As I look out over the mountainside at the bright red fall foliage I can't help but shake my head in amazement at the devious, torturous path that led me here.
There were next to no jobs available when I graduated high school in the mid-seventies. I spotted a "help wanted" sign while taking a short-cut getting home one morning after a late night shift as a dish-washer. I grew up in Cicero, a suburb of Chicago--home of Al Capone, one of the largest grave yards in the Midwest and home to one of the most corrupt city governments this side of Detroit. Chicago party politics didn't have ANYTHING on Cicero. If you weren't connected or a union president you were out on your ass.
Nonetheless, there were a lot of rail sidings and heavy industry in town. I could feel the ground shake as I opened the door to the office, looking for the people with the "Help Wanted" sign.
They weren't too enthusiastic about my lack of experience with heavy industrial equipment, but I bargained for that job as if my life depended on it. I agreed to dishwasher's wages for the first four months until I could prove myself. It almost cost me my entire paycheck for union dues, but dad thought that I was doing the right thing. I was planning for the future. Mom wouldn't be happy without grandchildren so she suffered in silence.
After a couple of years working as an operator of a twelve-ton press I went to a Halloween mixer where I met Marge. She and I clicked for some reason. After a year and a half of dating I asked for her hand. Boy, was she tickled. We got married by the local judge because she was Baptist and I was a fence-sitter. Her daddy was connected in city politics. According to him I was a "good boy" because I was in a union and held down a steady job. He sprang for a nice little two bedroom house with a two-car garage, all in a good neighborhood. I put down the initial deposit on a four-door Ford sedan the size of a battleship. It wasn't a sexy little number and it got horrible gas mileage, but it was safe for my honey to drive. Besides, we hardly ever went out of town.
We spent our Sunday afternoons at our parents' houses, shmoozing and looking at old photo albums. I learned a lot about my family that I'd never learned before. For example, I had a great uncle Al that retired from the navy, bought a mountain in south-east Kentucky and turned into a hermit.
We kept trying for children but she kept having miscarriages. After the fifth one she lost heart. Times were pretty bleak in the Baker house around them.
I applied for more training at work and eventually got the coveted tool-and-die slot. It came with one hell of a raise. We started putting away money for retirement.
Marge was tired of sitting around the house watching dismal daytime television. I couldn't blame her. She went back to school on an MBA track. That pretty well defined how we lived for about seven years.
Marge got her MBA. We held a big party and spent way too much on it, but it made Marge happy. Then things started to get rough. She wasn't around when I got home. She wouldn't talk to me any more. I noticed nice new skirts, blouses and shoes in her closet. She asked for separate beds.
I got a real cold feeling in my guts. I hadn't wandered at all while we were married. I didn't have a very high sex drive. Sure, I looked, but I never touched. Hell, I hardly ever flirted, much less talked a girl up. I really wondered if the same could be said for my spouse. I had the feeling that some character at that college had talked her up and got her interested, then promised her the moon. It all came down to the brittle line when I got handed divorce papers. I felt odd, as if someone else was driving my body. I remembered dreams with a lot of screams.
Marge spent a couple days in the hospital, just out of the blue. She was on my insurance from work so there wasn't really a problem. She wouldn't tell me why she needed the attention though. Because I had proof that I was her husband I was able to get a copy of her records.
She'd had another miscarriage. We'd been sleeping in separate beds for two years.
Mom and dad were still alive, if barely hanging on. Dad said that I had to protect myself.
I went to the bank and made damned sure that our retirement account would require both of our signatures to withdraw anything, then I opened an account in an Oak Park bank with half of our checking account. I hired a lawyer--from outside Cicero.
Clyde had been in the divorce business for quite a while. He had a gimmick that reportedly worked well for people that had a civil ceremony rather than one officiated by a member of the clergy. He said it took the right judge to connect the dots, but it was possible. Once he described how he planned for it to work I promised him one quarter of the retirement fund.
