Tower Weekend

For 14 Octobers we’ve scheduled a weekend with a small group of friends at our place in the mountains. We’ve called the get-away “The Tower Weekend” since the beginning, a name derived from the unique hand-built wooden tower that was once the only structure on the property.

Going to the Tower is not for uber-urban types. It’s a half-mile off the paved road up and then down a steep two-track “driveway.” The closest house (and toilet that doesn’t compost) is a quarter-mile over the ridge. If you need something the nearest convenience store is on Highway 107, six miles away.

When I bought the four acres in the summer of 1993 I viewed the place as Henry David Thoreau had his Walden cabin. It would be a spot where I could disappear from the world to write and recover some sense of literary and environmental perspective. The first few summers I did write there very successfully. I soon imagined that I would gradually spend more and more time in the Appalachian woods, growing attuned to mountain solitude and back-country self-sufficiency.

When I wasn’t channeling Thoreau, the tower functioned as the poet William Butler Yeats’ tower once had in Ireland. My tower was a place where I communed with the deeper earth spirits. The former owner had asked a Cherokee shaman to divine the “power points” on the property and so I inherited a ritual of “feeding the gods,” sprinkling cornmeal on small two stone altars along the spring run.
One year there were only six of us at the gathering, but most years there are at least eight or ten. Over the years there have probably been thirty or so friends who have visited for a day or the weekend. Their names and deeds are duly recorded in the journal I’ve kept since the beginning.

Mostly we sit around a campfire, talk, and laugh. We eat too much and stare off at Panther Knob, the Blue Ridge peak perfectly situated in the middle of our little view. Only one of us has attended all fourteen, and it’s not me, even though I own the place.
This last Tower Weekend was memorable. It rained all day Saturday, and we huddled together in Mack’s small cook tent, our only forays into the weather to stoke the communal fire.

After two days of talk and food and staring off at the misty autumn peak, we packed up, shifted into four-wheel drive and tried one-by-one to head up the hill. We failed, one after another, and it looked for a brief moment like we were destined to spend the first day of the workweek until the road dried out. We rallied and gave each other encouragement and direction. We pushed and prodded our vehicles, and finally all fish-tailed up the hill and headed back down the road to civilization.

Looking back I realize that the tower has mostly taught me about the ties that bind, not nature or earth religion. Our weekends on the mountain have functioned as an echo chamber for social trust, a particle accelerator for friendship, a brief and repeatable experiment in community.

It isn’t the weeks of solitude I sift back through when I think of my time there, it’s the 14 “tower weekends,” the latest recently concluded. I like to think that sometime in the future archaeologists will discover the remains of our fire pit and speculate on who sat there warming or cooking food in the long ago past.

Our laughter will leave no recoverable remains, nor the bonds that connect us. I like to think though that those spirits I’ve fed with cornmeal all these years are always present, and that some small part of us will join them on the mountain, looking over that high place. It’s enough to keep drawing me back.

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