The Old Homestead: Life in the Mountains

Living in a semi-remote mountain area is a mixed blessing.

I call it a ‘blessing’ because it is primarily a good thing. It is for us at least. The beauty and grandeur of The Great Smoky Mountains region is breath taking. Especially at this time of year. The peaceful serenity here is blissful. And the people in these parts are truly the salt of the earth. Mostly descendent from Scotch-Irish immigrants who settled here during pre-civil war times, they have their quirks and peculiarities – like any one. They’re ‘Mountain Folk’ from way back. They have their own way of doing things and thinking about things. But if you take a little time to get to know them and don’t come in determined to “reform” them over night, they’ll welcome you into the fold and be some of the best friends you could possibly want.

Being raised as an Air Force brat, I’ve lived in 20 some-odd places all around this country, and others. Of all the places I’ve been and seen this place is the one I love best. Everywhere else I’ve lived we always enjoyed getting away on vacation – going and seeing someplace different. But since being here, I don’t long for different sights. When I must go away, I long to be back home. This is the first place I’ve lived that I actually called “home”; for my other residences always seemed as temporary as they were. Even after growing up and moving out of my parents house, I knew that where I was would be temporary so I didn’t make much effort to put down roots. And when it was time to move on, it was no hardship. But since settling here I can’t imagine going elsewhere.

Of course this is not the life for everyone, so those who prefer the seashore, or mid-western farmlands, or the deserts of the southwest are welcome to pursue their desires.

In St Louis Marie and I owned a house and garage/workshop on a 1/8 acre lot. From either our front or back porch we could see 6 to 12 other homes. And they could see us. Here we have 4½ acres of wooded land. To us it seems a palatial estate, though by local standards it’s a pittance. Around here you’re not a real “land owner’ unless you have at least 20 acres. It’s a mountain folk thing. Many of these people are descendants of families who each owned entire mountains. As the young’uns grew up and married, parcels were given to the newlywed couples. There are still a few large tracts of land owned by single family lines, although many were forced to sell family land to outsiders when hard times came and they needed money.

The remoteness that I enjoy so much would drive some people bonkers. Not to over state the case, we are NOT up on some craggy bluff 20 miles removed from the nearest living soul. We have neighbors. We just can’t see them, or hear them –

Moms house on Piney Mountain

most of the time. The only house I can see from our place is the one we had built for my mom and step-dad when they moved out here in 2003; its on our property around 100 feet down hill from our home. Close enough I can get there quickly and easily when needed, but far enough away to give everyone some privacy. The other neighbors are not visible because of trees and rises, but are within walking distance. Nearest are Sam and his son Casey, Doug & Heather and Preacher Hall and his family. The Balls, Iveys and Crumms live along the road in one direction, the Watts, Freshours, and the Munns in the other.  At the end of our road is Mr Fox, whose family once owned all of this land.  Some of these names are families that have been here for around 200 years. A dozen or so families live within a mile in each direction of our home – easy walking distance should we feel like going visiting.

We all live on Little Piney Mountain, along a single two lane paved road. A very good road, comparatively. I’ve been on many in the area that are barely a single lane, twisty, gravel paths scraped into the side of a near vertical mountain face with a sheer drop-off that plummets hundreds of feet. No guard rails. No place to pass an on-coming vehicle, except for the occasional ‘wide spot’. If two vehicles meet in between, one backs up to a passing point.  Piney Mountain Road is an expressway compared to those.

Big Piney is just behind and a little north of Little Piney, then a couple more whose names escape me just now, and we come to Rocky Top. Yes THE Rocky Top immortalized in song. It’s surprising how many songs were written about this part of Tennessee. The other direction are Hogback Mountain and Stone Mountain. Across the valley, west of us, dominating our view is a long, massive ridge called English Mountain. There is a notch on the southern end of English Mountain called Sunset Gap which is reputed to have the most spectacular sunsets on the planet. The reputation is well deserved. To the south are The Great Smoky Mountains. Through the floor of the valley runs the Pigeon River, carrying cold run-off from the creeks and streams that originate in the mountains to the French Broad River, which eventually connects to the Tennessee River.

These geographic features shield the residents of this valley from storms. Working like a bug deflector on your hood, bad weather is forced up and over. We rarely suffer the ravages of storm winds like Knoxville and Morristown; the nearest cities outside of our valley. Although residents of the bottom lands get mighty wet when heavy rains fall and “The Pigeon” can’t carry it away fast enough. Being about half-way up our mountain slope, gentle convection currents work to keep my neighbors and I warm in the winter and cool in the summer. We’re almost always 10° more temperate here than the town of Newport which occupies most of the floor of the valley.

Newport begins about 5 miles from where I sit and is a town large enough to serve our most immediate needs, yet small enough to be friendly. Here we attend church, buy our groceries, household supplies and gasoline, do our banking, and are involved in a variety of community organizations. It offers an assortment of restaurants if we want to eat out. It has a movie theater if that’s what we crave, and a Theater Guild that puts on theatrical productions several times a year should we desire ‘culture’. And it offers a variety of shops and stores to serve us when we feel the need to browse for something new – or new to us.

The only real deficiency comes in the department of our business needs. Not office supplies; that’s covered, but the hardwood lumber, specialty hardware and tools that I use to build our furniture are not available here. For those we had to look outside our valley. And that forced upon us some new ways of doing business.

