Back In The Day: A Miner’s Life

I found this brief tale of a miners life fascinating and wanted to share it.  A link to the original source is below. Miners cabin of old.

Back in the day breakfast consisted of Bacon, biscuits, black coffee, a pull from the whiskey bottle and then cigars or a chaw from the plug of tobacco. Being a working miner living in a shack was a tough but rewarding existence. Daily survival was the driving force. Hunting & chopping wood was required to live. There were no supermarkets or mini malls. There was no air conditioning, running water, jacuzzi tubs, high speed internet, smart phones, big screen TV’s, or mail order warehouses that sell every widget know to man. In the summer we were hot, in the winter we froze.

If you were lucky enough to find some color in the rocks you had to constantly look over your shoulder for the next backshooter trying to steal your claim or from taking a shot at you from a distance! Old miners lived high on life, adventure, hard work, sweat, Elk loin & Elk jerky, but most of all whiskey straight from the bottle! — with Link Borland wannabe.

Original Source

The Ups and Downs of Mountain Living, Part 3

Piney Mountain Road – Icy

This is part three of my on-going yammer about life in the mountains.  In Part 1 we looked at getting established, in Part 2 we looked at the physical necessities of life here.  This time we’ll look as the more esoteric aspects.

In east Tennessee winters are normally pretty mild.  This winter has been an exception: in early January we hit an overnight low of minus 1° F, the lowest temperature in 20 years.  My relatives in Nebraska and Colorado laugh at me, saying that’s a balmy spring day to them.  We have been spoiled by the normally temperate weather we enjoy so much here.  Aside from this year’s cold, we do have some special challenges.

One is that temperatures vary with elevation.  Newport sprawls out along the Pigeon River on the floor of the valley and is around 1,050 feet elevation.  At 6,593 feet, Mount LeConte is the highest point in our immediate area (we can see it from our front porch) and the difference in temperature between there and Newport can be dramatic.  There are dozens and dozens of other mountain peaks that range between 1,500 and 4,000 feet.

After a snow, we often have continued school closings on days when the roads in Newport are clear and the weather seems fine.  This is to accommodate the people who live in those higher elevations where it has not warmed up enough for things to start melting off.  Road ice is the major issue.

Read more: 

The Ups and Downs of Mountain Living part 2

Last time I covered some of the challenges people will face while setting up home in mountainous terrain.  This time I want to look at some of the rewards and drawbacks of mountain living.


Before we were married, Marie was a life-long resident of St. Louis, Missouri.  She grew up being able to walk to school, the library, and the neighborhood grocery store.  Many of her relatives and most of her friends lived right in her neighborhood.  When desired, her family could get in the car and drive a few minutes to find most anything their hearts desired.  The gratification of going out for something and coming back home with it that day was a way of life.

During my youth, we lived mostly rural.  Often in a community that was little more than a handful of homes, a post office and a grain elevator.  A few times in a small town with a population of a few hundred, a bank, post office, maybe a couple of grocery stores (just to make it interesting) and a Woolworth’s.  Other times truly rural: out in the sticks.  We moved a lot, and we preferred a little elbow room.

When Marie and I married, the wisest thing to do was for me to let go of my little rural rental house and move to the city to share a home with her.  For a few years I became accustomed to the convenience of being able to buy lumber and supplies as needed for my woodworking because several specialty stores were just a few minutes of driving away.

How we came to embrace mountain living is a story unto itself, but as we formulated that plan the biggest hurdle in Marie’s mind was going to be giving up the convenience of having all the trappings of life so close at hand.  Her only real demand was that there would be a Wal-Mart within a reasonable distance … and that we have the fireplace she has always wanted.

Edwina Grocery

Our home place is on Piney Mountain and is within the community of Edwina.  The term ‘community’ is used loosely here.  Edwina boasts a country store: Edwina Grocery, and a small community center, which is a steel building with one large room, a kitchen and bathroom.  It is used as a meeting place by the High Oaks Coon Club, and the Edwina Ruritans.  It also serves as the local polling place at election time.  There is also a Tennessee Department of Forestry building, a rock quarry, a cabinet shop, a guy that does heating and cooling work and a truck stop/convenience store out beside the interstate, and a Russian-American restaurant called Grill 73.

