Where the mountains are higher and prettier. Amen. The Traveler’s Story
May 29, 2013
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A VG Serial: Other Voices, Other Towns
The Setting: The Great Smoky Mountains
The Scene: In the ridges beyond the ghost town of Elkmont, Tennessee.
At first, a team of horses hauled out the timber along an old, dirt skid road. Then came the railroad, and it pushed the loggers higher and into rugged, treacherous terrain where even angels, provided they had good sense, feared to tread.
The track finally ended within half a mile from the crest of Clingman’s Dome, playing out at 6,606 feet. The axe and crosscut saw, lethal weapons in lethal hands, left stumps and splintered scars across three hundred and thirty-nine thousand acres.
The Tennessee highlands were almost naked before anyone cried out in 1923 to save them. The government sought to buy the land, but the lumber companies and paper companies did not want to lose their holdings. Those who lived within the hollows did not want to walk away from their homes, such as they were.
The Great Depression changed their minds. They saw the opportunity to pocket quick cash for their farms, and most had never even gotten a glimpse of opportunity before. Didn’t know what it looked like. Only knew it was there staring them in the face.
Some sold. Some went to court, lost, and had to take their money anyway. And a few – because of hardships and old age – were granted a reprieve and given lifetime leases on their homesteads even though the acreage lay deep within a new national park.
One was Lem Ownby.
The old-timers were handed a strict set of regulations. You can’t hunt, they were told. You can’t cut any green trees. And the law says you have to pay a dollar per acre per year. Violate the contract, and you forfeit your land.
A bear raided Uncle Jim Carr’s springhouse. Uncle Jim Carr shot the bear. Uncle Jim Carr was kicked out of the Smokies. Another old-timer cut down a tree in his yard. It had two forks, one dead and one green. He, too, was ushered out of the mountains like a common criminal. Age crept up on the rest.
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 about 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.
Maybe even prettier.
The hum of the bees faded into silence.
Lem Ownby had left home and gone home.
Forever and ever.
Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.
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