When we lived in St Louis, I had three woodworking specialty stores within a 15 minute drive of my home and shop. Each carried a wide variety of dressed hardwood lumber, furniture hardware, woodworking tools and finishing supplies. When I needed some lumber, or a set of drawer pulls, or a replacement part for a tool, I went and bought what I needed. No problem. But when we got settled in here, the biggest ‘culture shock’ I encountered was getting used to not having these supplies ‘at arms reach’, so to speak. The biggest adjustment was in finding lumber.

Oh, sure, there are three lumber yards in the area. But they carry construction lumber: 2x4s, rafters, pressure treated deck boards. Some have a limited supply of oak, but its pre-shaped for use in stair treads and quite expensive. Ask for cherry or walnut lumber and they give you a blank stare. Why would they want to carry that?

Think you can buy a replacement mortising chisel or brad point drill bit at the local hardware store? Not on your life. They have no demand for such things, why carry them?

So I set about locating sources for the things I would need to keep the business going. What I can buy locally – common screws and finishes mostly – I do. Most of the small stuff: hardware and fixtures, specialty screws, specialized hand tools and such I mail-order. The Internet makes that easy. I just had to learn to keep ahead of my needs – which was difficult when you’re used to being able to just pop over to Woodcraft and pick things up when you needed them.

I found a couple of suppliers of good, dry furniture grade lumber in Knoxville. But Knoxville is an hour away from here by Interstate (which I strongly dislike) or an hour and a half by back roads. Making a lumber run now took a half day at least. So to make it worth the trip, I had to start buying a truck-load at a time. Paying retail — or near retail – prices for this amount of quality lumber requires a goodly bag of coin and tended to put a serious crimp in our budget.

lumber,stacks,air dryingSo I started working with local sawyers to buy fresh-sawn lumber which I stacked and air dried myself. We now have a fairly good sized private lumber yard from which to draw supplies as I need. We carry 8 different species, around 7,000 board feet total. As I use what I have, I buy new to replace it so it will be dry when I need to use it.

So we are again able to avoid going to The City except for a few times a year, which is almost like an adventure. “Put on some clean duds an hitch up the wagon Paw, we’ns is a goin ta th’city!”

But when the adventure is over; after we’ve wound our way through Chestnut Hill and the back side of English Mountain looms, I sure am glad to be coming ‘home’!

What do you like best about where you live?

10 thoughts on “The Old Homestead: Life in the Mountains”

  1. Thanks for all the info: learned a lot more about you, Uber.

    As to where I live: I’m just a mile north of the NYC line (The Bronx). IF I need to get to Manhattan (which most people consider NYC itself), it’s about 20 mins drive, depending on traffic.
    Yonkers biggest asset, to me, is that it is a central hub for where I have to go for work (when I do more Teaching Artist or storytelling work). To get to New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut or upstate NY, it’s all about 15-20 mins: then, whatever travel time I need to get to the actual location. It allows me that flexibility in taking a gig.
    Otherwise? Yonkers is an urban suburb, not my ideal place to live, but….

    I’m glad you have a place you can really call HOME. I’m still hoping to feel that.

    1. Thanks for sharing your situation, Stu. While I don’t care for city living (I spent several years in St. Louis), I know several people who are very happy being city-carcerated. Sounds like you’re not really one of those, I hope you get to realize your own dreams for “ideal living”.

  2. What do I like about where I live?

    The great big wide open blue praire sky, especially on warm summers’s evening & it’s still light out at 10.30 pm.

    Driving “out west” & seeing the Rockies rising out of the prairie with their peaks snowy white & glistening in the cool clear air.

    But what I don’t like is sitting here on the 7th April, watching a great video of “Mountain Folk” talking, looking outside and there’s 15cm of new snow overnight, & it’s still coming down – especially when I think this stuff came in mid October – that’s six long months of the stuff!!

    1. LOL, hopefully you will be able to enjoy those expansive blue skies soon, Don. Not sure I could handle having it light at 10:30 PM… that’s past my bedtime!

  3. Love this post and the video is wonderful! I live in a similar region in the Blue Ridge Mountains of NC and enjoy much the same serenity and solitude on my little piece of heaven. I am also proud to be a hillbilly, with deep roots in these mountains, I remember my grandfather sneaking the mason jars past us kids and I used to help my great grandma in the garden…such wonderful memories you sparked with this post! Thank you…

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it Debra, thank you for taking the time to say so. My only misgiving here is that I was brought up as an Air Force brat and we had to move every year. When I listen to the locals talking about their friends and family, the rich connections there and their long relationship with these mountains, I get a bit jealous. I too have relatives but they’re spread all over the world, and I rarely see most of them. But then… maybe that’s a good thing in some cases!

      1. Trust me, its not so bad to have them all spread out…I lived in SC for a little over 10 years and while terribly home sick the entire time, I didn’t miss having them all right next door!

  4. This planet’s a pretty enough place to spend some decades, but I’m always a long way from home and that means that every place I live on earth is nice enough, but I’m just passing through… with a job to do.

    1. True, Richard. We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience. Enjoying the world God created is good but we must remember that the coffin is not the terminus of the journey.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.