I want to buy a mountain place. I’m looking for the purest form of retreat. I want to put as many one lane bridges between me and the nearest Wal-Mart as possible. But I also know it’s the Southern mountains, and there will always be neighbors, echoing sounds from across the ridge, presences offering howdy waves as I pass on the driveway lined with rhododendron.
I don’t even care if I have indoor plumbing or well water. I’m not trying to make visits comfortable for my city friends used to vacation cottages. I not looking for the rural life. I’m sniffing out some 1990s version of what Horace Kephart, in that 1905 classic Our Southern Highlanders, called “the back of beyond.”
It’s not so much I want to leave something. It’s more that I want to enter something else. I want a place where I can slow down enough to do a great deal of seeing, even some naming, recording. I want the growth cycles of mountain species--ginseng, trillium, black locust--to become as real to me as fescue. I want 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 feel I can find a place to exercise both. I want to disappear into 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.”
So an aunt dies and leaves me enough money to finally buy some land, and I put the money in the bank and start looking for a mountain in earnest. A friend has this place he wants to sell. He has five acres with a structure he had built himself-- a two story “tower”-- as a writing space. My friend had dreamed of living there year-round, surrounded by trout ponds, organic gardens in raised beds, water from abundant springs. He had gone as far as laying out the septic tank and getting a friend to design a house. He wasn't looking so much for a “back of beyond, but instead comfort and old-time homesteading practicality. He wanted Foxfire more than Walden.
My friend 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 on the first visit that I wanted to be first in line if he ever decided to sell.
Then his marriage broke up, and the place lost some of its appeal, reminding him of a time that has 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 the deal with a puff of old-time Cherokee Katuah tobacco, and purchased the Tower.
“The mountains won’t remember us,” that’s what Robert Morgan calls a book of short stories. That’s what I find at the Tower.
Late one evening, midsummer, I head toward the ridge on a walk. I leave the door to the Tower open. Upstairs I leave a single light burning on my writing desk. I have yet to put a screen door up. (It’s one of those luxuries that my friend didn’t need.) When I return after dark there are hundreds of ghostly moths floating like snow all around the single lamp. It is as if they have taken the Tower over for their own, reclaimed a space that was naturally theirs. The moths flutter and spin like compasses on my desk when I turn on my laptop.