Clyde played the game and got the judge he wanted by working the schedule. Clyde tried to get the whole ball of wax by claiming that since we'd entered into a civil arrangement that it was a contract. By contractual law the party dissolving the contract had no claim on the assets of the corporation.
The judge didn't buy it this time. Things were getting tense. She gave the okay for her lawyer to drop the boom on me and skin me for every last cent and possession that I owned. I stood up. "I didn't want to present this, and my lawyer has no knowledge of it. I didn't want to drag her through the mud. But now it's time." I handed the copy of her medical records to the bailiff. "The last entry is for bed rest following a miscarriage. We've been sleeping in separate beds for two years. Please make note of the entry date."
Bam. I didn't feel sorry for her. Her papa was worth several million. She'd never go hungry or homeless. I paid her dad a visit after the trial.
"Boy, you've got balls showing up here."
I shook my head. "I know that she'll never want for a home or food. She's your daughter. I came to offer the house back to you. It was a wedding gift."
He sat back in his chair and looked me over. "I was right the first time. You're a good boy. You keep it. Do what you want."
"I'll end up selling the place. I've been burned bad. I'm moving down to my great-uncle's mountain in Kentucky. I don't think I'll ever want to see a woman again as long as I live."
He put his heavy hand on my shoulder. "I'll pay you fifty grand over market. It's a nice little place with good schools close. I've got friends that could use it." We shook hands. I'd be out within a week.
The hardest thing to do was getting the retirement account modified to accept my signature only. The marriage dissolution decree papers did it. That got the lawyer paid. I traded the Ford in on a long-bed Econoline van. It needed some suspension work, new tires, a new exhaust and all the high-voltage stuff under the hood replaced, but it turned into a nice ride. Nobody that had owned it smoked so the interior was a lot better than it could have been. The little AM/FM radio worked. I loaded my bed, a table, two chairs, a filled dresser and a lot of kitchen stuff into it. I had to get the rear shocks replaced by a set of air shocks. There wasn't much more that I wanted out of the place except my clothes, towels and bedding. I rolled up the rugs and filled the voids in the van's cargo space with them. My suitcase rode in the passenger seat along with a cooler.
I was forty years old and it was early in 1988. I had seventy thousand in the bank and a promissory note for a hundred and seventy thousand for the house. I moved in with my mom and dad for a while until the note cleared.
I was really down on women in general. I refused to even go through a grocery store checkout line if there was a woman at the register. I was angry in places that I didn't even know that I had.
Mom and dad were going downhill fast. They knew it and didn't begrudge the fact. They helped me find all the information they could on Uncle Al's place--Bloody Mountain. The story was that half the mountain was lit up by flame bush every fall so that in the evening light it looked like the entire mountainside was covered in blood.
The family had been paying the trivial property tax on it for the last thirty-some years since he'd died. They dug the property deed out of the family's safe deposit box for me, along with all the receipts for tax payments. All we had describing the place was a journal which I read carefully.
The place appeared to be a tiny little cabin in a crease in the mountain. Uncle Al bought the place because he'd found a cave. The cabin was built in front of the cave entrance. By all accounts it was a pretty damned NICE cave by the time he'd finished up with it. It had running water and he'd done some blasting work in the fifties to level out the floor, clean up the walls and generally make it more habitable. His journal noted that one little fire in the stove kept the place comfortable year round. I figured that I'd better get a chain saw or two, a chain sharpening jig and someone to teach me how to use it. I'd be needing a lot of firewood.
I stopped into the biggest damned Lowe's that I could find. Once I got someone's attention I actually got a class on the care and feeding of a chain saw, including how not to cut my leg off. Sharpening a chain turned out to be pretty easy once I learned how to use a jig. I bought two Stihl 420 chainsaws with twenty inch bars and a spool of chain. I had no idea what I'd be walking into since nobody but local hunters had been on the property for some thirty-odd years. I bought a chain hoist, a brace and bits, some hinges, a tarp and a cot to sleep on until I got the cabin in shape.
