By Hand

In the early 70s, my dad spent two years building a cabin of his design in the heart of North Carolina’s Appalachia. This region was then, and continues to be, among the poorest rural places in the country. It is a place removed, where moonshine stills stood and questionable crops were raised with little fear of discovery, and doubting that any of the holler’s residents were without a gun on their person would be a mistake. His job took him to the area, but I haven’t thought to ask why he bought property or built the cabin. This detail aside, sweating life into the cabin and its existence is one of my favorite stories.

Under gruff guidance from moonshine swilling, homegrown tobacco spitting Appalachian old timers,  construction began using techniques and tools of a bygone era. Logs and rock from his mountain property provided a majority of the raw material used in the cabin's construction. He hewed logs via axe, coaxed them into position with a system of pulleys, and fixed their place using hand cut locust pegs. Occasionally, a friend would help with the heavy lifting or a day of mentoring and fine tuning, though by and by, the cabin was his toil. 

For two years after completion he lived in the cabin, but eventually had to give it up due to life’s changing demands. In the years since, the cabin was occupied by someone who let it fall into neglect. Termites gorged on rotting walls, decks collapsed, poorly constructed “additions” gave water a passage under the foundation, beer cans and other detritus littered the floor and surrounding property. During this time, my dad had been made aware of his cabin’s declining state and other problems occurring on land he still owned nearby. Upon retirement my parents moved to North Carolina, not far from the cabin’s location, and began a lengthy process to reacquire the abused structure, eventually succeeding.

For me, this is when the cabin morphed from a family story into reality. I now could visit for myself, translating imagination to physical experience. Simple, natural smells filled the interior: Earth, wood, smoke. In dim and musty light, I could see tool markings in the contours of the logs and intricate notching that fit each log to it’s companion, the tools that created them leaning dutifully in the corner. Outside, exposed pegs grew life as I imagined the resounding, hollow thunk of heavy hammer blows echoing through the woods, their vibrations shaking my chest, each strike sinking a square peg into a round hole millimeter by sweaty millimeter. That my dad had enough gumption to do this during his late 20s is rather impressive in my mind, as I was more or less an aimless dirtbag climber during my own similar years.

Due to damage done by previous occupants, my parents, along with assistance from an original mentoring friend, have been diligently, slowly removing rotted walls, shoring up the foundation, and adding a few modern touches. As the cabin’s story of life continues, it still ranks among my favorites, in part because I want to believe that some of the tenacity to see it through, some of that ability to shape and create can be found in my own hands. Since my first visit to the cabin I have wanted to document pieces of it’s continuing story in my own way, so that it will continue to have life long after the hills of Appalachia one day take back their loan.


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