This is a two-part series, and both parts include an audio version of Michael reading it ... in case you'd rather just listen!
Yeah. We've been hunting for land. Scouring websites, deciphering contour maps, printing out plats, and zooming in on satellite imagery. This began in earnest around the New Year. A month ago we left Keren + Bobby's driveway in Knoxville, where we'd roosted since December 9th, and parked at a small campground in the foothills of the Smokies, near Greenville, TN. This would be our base camp.
After two excursions to see plots we'd found online, we came to some conclusions. Firstly, property in our current budget was: A. landlocked and only accessible by helicopter or walking through Posted No Trespassing signs; B. so steep you expected a princess on top to throw golden apples to anyone who could climb that high; or C. ugly and flat as opossum roadkill, skinny as the blighted mange.
We secondly concluded our favorite part and best avenue by far was talking to the denizens. The people we'd met were open, honest and friendly. Happy to elaborate on who owned what and how many tractors were traded to make the purchase. All without squinted suspicion (my mustache makes a good barometer of judgmental character.) Our third conclusion was we might as well relax and just look for neighborhoods and hollers that appealed to us. It was no good vexing our souls, drooling over property beyond our means. If God was going to lead us to some land like we'd asked, He was going to do it in His own sweet time. And anyway, He'd probably be interested in seeing what we liked.
So we began exploring every mountain road in the Greenville area, with a much easier agenda of finding enjoyment unhampered by expectation. It was beautiful. The shapes of the Smokies sang to us. The mossy streams danced and burbled beside us down winding roads. Ancient, sagging barns waved their cockeyed doors and blooming pear trees traced the hills like lollipops.
On days it rained we distracted ourselves by organizing and pruning the 60,000 photos taken over the last three years, talking about the changes our life has taken and will take, and getting the taxes done. (I think that's the first time we haven't filed late since we were married.)
Being patient isn't easy. For over a year an immense pressure has been building to settle down and start creating something we won't have to walk away from. A physical place to plant the dream and see what grows.
After three weeks and four days there were no more roads to explore within striking distance. It was time to move on. The plan was to explore at least one more area on our way back to Knoxville, where I would immerse myself in creating a body of artwork to sell to raise money for something more than the back nine of a junkyard by a power plant. Sounds crazy, by hey, it's how we paid for the camper. We battened down, hitched up, and piled in the truck. Matilda purred. This has been the heart of the trip to me. This point. All in the truck. Asking the question. “Well … where to now?” Bethany has the map in her lap and there's a sense we might just go ANYWHERE.
“What about these mountains?” She's pointing to some smaller ranges we had previously discarded, but now we had sense that beauty was not contingent on size.
“It'd be a shame not to at least drive through them” I mused. Her finger went to a dot.
“Wasn't there an abandoned school listed near Sneedville?”
“SNEEDville!” I bellowed, loving it's Seussian sound. “Let's Go!” and off we went with the boys and I chanting “Sneedville, Sneedville, Sneeeedville!” to the rolling of Bethany's eyes.
We took the scenic route. The closer we got to Sneedville the prettier it became. Pioneer-looking log cabins were frequent. Rock-jagged green hills strewn with cattle. A proliferation of ancient barns staggered the hills, in every stage of collapse, as if this was where old barns came to die. We got on Route 66 and were delighted to discover we were heading over Clinch mountain. Near the start of our journey three years ago, our bedtime-story had been a Louis L'Amour book about the pioneering Sacketts who had settled Clinch Mountain. Now we would see it! Nearing the crest we saw a For Sale sign and slowed down.
“That looks level enough to build on!” Bethany said, amazed.
“And it's South-facing!” I added, wishing Tennessee roads had more than one inch of berm so I could stop.
“Oh, here's a power line,” we both said as we approached a great swath cut up the mountain.
“Yeah, but look at the view!” I breathed, looking down to the valley.
“Here's another For Sale sign,” Bethany pointed. “It's a different realtor.” The land behind that sign was equally promising.
