When I Bought My Mountain Place

When I bought my mountain place in western North Carolina I was looking for this purest form of retreat. I wanted to put as many one lane bridges between me and the nearest Wal-Mart as possible. But I also knew it was the Southeast, and there would always be neighbors, echoing sounds from across the ridge. They may not be close by, but they would be presences offering waves as we passed on the driveway lined with rhododendron. I didn’t even care if I had indoor plumbing or well water. I wasn’t trying to make visits comfortable for my city friends used to vacation cottages. I wasn’t looking for the rural life. I wasn’t sniffing out some 1990s version of what Horace Kephart, in that 1905 classic Our Southern Highlanders, called “the back of beyond.” I was looking for a place more like Thoreau’s Walden, or Annie Dillard’s Tinker Creek, a place whose natural history has been compromised by human history.

The urban world Kephart left behind had become deadening for him. He abandoned a family and a good professional job in Saint Louis, took the train south and ended up in what was then a frontier town surrounded by deep forest, some of it still uncut. The world he found in Bryson City, North Carolina, and the Smoky Mountains beyond, fortified the last 26 years of his life. Old time Southern wildness was a tonic. There were bear hunts, moonshiners, and lots of high country wilderness. Some say Kephart was already drunk when he stumbled off the train, and some never forgave his lack of fortitude for the middle class life in Saint Louis.

I finally came to spend summers on Johns Creek not so much because I wanted to leave something. It’s more that I wanted to enter something else. I wanted a place where I could slow down enough to do a great deal of seeing, even some naming, recording. I wanted the growth cycles of mountain species–ginseng, trillium, black locust—to become as real to me as fescue. I wanted to note the change of temperature from evening to morning in a hard spined journal and follow the scream of the piliated woodpecker up the north slope to its nesting tree.

I know “faith is sight and knowledge,” as Thoreau wrote in his journal. It is only through mountain summers that I felt I could find a place to exercise both. I wanted to see the moment that Annie Dillard describes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.” How would Kephart deal with the method of such solitude? The knowledge he sought was more that of camping and woodcraft. The archives of his journals contain few personal insights, no speculation into great beyond. Language fascinated him—the mountain dialect—and hunting stories. Moonshine was what was left of the wild song.

Early in the 1990s an aunt died and left me enough money to finally buy some land, so I put the money in the bank and started looking for land in earnest. A friend had this place over near Cullowhee he wanted to sell. He had five acres with a structure he had built himself—a two story tower—as a writing space. He lived down the road with his wife and crept up the rutted approach drive once a day to meditate and muse in his plywood tower. He had taken me up once or twice and I told him that I wanted to be first in line if he ever decided to sell.

My friend, Thomas Rain Crowe, had bought the land in the early 1980s. He and his wife at the time had dreams of living there year-round, surrounded by trout ponds, organic gardens in raised beds, water from abundant springs. They had gone as far as laying out the septic tank and getting a friend to design a house. They weren’t look for a “back of beyond” either, but they wanted comfort and old-time homesteading practicality. They wanted Foxfire more than Walden.

A few years ago, the marriage broke up, and the place lost some of its appeal, reminding him of a time that had passed. In need of some cash flow, he offered to pass the place on to me at a fair price, considering the energy he’d put into it over the years. I exchanged a caretaker’s vow, sealed with a puff of old-time Cherokee Katuah tobacco, and purchased the Tower in 1994.

“The mountains won’t remember us,” that’s what Robert Morgan called a book of short stories. That’s what I’ve found spending five summers at the Tower. One evening, midsummer of my first season up there, I headed toward the ridge on a walk. I left the door to the Tower open. Upstairs I had left a single light burning on my writing desk. I had yet to put a screen door up. (It’s one of those luxuries that my friend Thomas didn’t need.) When I returned after dark there were hundreds of ghostly white moths floating like snow all around the single lamp. It was as if they had taken the Tower over for their own, reclaimed a space that was naturally theirs. For months a moth would flutter out of hiding and spin like a compass on my desk each time I turned on the computer.

The mountains are just as mysterious today, though Kephart’s grave in Bryson City has no appeal to compete with the tourist train that departs daily from the city depot. Some would point our that even Kephart’s mountains have been subdivided–national parks, view lots, bottom land for four lane highways and flea markets, national forests for wood production and recreation, strip mines for coal production, sloping foothills for urban sprawl.

What remains for me though are are those summer moments and what they bring. It’s a mistake to look for vista. I’ve yet to see Annie Dillard’s mountains slamming shut, but summers I have lived my mountain life in the path of great surprises, whether worms driven before the mole, or moths drawn out of the woods toward the light.

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