the more promising the encounter.

Which brings us back to Lynn Underwood and what might, at first glance, seem nomadic and freewheeling but, in its own way, follows a logic as valid as any other set of paths and detours.

Her journey may have started in northern California, at Sonoma State University (which she calls “granola state”) where she found a more enticing option to her conventional Ohio upbringing. There the focus was on pure discovery well beyond the beaten path. She focused on what was called humanistic psychology. She took such offbeat courses as the psychology of mystery and went on to get her teaching credentials.

Skip to the time she found herself on the Kona side of the big island in Hawaii, teaching with no set curriculum at a school where she was the only white person. It was a remote locale where the children of coffee farmers would come to school barefoot. There, in a jungle shack high up the mountain at Mauka, she discovered how to live primitively for the first time.

“Since Hawaii is such an arts culture,” she recalled, “I totally taught through the arts. If it’s social studies, we would do a play about it. I was having fun. They were having fun. They were totally learning. But after 10 years, I said, What’s next?”

After another stint teaching language arts in San Diego in a less free-wheeling environment, she was drawn into attending a grad school with a distinct European program in expressive arts therapy. She was able to incorporate many other non-verbal therapeutic forms like dance and creative movement.

She was always drawn to movement “on some deeper level because that’s where the authentic stuff comes through, from the inside out,” she said. Verbalization is less genuine - we tend to tell a story the same way each time because that’s the way our brains are wired, she believes. “Instead of all the time repeating that same story for the hundredth time that comes out of your brain because it’s wired that way.”

All told, using words to justify why she’s in Black Mountain and what she’s up to justifying what she’s up to now doesn’t really matter. If she could bring herself to greet other hesitant newcomers with a “Hi, I’m just starting a new chapter, how about you?”, she could start a welcome - and welcoming - trend. Soon, word would get out that just winging it is absolutely fine.

Call of the Valley is writer Shelly Frome’s periodic profile of people who are drawn to the Swannanoa Valley.