Once the check for the property cleared I kissed and hugged my folks, probably for the last time. I wished that I could take them with me but I knew that it wouldn't work out. Likewise there was no way for me to stay in Cicero. I was a horned man.
Hazard, Kentucky was the closest big city to the mountain. I made my way down to Lexington pretty easily and took a hotel room overnight. I was lucky to have seen an advertisement for a gun show that weekend at the Lexington Armory, just north of town. Once I started sprouting hair dad used to take me to a place in central Wisconsin, nigh onto every summer. We camped out, fished and blew the hell out of a lot of paper targets. I was deadly with a .22 rifle. I'd gotten a couple of chances to shoot a rifle that just about every foot soldier carried in WWII--a Garand M1. I loved the thing, despite the fact that it kicked like a horse.
Nobody wanted to sell to me as my driver's license was from <gasp> Illinois. I got the bright idea of showing the deed to the mountain out east near Hazard. That changed their tune.
There's several different grades of M1s. They all shoot pretty much the same round, except for a batch done for the Navy that took the 7.62x51 NATO round. the same round used pretty much world over. The 30.06 Winchester was getting harder to find. I bought a "Marksman" grade rifle chambered for the NATO rounds. While wandering around the show looking for a nice .22 rifle a guy asked me if I wanted any ammo for that rifle. I sure did, but when I told him it was chambered for the NATO round he kind of squinched up his face in disappointment. Then he pointed me to a guy with a table in the back near a big open garage door. He kept most of his stock outside. I bought ten ammo cans of rounds already in en-block clips designed to feed the M1. Each case held about 320 rounds. I had to pull the van up to his trailer to load up.
Before I left I paid the guy at the announcement table twenty bucks to call up anyone with a Savage model 93 for sale. Three guys showed up. I paid about three hundred for a bolt-action .22 magnum rifle with iron sights. Ammunition was harder to find but I managed to latch onto 750 rounds in fifty round boxes.
I had to take it easy on the van to get the rest of the way out East. It took a couple of days but I got there. The closest town to the mountain was Harlan. It wasn't too small as it was the county seat. I took a hotel room in town, got my drivers license and van tags changed then visited the sheriff's office to let him know that Bloody Mountain had a new tenant. I asked if there'd be any problem with me hunting for the table. Nope. Not as long as I held the deed to the property.
That afternoon I found the road--or rather the path--that led up to the cabin. The van sure as hell couldn't make it the way the road sat. I walked the thing. It led out to the remains of the cabin some four-fifths of the way up to the top, above where the red bush grew. I drove back into town to find someone with a dozer or a grader to bring out some gravel, fill in the ruts and smooth out the road. I was stuck in town for a little over a week until he could get around to me. I spent some time buying a heavy chain, a couple sets of screw-type wood bits, some big nut-bolt-and-washer assemblies, angle iron, pre-drilled flat steel and a box of huge screw-in lag bolts. A farm implement company had a big socket wrench set for sale with a big breaker bar. It had "John Deer" stamped right into the metal pieces and it was all held in a black plastic blow-formed case. One of those sockets would just fit the lag bolts. I bought a couple spares of that size.
When the road was done I paid the man his due, filled up my cooler with meat and ice and hit the road to find out what kind of surprise mother nature had left for me.
The cabin was pretty much what I'd expected when I'd first seen it. The draw was a bit wet and the cabin had tumbled down long before. I put together a drag hook out of angle and flat iron, hooked it to the chain, backed up to the front of the cabin and put the engine in low. It took six tries but I cleared the foundation. I gradually pitched all the rotting crap into the woods next to the road. It was about dark before I finished. A tarp, cot and blanket made up my bed for the night.
I crapped in the woods with the aid of a shovel and a roll of paper towels. Then I fried a steak for breakfast. I measured the foundation and used the hood of the van as a ladder to see how high the old ceiling peak rose from the marks on the rock wall. I had to dig away some accumulated dirt in front of the cliff before I could swing the masonry door open, exposing the cave in the mountain.
