66: "Improving" roads, and opening a holler for the greater good (or not)

I bought the land where the cabin sits in 2007. We had bought our house and moved into the holler back in 2002, when Sloan found a great job here in the mountains where we wanted to be. It was maybe brave, although some would say that as a euphemism for something else. The holler was deeper and darker and more remote then. The roads were different, soon to be widened and expanded by a far-off developer. Below, they were maybe 7 or 8 feet wide, hardly accommodating for a delivery truck, and flanked by tall, thick, second-growth white pines and dense rhododendron. Bouncing over gullies and ruts where no culverts existed, the bottom of our drive turned steeply up into a half-mile of essentially wagon track, even narrower and canted away from a mature oak forest above, toward an abyss full of creek and laurel. Above the house the roads became moss-covered, full-canopy laurel tunnels that emerged at around 4000 feet of elevation and delivered a walker to a comfortably-situated ridge-top trail connecting two high-up aircraft-beacon-festooned knobs, rising like sentinels over the house, the holler, the valley, and everything else in our world.

Once, before the last phase of the road "improvements," the ones that opened those high-up routes to still sparse but previously impossible vehicular traffic, Sloan and I post-holed up through the woods toward our customary loop, climbing to the ridge and traversing before taking a twisty descent, on a 20 degree afternoon in 12 inches of powdery snow. Abel, maybe 10 months old, in a backpack, Sloan, skipping as best she could, me toting both him and a thermos of single malt Islay scotch, him, covered head forward, tucked under the back brim of my hat, warm on my neck, breathing, asleep.

Now, I often drive guests up there on wide gravel lanes under open sky. That's what they call "progress." Now, instead of suffering from the rigors of ambulatory ascension, we can avoid any exposure to damp leaves or impertinent green briar, eliminate the sensation of hard granite underfoot and keep the thin soil from roughing our boots, and eschew unconditioned mountain air, by sitting encased in plastic and steel and dusty glass, through which we may still see beyond the Plotts to Clingman's Dome. Before, we just walked.

Over the next few years, in addition to the road improvements (both real and questionable), I built stuff, learning the art of making things square and plumb and level on a ridiculously overbuilt hot tub deck, independently applying new skills on a western lodge-inspired side porch (after a rim-to-rim hike in the Grand Canyon), expanding the house for an expanding family with a bedroom addition, improving our living space with hardwood floors and a renovated garage, and reclaiming some room for myself with a two-story workshop. All those years, I'd sit in our hot tub and contemplate things, including the low ridge directly opposite from the house. I thought of another person, sitting on a deck or gazing out a window, putting wear and tear on our road, absorbing some of our peace and serenity in some kind of zero sum equation.

After buying that acreage, and not for investment, I looked for ways to benefit from its intrinsic value, ways to use it. I built three mountain bike trails on which my boys love to hike. I built a three-sided rock climbing wall with a "treehouse" perched above. I cleared a 1/4 acre on top and positioned a fire pit. Hung chairs from trees. And I built a cabin.

For my next project, I'll build a brick BBQ pit up there, and cook a pig. I'll start next summer, when the cabin's done. And blog about it...


  1. Always a process. A pig pit would be a nice addition.

  2. Mark BuddenOctober 22, 2010

    I'll help, as long as I don't have to eat pig.

  3. Mark must be a better person than me because I'm all for eating pig, but not so much for the help.

  4. Cooper, I could move the timeline up a few months and get started now. I understand mixing concrete and moving bricks builds strong backs!


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I use this blog to chronicle certain aspects of my life near the Smokies. I'm building a cabin. I kayak. Sometimes I bike.