October 3, 2012: I am now on my third day of my writer’s retreat, or what I’m calling my writer’s retreat. I’ve come alone to the cabin my father built in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee. He had intended the cabin to be a temporary shelter for the permanent house he and my mother would build for retirement. They never built the house. The cabin has stood for nearly forty years, rustic, simple, and in my opinion, cozy. My plan is to spend the month here writing the first draft of my novel. It seems fitting to start it here. This is where I started my translation of Kirino Natsuo’s Grotesque. And as I noted in an earlier post Kirino started Grotesque in her friend’s mountain retreat in Gunma.
I doubt her friend’s cabin was as “rustic” as my father’s! But it made me feel a special bond with the author, knowing that we had both experienced the magic of the mountains at different ends of the creative process. Over the years I have found that my best writing comes to me in the mountains.
It took over ten hours to drive to Mountain City, TN from St. Louis. I arrived on October 1, 2012 close to 4:00 pm. I stopped for gas and water in town and then called my brother, Luke, to let him know I had arrived. He lives about forty miles away in Boone, NC, and had agreed to meet me to help me open the cabin. I headed next to the local Chinese restaurant—the Panda Kitchen—to pick up some takeout for our dinner. It was the restaurant my parents liked. They usually ate there when they’d felt like “splurging” after a week in the cabin.
Fully provisioned, I turned the car around and headed towards my parents’ land, meeting Luke a little after 5:00 at the foot of the mountain. I was still wearing the comfortable black jersey mini-skirt and tank top I had slipped into earlier that morning. It was in the 80s when I left St. Louis. The air was growing crisp here as the sun started to slip behind the mountain ridge. I dug a fleece cardigan out of my car. Luke laughed. He had stripped off his work tie and changed into a short-sleeved t-shirt. Now a mountain boy, he is accustomed to cooler temperatures.
We loaded his four-wheel-drive Honda with the Chinese takeout and all the things I had brought from home. The road to the top of the mountain was too rutted for my sweet city-slicker Saab to handle, we left it at the opening to the property.
The drive up was rough and the Honda bucked from side to side. Luke knew the road well and rolled with the curves. He gassed it around the right-hand turn where the road suddenly climbs. If you slow down and lose momentum, you’re likely to get stuck. And the road was muddy. He hadn’t been up it for a few months. But he ferried us safely to the top. And by “us” I’m including my rescue dog, Wilson.
When we crested the hill we saw, to our relief that the cabin was still standing. Leaving it vacant for months on end, we never knew what we’d find. (Once, years ago, after my father first built the cabin, someone broke in and stole a few items. They took my father’s rifle, which had belonged to his father. It wasn’t a pricey item. But it meant a lot. They took his tools, too, many he had since youth. When you come from nothing, those small things are precious. After that my parents added shutters and locks and left a sign out front begging anyone who might happen by not to damage the cabin. Perhaps the earlier vandalism was a fluke, or maybe the sign worked as a talisman, after that incident, no one else bothered the cabin again.)
When we entered, however, we found that the security had been breached. The intruders were of the four-legged variety. There were mice feces everywhere, the corners and crooks of the cabin now outfitted with nests of various shapes and sizes held in place by cobwebs and dust. In the late 1980s, my father had added a small utility room and adjoining bathroom The insulation he used in the ceiling and the heat baffling he wrapped around the water heater had proven attractive to the homesteading rodents. There were tiny pills of insulation strewn everywhere. I would have my work cut out for me in the morning. But tonight I was too tired to clean.
Luke turned the electricity on and tried to start the plumbing but couldn’t get it to work. Neither of us could remember the last time it had been used. Before he died our father hadn’t been able to travel to the cabin, and Mother had lost interest in it when she lost the man who built it. Luke offered to call a plumber in the morning. I was glad I’d had the presence of mind to stock up on water in town.
We had a nice dinner and mini-reunion and then he left. I found clean linens (my mother was always careful to secure the linens out of reach of the mice). I was too jagged from the long drive from Missouri to settle into sleep. But at some point I dozed, only to be awakened by a pouring rain. The sound on the tin roof was lulling. Even so, I willed myself to stay awake to enjoy it. When the first fingers of morning light slipped into the cabin, I willed the rain to end. It did not. I couldn’t control nature, not even my own. I had to slip into my rain gear and head outside to find a place to pee. Then it was time for breakfast, and a walk with Wilson.