Little ole cabin in the woods

Last weekend, we fell in love with the Appalachians again.

Paul and Lara's cabin
Paul and Lara’s cabin

The cabin was built in the 1840s. Our friends, an older couple named Paul and Lara, live there. Lara is a storyteller, folklorist, and knower of the natural: birds, animals, plants, trees, and how to make everything out of them. How to build a hearth out of river rocks, how to milk sheep, how to heal ailments with herbs. Paul is a teacher, woodworker, and alternative energy expert. He rigs up electric cars, teaches middle school kids how to make wood crafts, and builds just about anything. Together, they run the Coweeta Heritage Center on their property.

These people have more projects going than can be imagined. They have interns and volunteers to assist sometimes, but it is often just the two of them, and they are not spring chickens. The land is strewn with partly born ideas: a gutted van, a camper, lumber carefully milled from felled trees and stacked under tin roofing with cement blocks. A fish pond, a small waterfall. A clay oven now riddled with holes from mud-loving insects. The barn where the sheep used to be. (Have you ever tried to milk a sheep? It’s hard.) Lara tends the goats and makes goat’s-milk cheese, buttermilk, butter, and milk. She works in the small permaculture garden she has begun. As she does, she thinks of stories.

garden

So it was time to visit. Saturday morning, we dragged the poor, low-riding Mazda 3 an hour and a half out of the city and up the alarmingly rutted Coweeta Gap Road, into a narrow valley with a stream running through it, to their 52-acre plot of hilly land.

The rigors of the Trail, the fresh memory of the majesty of the West, and our rough start in Asheville had erected a barrier between us and the Appalachian mountains we’d loved so long. They were my first mountains. I interned for a summer at the Twin Oaks commune in Virginia during college, and the hazy Blue Ridge rose from the western horizon. They were maternal, mysterious, ancient, abundant. They provided orientation, perspective, grounding, and a reminder that the earth is a moving, shifting creature. I loved them immediately.

Thus, it had been unsettling to find myself disenchanted. But here at last was an opening, between two narrow ridges, through which to begin to love them again.

As we had hoped, Paul and Lara had set out projects: J. would help Paul build a sauna behind one of the cabins, and I would paint a small case fridge for them to sell their cabbages and mustard greens at market. After a few hours of work in the chill afternoon, we went down the hill to the cabin for dinner. One skinny-necked guinea screeched ceaselessly at our approach, while the flock of hens calmly clucked out of our way.

As we sat around the table in the tiny, hearth-heated room, Lara put out cornbread from a cast-iron skillet, a bowl of butter beans, roast turkey, and fruit salad. Rusks and rinds were strewn upon the wooden floor, crumbs on the table, and a thick layer of history on each wooden chair. The kitchen table legs stood in teacups. Tapestries, woven wicker baskets, and tools hung on the walls. Every corner was packed with books, jars, and dust. The cabin’s interior is as enveloping as the womb of the Appalachian Mountains themselves. It is a one-room museum of the people who come from these mountains.

Red glass bottles

After dinner, Paul poured us mugs of pocahickra: hickory nut milk, flavored with both nuts and shells. It is a brown milk that, served warm with a spoon of maple syrup, smells and tastes wonderful. Perhaps the proof of its countryness is that no spelling of its name elicits results from Google. However, I am reading the excellent book 1491 by Thomas Mann, and it had just mentioned hickory milk, as part of a thesis that the Indians had strategically planted chestnut and hickory all along the East, in natural, life-giving orchards, far from the stereotype of savages in untouched wilderness. Mann’s first cup of the milk was as pleasurable as mine. His was served by St. EOM, an eccentric artist from rural Georgia who claimed Creek ancestry. (J. and I once visited St. EOM’s rambling, strange estate, Pasaquan, as a day trip from Koinonia Farm. The saint died years ago, but his compulsive mosaics remain. You can also find a roomful of it at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.)

As we talked, Paul showed us the ingenious but simple pattern for making a wooden spoon. J. ran his hands over it, satisfied. He had wondered how those spoons were made ever since our first visit, five years before. We had volunteered for ten days, and afterward, Paul presented us with a cooking spoon made of cherry that we treasured and used for years. This time he gave us an ash.

After saying goodnight, J. and I climbed the hill to the visitors’ cabin. No computer, no internet, no cell phone reception. While these are useful tools, we were satisfied gazing at the fire and peeping into a few of the hundreds of books on botany, construction, and the like. When it was time to sleep, we unrolled the futon by the hearth, and J. loaded the fire so hot that there was no need to feed it overnight. It rumbled and blazed and, citified as I am, I kept thinking I heard a log roll out onto the floor, or smelt smoke pouring through some vent to asphyxiate us. But we slept.