I'd planned on this. I had a couple of good lanterns packed along. After a short passageway the cave opened up to a flattened cone some seventy feet deep by forty feet wide at the back. The ceiling height was astounding. It soared to some twenty feet or more near the rear. To the right, nearly at the back a strong rivulet of water poured through a crack in the wall and disappeared some eight feet away down a hole. Al must have done some work to the water bed as it was shaped like a large bath tub. I was surprised that the water was warm--just above body temperature.
The old stove looked to be in good shape. The stove pipe angled off into a dark crack where I couldn't see it. His old table was solid as a rock as it'd been built like a butcher block. The chair had fallen apart, as had the bed frame. The old mattress was covered in black mildew. I dragged all the useless crap out to the road. With the aid of a garden rake and a push broom I cleaned the place out. I didn't want to put any of my stuff inside until I'd sprayed the place down thoroughly with bleach to make sure all the mildew spores were killed. After a final satisfied look around I closed the heavy door and piled a little trash in front of it. I had some money to spend.
First I got a quote on an old John Deere tractor with a hydraulic bucket and a dozer blade. I took a look at it and the engine hours. It didn't have a cab but it had a roll bar. It was a 1974 model 4630. It had 180 horses and looked like it had rolled over a couple of times then hammered back into shape and re-painted. I wanted it for skidding trees out of the woods and powering a wood splitter, not its good looks ... Yes, he had a tractor-mounted splitter too. He wanted 16,000 for the tractor, 1,200 for the hydraulic bucket with new hoses, 900 for a nearly new dozer blade and six hundred for the used splitter with new hydraulic hoses. After starting it up and listening to it, then driving it around the lot I asked what he'd ask to rebuild the engine, clutch and transmission. I thought 2,400 was one hell of a deal. I wrote him a check to have it all delivered within the month. He had a flat-bed so it wouldn't be a problem. I knew that I'd be dealing with him for cases of lithium grease and more attachments as time went on. I planned on planting a garden sometime.
A local fuel dealer agreed to keep a 200 gallon diesel tank full for me--with a deposit of course.
I thought long and hard about doing all that drilling and bolting by hand. I shook my head. "Nope. Ain't gonna do it. Wouldn't be prudent. Nope." I hired a contractor with a team of big out-of-work coal miners to screw together three buildings built end-to-end. The sixteen by sixteen cabin would go in the center. On one side I wanted a 16 foot deep by 32 foot wide equipment barn. On the other side I had them put together a sixteen foot by sixteen foot indoor wood shed. Why sixteen foot lengths? That was the cheapest size I could get on ten by ten beams from the sawmill. He promised to get it all built and in-the-dry before the first snowfall. Now, that could be a month or less away so he had his work cut out for him. Thankfully he had truck-mounted compressors and big air drills. I talked him into drawing a bead of construction adhesive between each pass as the logs went up.
I stopped at a Home Depot for some big canvas tarps and sewed together a marquis, or box tent. I pulled out the trees and little crap to one side of the building site and strung up the tent for a place to stay. Hotels are too expensive.
When I ordered the building timbers I also ordered forty landscaping timbers ten feet long. I planned to wait until the construction was done, then plant two rows of sleepers and lay the rest down across them as the floor to a porch that I planned to have built the following spring. It would keep me out of the mud, I hoped. I put them down with a carpenter's pencil's thickness between them, then took my time drilling them out and bolting them in place. It was a tough job but I wasn't going anywhere fast. My shoulders got used to the work and it gave me something constructive to do. Before that, though, as soon as the contractor's crew was done with the walls and roof I got two man-sized doors in place and a barn door for the tractor and implements. I had to use the chain saw to cut holes for the framed windows, then screwed flat boards into the beams to hold them in alignment. The two windows in the barn and two in the cabin made it a lot friendlier.
I bought a gasoline powered spray painter. First I ran straight bleach through it to sanitize the cave. I had to stop and put on a wetted coverall, hair cover and a wetted face mask. The bleach was killing my lungs. Then I gave the cave, the cabin, the wood house and the machine shed a couple coats of white outdoor paint on all inside surfaces that weren't glass. I took care to wash the devil out of that paint sprayer. No sense letting anything go to waste out of mismanagement.
