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.

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