Grill 73, run by Valentina and Alex Ryzhkov

Grill 73 is run by retired Romanian circus performers! And there is Farmer’s Daughter Nursery and Produce, which is just what it sounds like: the enterprising child of a local farmer. These are all strung out along Route 73, known locally as Edwina Road. There are perhaps a couple hundred homes and several farms tucked into the hills and hollers of Edwina.

From Piney Mountain, Newport can be reached by driving down the mountain roads to Route 73, a winding two-lane highway. Turn south to go to the interstate or turn north to go to Route 25/70, which becomes Broadway, the main drag through Newport. The interstate is a greater distance, but faster. The state highways are shorter but slower speeds. Either way it takes about 15 minutes to get into town. Newport does have a Wal-Mart, but we don’t shop there much anymore.

We have the best of both worlds here. For things we need quickly, Newport – population around 33,000 – is big enough to meet most of our normal needs. For some of the less common needs, Knoxville, Tennesse, is an hour away by interstate in one direction, Asheville, North Carolina, an hour in the other direction.  Morristown, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville are in between and reached by state and county roads.

For things we can wait on for a few days, there is the internet. These days we can order most anything we want and have it in hand in a few days.

We may not be able to walk to the library, but the freedom, privacy, and clean, clear air we enjoy so much out here away from all the traffic, exhaust fumes, noise, and regulation of the city more than offset the inconvenience. Here, almost without exception, we can live as we please. We love the peace and quiet. The sunsets are fabulous, the views are breathtaking, and life itself is an adventure.

In the past we would take an annual vacation just to get away for a while. Since moving here, we have felt no need to get away, in fact when we must travel we are eager to get back.


There is a joke that goes around about how mountain folks must be sure to walk equal distances in each direction, or they end up with one leg shorter than the other. But it’s actually not far from the truth. Where we travel a lot we tend to dig-in or build up pathways to level the surface, but just walking around my property means climbing, descending or traversing steep slopes.

Side yard

This is our “lawn” the forested parts of the property are steeper. I spend a good bit of my time walking to and fro on our property. Even just fetching the mail means walking 120 feet down the hill from my front porch to the road (that’s the easy part) then back up the 30-degree slope (that’s the hard part) in whatever weather we are experiencing.

The up side of this is that moving around the property to do my chores is a great workout. Think of the time and money I save by not needing to go to a gym!

Driving the roadways here is also a matter of acclimation. When we first arrived I was used to roads that were, by and large, straight. Maybe a sweeping curve here and there, but nothing that would take me by surprise.

When we began looking around this area for property, traveling even the main highways was a stressful task because they tend to be carved into mountain slopes, thus follow the contours of those mountains. Some are worse than others, but there aren’t any I can think of that are straight. Then there are the back roads.

Some of these are dirt roads and not wide enough to two vehicles to pass one another. Wide spots are placed where a recess in the mountain permits or a wide curve can be created. When two vehicles meet, one has to back up to the last wide spot and allow the other to pass. It is fortunate that mountain folk tend to be good-natured.

Most back roads do not have guard rails. At first, the act of driving these narrow, winding ledges with precipitous drop-offs was no less than terrifying! On some, the turns are so sharp that even creeping along at 25 or 30 miles an hour made me carsick as we snaked through one tight, blind curve after another. But, after a while, one gets used to most anything. Now I no longer get sweaty palms driving these roads, in fact I rather enjoy it. Who needs a theme park: we have our own thrill rides!

We are fortunate that Piney Mountain Road is not only paved but wide enough for two vehicles to pass by one another … unless you meet the school bus.

Semi-trucks will not come up our road. At least not the 53-footers normally used by freight lines. I’ve seen a shorty up here once or twice, but for the most part the biggest truck to travel our road is Big Brown from UPS. Therefore, when I order a piece of equipment or other large item that will come by truck, I have to take our pick-up truck and go meet the semi at the truck stop to transfer the crate into our truck for the final leg home. That too is another form of adventure.