According to the old maps that the county kept the mountain originally had a road or track that spiraled up around it until it reached the little plateau at the top. It took some work to find common points between the copy of the photo that I bought and the boots on the ground details. Once I found a common point I started blazing trees when I found the still reasonably flat road bed. Over fifty years had produced some very nice trees even through the packed down road. I blazed about the first mile or so. By then the paint fumes had dissipated indoors.
I moved the contents of my van into the cave. I needed cupboards, shelves, counters and book cases. These were one-shot startup expenses so I didn't whinge too badly at the expense. Until I saw the prices. Then the hair stood up on the back of my neck.
I compared the price of furniture to hardwood boards, a generator, a drill, a power saw and a router. Then I went back outside to look at the trees I'd marked for felling. There were a lot of nice hardwoods out there, bubba. I took a drive over to the sawmill to see if I could work a deal. He had cutoffs and slabs that he ground and sold as sawdust to the county at a loss. I made a deal with him where he'd send out a team to cut and haul the good timber along with pulling the stumps, sell me good grade dried boards once in a while and give me his slab and cutoffs for my cook stove. Hell, we both made out like bandits. I had oak, ash, walnut and hickory out there. Some of them were sixteen inches in diameter. He wanted to see the trees before he agreed, thinking that I might be blowing smoke up his ass. Nope. I'm pretty sure that I went on his Christmas list for a bottle of good bourbon that day.
It wasn't long before truck after truck of dried cut-offs and slabs were delivered. Hell, it all filled the firewood cabin and half the living cabin before I had to have him stop. His team was out there from dawn to dusk pulling that timber and jerking the stumps with a cat D-4. They got a mile and a half down the trail before he ran out of room in his kilns. I bought a little 8KW generator with two mufflers and some power tools. The only other thing I paid for was glue, fluted pegs, wax, varnish and lemon oil. Oh, I needed drawer glides, knobs and such but those were incidentals.
Before long I was cooking bread and biscuits, soups and stews on that old two-eye stove. I'd figured out that the water running down the hole fed the red bush field. That assured me that using it for an outhouse wouldn't poison me or anyone else. That channel made for a great bathtub, but I had to switch to non-toxic soaps. I saved my garbage for my infrequent trips into town for laundry, meat and gas for the generator.
The florescent light that I'd mounted over my work bench for woodworking showed me just how much I missed modern lighting in the cave. I sat thinking long and hard as how to go about getting lights in there. Finally I hit on it. How did vacation trailers keep food cold and keep the lights working? Propane! I had to go into town to check my bank balance and see what a two burner propane setup would cost with a refrigerator/freezer and a thousand pound tank. Propane ran about a buck a pound or a little less at volume. I decided to buy into it. If I didn't have enough money to fill the tank, then I wouldn't fill it. Simple. I still had warm water running right out of the rocks.
After the freeze I bought the frame for a cart then hammered together a box for it. I hauled all the stumps back to the cabin and set about splitting them into sizes that would fit into the stove. They'd burn almost like coal on long winter nights. We got some flash freezes and thunder snow a few times that winter which would have made getting off the mountain impossible without the tractor and the dozer blade. I shot a couple of deer, gutted them and hauled them into town for the butcher to cut up and package for me. The sheriff must have given him the word that I was okay to hunt for meat as he was all smiles when I dropped by to pick up the frozen, wrapped product. I asked if he had a market for bear meat come spring and they came out. I'd seen some big berry patches and no doubt I'd have some stupid critters doing the back stroke through the blackberries. I had a chain and a tractor that would solve about any problem short of a grizzly once I'd shot it.
When I asked a guy about information on starting a garden he pointed me to the U. S. Government Printing Office and their catalog. My big, brand new mail box got filled a couple times. They didn't charge much but they sure used crappy paper! A guy at the library turned me onto a preservative spray made for newsprint. I was in business. I even made a glass-fronted book case for the little pamphlets to keep the bugs and humidity under control. That warm water constantly running kept the humidity nice and high during the winter, but all too high during the spring and summer.
