Sunday, March 20, 2011


Part of my Journey in Black and White ended up being a new book project.

Mountain Man: Memoir of a Free Spirit

My brother Harvey's memoir is fueled by a 40 year collection of his journals and letters. They tell the story of a free spirit who chose to live life on his own terms as a hermit... on a side of a mountain in TN. Unaccountably, as I worked on his story my own story became clearer. It is said that one's life is incomplete until one has been to the mountain, stood at its summit, and breathed the same air as the Creator. My late brother's 60 acre mountain property in East Tennessee did that for him...this Journey in Black and White is doing that for me.

I have posted some of the book on a Facebook page... Here are the first few chapters...I will post others... enjoy.

The Mountain

Just for a moment imagine you have come to visit Harvey on his mountain. You may have read about him, heard stories, or met him somewhere on his travels. To get there you have followed highway 70 up from historic Rogersville, Tennessee. It is early morning and for most of the 17 miles, you find yourself driving through a cloud. A misty fog hovered over the mountain during the night and settled gently into the valleys. Occasionally, when a window in the mist clears you glimpse the endless panoramic view of the Great Smokies spilling away into the horizon, it is hard to tell where the mountains end and the heavens begin. Eventually you emerge from the winding switch back curves of the highway and begin to pass roads, hollows, creeks, and communities with names such as Little Pumpkin Valley, Frog Level, Turkey Creek, Copper Ridge, and a church named 'Compromise'.

You turn at Gravely Valley Road and follow it until you find a certain mail box. The entry into Harvey’s land grew over long ago for lack of use, so you pull into his neighbor’s driveway. You were told it is okay to park your car inside the gate; you will walk the rest of the way. The neighbor's property is cleared farmland surrounded by forest; his house is barely visible behind a stand of pines farther up the drive. To the left, along the woods, a long ago logging company ripped a narrow road into the mountain. It looks straight uphill and you will have to climb it.

Depending on whom you ask, Harvey's cabin is two or three miles farther on. Stepping out of the car the mountain wraps your senses. You can hear the creek rushing over rocks as it follows its century old path around lower border of the mountain. The air is crisp. Nearby a blue jay calls out a welcome...or a warning.

You start walking. Twenty minutes later you stop to catch your breath and look back at your car a half-mile away; it is the last symbol of civilization you will see for a while. Walking on, still uphill, you remember to check your cell phone... no bars. You are officially separated from the outside world.

You are on the lookout for a big rock where you are to turn left and cross onto Harvey's land. Another 15 minutes, past a bend or two in the road an outcropping of layered sandstone appears, It looks as if it may hover over the entrance to a buried cave and it is big. To the left of the rock a barbed wire fence stretches on up the mountain and defines the north boundary line of the sixty acres. Hanging on the fence is a hand carved wooden sign, “Road Closed: No Motorized Vehicles Allowed.” You are about to step into 'Harvey World.'

Climbing the fence, you follow the path through damp woods of pine, oak, poplar; their branches create a laced canopy above your head. Jewel like dewdrop glisten on grasses and the tips of pine needles. The trail is very quiet except for the soft crackle of twigs under your feet and an occasional chattering of a squirrel. A you walk farther into the mountain the world shrinks to the path before you. Moss, rocks, ferns, twigs take on exquisite details you would have missed on other walks in wide-open spaces.

The pervading silence of the mountain brings with it a solitude humans rarely experience, Alone? Not really, forest eyes are wondering at the stranger who suddenly appeared in their kingdom. Standing still for a moment you see a whitetail-deer no farther than a stones throw away. She solemnly stares at you with unblinking eyes then melts off into the morning mist.

Moving on at a gentler pace you vaguely wonder what it would be like to live this close to God's creatures and yet not see another human being for weeks at a time? You have heard that before settling here Harvey traversed the length and breath of the country with only a backpack. What kind of person chooses to endure heat and cold, rain and snowstorms, loneliness and uncomfortable beds, or no bed, and danger...for what? A sunset? Another mountain, new people...freedom...solitude? There has to be a story behind the Hermit of the Mountain. Somehow you feel deep within that he may have answers that will help you live your own live in a more authentic way. That is why you made this journey.

The scent of burning wood causes you to pause and look around. Faintly, through the trees, you see a cabin nestled in a dip of the mountain. As you get closer you notice a hazy trail of smoke rising from the pipe in the roof and floating off toward the creek. The window glows with the warmth of a coal oil lamp...this has to be the place.

Right about here is where you start second-guessing your decision. Now what? Just how does one make an unannounced visit to a hermit? You have heard he is friendly, but he obviously lives alone for a reason. What if he doesn't like company? Wonder if he has a gun? Didn't someone tell you that everybody in Tennessee has a gun? Still not sure you finally just move past the questions and walk down the hill calling out! “Hello! Anybody home?”