All proper mountain men need to have a pick-up truck, preferably four wheel drive. That is a rule here.

Want more?  Read part 3


The Ups and Downs of Mountain Living

My wife and I moved here to the Great Smoky Mountains region of east Tennessee in December of 2001.  We moved here from St. Louis.  Marie was born and raised in St. Louis, a flat-lander and city girl all her life – up to that point.  I’d been a gypsy: my family was always on the move but we tended to end up most in Texas, North Dakota, Illinois, Nebraska and Missouri.  Flat lands.  Marie and I had both traveled through mountains but living on one was a new experience for both of us.  One we looked forward too.

Mountain living offers some unique challenges.  It shares many of the attributes of any rural living.  Most of these I consider an advantage.  But add to those the fact that nothing is flat.  Anywhere.  Everything is on a slope of some degree.  Some is mild: a mere incline.  Some so steep and boulder-strewn you need rock climber experience to get up or down that face.  The majority of the land we purchased is steep, rocky and heavily forested.  About two acres are cleared. In this space we’ve installed two homes – one for my mother, one for us – two storage buildings, a large workshop, and two covered dog pens.

Flat Spots

The first challenge in slope-side living is building buildings.  Most buildings require a flat spot to sit on.  So we must first build the flat spots.  This is done with a track hoe or bulldozer.  Small flat spots can be done with a Bobcat equipped with a bucket.  We don’t want to be hauling dirt in or out if we can avoid it, so we cut into the slope on one side, move the dirt to the low side and pack it firmly.  An experienced operator knows just how much to remove to establish a level spot the proper width – and, somehow, manages to get it quite level, needing only tweaking with a transit.  This ability amazes me: Getting anything level or plumb by eye while working on a slope is more difficult than you might think.  At least, it is for me, a good level is an essential tool here. From that point, home construction moves on normally.

mountain cabins
Rental Cabins in Gatlinburg

Some buildings, especially smaller ones can forego the flat-spotting and be built on pylons or posts anchored into the ground. There are rental cabins near Gatlinburg that have their front porch at ground level and the rest are flown over the edge of a steep slope on tall posts. They look  precarious!


Gaining access to your property from the nearest roadway can be an issue too. Most residents here don’t want to buy a tract of land then build their home next to the road just for convenient access. Most prefer some seclusion, whether it’s for privacy or to facilitate the illusion of being completely isolated from the rest of the world. Though some I’ve seen aren’t far from that!

driveway, rain, repairs
Our home at the top of an 85 foot long, 30° steep driveway. 4WD is required.

Sometimes times a driveway can be bulldozed up a steep slope in a straight line from road to home. If you have four-wheel drive you can generally get up such a drive, but coming down can result in quite a thrill ride when it’s icy!  For a less insane angle of incline the drive needs to snake side to side with switch-backs to reverse direction or cut in from a distant edge of the property and wind its way up and across.

One of the bigger problems is that anytime you cut into the soil, you create an erosion hazard. Heavy rains cause the exposed soil to wash down into your driveway, often burying the gravel under lots of mucky red clay ooze. Retaining walls help to prevent erosion, but inflate the cost of the driveway exponentially.

To get building materials in – especially a concrete truck – the driveway needs to be wide enough and substantial enough to handle that traffic. Around here most concrete companies have all-wheel drive, front discharge concrete trucks that will climb like a goat, but they still weigh many tons and need some space to maneuver.

Once, I saw materials being brought in by helicopter!

Run-off Control

Once the construction is done, water routing comes into play. Ditches, culverts (called “tiles” around here, even if they’re steel or plastic and 36 inches in diameter) and buried drains all come into play to gather, direct and dispose of rain run-off and minimize erosion damage.

Once this is done we can set about trying to establish a lawn in the cleared area around the house and garden beds for food and/or flowers.

