October 4, 2012: The fourth day of my “writer retreat.”
I am staying in the log cabin my father built in the 1970s. My brother and I were in junior high when the building began. He’d bring us up with him on weekends to help him dream it. One spring, when the snow was still on the ground, he purchased almost fifty acres of timbered real estate. The mature white pine had been cut for lumber, and wide swaths of timber were felled in the process of getting the pine out. The land looked ragged. The trucks and timbering equipment had left gashes in the earth and scars on the remaining trees, too small to harvest. That’s why the property was cheap. That’s how my father could afford it.
I step out into the bright October morning with my rescue dog, Wilson, to walk along the ridge. We’ll hike a bit before I return to my writing project, my debut mystery novel.
My father bought the land almost as an act of survival. Being on the mountain brought him a sense of refreshment, an opportunity to return to roots and escape the political turmoil of academics. He had been a professor, too (like me), employed at a seminary that was then rocked by the existential crisis of fundamentalism. When I was fifteen, I didn’t understand what the purchase of the land meant to him. I just assumed he finally had some money to spend and wanted the property for his own entertainment. Now, feeling the soft pine needles underfoot, smelling the heavy dampness of the rhododendrons, I sense the stress lift from my shoulders as it must have his. My father’s retreat becomes my own.
I recall how he looked out over the slag pile where the saw mill had stood and dreamed himself a house. The site backed onto the ridge. He would have a spacious porch there where he and my mother would sit in retirement and watch the sun come and go. For the time being, though, he decided to fashion a temporary shelter, a log cabin. He would build it on his own; relying on memories of childhood, when log cabins were more than temporary whimsies. His arms and hands remembered the history of felling logs, stripping them of bark, and notching the ends. And that’s what he did.
But log cabins don’t just spring up over night! Especially when you’re building on your own with the less-than-satisfactory help of two easily distracted teenage children. In the meantime, we lived in a tent. It wasn’t very big and felt all the smaller when the four of us were crammed in at night. We spent most of our evening time sitting around the fire pit my father built, roasting marshmallows, and listening to my father tell stories of his boyhood. Mountains were my father’s domain.
To allow some room to stretch, he built a crude lean-to alongside the ridge and set up a folding table for my mother. It was up to her to feed us. She had at her disposal a portable cooler and a cantankerous camp stove that blew itself out at the slightest breeze. While my father directed my brother and me through our paces, my mother labored at her makeshift kitchen alone, first cooking and then cleaning up. The kitchen was her domain. I don’t think at the time I recognized the unfairness of this distribution of labor. My father focused on his domain, my mother on hers. It never occurred to me that for my father, the labor was self-imposed and personally enjoyable, while my mother’s labor was service. I suppose I helped her now and again. I don’t remember. I was more enthusiastic about being my father’s go-fer, grabbing the tools he needed, helping to roll logs.
We used locust for the foundation posts. Black locust. “The locust is a dense wood,” my father explained as we walked one of the old lumber paths to the site where he’d seen the tree he wanted to cut. “It doesn’t easily rot and will last nearly forever.” The chainsaw whirred to life and he yelled at my brother and me to step back. In all honesty, the tree looked pretty spindly to me, not as thick and round as some of the white pines he’d pointed out earlier. Those, he explained, were too soft. We latched the trunk of the tree he felled with a chain that he then connected to the wench on his old International truck.
He bought the truck not long after buying the property. Whenever we returned home to Raleigh, he left the truck onsite and used it as soon as we arrived to rumble up and around the old logging roads, pulling trees, and hauling supplies. It was a work horse. He told me once the truck was so good on an incline it could climb a tree. In truth, it was his toy. And oddly enough, the previous owner had painted it a bright purple. We referred to it as the Purple People Eater.
After working a few days like that, we’d all head to Watauga Lake to swim and wash off the sweat and mosquito spray that had built up over the days and nights. Log by log the cabin emerged from the loamy soil just beneath the ridge. Each log notched by hand and tapped into place. The higher the walls the closer my connection grew to this place and to my father.
My father never built his retirement house. His last years were spent in a nursing home suffering the final stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. Surrounded by tortured screams and the smell of piss, he was unable to walk and nearly deaf. But, his arms and hands remained strong, carrying the memories of those logs. Those memories linger here, too, in the cabin he built, a temporary structure that has stood for nearly forty years.
I sit here now, in this cabin that was only the start of a dream, dreaming my own dwelling. Mine will be a structure of words. It will be a story that arises from the rich soil of imagination and carries me across the sea to other houses and other dreams. Maybe like my father I will end with a rustic cabin, a smaller edifice that will nevertheless be sufficient enough. Or, maybe my structure will soar beyond expectation, sustaining me as I go forward into the grayness of age. Right now, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I am here. And I am standing where my father stood when he first had the dream.
Photo by Joel & Jasmin Førestbird on Unsplash