In the morning it was goats’-buttermilk pancakes with blueberries that had been picked nearby and then frozen. When you stay in a place so long, you know where to find the hickory nuts (the tree behind the library), yellow raspberries (an open field of brambles near town), and everything else (the woods, usually). For tea, Paul set out dried herbs, a strainer, and a pot of boiling water. Choose your elixir: will it be chamomile flowers, spearmint leaves, clover flowers, whole cloves, or even catnip?

Then it was back to work. J. was in paradise. Working on an off-grid construction project outdoors in the woods gladdened his soul. They got out the ol’ post-hole diggers to sink four big posts upon which they built a platform for the sauna. They did have power, and power tools, but the power flowed from the creek, not from electric lines. A long wooden track, built by Paul, diverts a bit of the water temporarily, where it runs downhill and spins a little wheel, which fills batteries. So they have such luxuries as hot water and lights and tools, without a power bill. What a gift, a stream on one’s land.

talkin rock fridge

After I finished painting the fridge and listening to NPR on the scratchy radio, I put on my running clothes and headed up the mountain. It entailed big, confidence-boosting jumps over several not inconsequential streams that ran right across the road. The sunlight through the bare trees evoked the season we started our hike: generous, brilliant in the winter air, soon-to-set. I knew the Appalachian Trail ran along the nearest ridge, which looked so close but was too far to reach on a jaunt. I pined for the magical line, even though I never need to hike the whole thing again.

Lara’s grandparents had made their homeplace not far away, one valley over, but high on the hillside–they could not afford the flatter land below. She told me how to find their homestead next time–I was just one turn away. Next time I’ll find it.

So we will be back. For many reasons. But especially because something somewhat like this is part of our dream, no matter where we find it.

Old things.
Old things.

P.S. Based on the comments left on my last post, I ought to make two quick notes:

1. I did not actually visit the Isle of Man.

2. I am doing fine. My intention was to show the rise from (certain shallow) depths. I’m not staying down there. I’m lucky, and I’m also not built for that. Thanks to everyone for the kind and heartfelt words!

Misery

I know. Yes, I know.

“If you’re lucky enough to be hiking the Appalachian Trail, you’re lucky enough.”

But I’m not going to lie. There’s been a good bit of misery lately.

One recent night I slept barely two hours, never quite able to shield every square inch of my body from the damp chill. The shelter was full when we’d arrived after twenty miles of walking. The wind had blown all day, chapping our faces and hands, and the snow had begun falling in the afternoon, not to stop for days. By the next morning, there were five to seven inches on the ground and it was still coming down, blowing. Our tent sagged under the weight of it, and our breath condensed on every surface–the tent ceiling, our down bags, our clothes, our groundsheet. Everything was damp. We had dug ourselves out before going to bed, so as not to asphyxiate at night should the snow levels rise above the bottom edge of our tent.

Upon awakening, I felt dread of the impending process of repacking everything before using the frigid privy (which, at least, beat trying to dig a six-inch hole in the frozen ground). I felt oppressed, no way to pee without a half-hour double change of clothes from dry to wet to dry again, no space to turn over in my bag without an elaborately orchestrated series of moves to keep any surface from touching any other surface, and during the day, no place clear of snow and warm enough to take even a ten-minute break without my feet turning into ice blocks and my torso beginning to shiver. It has been an unusually cold and wet winter, we hear.

I did get out of the bag that morning. We ate our pemmican bars, poked the ice plugs from the necks of our water bottles, drank as much slushy water as we could bear in the cold (it was fifteen degrees), and started slogging though the deep snow. I kept thinking: I didn’t sign up for this. I have never winter-hiked or winter-camped before. I didn’t think I would like it. I was right. I was resentful as we pushed our way through knee-high drifts on the windblown ridges. I have to confess that several miles of climbing that morning also involved tears running down my face.

However, of course: gag me. I’m doing this voluntarily. I keep thinking about people without the option of getting to town someday, or buying different gear, or finding a warm bed someday. Thru-hikers are probably 95% male, and 99.5% white. What might that suggest about us as a group?