Come spring the guys from the sawmill came back to harvest another load. I got the idea that I was on the shitty end of the stick on that deal so I paid the owner a visit. I was right. He was making money hand over fist for prime quality hardwood that had sat idle for OVER fifty years. Uncle Al hand never harvested it. Some of it was eighty and ninety years old. I got an idea how much he was making when he offered to drop a hundred thousand bucks in my bank account. My fucking lord. If that was his buy-off, what was HE making? I asked for two hundred thousand per filled kiln, because once it was gone I'd not be able to do it again and I needed something to live on until I was taken. He understood and we shook on it. He still must have been making three or four times what he paid me. He didn't fight hard enough.
That got me four hundred thousand for two years' prime logging. I found out later that most of what he harvested were veneer quality logs. More was out there. It just wasn't on the road bed. I'd have to fence the place off, post it and put something like tank traps across the roads to keep out timber raiders. I couldn't take out a Cat but I sure could take out a logging truck or a log skidder.
My income tax was nasty that year. I wasn't very happy.
I'd found a bar with a real bartender, not a big-titted bar bitch. I stopped by for a couple of beers and a pork tenderloin sandwich whenever I came into town. The boys in the back got a little rowdy now and again but nobody bugged me. They had a bunch of bikes in the back and liked their music loud, but they were good boys. I knew druggies when I saw it and they weren't using.
That particular day I noticed a guy sitting alone at a table with a half-drunk, mostly-ignored beer next to him. He was wearing dirty shop blues and steel-toed boots. He reminded me so much of what I'd looked like ten years before that I pulled up a chair to see what he was tearing his hair out over. "Whatcha got, bud?"
"Eh? Fucking press sheet feed won't work for shit! I'm about to shoot the fucker and take the blame."
"Been there, friend. Sometimes the heavy feeders lose registration because nobody planned on feeding half inch stock through 'em." I looked over his problem child. Yup. Been in his hot seat, by damned. "Trust me on this one. Spin it twenty degrees left then twenty degrees right once it's on the punch table. That'll re-register the corners and you're gonna be flying." He looked at me like I'd just shat on the table. "I know, it's stupid. How many times you heard "If it's stupid and it works, it ain't stupid."?"
He started out slow but he found third gear by the time he hit the door. I was grinning. It felt good.
By summer the second year I felt more in touch with the neighborhood. Sure I flustered a lot of women by saying "I prefer to deal only with men at places I do business", but that was my own damned choice. If anyone disagreed with me then to hell with them.
Despite the income tax I still had over two hundred and eighty thousand bucks in the bank. I bought an eight-day chiming mantle clock because the damned cave was too quiet sometimes. A new comfortable chair graced my little living room space and I added another big carpet pad and a few more braided rugs so that walking around barefoot wouldn't be such a trial. My van was developing some engine issues. I figured it was time to get rid of it before matters got out of hand. I traded it in on a Chevy S-10 four wheel drive crew cab pickup that would handle the mountain roads in the winter with less drama than that cargo van ever could. I started to travel a bit more. Once a month I drove to Hazard to visit a book store there. I picked up a stack of blank journals to start writing down my history. It became something of an autobiography.
It was late winter. I was in the middle of planning my spring garden when I got the news. My parents had been killed by a train at a malfunctioning signal crossing. They had no warning. They had no hope. They were crushed to death by a flying commuter train. I packed a suitcase, locked the place up and drove up north for the wake and funeral. I wasn't very damned happy with the Burlington Northern Railroad and took out a full page diatribe in the Chicago Tribune lambasting their maintenance policy in high-traffic areas. With the aid of a librarian I researched the number of railroad-related accidents and deaths in the past twenty years and graphed them. It was pretty damming. That got published too.
