Woodwalker was born on a hike.
The trail itself was really nothing special—just a short, easy walk from the Stumphouse Tunnel parking area, away from the locally famous half-finished railroad tunnel. In a past life, we’d have gravitated toward something longer and more remote. But I had just had my second baby two months previously, and having finally healed and gotten some stamina back, it was our first hike as a family of four, and the first time I’d gotten beyond our backyard in months.
I grew up in the Appalachian foothills, so the landscape was nothing new, but after the confines of a winter pregnancy and new motherhood, being in the woods again was almost overwhelming. My brain fired up, and the little germ of an idea that had begun in a Lord of the Rings fanfiction started sprouting into something completely new. And even though Mae had her roots in Middle Earth, on that hike through a classic southern mixed-hardwood forest, there was no question in my mind what kind of environment she came from.
The places in my books are always heavily drawn from real landscapes I’ve worked in or traveled through. Mae’s country of the Silverwood Mountains draws its environment directly from Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the surrounding national forests, where I’ve been a park ranger for three seasons. Alcoro draws from my time in the desert southwest, and Cyprien from the old-growth swamps in my home state. But several locations throughout the trilogy get even more specific than just an American region—in some cases, I can even list hiking trails or mountain peaks that have directly inspired the journeys of my protagonists. Explore some of these below—maybe one of the campsites or castles in Creatures of Light isn’t that far from you!
All photos belong to me unless otherwise noted. Header photo was taken near Newfound Gap, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Header fonts are Valeria Bold Grunge and Amarillo from dafont.com.
See them all after the jump!
Book location: Drink-Your-Tea Creek
Real location: Forney Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Located on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, in some of the most rugged land in the park, is a classic Appalachian mountain river, at times clear as crystal and other times foaming over rocky currents. Like in the book, this area is thick with songbirds, including the Eastern Towhee that Mae points out to the others with it’s recognizable drink-your-tea call. I hiked Forney Creek with a friend in college, and memories of the lush, cool river stuck with me vividly since then, appearing as one of the first areas Mae leads the others through in the Silverwood Mountains.
Book location: The Pine Campsite
Real location: Panthertown Valley, Nantahala National Forest
The soft give underfoot, the sound of muffled footsteps, the permeating scent of pine… the campsite Mae chooses for the others in the pine grove is hard to beat. It’s drawn from a lovely grove my mom and I hiked through on a backpack we brought my then 8-month-old daughter on. It’s located several miles into Panthertown Valley, North Carolina, in one of the national forests that flanks Great Smoky Mountains. The silence of our footsteps on the carpet of needles created a soothing, hushed atmosphere, just right after a long day of hiking. Of course, readers of Woodwalker know that night in camp didn’t stay calm for long… but fortunately my time in Panthertown was devoid of any such adventures.
Book location: The Ridgeline
Real location: Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Book location: The Palisades
Real location: Table Rock, Table Rock State Park
While I borrowed the name and the scope of the Palisades from an escarpment of the same name in Cimarron State Park in northern New Mexico, I fitted them into my Appalachian environment by drawing on a landmark closer to home—Table Rock. Recognizable for miles around, this exposed rock face towers over the lake below. When I needed a good environmental barrier between the Silverwood and Lumen Lake, I expanded the scale of this mountain and dropped it along the border.
Ashes to Fire
Book location: The Lower Draws
Real location: The Boardwalk Trail and Cedar Creek, Congaree National Park
Book location: The channel
Real location: The Congaree River, Congaree National Park
The channel that the Swamp Rabbit comes to on the journey through Cyprien is inspired by the Congaree River, magnified to Mississippi-sized proportions. The Congaree winds along the border of the national park, slow-moving and silty, and even though it’s not big enough for the scene that occurs in Ashes to Fire, it’s the mental image I wrote with.
Creatures of Light
Book location: Whiptail Hob
Real location: Betatakin and Keet Seel, Navajo National Monument
There are many preserved cliff dwellings throughout the US, but I wanted to make sure I was writing these types of homes with integrity. Instead of drawing inspiration from a broad swath of sites, which might have given me too generic an interpretation, I chose Betatakin and Keet Seel, two Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings in Navajo National Monument. I spent three days in Navajo while conducting my thesis research, and I loved the miles-long hikes into Tsegi Canyon with our guide to reach the soaring alcoves housing the villages. Betatakin in particular resonated with me—ordinary visitors like me aren’t allowed in the alcove, so we had to view it from outside. And I found it actually gave me more space to think about life in the canyon and under the alcove roof. Several years later, I drew on those memories to inform Rana’s cozy home in Whiptail Hob.
Book location: The Stone Wall Campsite
Real location: Box Canyon Cave, New Mexico
My first summer at Philmont Scout Ranch, I worked at a camp called Indian Writings in the North Ponil Canyon. In a small side canyon was an alcove similar to the one the hobs occupy, with a teetering stone wall built along the edge. The wall was reconstructed based on archaeological evidence, and like many other places in the North Ponil, there were Ancestral Puebloan petroglyphs carved into the walls. Ten years later, when I was writing Creatures of Light and needed a good campsite for Gemma, I sheltered her in a similar cave partway up the Stellarange Mountains.
Book location: The Stellarange Caves
Real location: Whorley Cave, Tennessee
“It was character-building,” my husband said when I told him about this blog post.
“I’ll say it was,” I replied.
March Art Roundup
Only ONE IMAGE for you this month, for several reasons---one was lots of writing on my current manuscript, another was a big illustration project that I can't share yet, and yet another was the tumult of interviewing and making hard decisions with the National Park Service for this summer. Read more about that news below!
What I'm Reading:
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator