The Writing Traveler: Last Man on the Mountain

An Autumn Lane leading back into the back country of the Great Smoky Mountains, Photograph: FCEtier

The old man stopped tending his bees to tell me: ” told me, “I sometimes take spells of being lonesome, but like a bellyache, it always passes.”

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.

Caleb Pirtle III

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 settlers were gone.

Save one.

Lem Ownby was the last man on the mountain.

You can find many of the stories I uncovered while traveling in my memoir of sorts, The Man Who Talks to Strangers. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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