I received a visit from my old union rep asking that I put it to bed. I told the idiot that when negligent homicide was involved all bets were off. When it was family that was killed, doubly so. He left knowing that my attitude was bitter and my determination rock solid. Before long I received a visit from a pair of lawyers representing the railroad. How much would it take for me to stop crucifying them? Simple. drop ten million on me and institute a preventative maintenance schedule for all city and suburban crossings, then publish it in the newspaper. I'd gotten the local watchdog press in a lather over the subject. They'd monitor the scheduled visits and lambast any failures to follow up on their schedule. We had an agreement. I buried my poor folks knowing that such an accident shouldn't happen again for at least a decade.
The lawyer for my parents contacted me for a reading of their will. Since I was their only child the entire estate devolved to me. I was quite bitter-sweet about what I saw when I went through the house. I took a few mementos and a photo album with me. The rest went to AmVets and the house that I grew up in went on the market. It sold in relatively short order. Within the month the check from the railroad arrived by secured courier. Quite frankly, I was surprised that it didn't arrive with postage due. I broke it up between several banks to comply with the quarter million dollar FDIC limits on institutional liability, then put it all to work making more money in infrastructure improvement bonds and other municipal bonds once I got back to Kentucky. I wasn't one to gamble on the stock market or on the agricultural futures markets. Bonds are secured instruments that have preferential payoff in the event of the issuing business or corporation failing.
So, I had money. It didn't help me from being Mr. Doom and Gloom much. I had the contractor bring his team out and build me a 10x10 smokehouse in the same construction style that the rest of the buildings were in. The berries were about to ripen.
I cleaned up the trail around the mountain, or as much as had been harvested for timber. I pulled out the shrubbery and other undergrowth that had sprung up on the road bed, then used the blade on the tractor to smooth and flatten it all down. Where the road reached the bottom I left all but a narrow trail obscured, then had a gate installed at the road and posted the place as "No Hunting, No Tresspassing". I had another such gate installed ten feet up my normal road to the cabin so that I could pull off the highway before getting out to unlock or lock the gate. People driving around there didn't slow down much unless they had to. Speed limit signs were treated as suggested minimums.
Cell phones didn't work near the mountain. Besides, once inside how was I to get a signal? I bought an emergency services voice-powered phone designed for ships. It had a limit of about twenty eight miles. With a little trencher and a lot of patience I buried a few lines between the gate and ran them inside the cave. I went through three hammer-drill bits getting through that goddamned rock. I mounted a phone at the gate in a weather-shielded box and the other end was attached to the wall near the cave's exit outside. I had a little crank magneto installed near each phone to ring a bell at both ends, otherwise I'd never know if someone wanted to talk to me. I thought it was a rather elegant solution to attend to business while maintaining my privacy. If I wanted privacy I could just switch off the circuits.
I took two deer and three black bears that spring. That tractor, chain and cart sure made snaking the bodies out of the woods a lot easier than it could have been. Those black bears outweighed me. I did some primal butchering on my own, hung and smoked the meat. I cut down a big hickory tree and stripped the bark for my smoke house. Since I hot-smoked the meat I didn't have to use much salt. I wasn't about to try to tan those skins on my own, though. I found a guy that would do it for me.
Throughout that summer and fall I mapped and marked out that road as it rose and curved around the mountain. I found a couple little streams, some tiny dis-used fields and more than one small cave. I found where it came closest to the cabin and blazed a road to it. Before the ground froze I had it cleared. Since my cabin was pretty far up the mountain it wasn't much of a reach to get to the top so I cleared the rest of the trail so that the tractor could get through. I wasn't stupid, though. The best tree trunks were saved out for the foresters to take to the mill. Once I completed the cutting I gave him a call to come pick up the logs while they were fresh.
