I am part of the thirteenth generation of Cox’s living in these mountains. Growing up in a strong Southern Baptist family native to the Blue Ridge Mountains, there was little time for play and plenty of time for work. Most of my time was spent either hunting or working on our farm, where I learned my most sacred lesson in life, that still follows me to this very day.
Being raised on a farm, I always dreaded the arrival of summer vacation. Most kids in class we’re excited for the break, but for me, school letting out for the summer meant that the hay crop was ready to be harvested. For us, the hay harvest was like a family affair. My father would bale and my grandfather would rake hay while wearing a large straw hat. My uncle, cousin and I had the wonderful task of throwing the hay bales onto the trailer.
While working in the hot dusty conditions of the hayfield I would often see kayakers and canoers float down the cool waters of the New River. I would sigh at the thought of being able to float down the river rather than being cooked like a potato in the field. I would watch as the tourists lined the river in preparation for their floats. It was obvious that they were not locals- their accents and attire was not that of the gym shorts and rubber tires that locals would use. I can remember my grandfather smiling as I watched, “Boy, you will be thankful for this later in life.” At the time, I couldn’t possibly see how I could be thankful for this.
After hours of hot sun beating down on my skinny white arms, the evening would approach and my mother could be seen driving into the field. She would whistle and wave, motioning us to her. With a warm smile, she would say, “Who’s hungry?” For my cousin and I, it was often a race to her goody basket. I can remember looking up on a hillside to see my father continue bailing as if nothing had happened. I thought to myself, “Dang! Is he not hungry?” My sweet mother would then walk up to his tractor, give him a kiss, and drop a plate of food on his lap. As I watched as my father continue to bale after finishing his meal, my grandfather smiled and said “Boy, our mountain roots are much deeper than most can understand.” I didn’t understand what he meant at the time, but through observing and working with my father, things began to make sense to me.
One summer evening, my father decided that I needed to learn how to mow hay. As the tractor made a pass my father suddenly slammed on the brakes. I went flying across the cab smacking my head against the window of the tractor. I looked at him in frustration as he grinned and said “Boy, you got to be on your toes. Now come look at this.” My father led me to the back of the tractor and picked up two small deer fawns. “Shew!” he said, “We almost ran over these little guys.” After many deer hunts with my father, and knowing how much he hated deer eating our Christmas trees, I was somewhat confused by my father’s actions. He carried them to the woods and shooed them to safety. He turned around to see me staring at him in astonishment. My father simply said, “Son, it’s important to respect our wildlife- they are part of our heritage.” It was very evident to me that my father, despite being a hunter, still had a deep respect for nature, and it was at this point my love and passion for wildlife began to grow. With only a brief pause my father and I quickly set about our task and continued until the field was complete. Although exhausting, working with him quickly taught me the value of an honest day’s work.
Not only did my father own and manage the farm, he was a highway patrolman in Wilkes County. One of the earliest memories I have as a child was listening to stories that my father told about chasing bootleggers and criminals in the Western North Carolina Mountains. Years later, I knew that I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and go into law enforcement. Growing up in the mountains and having a strong passion for wildlife, there was one career that I knew was my calling- that calling was to be a North Carolina Game Warden.
North Carolina’s Game Warden school is one of the most physically demanding academies in the nation. The six month academy was to take place in Eastern North Carolina. Growing up in the mountains I was used to cool breezes and harsh winters. Scorching hot days and mosquitos the size of cats, however, was not what I was accustomed to. The first couple weeks were absolute torture. The academy consisted of long hours of physical fitness accompanied by the screaming of drill instructors. It was during those times that I recalled what my grandpa had told me many years ago in that hayfield. “Boy, you’re going to be thankful for this later in life.” As the screams of the drill instructors worsened, a little voice in my head was saying, “Man, I’m grateful for how I was raised.” Nothing could have prepared me the way growing up on a farm in the mountains truly did. All those sweaty summer days, freezing winters cutting Christmas trees, and the powerful work drive that my father instilled in me, carried me through the course.
After finishing my time at the academy, I was blessed to receive a duty station right back at home. The first stop I made was one of the very fields where my work ethic and heritage began. As I drove my new patrol truck up the grassy path leading to an old hayfield, the old words of my grandpa rang true. “Boy, our mountain roots are much deeper than most can understand.” This mountain boy had finally made it home.