Gardens are especially tricky. For my first attempt at a vegetable garden I chose the most level spot on our property, tilled up an 8 x 12 foot patch and used a cultivator to drag out the grass clumps and roots. Using a square-nose spade to remove the grass would have been cleaner, but the only good top soil here is the top 2 inches where the grass grows (we bought a place that had been settled 12 years before and had a lawn growing already). I wanted to keep that top soil if I could because the red clay below is awful for growing anything.

I planted that little garden patch and was amazed after each rain to find my seedling plants wandering about. What were nice neat rows were zig-zags. The radishes were now cohabitating with the lettuce. Everything was out of whack. Fortunately most of the seedlings did survive their rides and went on to put down longer roots to better affix themselves in one place.

That nice topsoil, however, was making a slow march toward the drainage ditch. I needed to do something. If my test garden worked out, I wanted to enlarge it the following year. But this would mean spreading up onto steeper slopes, and more tilled soil would mean more erosion. How could I keep the soil in place?

I thought about terracing. But this would require either many narrow strips or 3 foot high retainer walls in some places. This would make getting equipment – like a regular tiller – into and out of the terraces complicated.

Then I stumbled onto the idea of small raised beds. I built a series of 4 x 4 foot garden boxes, dug in the high corners, built up the lowest corners and have been quite happy with this for the past four years. In fact, I was so happy with this system that I expanded from my original six boxes to 22!

Last year I did some sprucing up by adding low walls between the boxes, weed fabric over the grass in between and woodchips over the fabric. This looks nice, provides me a non-muddy (soggy after a rain, but not muddy) place to kneel, and keeps the mixture of grass and weeds that served as a lawn from polluting my vegetables when I had to go through with a string trimmer to hack them down to size. The trimmer threw all that debris right into my boxes. Rinsing dead grass out of my crinkly lettuce leaves was a chore.  Weed seeds invaded the boxes far more vehemently than normal, too. Paving the walkways between boxes eliminates most of this, and helps keep moisture in the soil.

It’s not perfect. But it’s better.

I’m getting a little long winded here, I’ll pick it up again next time, when I’ll look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of slope side living.

Life in the Mountains: Wildfires

Originally published Nov. 7, 2013 by Grit Magazine

It’s raining here today. That’s a very good thing. Not only do we need the moisture, but it does wonders for the air quality in our neighborhood right now.

A wildfire started early yesterday on Stone Mountain: just over a mile from where I sit.  The smoke in the air was noticeable here by mid-morning and got steadily worse.  By early afternoon an easterly wind moved in and blew the smoke the other side of Piney Mountain down through Bat Harbor.  When the wind died down yesterday evening, the smoke moved back in, in force.  It was nasty.

The photo is a shot of the fire taken Wednesday at dusk from the Lowe’s parking lot in Newport – probably about 8 miles away as the crow flies.  Unless it’s a drunken crow; then that would be hard to judge.  It shows the smoke plume that is drifting along Piney Mountain: our home place.

We sealed our house windows yesterday to keep the smoke out.  The gentle drizzly rain started around 4 a.m. and has dropped 4/10th inch so far – at 8 a.m. – which has done wonders toward dragging the smoke particles out of the air and making it far more breathable.  It should help some in the firefighting efforts as well.

We are in no danger from this fire except for the annoyance of the smoke.  The biggest danger presented – other than to a few homes in that area – is to a spot at the crest of Stone Mountain called Hall’s Top, which is the location of a major communications antenna array.   If this gets taken out by the fire, it would put a major crimp in wireless communications – cell phones, internet, business and emergency vehicle radios, etc. – in this county.

In the photo at the top of the page Hall’s Top is the high point just to the right of the fire.  Since the winds are blowing the fire away from Hall’s Top, I expect it too will be OK.

Stone Mountain sits at 90 degrees just off the southern end of Piney Mountain. They are separated by a creek and a paved roadway.  Just to the east of Stone Mountain is Hogback Mountain: it burned last year.  Just north and east of Piney Mountain is Rocky Top (yes: THAT Rocky Top), which burned a few years ago.  In between those times was a fire along the Foothills Parkway, which is more distant but visible from our front porch.