I discovered the rest of the trail really did end at a plateau. From what I could tell that at one time it had been cleared to be a grain or corn field. It must not have been very fertile as the ground was pretty barren, even after decades of lying fallow. I presumed that the rains must have washed most of the organics down the sides. I started the long process of refreshing the soil. I used the blade on the tractor to build up little retention dams around the periphery. I bought a wood chipper and relocated large piles of timber slash from topping the trees to the field, ran them through the chipper then covered the resulting piles with black plastic to promote decomposition. I remembered reading about promoting field long-term yields by mixing charcoal into the soil. Lots of charcoal. Raw charcoal isn't that expensive if you accept the charcoal burner's mistakes with wood centers. It all works fine once it's run through the chipper. I had to shroud the chipper's exit with canvas to keep the dust from flying though. The results of that got mixed deep into the soil thanks to a rotary tiller that I bought for the tractor.
While working up there I decided what I was going to do with that land. It was going to be my orchard. From then on I worked the soil in strips to match my proposed tree lines. I figured that I'd be planting trees in two springs, after giving the compost piles a year to decompose.
The first snows came. I had the propane tank refilled and called the yard for another shipment of dry log slabs and cutoffs for the stove. It meant a couple of hard day's work moving the pile indoors and stacking it but it was very satisfying to see the full ricks when I was finished. Again, I split up the stumps that I'd dragged out of the ground with the tractor.
My machine shed was getting pretty full. I didn't have much room to work on projects in there anymore. I thought about doubling the size of it, making it deeper and longer. I contacted my contractor. He said that the winter was mild enough to get the job done during the winter. He had to have the building empty to work on, though. He needed to dig out the soil floor and put in footings, then sand and gravel. I bought a truck full of big tarps, drove all the equipment out to fill the road leading to the trail and covered them. I knew that the tractor, being diesel powered, was going to be a stone cold bitch to start once it got below freezing so I had the implement dealer have a mechanic come out to install a block heater on it that I could power from my little generator. I paid to have my fuel vendor come out to pump out my tanks and replace the diesel with a cold-temperature mix so it wouldn't jell down to about ten below zero. It just didn't get that cold around there. When the time came I'd be ready.
While he was working on the machine shed I had him complete my front porch. At ten feet deep it made for a nice place to sit out and watch the weather. The big posts at the corners and heavy beam that made up the overhang made it kind of cozy. When I saw what it looked like I had him make a half-wall all the way around except in front of the cabin door before I turned him loose. I sent away for a big Lodge cast iron hibachi to keep me warm while sitting outside. [Ed: disambiguation: Lodge makes dutch ovens, fry pans and other cast iron ware.] It still took good warm boots and an insulated coverall to sit out there. The winds blow strong and swirl high in the mountains during the winter. When it starts to snow you really know it as the little spats sting when they hit your face.
Spring was coming. It was time to start thinking about a garden again. I'd discovered a little south-facing field down lower on the mountain. It had a little rivulet near it so water wasn't an issue. I could clear-cut it while it was still cold out but pulling the stumps would have to wait until the ground thawed. I'd no doubt have to buy a couple loads of composted cow shit as I didn't have any real fertilizer available. I did have that rotary tiller, though, which would make the job of incorporating it much easier.
I'd been there just about five years. It was past time to plant my garden.
I planned for root crops like potatoes, onions, garlic and carrots, cabbage and cucumbers for pickling, tomatoes and melons because that's what the garden was for. I wanted several rows of sweet corn too. Nothing much beat tomatoes still warm from the sun or sweet corn that was picked ten minutes before going into boiling water or over a charcoal grill. I planted a half row of hot peppers and a half row of horseradish to see what I could do with them. I planted some celery root, or celeriac as well as bunch celery. I loved celery and peanut butter or celery and cream cheese.
That reminded me. I could afford to be a bit profligate. I got a nice deep Weber kettle on order and put in another order for some half-charcoal half-wood from the same guy I bought from before. I told him it was for my barbecue grill and he perked right up. Here he'd been trying to figure out what to do with his failed batches. I turned him onto a whole new market. He delivered two hundred pounds to me free of charge. I had to buy some planks and hammer together a bin to hold it all! After that I started seeing fifty pound bags of "locally made" grill charcoal at the local liquor stores for twenty five bucks a pop. I think he must have climbed a tax bracket that year.