“We have to come back here without the camper” I said, not running off the road.
“Let's find a campsite” she said as we crossed from Hawkins into Hancock County. Cell service was spotty descending Clinch, but we were only 12 miles from Sneedville.
In those 12 miles of gorgeous winding road we noticed something: every car we passed, every person in their yard, on their porch, in their doorway – EVERYone waved. Now I grew up on a dirt road in PA where five out of 10 people waved, and two of them might wave to total strangers but I had never seen this. Big waves. Smiling waves. “Hi! How y'all doin! Ah still got mah hand in the air” kind of waves. I was driving along stunned happy.
“You missed it!” Bethany chortled as a pickup passed, “That guy just waved.”
Once we hit Sneedville the waving stopped. We found a pullout at a crossroads and began Googling campgrounds. Nothing. There were no campgrounds in Hancock county. The closest one was 30 miles north in Pennington, Virginia. Bethany called and got a precise-sounding man who said he had room, but neither of us wanted to go that far away from Clinch Mountain. A sign in front of us read 'Kyle's Ford Trading Post – 10 miles.' “I bet they'd know a place to camp” I said.
We passed about six people in those 10 miles. One of them didn't wave but he was facing away from us putting what looked like an air conditioner in his trunk. The folks at the Trading Post didn't know of any camping. “Summertime you could go down on the Clinch River but that's been a soggy mess since the flood a few weeks back. Hang on, here comes Betty. She'd know, she's the Vet.” Betty came in and put a bag of something heavy on the back counter.
“No.” She shook her head when asked. “Not in Hancock County.” We drove on.
It was about 4 pm. We were just deciding to catch Route 70 a mile ahead and take it to Pennington when we passed an abandoned school. “Whoaaah! Look at that!” we all gasped. It was vandalized, but pretty alluring. More so than the one we'd seen online.
“We could stay in the school yard,” I suggested as we came to a T in the road. I pulled off into the gravel at the stop sign trying to judge if I had room to turn around. “Worst they could do is kick us out!” Bethany was half-convinced, still looking at Route 70 on her map. A pickup truck pulled up beside, its passenger window going down. I rolled down mine.
“You folks need help? Whatcha lookin for?” A face about my age was beaming hopefully.
“We're lookin' for a place to camp!” I shouted back. That was all he needed. He was out his door like a shot and around to my window.
“Camping you say? Hmmmmm … Ah can't think of a place – ”
“What about that abandoned school back there?” I interjected. “Is that owned by somebody?”
“That's owned by the County. Yeah! You could stay there! But wait a minute ...” My willingness to stay anywhere had got his mind rolling. “There's the boat launch! That's public access land. Right down over here, by the river. Ahm sure your camper'd fit there!”
“C'mon. Ah'll show you the way!”
He hopped in his truck pleased as punch to be helping someone, and was a quarter mile up the road waiting for me by the time I got pulled around the corner. It was a perfect, well-graveled spot by the river. I got his name. Tommy Belcher. We shook hands and he popped back in his truck and zipped over the hill.
The boys unhitched and stabilized the camper. The cats were let out to roam the fields of dried sunflowers. Bethany and I got out the chairs and watched the Clinch River calmly saunter through the velvet sunset at Kyle's Ford. “Soo...” I said, trying not to sound too excited. “I guess we'll go look at that land in the mornin'?” Bethany remained deadpan, staring at the river.
“Yuup” she drawled. We looked at each other, eyebrows raised a few moments, then burst out laughing.
“Thank God for Tommy!” I shouted. Bethany was wiping tears from her eyes.
“I did NOT want to go to Pennington,” she giggled.
