Trading in life in the fast lane for a rural dream. An executive-turned-magazine publisher's labor of love

FIVE years ago Maryann Herbermann, then 54, vice-president of an Atlanta advertising agency and a pressure-driven urbanite, bought a house in a quiet hollow of the Appalachians. Visiting on the weekends, she grew close to the forests and farms, the small towns, and the close-knit families of the area. Bit by bit, she learned the secrets and stories of the hills. And her imagination was captured for life.

``There is an endless folklore, an endless heritage, an unbelievable number of people stashed in the hills up here, full of stories,'' the energetic former executive says. She is explaining why she quit her well-paying city job and moved year-round to her mountain house, to start a small magazine called Mountaineer Times.

Originally intended as mainly a guide to events, the magazine quickly grew into a ``sort of verbal patchwork quilt,'' as Ms. Herbermann describes it, that stitches together the history, folklore, crafts and events of the mountains from Alabama to Pennsylvania. A warm, casual read, its stories wander comfortably from profiles of mountain newcomers, to profiles of families whose mountain roots go back for centuries, to recipes for cheese corn bread and apple nut cake.

In the fall-winter issue, an elderly couple recall the early days of their marriage, when Copperhill, now a stark and denuded ghost town, was a thriving mining camp and the hills outside the town glowed with hot slag. An earlier issue carries a history of a local Cherokee Indian family whose ancestors escaped relocation when the Cherokee nation was forcibly moved from the Appalachians in the 19th century.

Stories have profiled country singer Jean Ritchie and 71-year-old world hiker Jon Mackey, described how to build a log cabin and repair antiques, and reviewed local rafting and mountain climbing spots. Regular features cover crafts, music, food, events, and places. It is a homey-feeling publication, printed on soft white paper, with photos that look like (and sometimes are) old family snapshots.

But like many dreams come to life, publishing the Mountaineer Times has been in some ways more of a challenge than Herbermann expected when she launched the first issue with the help of her old friend, Eileen Kerr, two years ago.

The magazine, which comes out three times a year, is a labor of love not only for Herbermann but for all the editors and contributors; everyone who works on it is a volunteer. Circulation has struggled up to 4,000, but each issue is still published at a net loss.

And as the primary writer and only full-time staff member, Herbermann has clocked some 30,000 miles on her four-wheel-drive Isuzu in less than a year, driving alone down dirt roads, no roads, through brush, and over mountainsides in four states in search of stories.

She works out of her cedar-shingled house at the end of a twisting plunging, clay road that looks as if it sees traffic no more than once a week. (In fact, she says, it sees traffic at least once a day - she picks up her mail in Copperhill that often.)

But with every new story and issue, she has become more fascinated with the people and past of the Appalachians. ``When you come to the mountains, something different happens,'' she says, looking beyond her porch at the creek and serene forest. ``It's an altogether different life. It overpowered me.''

Talking with local people and watching the current issue of the magazine take shape ``really lifts you right out of your day-to-day existence,'' she says, adding that she had always craved a greater creative outlet than her former job of managing a media buying group for the advertising agency. ``I enjoy putting something together that I think people would enjoy reading,'' she says. ``I enjoy watching something grow.''

To help the magazine find an authentic mountain voice, Herbermann has been working since last summer with a writers' group, Sassafras Literary Exchange, of nearby Jasper, Ga. ``It's their families that make up the history of the area,'' she notes, saying that what the writers lack in formal English grammar, they make up for in feeling.

She has spoken at Sassafras meetings, edited some of the writers' poetry and nostalgia pieces, and printed pieces in the magazine.

``She makes you feel good about yourself and what you're doing,'' says Linda Crider, a local writer who has been published twice in the Mountaineer Times. ``That's important to Appalachian people.''

The magazine has also published stories by local schoolchildren. Indeed, it seems to provide a satisfying creative outlet to all who work on it. ``It has been marvelous therapy for me,'' says managing editor Kerr, a full-time textbook consultant in Atlanta who had lost her husband to illness just before Herbermann started the magazine.

Ms. Kerr spends weekends at her mountain house or with Herbermann, writing, rewriting, researching stories, and proofreading the copy they produce on a computer desktop publisher, which sits on a Victorian desk in Herbermann's small office. ``It's a real getaway,'' says Kerr. ``I get paid in satisfaction and happiness.'' Other editors are creative director Linda Mitchell, an Atlanta graphic arts designer, and photography editor Bill Kautz, a local photojournalist. The board of directors is composed of six local people, who monitor the magazine's accurate and sensitive portrayal of the region.

Readers are as varied as the mountains' rich cultural life. Some are local people, interested in profiles of their neighbors and friends. Others are retired people who have moved to the Appalachians from other areas and are looking for insights and information.

Herbermann says letters show that subscribers from places as distant as Michigan, Minnesota, Florida, and California are mostly vacationers who have passed through the area, become smitten with it, and want to stay in touch.

Distribution of the magazine is handled through bookstores, craft shops, antiques centers, and restaurants in 21 towns in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama. The magazine has also recently expanded into a mail order department for regional books, linking up with a local distributor of backpacking and wilderness guides, books of Indian folklore, and the like.

Despite the financial pressure, the magazine carries only a few simple, medium-type ads. ``I hate advertising,'' Herbermann confides, in the tone of one who has made a clean break with the past. Mountaineer Times advertisers are mostly folksy and compatible businesses, such as craft centers and wilderness outfitters. The fall-winter issue for the first time carries real estate ads, but they are modestly drawn, even whimsical things; one has a logo of a duck in a top hat.

Work and money concerns aside, Herbermann is as conspicuously proud of the magazine as anyone who ever left behind a successful career to risk a dream. She is committed to publishing it three to five years, she says, even at a loss if necessary, to give it a chance to build circulation. If it fails, she says stoically, she'll go on to other things. But for now, it is her compulsion and fascination.

``People here have so much locked in their heads, especially the older people,'' she says, ``I could go on for 50 years and not run out of stories.''

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