He steps around the corner of the cabin, a short stocky man dressed in a faded flannel shirt and worn jeans. His kind, yet intensely blue eyes gaze at you from behind wired rimmed glasses above a Grizzly Adams beard. As you step into the clearing he says, “Welcome friend...” and extends his hand. He asks your name and where you are from, then he invites you into his home.

As you step inside the first thing you encounter is possibly the largest collection of books you have ever seen outside a public library. Books are everywhere. Floor to ceiling they line the walls, the shelves, the rafters. They are stacked on tables, chairs, windowsills and on the floor. A library of this magnitude is the last thing you expected to find on the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere.

On closer inspection you will find they categorized by subject...poetry, novels, history, medicine, law, how-to, self help, biographies, science, art, religion, theology, mysteries, politics and literally every other subject from anthropology to zoology. Homer's Iliad rest beside Thoreau, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Emerson, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Thurber, Twain. James Patterson, and other modern day writers, find their place near an entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica, which, Harvey explains, were given to him by the Britannica Company when he did a story telling event for them in Washington, D.C.

Overwhelmed by the sheer numbers, your unspoken questions tumble over themselves... “How many are there? Has he read them all? How did he get them up here?” Later, when you get to know him better, you ask and he answers with a chuckle, “Not real sure about how many...lost count years ago...maybe about 10,000 here and more in the other cabin. Yes, I've read them all, some numerous times and I backpacked them in.”

It is evident your host is totally at ease with his surroundings. Offering no apology for the simplicity of his home, and with all the dignity of a well-to-do Victorian gentleman showing you into his parlor, he invites you to have a seat at the oilcloth-covered table. More than likely you will be sitting in a chair he made from a tree on the property. The books and warm hospitality have already knocked many of your preconceived ideas of a mountain man in the head, but more surprises await.

He is soft spoken, possesses a quick wit, ready laughter, and delightful sense of humor. His disarming way of laying out the most profound statement wrapped in a smile can be intriguing. For instance, when you inquire about his decision to live out-side-the-box, he replies, “It just came to me one day that a humans life must have purpose, at least to the person living it." While you are digesting that nugget he adds a few pieces of wood to the stove, throws a strange looking root into a pot of water and asked you if you have ever had sassafras tea?

Perhaps not on your first visit, but if you stick around long enough his natural tendency to teach will slip out, and as he pours the steaming tea into a chipped mug he will casually mention… “Sassafras trees grow wild on the mountain, the Cherokee Indians boiled the bark to use as a spring tonic, they believed it purified the blood and cured a lot of ailments…as far back as 1603 a tea company in England sent ships to the New World to bring back cargoes of sassafras bark. Sassafras was one of the first forest products exported from what would become the United States.”

As the morning progresses the range of subjects cover everything from the origin and nesting habits of the songbird singing a pure, heartfelt melody outside the window, to quantum physics verses Einstein's theory of relativity. Obviously behind his deceptive simplicity is a well-educated man. When you ask him what University he studied at, he grins and motions toward the bookshelves...“An illness in my childhood kept me from attending school for any extended period of time. I only went through 4th grade. The family doctor told me that if I was ever going to have any sort of education, I should not only read, but learn to ‘love to read’ “Read anything you can get your hands on…even if it is comic books, just read.” So, I read.”

A natural storyteller in the old Appalachian tradition you could listen for hours as he shares mountain stories and songs that he learned from his grandpa, as well as the accounts of his adventures during the decade he hopped freights, hitchhiked, and walked through thirty-eight states and two countries. He admits he has a few bad experiences, but mostly met some good people and made many friends.

Before your visit is over you will be fully convinced that the old ways are best...freight trains are a really an interesting way to in the woods by yourself is exactly what you want to do...and taking the hardships you encounter in life and using them for stepping stones makes perfect sense. You will be ready to do as Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested, and Harvey did, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.

Harvey in His Own Words

I live alone in the mountain of East Tennessee. I have a little cabin on 60 acres of timberland. I live without electricity. I get my water from a spring. I use a kerosene lamp for light and a wood stove for heating and cooking. I sometimes go for weeks and never see another person. But I never get lonely. I keep busy. I do a lot of reading and enjoying God's handiwork. A man thinking or working is never alone. Loneliness is poverty...solitude is richness.

I do not own a vehicle of any kind. The post office is a two hour stroll away. Every once in a while I walk out to the road with a my backpack and hitch hike into town for supplies. By keeping things simple, I am under less of a burden and I can enjoy life more. I have learn the difference between pleasure and happiness...I can keep myself happy without a lot of what folks call 'earthly pleasure' and the Lord does take care of me. It is good to stop the pursuit of happiness and just be happy.

