Where the Mountains are Higher and Prettier
April 12, 2015
NO ONE EVER DROPPED by Lem Ownby’s place to anywhere else. Lem Ownby did not live on the way to anywhere else. His gray, weathered cabin hunkered down in a little grassy hollow at the far end of a paved road that became a dirt road that became a pair of wagon ruts, then beyond the brush and over a ridge stopped for good.
Stooped and wearing faded blue overalls, Lem Ownby shuffled his way along the neat row of rain-stained beehives that stood like aging tombstones in a world he hadn’t seen for almost twenty years. The mountains, strong and forgiving, kept their burly arms around him. The creek out back soaked up his thirst. The bees gave him their sourwood honey in case anyone with a few extra dollars came down that paved road that became a dirt road, then stopped for good when the wagon ruts ran out.
The last time I saw him, Lem Ownby was ninety-two and alone. His shoulders were stooped, his voice gentle. He was wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat that had probably been new before the war, World War II. He kept the hat clamped down on his head to keep the rain off his face. He no longer needed it to keep the sun out of his eyes. The sun had not bothered his eyes for a long time. Lem Ownby was the old man of the mountains. He told me, “I sometimes take spells of being lonesome, but like a bellyache, it always passes.”
Behind him, the Great Smoky Mountains muscled across the timbered backbone of Tennessee, rising up into a blue mist that touched their wounded gorges like swabs of cotton and gauze. Until 1940, bib-overalled settlers, on farms beside roads where no one hardly ever traveled, scratched out meager livings on scattered patches of soil mortised between stump and rock. “The land was so steep,” Lem said, “you had to plow with one hand and hold on with the other.”
“Have you ever been lost back in this country?” I asked.
Lem Ownby glanced out across a fine purple mist that rolled atop the highlands. I knew it was purple. Lem had no idea. Lem had been blind for decades. He grinned, and said, “No, I don’t guess I’ve ever been lost. But I have been powerfully misplaced from time to time.”
The mountains themselves are ancient, the oldest landmarks on the face of the earth, having watched over Appalachia for two hundred million years, give or take a millennium or two. In 1940 the Great Smokies became a national park, and most families had to give up their raw acreage and move out. A few were allowed to stay. No others would ever homestead those mountains again. All of the original setters were gone. Save one. Lem Ownby was the last man on the mountain.
His grandfather had defied the mountains in search of gold, and his parents fought their way into the solemn refuge of the Smokies during the War Between the States. They brought with them all they needed, a gun for hunting, a broad axe to cut the logs for a home, and a froe to slice the shingles that became a roof. Their philosophy had been a simple one: “If you can’t buy it, make it. And if you can’t make it, just do without it.”
In 1902, at the age of thirteen, Lem Ownby, swinging an axe as tall as he was, worked with his father to build the cabin that now sheltered him. “It’s just back of beyond,” said the old man. He grinned a tired grin. “It was so far back in the woods, we had to go toward town to hunt.”
When the mountain farm boys stumbled awkwardly across the threshold of puberty, they diligently searched the corncribs from barn to barn. When someone found a red ear in the pile, he would have the pleasure and sinful distinction of being able to kiss the girl of his choice, provided he could talk her into such a provocative deed.
“We couldn’t be choosey about the girls,” Lem said.
“There weren’t many of them.”
“How did you find a wife?” I asked.
“We took whatever was available.”
“And what if you married the wrong girl?”
“My daddy always said, ‘You’ve burnt a blister, now sit on it.’”
As a boy, Lem Ownby made a stab at attending the one-room schoolhouse up on Meigs Mountain. “Mostly it was walking in the front door and out the back one,” he recalled. Crops stood in his way. So did the family chores. “It was hard to read books when you’re going hungry,” Lem said. “What I tried to do was keep from going hungry.”
Lem Ownby lost his neighbors.
He lost most of his land.
Finally he lost his sight.
He missed most the voice of man.
Lem Ownby, leaning heavily on his cane, stepped off the front porch and shuffled back toward his fifty beehives. They swarmed his face and covered his hands. It was as though they did not exist at all. Lem Ownby did not rob the hives of their honey. The bees merely left it behind for him to find. He had taken care of them for years, and now they took care of him. His was a tranquil place, at peace with itself, with the wind swinging through the trees and the creek singing to the rocks as it rushed out of the mountains.
“Have you ever thought bout leaving this valley?” I asked.
Lem Ownby stopped for a moment and leaned against a hive. He shrugged and grinned. “One of these days,” the old man said softly, “I’m gonna go up to where the mountains are higher and prettier, and you don’t get bee stung.”
For him it would be a long wait, a lonesome wait.
Five years later, he lay down one night, closed his eyes, and by morning, the mountains had changed their shape. Higher, perhaps. Maybe even prettier. The hum of the bees faded into silence. Lem Ownby had left home and gone home. Forever and ever.
Caleb Pirtle III is the author of Deadline News.