(*I mean literally, of course. Nobody who buys the farm figuratively is still around to write about it.)
It was 2008, nine years ago almost to the day. The week the wife and daughter were gone on a school trip to D.C., I took the opportunity to head up to the ‘Mountain’ as the locals know it. But the Mountain isn’t that. It’s not a mountain, not in the common vernacular of a stand-alone area of elevated land, nor in the more scientific sense of land scrunched or piled upward by tectonic or volcanic forces. According to geologists, what the locals call “the Mountain” is really two plateaus intersected by a steeply-sided valley through which flows Will’s Creek, all part of the Cumberland Plateau which sweeps down in a southwest arc from Chattanooga to Winston and Walker County in Alabama. The ridgelines, or technically anticline plateaus, Sand Mountain and Lookout Mountain, are extensions of the Appalachians, running roughly parallel from Chattanooga for over a hundred miles deep into the heart of Alabama. What the locals call the Mountain is, roughly speaking, the area where the two plateaus reach their apex in Northeast Alabama in Dekalb County.
The plateaus are tall enough to be called mountains—not the Mountain perhaps, but mountains–around Henagar, Mentone, Fyffe, Rainsville, Sylvania, Ft. Payne, etc., in Dekalb County, where the plateaus are roughly 1500 feet above sea level and about half of that above the valley floor, before slowly petering out as they approach Gadsden and Birmingham. On a topographic map (see linked PDF) the ridges look like waves lapping at some ancient shore, which is actually what they’d be seen doing, if viewed through some vastly sped-up time-lapse photography taken of the last hundred million years or so of the area. Because that’s what they are—waves of rock and sandstone and clay rippling along the edges of the Appalachians. More than foothills, they are the flotsam of the Appalachians’ epic and ancient clash with the sea.
Stick a spade into the dirt of either Sand or Lookout Mountain and you’ll see how Sand Mountain got its name. The mountain dirt, embedded throughout with sandstone rock of varying sizes, is sandy, the color and texture of Atlantic Coast beaches–both because the plateaus once were seabed, and because it is the same sand Atlantic Coast beaches are made of. It varies in depth from a few feet to being completely worn to the nub, with the harder of the sandstone bedrock poking through the soil, a common feature among on the flattened tops of the ridgelines, but rare in the furrowed-out valley between them. Lookout Mountain got its name from a promontory near Chattanooga from which seven, or ten, or some ridiculous number of states are reputedly visible on a clear day. All along the route up I-59 from Birmingham to Chattanooga roof barns and billboards exhort travelers to “See Lookout Mountain”, when in fact, once clearing the interstate mountain pass a few miles northeast of Gadsden, all it takes to see Lookout Mountain is to glance out the passenger-side windows. There it is, though not as high in elevation as the promontory at its Chattanooga end for which the ridgeline/plateau is named.
I got interested in buying the farm because I had some money I’d set aside in a retirement account that was making absolutely nothing once the financial crisis, starting in late 2007, pushed interest rates to near zero. Not only that, but my law practice was practically dormant. I had been a real estate lawyer for the previous twelve years—all through the boom. I’d made what I figured was a killing, but knew, even in the midst of it, that it wouldn’t last—nothing goes up forever—so never splurged, never changed the family’s rather modest lifestyle. We got the beach vacation once a year and that was about it. We continued driving the cars until the wheels fell off. We stayed in our cozy 3/2, seventy-year-old dump in a leafy Birmingham suburb. I paid our debt to zero. (After which, I wondered, what was the point, really, of working anymore?)
The farm was intended as an investment and an insurance policy. A couple of months earlier, the wife and I had stayed in a little cottage on some farm land in the area—the couple we rented from had two cabins they rented out to people who wanted to get away from the city. Close by was the Desoto State Park, which had good hiking trails. Further away, south and east of the area, was the Little River Canyon, a great place for a picnic or sunbathing, or on warm days, swimming. North of the area was Mentone, an upscale, but tiny, tourist spot that I had learned about several years earlier when a partner in a law firm where I clerked in Louisiana sent his daughter to a girl’s camp there during the summer. I remember thinking how odd it seemed—to send a kid from Louisiana to summer camp in Alabama. I guess Alabama’s mountains, puny as they are, are like the Rockies to a flatlander from Louisianan.
The fledgling tourist aspect of the area where we rented the cabins made buying some land in the vicinity a potentially good investment. But if the land were farmable, it could as well be an insurance policy against financial Armageddon if things got too bad. We could always grow our own food.
Why Northeast Alabama? The wife’s parents were from there—Fyffe and Sylvania, to be exact, so I knew a bit about the area, and loved it. I remember interviewing for a job in Birmingham while I was in law school. I was talking to one of the lawyers of the very large firm who, of course, lived in Mountain Brook (the fanciest of all the ringlet cities surrounding Birmingham). I asked where he was from. He said Ft. Payne. I blurted out, “Why in the world would you trade Ft. Payne for Birmingham?” I could not fathom why anyone who lived on the Mountain would ever want to leave it, at least not for somewhere else in Alabama. From what I’d seen of the Mountain, it was the best Alabama had to offer. I, of course, didn’t get the job (thankfully—I wouldn’t have lasted a year at a stuffy downtown law firm. I know because I tried it once, after having been on my own for some time, and was rehanging my shingle as a solo within six months. I just don’t like hanging out with lawyers. I just don’t. Never did and never will.)