Plus, there has been a lot of joy as well. Sometimes at the same time as the misery. We climbed out of Hot Springs given a forecast of maybe four or five more hours of decent weather, and it was beautiful. The clouds parted, and we rose above the wide blue river near which we had recently soaked in the town’s warm mineral baths, a little splurge in celebration of our ninth anniversary. Our energy levels were high, and we raced the gray cloud on the eastern horizon to the top of the mountain. We flew the eleven miles to the first shelter, and found it empty–all ours! Just as we made our bedrolls in the little enclosure and gathered a few liters of fresh water from the spring down the hill, the fog flowed in. We ate our hot dinner of instant mashed potatoes and Pepperidge Farm stuffing with fake bacon bits as the wind began to whip up. The fog was so thick we could see it from one end of the tiny shelter to the other. We tipped the picnic table up against the opening to keep the wind and, eventually, the rain and snow, out. Our sleeping bags zipped together, and we spooned all night, sleeping warm and peacefully.

The next day, there was a quarter inch of snow on the ground. The forecast called for lots of snow, but patches of blue kept opening up and the sun would shine through as the flakes fell on the green rhododendron leaves. Eight miles up, we climbed across the high, exposed ridge of Big Firescald Knob despite the inches of snow underfoot, and hooted with wonder and triumph upon glimpsing a vast view of the frosty, white hills around us, the dramatic clouds, and the sunny valleys far, far below. It was beyond beautiful.

So… what of this misery?

It feels like my body communicating its limits. I was pushed right up against them, and beyond. Maybe misery gives me more empathy for those less fortunate. It humbles me in my relationship with nature, and with my higher power, as I pray, God, please help me–the most selfish prayer of all. It brings me in touch with the First Noble Truth of Buddhism–the one about life being suffering. It reminds me again and again that everything is temporary: pleasure, pain, any human experience. And, I hope most of all, misery makes me look more deeply at what might be beyond the pain and the pleasure. What lasts, what endures?

Next time, I’ll tell you how I came to have the leisure time to type this all out. For now, I will just reassure you that we are warm and safe and out of the winter storm. Hope you all are staying warm, too!

Dispatches from the Gap

image

Not that Gap. In the South, they call mountain passes “gaps.” As in Gooch Gap, Sassafras Gap, or Betty Creek Gap.

A chilly but sunny day here on the trail. I’ve wished for a way to write down at least one amazing experience every day since we’ve been out. But since my blogging access is mostly via Zippy’s smartphone on high peaks (yeah, for some reason we left the laptop at home), my posts may be less like prose and more like haiku or, god forbid, tweets. Here are a few:

We are now in North Carolina. Over a hundred miles in.

A guy passed a kidney stone one night in his tent. We awakened in the blackness to a stream of anguished curses and pleas to a deity. “Are you all right?” I called out, although it was obvious he was not. He explained what was happening and declined my generous offer of ibuprofen (a raindrop in an ocean, I am sure). By morning he was done and laughing and smiling with his son again. I wonder if he packed out the stone.

It is interesting to this self-proclaimed wimp that so much enjoyment can be had along with a little bit of discomfort (such as swallowing a tiny splinter kicked up by the next person’s trekking pole–true story) every day. I am having a wonderful time. For instance:

We had a comedy of errors one very rainy day. The trail was beautiful, like walking on another planet, bare branches emerging like aliens from the dense fog, the path dipping into tunnels of rhododendron, which seem to be evergreen. We wore the cuben fiber rain suits J. had made, looking like spacemen. The shelter where we intended to stay was full of miserably cold-looking people, so we plunged on. We settled at Beech Gap, amid ever-stronger gusts of rain. There was no wooden shelter, so we pitched the tent in what soon became a minor lake. It took all evening to repack, keeping everything relatively dry, move the tent (yep, still raining hard), dry off and unpack again. But we slept warm and sheltered from the wind. All in all, we decided our rookie mistake still beat the cold, windy, overpopulated shelter.

The next morning dawned crisp and clear. We sunned our gear and ourselves at Mooney Gap over hummus and pita that afternoon, and scuttled off the trail over a ridge to give ourselves “showers” (a water bladder filled with boiled water, squeezed through a perforated soda cap by one person over the other, followed by a shivery but delicious toweling-off).

Just two days after a windy, snowy day, a butterfly the color of a fallen leaf warmed its wings near the peak of Tray Mountain. Did it hatch so quickly? Or do butterflies have special hiding places during snowstorms?

There are already buds on certain magnolias, and dramatic icicles coexist with verdant moss and ivies, stuffed into small cliffs along our path. It’s going to be amazing to watch spring overtake us.