Sunday, February 22, 2015

Jedidiah the Mountain Man, part two

The footpath up the mountain was well worn, but appeared to end abruptly at the high rock outcropping from which Jedidiah first emerged.  What was unseen from my vantage below was the narrow space between the limestone boulders.  This shadowy crevice wove back through the rock face with a serpentine series of switchbacks, rising in crests and dropping into troughs.  The canyon path was deprived of direct sunlight by the towering walls of stone.  The hike, climbing up and down through blind twists and turns, soon bewildered both my sense of direction and perception of elevation.  At the crest of a steep climb, the path appeared to split in two directions.  Jed turned with a sly smirk and said, “You’en dun neber go dat way; not lest you gots a parachute.”  A glance to my left revealed wide open space and a bright sunlit trail.  Curiosity got the better of me and I ventured a few steps in the direction of his warning.  The trail ran alongside a cliff, it was graveled, but looked entirely navigable.  As I scanned the terrain in search of the forewarned peril, a rock, several inches in diameter, flew past my head landing 15 or 20 feet ahead of me on the path.  Its concussion started a sizable avalanche of gravel cascading down the mountain and over the cliff.  Jed’s voice filled with laughter, “Dats why.”  
The old mountain man led me back into the dark maze of crevices emerging eventually onto a forested slope that led down to a primitive hand-hewn log cabin.  The ancient shelter appeared no larger than 20 foot long and its greyed timbers were chinked in red clay so that from a distance it took on the resemblance of a weathered flag.  There were two small out buildings, one chinked and one open, as well as what looked to my unindoctrinated eyes to be a bricked barbeque pit emitting a wisp of bluish smoke from a short chimney.  I could hear but not see a stream running nearby, but the sound blended with the view of his shaded homestead giving the entire scene the air of a nineteenth century John Muir narrative.
I was winded from the trek and had trouble keeping pace with my strange and aged guide.  My legs and buttocks burned with fatigue and I was looking forward to a much needed respite.  Making our way into the campsite, I dropped the weight of the stowage I carried from the 4-wheeler and began to notice the pioneering craftsmanship of the homestead.  The bricks on the chimney were kiln dried clay and straw; there were numerous seats and tables made of poplar wood shaped by a skilled hand and adze; there were cords upon cords of ax-split firewood; a rocking chair of tied bent birch sat on the covered porch; and the barbeque revealed itself, even to my novice eyes, as a mash pot cooling after last evening’s run.
Jedidiah lives his life in near seclusion with no neighbors, no electricity, no running water (except for his icy stream), no sanitary sewer, cell phone or Internet.  The prospect of living wholly connected to the Earth and isolated from everything else seemed frightening to me to say the least, but then as Jed began to teach me his ways, I came to understand that it is our on-the-grid society that is lacking.  The gadgetry and innovation of connectivity has left our civilization exiled from the true essence and spirit of life.  We have gorged ourselves on the fruits of the tree of knowledge for so long that we now suffer from a collective forgetfulness.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Jedidiah the Mountain Man, part one

     Meeting Jed

     I considered turning back more than once; the torrent of well-meaning ridicule never weakened my resolve until I was miles from any known trail, deep in the virgin forest and growing wary of the less docile denizens of these steep mountains.  The planning process was full of chest-puffed bravado and childishly imagined death-defying adventures, now I had to face my unexpected trepidation at being alone and isolated from any modicum of aid and assistance.  To protect the privacy of this Holy Grail of folktale writing, I had not disclosed to anyone my exact destination or the timing of my sojourn; I was totally alone without any hope of rescue should it be needed, and that thought began to bother me. 
     I idled my four-wheeler for a sip of not-so-cool water and yet another check of my sidearm; I said a secular prayer that my pawnshop purchase would indeed fire if called upon.  I had foolishly never test fired the old Smith and Wesson.  My friends and family were unanimous in their declaration that my quest was pure folly, but Butch, who supplied me with my annual plastic jug of Mountain Water, swore he knew the old man.  A chance to meet and interview a genuine “wild man” was too…  Ha, I don’t have a good word for it, but everything I have and everything I am made it worth the chance.  And that’s what I did; I bet everything on an undiscovered artifact of old Appalachia.
     All I left the house with was a light-weight tent, a sleeping bag, two changes of clothing, a couple cans of stew (and yes, I did remember a can opener), some store-bought jerky, two gallons of water, a five-gallon can of gas, my used ATV, and a gun.  I did carry my cell phone and two of those “emergency” charge packs, but honestly, I knew they wouldn’t be worth a shit for communication; I needed the phone strictly for its GPS function.  My biggest realized dilemma was that the coordinates that Butch gave me put the old man’s cabin in a deep swale surrounded on all sides by craggy ridges, and I had no idea from which direction to attempt the approach.
      There were no trails to follow; I never even identified what some more “woodsy” kind of person might call a game trail.  I had little doubt that the contraband liquor that I have come to love had its genesis in these remote hills; it would take one bold son-of-a-bitch lawman to hunt a still site this deep in the woods.  After five hours of working around deadfall, fording spring-fed streams, blazing new switchbacks in order to climb the steep grades, all the while constantly shifting my weight to prevent what would likely be a fatal rollover, I had come to hate the staccato popping of the Honda engine between my legs.  If I were a younger man (and maybe in a whole lot better shape), I think I would have been tempted to leave the bike and work my way in on foot.  The sound from the muffler was the only unnatural sound under the arboreal canopy; it was an affront to thousands upon thousands of years of nature.  I felt like an unforgivable sinner despoiling Paradise.  And then he appeared.
      The initial movement I more sensed as an uneasy feeling rather than something in a direct line of sight.  I knew I was not alone in the forest, my incursion had scattered a myriad of game and in all but two fortuitous happenstances, the animals’ retreats were heard rather than observed.  I had spotted two whitetail does’ flags arc over an ancient fallen hemlock with a coincidental glance, and I had also seen something large and dark between the pillars of flora that I had hoped against hope was not aggressive enough to challenge my marksmanship or the stopping power of a short-barreled .380.  But this was different; high above me there had been movement and it seemed to be shadowing my progress along the hillside.  I eased the slide back on the pistol and felt for the safety cursing myself for accepting the assurances of the tattooed pawnbroker.  In the comfort of retrospection, the investment was unnecessary and to this day, the pistol remains untested, locked in a box in my closet.  The first glimpse of Jedidiah was not what I expected; he stepped from an outcrop of boulders and waved at me.  What appeared before me was a broad grin on a grizzled face of indeterminable age, atop a slim, muscled body clad from his leggings to his head cover in varying hues of rough stitched animal pelts.  I had assumed he’d be a cautious recluse who would need much cajoling to permit a visit and an interview by some no-name starving writer; I was wrong.
     Jedidiah climbed effortlessly down the grade and greeted me with a hearty laugh and an accent of long-drawn vowels and shorted consonant sounds.  His first words were, “Cay mi Jed; whad dey cay yuz.”  After being congratulated on a fine ole timey Bible name, he told me to leave the four-wheeler (daggum noisy ‘trapson) and proceeded to help me offload and tote my provisions (grubz an tuff) up over the top of the ridge.  He said, “Yuz want be needin’ ‘em, bot id keps da baaars frum ‘aving a goo ole time. Dems rascals when id cooms to fooodz.”

     The next three days would change my life in more ways than I have words to explain.  He endowed me with unimagined riches when all I wanted was a story…