For some reason, the Mountain seemed like home. Something about the place I couldn’t put my finger on. Long after my first exposure to the Mountain, a raucous Christmas reunion to the wife’s maternal grandmother’s home (the wife’s mother had six siblings), I learned that Will’s Creek and Will’s Valley (and Will’s Town, where Ft. Payne is now located), were named after a prominent half-breed, red-headed, Cherokee Indian who first settled it. I am a (not so prominent) quarter-breed, red-headed Cherokee Indian. Or, at least, I am if what my mother (allegedly) claimed of my paternity is true.
My mother’s first husband, known to me only as “Kid Cobra”, for the strike of his rapid-firing fists during his short-lived semi-professional boxing career, was purportedly a half-breed Cherokee, his mother being purebred, if there is such a thing. I never met the guy and don’t even know if he’s really my dad. All I’ve been told (mostly from my aunts and uncles telling me what my mother claimed, but never directly from my mother—she would never speak of my paternity and severely berated me if I ever asked about it) is that the half-breed was married to my mother, they had a child together (my older sister) and that about the same time I came along a year and a half later, they split up. So, I might be a red-headed Cherokee. Or, maybe not. Who even knows if Kid Cobra was a half-breed himself, never mind whether he was my dad? But the knowledge that the area was first settled by a redheaded half-breed Indian burnished my romantic idealizations of the place. Going up there, I felt like Nehemiah, returning from exile to a place I’d never been before.
So, I drove around the general vicinity of the cabins where we had stayed, looking for a fuzzy something in a piece of land, a bit like a confused do-it-yourselfer in the hardware store, not quite sure what it would look like when I found it. I was driving along Desoto Parkway (simply, “the “Parkway” to the locals, the road that ultimately slices through the State Park) when I came upon East Howell Drive and noticed a sign proclaiming land for sale—25 acres. I thought 25 acres sounded perfect. I turned and drove up Howell a quarter-mile or so and found the follow-on sign posted at the property entrance. I slowed and stopped along the road at the property and walked through the rustic, overgrown remnants of a barb-wire fence gate. From the road, the property opened onto a terraced hay field about eight acres wide and two acres deep, then flattened to a plateau of underbrush about an acre deep running the width of the property, after which it fell off to a wooded area down to a creek. It was utterly beautiful. I knew I had found what I was looking for the minute I saw it. It touched something primordial in my soul.
Later on, after I’d bought the property, I stumbled across a passage while reading David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed (1989), a book about the various British cultures who settled the United States, that perfectly described the place. In the section about the borderlands people, the hard-bitten people living on the Scottish/English border who settled in Appalachia upon arriving in America, Fischer quoted Samual Kercheval’s description of what such people sought in a homestead:
The greater number of farms in [Appalachia] bear a striking resemblance to an amphitheater. The buildings occupy a low situation, and the tops of the surrounding hills are the boundaries of the tracts to which the family mansion belongs. Our forefathers were fond of this description, because, as they said, they are attended with this convenience, “that everything comes to the house down the hill.”
The passage describes the property perfectly. The terraced hills are the amphitheater seats, while the plateau is the stage, with a backdrop of woods that ultimately fall to a creek. Are genes expressed through culture or are they shaped by it? I don’t know. All I know is that when I saw the property I felt it down in my marrow—this was the place to which I would return from my exile in the city of my birth.
I called the number listed on the sign. The owner told me it was already sold, but that the guy he sold it to was having trouble with financing. I told him I had cash. I asked him what he wanted for it. He’d put a price on the sign, but I knew that was just the point at which negotiations started. He gave me a price about $15,000 less than what was on the sign. I asked could he go lower, but he must have sensed the eagerness in my tone. He said no, that was it. I said, “Sold”. I told him I’d draw up the paperwork formalizing the deal and we could meet a couple of days later to get everything in writing. He said he was fine just signing a deed. That’s the way they do things up on the Mountain. I insisted on the formalities–I was, after all, a real estate lawyer. No agreement to sell real estate is valid without which it is in writing.
My stomach was churning when I called D.C. to tell the wife. I wanted her onboard, but I knew that even if she wasn’t, I’d do it anyway, and dreaded the confrontation that might follow. It was the first time since getting married that I’d been determined to follow my own way, regardless of her approval. The experience felt dangerously exhilarating, like Francis Macomber must have felt as the buffalo charged in Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, just before his wife shot and killed him. Thankfully, the wife had no objections. Maybe she sensed that objection would have been futile. Maybe she didn’t know her way around a Mannlicher.
The seller signed the deed about a month later and I handed over the cash.
(Sunrise on a late autumn day, looking up the terraced hillside towards at what would be the ‘seats’ of the amphitheater. The gravel road bed, barely visible to the right of the picture, had just been installed, along with water and power. The white hose that snakes left to right in the picture services a camper I’ve put on the property to live in while I build a farmhouse, at roughly the spot where I’m standing as I’m taking the picture.)