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…