Someone once said, “There is a period of time between birth and death called life...too many never really live...they just mark time.” That seems to be a sad reality in many lives and yet society has laid out as pure truth, ‘the way’ man should live. I could not, or would not, fit into that box. If I had, I would have just been marking time.

While thinking about my past I realized it is the only mirror a person can use to view the future. He cannot use the present for by the time he sees it…it is the past. So we must look at the past objectively learning all we can from it. Learning from the good and the bad as well as that which appears indifferent. All of us remember the bad and hopefully learn from it. The good is easy to remember. But what about the seemingly unimportant things? The simple things? Perhaps wisdom is being able to learn from all. What I have learned has brought me to my mountain...this is my story.

Early Years
I was born in 1949 in a small farmhouse in Glens County Virginia. Mom said I came out feet first which seems fitting considering the thousands upon thousands of miles I have walked in my lifetime. I was the second of two children. My sister is three years older. Our parents Jesse Winters and Glenna Church Winters were of mountain stock, both from West Virginia. Jesse was a WW II veteran and had come home from the fighting in Europe suffering with what came to be know as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Undiagnosed and untreated his illness was the primary cause of them separating when I was a year old. My father faded from our lives and the three of us went to live with Grandpa Church. By that time he was a widower and my memories of what he taught me set me on a course to where I am now.

One of my earliest memories was of him putting a piece of wood in my hand and teaching me to whittle with a pocket knife. Some of the mountain toys I began to make 30 years later were the ones he taught me to create. And he told stories from his childhood and well as the stores his grandpa told him. Years later I found many of these tales in books printed in the early 1800's and originated in Europe centuries ago. As we got older Sis I tagged along after him as he foraged in the mountains and learned about wild flowers and plants, which one was good to eat and which ones made medicine.

When I was about three mom married James Sturgill of Eolia, Kentucky. Soon after getting married mom and our new dad left my sister and me with Grandpa and went off to find work. It was no hardship for me, Grandpa was the only dad I knew and while I, no doubt, missed my mom my six year old sister was somewhat of a mother hen. One day while were playing in the yard she saw a small snake winding through the weeds near our bare feet. She quickly picked me up out of harms way and still cradling me in her arms squatted down so we could watch the little snake together. That may have been the first of our adventures together.

Over the next five years mom and dad went from one job to another. Somewhere along the way Dad hooked up with a a photography studio based in Springfield, Illinois. He stayed with them off and on for 20 years. I say off and on because if he got dissatisfied with what he was doing he would quit and move to another part of the country and try something else for six months or so, then they would take him back. When money was good they showed up, usually on our birthdays and Christmas, with a car load of toys and gifts.

Sis and I had a unique freedom living with grandpa. He wasn't too much into watching our every step and we were able to run free in the West Virginia mountain surrounding our isolated home. Sis brought books from school which fueled our imagination. At eight and five we were exploring caves pretending we were Indians chasing the white man. We planted the seeds from our apples on the hill behind our house, just like the guy named Johnny Appleseed. We created a pirate ship by propping a huge wooded box up on pieces of wood so it would rock back and forth as if we were Captain Hook on the high seas. We used sticks I had whittled down as swards and became the Two Musketeers. Isolated and free we invented our own world.

In 1954, or '55, while we were living with Grandpa, Mom and Dad came in at Christmas with a car load of presents. I got a tool box and a B B gun. Sis got a set of dishes and a baby doll. We each received a Bible. The Bible was my first one and I still have it although a mouse chewed up a few pages. All the gifts were wonderful but it was the bicycles that I remember most.

We lived in a a place aptly named Slop Hollow. No doubt it was name thus because the road was nothing but deep ruts in dry weather and deeper mud when wet. Needless to say Slop Hollow was not much of a place to ride a bike. One afternoon we complained to Grandpa that we could not ride there, so he loaded us and the bikes up in his old black Plymouth and took us down to the hard road where he parked for an hour or more while we rode our bikes. We might have been able to stay longer but people kept stopping to ask Grandpa if he was having car trouble and if he was okay? I think he got tired of explaining why he was sitting in a car beside the road in the middle of nowhere.

The time came that Grandpa, a retired coal miner with black lung, was unable to take care of us so we went to live with our folks and he went to live with one of his sons. I would say my sister and I had a happy, although nomadic, childhood with our parents. They still like to move and it was nothing for them to pile all our earthly belongings into a car until the load was even with the back of the front seat, tell me and Sis to climb in on top of everything, and off we would go to 'somewhere else.' It didn't seem to matter much where, nor did it matter if we had money or not. Gas was about twenty cents a gallon back them and more than once we would pull into a gas station and Dad would barter for a few gallons of gas. Once he traded our alarm clock so we could get to the next town where he would find a job doing whatever, then look for a furnished apartment with the promise to pay our new landlord payday. He was very convincing and we were never homeless, although we may have spent a night or two sleeping in the car.