Wildfires are always a concern here because battling fires on the steep, heavily wooded, often unimproved (meaning few, if any, roads) faces of these mountains is a difficult task even for the experienced personnel of the Forestry Department.  It is not at all like battling a fire in a city or even in a rural area of the flat-lands.  Equipment cannot be driven in, the only water available would be any streams or creeks (often too small to be of any real use), and there is no quick way to get injured men out of a fire area.  Even bringing in a bulldozer to create a fire break can be hazardous because of the danger of rolling it over on the steep, soft terrain.  So most mountain firefighting is done on foot with chainsaws and shovels by men and women who must climb through the undergrowth up the steep slopes to the fire from the nearest road or pathway.

As residents of (or visitors to) these mountains, we need to be very careful with open fires, especially in the fall when the leaves are dry and highly flammable.  Being caught in the middle of a wildfire will ruin your whole day.

These Guys Are Really Bugging Me!

At first it was lady bugs – or more properly, Lady Bird Beetles.  Not the American Ladybugs: they are beneficial in the garden and non-invasive: we loved them.  But the Asian Ladybugs imported by the forestry department to control their Hemlock Borer infestation became a real nuisance.  They forced out the American Ladybugs and preferred to over-winter in our home with us.  The American Ladybugs were never so rude as to move in en masse uninvited.

This year there has been a distinct lack of Ladybugs of any nation.  Japanese Beetles were bad and I put out traps in an effort to control them, but they still decimated my bean plants.

Stink BugAs fall set in and we braced for the Ladybug war, they have not appeared.  But an even more heinous cousin did; the Stink Bug. There are thousands of them in our yard, hundreds crawling on our home; including our porch, and dozens of the odiferous insects in our home.

Where Did These Bugs Come From?

It seems these nasty fellows hitched a ride here from Asia (where else), probably in some packing crates.  They were first collected in September 1998 in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Since then these pests have spread north into Maine and south into Florida, and are now moving west across the entire country.  In the past, there have been one generation annually, but recent mild winters and warm springs enable additional generations to reproduce, increasing the population everywhere.

Read more: 

I Am What I Am

Popeye 1The cartoon character Popeye used to say (maybe he still does) “ I am what I am and that’s all what I am.” except he said it with his odd accent that made it sound like he was referring to himself as a sort of sweet potato. His words were brought to mind by a note I received this morning from the client for whom we are building several pieces of furniture. She says:

The incredible beauty of the bench takes our breath away. It is so exciting to watch the tenderness, thought and care you put into each move you make. How different this is than buying a finished piece (and always wondering about the level of quality that went into construction) or worse yet – buying a piece made of particle board and having to put it together with no skills whatsoever.

It is so difficult to fathom the care you put into each piece you make for people you have never even met before.

I always believe that those who are happiest in life are those who have found and followed God’s calling for them. God gave you such a unique gift, and you use it to His glory for each person fortunate enough to find you. I am glad that we are among those so blessed!

Continue reading “I Am What I Am”

Hitting the Wall

Runner_148498605_8037c74d18_mWhen I was in Junior High and High School one of the sports I excelled in was long distance running: both cross country and the longer track & field events.  One of the things I learned while training to run is that all distance runners reach a point where every fiber of our body is screaming at us to stop, to quit running, to rest.  This message is delivered via considerable amounts of abdominal pain, noodle-like legs and feet of lead.  We called this “hitting the wall”.

By ignoring my body’s command to cease punishing it and pressing onward, time seemed to slow down; I felt as though I was just plodding along in slow motion, running through Jell-O.  But the pain would ease up (because I’d go numb), I could no longer feel my feet (only hear them thumping into the dirt).  In reality I was still sprinting along, but I was totally unaware of that.  And I found that not only could I continue to run after ‘hitting the wall’, but I actually had untapped reserves to call upon if needed.   Continue reading “Hitting the Wall”