Visiting Neil’s barn for the entire month of July was a sketchily planned getaway based on a mid-summer’s fantasy. I had never taken more than two weeks’ vacation and rarely get out of Dodge at all anymore. So it was with some trepidation that I allowed myself to envision not only a change of scenery, but an actual retreat: potting soil for regrouping, a salve to frayed nerves, a zone that would allow each moment a chance to snare my focus in a web of simply being. All this, tamped down by a quilt of puffy cumulus clouds.
A bit of a Luddite, I have little to unplug from (no laptop, no iPhone), yet am hooked into a loosely chaotic routine--invisible bungee chords snap my attention back to the computer screen, a tangle of started tasks meander off unfinished, and pockets of anxiety land mine my day. And so, out there, miles from nowhere, this disconnect loomed, as much a part of the challenge as it was the appeal.
Whether one considers Appalachia to be a geographic region, a spiritual dead end, or a point of reference to measure the American standard of living, its fingers extend as far north as the Allegheny National Forest, the sparsely populated northern tier of western Pennsylvania near the New York border. Here is where pristine spring water trickles into creeks and streams that form the headwaters of the Allegheny River, eventually finding its way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Here, too, is where timber, coal, oil, and gas barons have always raped the land and reaped financial reward--good ol’ white boys pow-wowing with politicians even now, as hydro-fracking has muscled its way into the region, dividing the locals who have never lived anywhere else, whose trout streams have always been full and whose pockets have always been empty.
And here, also, is the site of Neil’s barn, a Civil War-era relic that stands gleaming on land steeped in his family's history. The tide of time and neglect was turned around by his rose-tinted vision, stubborn will, herculean labor, and a meager purse. The barn is Neil’s Utopia, his ticket to sanity as well as his near undoing these past two decades. I have known him just a little over a year.
After seven hours of driving across two states with a pair of unhappy cats, I unfolded my cramped, achy body from my aging car. Neil strode up to greet me with a cowboy’s lean, balletic grace and a big, easy grin, his face (and soul, I had learned) weathered by far more than sun and cigarettes. Stepping inside the barn that he had converted into his home, I knew in a New York Minute that this was exactly where and how I needed to be. I put my watch away, and fell into a childhood rhythm I had forgotten came part and parcel with summer. One that would have me tracing the arc of a day through the trail of a doe, the blink of a firefly, and finally nestling under a slow blanketing of stars.
View from a salvaged church pew: Look out to the backyard theatre of wild turkey, deer, and bear...
...or look up to what was once a hayloft
If you don't have vertigo, look down again,
There is a local sense of humor that is not so unintentional:
And you are free to choose your religion:
Roadside creche located right next to...
...a beer distributor. Or maybe something
a bit more natural...
...from the Allegheny National Forest...
or Neil's backyard.
Another kind of religion...fresh-picked raspberries!
Local pride results in little museums...
based on former factories...
and animal-themed art
co-exists with utilitarian sculpture, both kinetic and dormant:
While just down the road is Potato Creek Valley, a modest bit of Paradise:
And right down the other road...
...and just next door...
are many stories...
This swing became the center of my universe, every sunset.
So, would I ever do this again?
Yep. In a New York Minute.
If my host is game.
Words copyright 2012 Sharon Watts
Photos property of Sharon Watts