Words by Megan Smith
Photography by Sarah Beaty
318. That’s the number of curves I experienced on an 11-mile stretch of the mountain pass known as Deals Gap, North Carolina. This is the trek that one must take (at least on a maiden voyage) to the DeGroot/Johnson property tucked far into a holler of the Great Smokey Mountains. The drive is not for the faint of heart, and the final climb—a one-mile narrow pebbled road to the house—is cause for a deep sigh of relief upon ascension.
Unexpectedly, and thankfully, every bit of road anxiety quickly dissipates as Neil DeGroot greets me with a broad smile, twinkling baby blues and a glass of champagne. “You’ve made it!” he exclaims, embracing me in a bear hug and leading me down the walk, through the colossal wooden front door and into the zen-like retreat he and his wife built to both calm and amaze. It doesn’t disappoint.
The house itself is an Architectural Digest article waiting to happen. But my weekend visit is not for a house tour. It’s to find the heart of the home. And for that I look no further than steps inside. Joanne (Jojo) Johnson, tall, gregarious and confident, rushes over to greet me with a radiant smile, a nurturing hug and infectious enthusiasm that fails to wane over our next 36 hours together. I found what I came looking for.
I had heard about Joanne a few months prior during a chance meeting with her husband of nearly 30 years, Neil. A widely respected and world renowned TV producer, director, theater and film actor, Neil isn’t really enamored by anyone in the industry. I’ve prodded to no avail. Beautifully he seems most awe-struck by his own bride. Over coffee on one of the hottest spring days in the south, Neil told me the story of Joanne. Abbreviated yet poignant. I needed to know more.
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