Next morning we charted a course that would take 70 over Clinch mountain to Poor Valley Rd heading West along the South face for 10 miles to 66 where we'd again cross Clinch and find that property. We packed chicken salad, snacks, water, and hiking boots and off we went. As 70 crossed Clinch we saw a For Sale sign and stopped to take a look. The area was very pretty. Not as nice as our destination, but worth a gander. There was a gate with a grassy road going up the mountain, but the sign didn't say how many acres. Seeing no neighbors I could ask, I gave the number a call. Cynthia answered. It was 287 acres. I told her that was way too many. I was looking in the realm of 15- 20. She said her husband Kenny ran a different real-estate business that sold land, she mainly sold houses, but she'd let him know. He was out listing some property right now an– The phone cut out. I was relieved. I hadn't wanted to tangle with agents yet, and was kicking myself for going that far. We drove on.
Poor Valley Road was a disappointment. The houses were too close together and no roads left the valley to climb the South face of Clinch. None that is, till we got to the end and saw a gated road with 109 acres for sale. We went and asked the lady who'd waved from a trailer we'd passed if it'd be all right to walk up that road. “People do it all the tahm,” she said. Then she told us her family history. Bethany and I left the kids reading books in the truck and climbed the wide, steep road till the view and the hike became so breathtaking there was no need to go to the top. The road alone was probably triple what we could afford. Back at the truck, I found Cynthia had left a message about the land her husband just listed, and it was off New Life road, 10 miles from us. We looked at the map. New Life road was less than a mile away across Rt 66.
I had just put Matilda in gear, when my sister Keren called. She had been expecting us to land back in Knoxville on the morrow and wondered if we could delay our return by 2 or 3 days – she and Bobby had some things they wanted to finish up. “Sure!” we said looking at each other, thinking of our riverside paradise. Off we went to New Life.
We found some signs for a 25 acre farm in the valley that held little to no appeal. Relieved, we started up the mountain on 66 to our destination. It was right there where we left it. A small road we hadn't noticed on our first pass through cut up the hill about 30 feet. It had a chain across that left just enough room to back Matilda off the road. We donned our gear and tumbled out. My phone rang. “Oh.” I said, “It's Cynthia. I'll answer it and tell her we saw that farm and aren't interested.”
“No,” Cynthia said when I told her, “it's not a farm. The property's all forested, and it's not on New Life Road. Here, talk to Kenny.” She handed him the phone. Kenny talked a blue streak describing where it was until finally I said, “Well, that's exactly where I'm standing! That's the property I'm looking at right now!” We talked a good 25 minutes.
Turns out the driveway had been put in the day before by the owner who runs a construction business. The plot was 31 acres for $55,000. The neighboring plot for sale by a different realtor was 15 acres for $30,000. The remains of a cabin could be found 150' in. When Kenny was Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry for Tennessee he had the boat launch installed where our camper was parked. Yes, he knew Tommy Belcher. Junior and Senior. Tommy Sr. was 70 just like Kenny. No, they couldn't email the plats till they got back home in two to three hours. Yes, they'd be willing to meet up the next day to show it to us.
I got off the phone a little dazed. We couldn't afford this! Not even the 15 acre plot. Why was I setting up a meeting with a realtor?!
As we tramped the gentle slopes of perfectly sized building stones and tall straight timbers, I tried to explain to Bethany what went through my mind talking to Kenny. “If Keren hadn't called in the one spot we had cell service in the valley and asked us to stay longer, and if Tommy hadn't stopped and showed us that perfect camping spot by the river, and if Kenny hadn't known Tommy or been so congenial, plus he knows forestry and building codes for the county, and if everyone in the county hadn't waved at us... we did say it's about the people, right?”
“I know.” Bethany whispered; a spark of hope dancing in her eye like a moth on fire.
We found the flattened cabin. A Coke can in the rubble looked from about 1970. The trees seemed not to have been lumbered for as long. The slope got steeper approaching the peak but not so steep it couldn't be built on. We didn't walk to the peak. We didn't walk to the ravine that might have a stream. We didn't know the boundaries and we didn't want to get our hopes squashed. The boys were breaking down with hunger so we drove back to the river to have supper with songbirds and peepers. We agreed the land was twice as good as we expected.
... the story continues in Part 2