Feb 20, 2011
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
--Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken, Mountain Interval, 1920
Sometimes the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason.
“I don’t know how you do it,” says a friend from a big city. She’s referring to the whole deal: living five miles up a dirt road, off-grid, no phone. On a mountaintop, a good hour’s drive from a full-service grocery store. “How do you do it?” asks a man whose ancestors settled the ridge above Camp Allegheny more than 200 years ago. He cocks his head and looks at me, a twinkle in his eye. Unlike my city friend, he has a pretty good idea how, at least from a practical standpoint. But much like her, and more to the point, he can’t quite fathom why.
Why would anybody choose to be here? And more importantly, why have I?
As the weather warmed last Sunday, I decided to give poor, patient Cosmo a break from my festival preparations and take a drive to check-out the ice on Shaver’s Fork and then continue over Cheat Mountain to Huttonsville, in Randolph County, where I get an always-reliable cell phone signal. I pulled over just past Cheat Bridge and took Cosmo on a slow roam along the still-frozen, snow-laden river’s edge. At one point, I knelt and put my ear near the ground. I heard sounds much like the un-rosined-bow whine of frozen tree boughs scraping together in an Allegheny wind. The sounds of cracking ice. And beneath that, the bass drum rumble of moving water. The promise of Spring.
The sounds told me a point of no return had been passed. Yes, it would be icy cold again…but not for 30 days straight. Yes, it would snow again…but the snow would not stay on the ground for long. The frozen Earth was moving toward melt.
For about an hour, Cosmo and I rambled along the riverbank. Animal tracks traced back and forth across the snow-covered water. Deer, squirrel, raccoon, and many indefinable others had made the river their short-cut.
There was no wind last Sunday along the Shaver’s Fork near Cheat Bridge. I heard the chicka-dee-dee-dee of a single bird. In an hour’s time, two vehicles passed on U.S. 250.
The snow-crunch of my boots and Cosmo’s happy panting was nothing short of symphonic.
Huttonsville is 30 miles from my door.
I thought about this on the way back over Cheat Mountain. The fact that “normal” for me is driving 60 miles for a cell-phone signal. Trust me, I know every pay phone in Pocahontas County from Marlinton to Dunmore to Durbin. Fact is, most of the time they don’t work. And, frankly, most of the time I don’t care. Because most of the time, I don’t “Do Phone. “
But some business simply cannot be accomplished any other way. And sometimes, on infrequent occasion, I just need to hear a particular person’s voice. Email only translates so far. And, perhaps, only up to the point at which diminishing returns accrue.
As I ascended Cheat Mountain and looked out over the Allegheny plateau, I thought about the fact that certain of my friends and relatives still cannot quite grasp the logistical fact that I live someplace where a landline is not possible and cell-phone service is not available. Reliance on pay phones, in America? East of the Mississippi? Nah.
In a world where everyone is constantly on the phone, constantly texting, constantly in communication with everyone else…the very idea of being someplace within the continental U.S. where such communication is impossible is, frankly, unimaginable.
Surely, I must be joking, or exaggerating, or just not trying hard enough.
Last Sunday afternoon, February 13, I passed precisely no vehicles, not one, on my 30-mile return from Huttonsville to Brightside. Three deer crossed the road in the middle of the curve just before Durbin. A red-tailed hawk lifted off at Spencer’s Ridge and sailed down the center of the Pike almost all the way to the Brightside gate, before peeling off to the West toward Arbovale.
When I got out of the car to open the gate, I stopped. At this most-windy of imaginable places, nothing stirred. The only discernible sound was that of the car engine fan.
When I say I’m off-grid, I actually think that’s cheating.
Although I don’t have utilities, or television, or telephone, I do have intermittent internet, which has made me dependent on the most grid-like of grids! And without internet, pitiful though it is, I wonder how I would survive here. I’m not saying I couldn’t survive, I’m just wondering how I would adapt.
OK, I’ll come right out and admit that I become rather cranky when I can’t get an NPR radio signal. Proof positive that I’m a communications addict, pure and simple.
My son, Jake, rolls his eyes. "So 19th century."
But then again, he doesn't live here full time.
Why do I?
Simplest answer: Because I want to be here.
Because, corny as it may sound, I consider it a privilege.
I want to witness this place--all of it--this silence, beauty, and deathly harshness, this unforgiving yet bountiful landscape. This place that demands full attention, always, and punishes anything less. Oh yes. This place will keep you on your toes.
And I want to be kept on my toes.
No, it ain't easy! It ain't no Disney World vacation. No Hallmark card fade-to-mist.
Living in Nature isn't an escape from Life.
No, quite to the contrary, it's Life in-your-face, pure and unfiltered.
What else could be better, given the short time we've got to get it?
If a landscape is destroyed and no one is around as witness, does it matter?
Ah, this has been the question of the week.
To be honest, I do think of my presence here as a kind of place-holder. I don't live here "for the greater good," but I do believe my living here, my bearing witness, matters.
In the vast "nowhere" of rural Appalachia that corporate interests, in boardrooms as near as Charleston or New York or as far away as Bejing, might decide to drill or mine or otherwise exploit, I exist. I am real. I have, out of whole cloth, created something that did not exist before. Most important is the fact of my being here. I am witness.
As corporate interests keep "putting up parking-lots" in one form or another, increased is the value of those who not only remember, but hew to preserving paradise before paving. There is an intrinsic value in those who don't just talk the talk, but live it, day by day. Come what may.
I am one of these people.
The road less traveled is less traveled because it is a hard road. This doesn't mean the view from the road isn't worth every difficult mile.