Most of the time it seemed like an adventure to me and Sis. The folks got the moving-on urge pretty often, consequently before I left home at 16 I had lived in nine states and only God knows how many towns. Sometimes we would move from one apartment in the building to another, or across town, or next door. Years and years years later I wrote Sis a letter, all in fun, reminding her of some of our escapades as children. I may have exaggerated the least little bit...

Hi Sis,

You are probably wondering why you are reading another letter so soon after the last, or should I say first? But you see I have a problem with my spelling, so to enable me to overcome this I shall endeavor to write one letter a day. Don't worry they will not all be to you. I suppose as an exercise into orthography I could just write words on sheet of paper, but writing letters seems to be more practical. If I did not write in the form of a letter I would not be writing, but if I continue to write letters perhaps I will just get in the habit of writing and move on to something bigger.

And now for the letter, what should I write about? Most people expect a letter to contain news or good wishes, not a story. I think a letter should employ inquisitiveness, as well as be informative and entertaining. By the way did you get my last letter addressed to Big Sister?

Speaking of sisters, did I ever tell you about the mean little girl I grew up with? The one who would hit me and I wouldn't say anything, but when I hit her back she would yell, “MOMMMY DADDY HARVEY HIT ME!!” Then I’d get scolded for hitting my sister.

Once she was bugging me and I threw a dirt clod at her hitting her on the leg…she yelled like she was dying, but upon inspection there was no mark. Later in the day she showed mom a huge black and blue bruise on her thigh. Needless to say, I got in trouble and it was years before she confessed to painting the bruise on with the help of her watercolor paint set. She was quite artistic…mixed colors well.

Then there was the time we were sitting in the car and she pushed the cigarette lighter in and told me, “It's not really hot it just looks that way...go ahead and stick your fingers to it.” I did and it was hot. And can you imagine my surprise when I got to be twelve and found out that a nickel was not more than a dime just because it was bigger! For years I had been trading my dimes for her nickels!

My sister actually was responsible for getting me hooked on a life long addiction, for you see when I was five she taught me to read from her school books. The next year when I began school my teacher refused to believe that I was actually reading at fourth grade level. I have been aaddicted to reading ever since. But then again she once dared me to stick my tongue to an iron pipe in the wintertime. Lost some fur off my tongue that day. A lovely child.

When I was about 5 and my sister 8 we went to live with Grandpa in the West Virginia Mountains. Before Grandpa got this house, he lived in an old school bus and it became our playhouse. Grandpa went hunting one day and shot a squirrel for our dinner. We were into being Indians at that time and my bright sister told me we could make leather out of the squirrel skin. We took it to the creek and washed it real good then draped it across a coat hanger and hung it in the bus. In a few days, it started smelling funny. So, we washed it again…and again…and again, but it kept getting ripe. This went on until Grandpa came by and asked what smelled and made us throw it away.

During our Indian days, we also built a ti pi down by the creek with one of Grandpa’s bed blankets. That lasted until he missed the blanket. For our play dishes, my sister figured out how to dig clay out of the creek bed and roll it into long ropes to form dishes. We baked them on a hot rock in the sun. She was rather clever.

I remember the day we filled a mason jar full of soup beans and went on a picnic up to the cave on the mountain. As we were started back she dropped the jar and it started rolling down the hill. I started running after it but fell on my bottom and found myself sliding down a steep mountain toward a big cliff. Sister was running behind me yelling, “Grab something!! Grab something!!”The Mason jar went over the cliff and shattered on the rocks below. I grabbed a small tree and hung on for dear life just as my feet slipped over the edge. My sister got hold of my arm and pulled me back up to safety. Then we laughed a while…it was kind of fun and I guess she sort of saved my life. She had her moments.

Another time she held me down and was going to make me say, “Uncle,” but I wouldn’t. There is just so much a boy can take! She finally let me up.Lastly, there was the time mom had spent all day making lemon meringue pies.There were about six of them. While we were washing dishes after supper my sister convinced me that pies were for eating so we ate all the meringue off all of them using our fingers as spoons. For some reason Mom got real mad. I wonder why?

Will close for now,
Love your little brother Harvey


PICTURES OF HARVEY AND THE MOUNTAIN on Facebook!/pages/Mountain-Man-Memoir-of-a-Free-Spirit/190341954309901?sk=photos

No comments:

Post a Comment