Losing Our Appalachian Mountain

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PHOTO: Appalachian Mountains, courtesy of Brian Stansberry
PHOTO: Appalachian Mountains, courtesy of Brian Stansberry

Written by Mary Whalen

Mary Whalen is a retired nurse/teacher who lives with her husband on a chicken farm in Northern Kentucky. Her article, “Predator-Proof Chicken Coop“, has appeared in Backwoods Home Magazine, May/June 2016

In the fall of ’96, when the crisp leaves of the oak and ash and walnut and hickory trees were turning red, orange, and brown, and the smell of bonfires spoke of the end of hot summer nights, my husband lost his job and we lost our church, in the same month.

Don’t ask me to explain the church incident. It turned into a blessing and a healing though, because with our foundations cracked, we found ourselves suddenly able to gratify a long abandoned wanderlust. We left our home in Cincinnati, to explore the mountains of southeastern Kentucky.

We needed solace.

We enjoyed lunch at a small town, and on a local realtor’s tip, we bounced along a one-lane overgrown trail forgotten by time and happened upon—a mountain.

We did a little research. It was a peak in the Appalachian basin, sometimes called the hill country, but anything I have to crane my head back and not see the top of, is a mountain to me. It rose above a stream with a pasture of gently rolling spurs drawn up to coniferous peaks. An old decrepit barn stood sentry near the stream.

We’d heard from the realtor that bear, red fox, deer and rattlesnake were the only inhabitants of this property. We found out differently.

After giving us uncertain directions, the realtor explained that it would be best if we were friendly to everyone we met as “you don’t want to cross anyone, you know what I mean?” We weren’t really sure what he’d meant.

The mountain was covered with logged over rutted roads that seemed too narrow for our Tracker to navigate. We also discovered from the deeps of the forested trails, that at three o’clock in the afternoon, it looked like the sun was about to set. At three o’clock in the afternoon!

My husband, John, is of Scots-Irish descent whose relatives originally came from Scotland to County Waterford, Ireland in the 17th century and thence by way of New York, to Kentucky He has inherited this spirit of adventure. He’s a hard working man who doesn’t know when to quit. I could see the wheels turning in his mind, thinking of all the things he would do with this property. Maybe start marking trees so we could widen one of the many roads on the mountain, or build a small cabin.

We headed back to town and bought the place.

Where we go stuck
This is where we got stuck!

The next day, we came back and headed up the widest road on the mountain, noting bear tracks in the dirt, when suddenly our little green Tracker sank into a ditch the size of Manhattan. Upon walking down to the flat area by the stream, we heard a car coming down another road on the other side of the mountain.

It was a small car driven by a very young couple. The young lady in the front passenger seat was holding an infant in her arms.

“What’s the problem?” the fella asked. We explained our dilemma and directly, the girl handed me the infant and said they would be back with help. Here I was in the growing dusk, in a place I didn’t know, holding a baby I didn’t know. Maybe it wasn’t true that mountain people were not friendly.

Not ten minutes later, we heard sound of machinery coming from other side of the creek. Sure enough, the couple brought help in the form of a tractor and a strong looking red headed driver.

Our car was freed from the ruts in minutes. My husband offered some of the fallen trees left over from logging, as a gesture of appreciation. Our young savior offered his hand and smiled. “Name’s Smith,” he said before roaring away in a blue cloud of tractor smoke.

The young girl matter-of-factly took the baby back from my arms, and away they went too.

Even as dusk was upon us, we figured that we still had time to travel past our mountain in an opposite direction from the road we came in on, when we noticed a older fellow heading our way through the tall grass by the barn. He was a wiry, spare man, wearing a slouched, tan hat.

We hollered “Hello!” No answer.

As he got nearer, John extended his hand, said hello again, and introduced himself, explaining why we were there. When John mentioned our realtor’s name, the man, who acknowledged his name as Will, gave us a half smile, and shook John’s hand.

“I’m the only neighbor you’d have around here”, he explained, eyeing us up and down. “I keep a lookout on all this property.” I put on my friendliest smile.

We talked for awhile and he suggested that we drive on past his house down the road “a piece”. “You’ll see where I live. You’ll also find a mighty old post office but it ain’t used anymore”, he said.

John marking trees
John marking trees

Our interest piqued, we crossed the creek again and turned left and there was his cabin. It had a large front porch, and a scattering of chickens clucking their way around the front yard, and there on the porch were several rockers. On one sat a woman that must have been his wife, and on another sat an even older lady, a wizened matriarch it seemed, with iron gray hair in a bun.

There were several children of various sizes hanging around the porch, all grinning and waving to beat the band. If we’d been mountain folks already, we’d have gotten out and said hello. I reflected that city people need to be initiated in the art of neighborliness.

We waved back, while driving slowly down the graveled road.

The road became narrower as we went along. A mile or two later, the gravel became a desolate creek bed. There was nowhere else to turn, and no other road, so we continued on. The creek bed became a dead end. No post office in sight, in fact, no road left at all. If we hadn’t had this small car that took us twenty minutes to turn around in, we would still be there. I wondered if even God knew where we were.

With the approach of deep evening shadows, we once again passed Will’s house on the right, and we could see that they were on the porch, still rocking, still grinning, the kids still laughing, and the chickens still clucking. Well we laughed right back. We’d been had. I loved that our neighbors had a sense of humor. Being able to share a laugh over something with someone makes me feel welcome.

On subsequent visits, before actually investing in materials to build a small cabin, we explored and tramped around the mountain and also explored our growing friendship with our neighbors. We planted turnips in the field by the creek, at our new neighbor’s suggestion, to attract the deer, both for our neighbors and ourselves’ sustenance.

Over the next few weeks, we found our new adventures in the hills positively rapturous, —we also found we had an unexpected, exorbitant tax bill from the city we left behind that we had no money for. It seems that when you sell a house in a populated area in the big city, and plunk down a much smaller amount in a rural, mountainous area, the Federal government steps rights up to claim their due.

We had to sell the mountain property. It hurt.

We and our neighbor and his kindly wife, whom we officially met on our second foray into this wilderness, exchanged letters and greeting cards over the next few years.
After a while, we lost touch. We never went back.

We thought of it.

We had learned first-hand something of Appalachian culture, and people. We loved the warm embrace of mountain ridges that spoke of history and strife and of a type of strength and resiliency not known to city folks. I felt safe there. We had fallen in love with the people. Their pioneering spirit resonated with ours.
It’s been twenty years, and it still stings when it comes to mind what we lost.

Eventually we found a farm in a spot nearer to northern Kentucky and raised a bunch of cattle, goats, sheep, and most numerous of all, chickens. We learned to live off the land, but never forgot our first dream of living in the mountains, and understanding a people that settled our country. It was the adventure we almost had.

Would it look the same to me if we went back someday? Maybe, but I think my heart would ache.

Since then, I have studied more about the Appalachian people; their unique struggles and heartwarming graciousness. I wish I was one of them.

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