Thursday, July 23, 2009


July 24, 2009

Your vacation paradise may seem more like Paradise if you have to get to it by dirt road. Leaving pavement behind, you travel a physical barrier between your world of everyday and the refreshment you are seeking on the other side.
The half-vertical road up the mountain to Greg Lyttle's cabin was a slipslide of mud when we drove it in mid-June. Rivulets of water concealed trenches a foot deep, the doom even of four-wheel-drive vehicles like his Jeep Cherokee. But Greg knew every inch of the terrain by heart — every rut, every hole — and deftly steered us to the top.
Greg, a retired chaplain at the Veterans Administration hospital in the Bronx, has lived on the asphalt of suburban New Jersey and New York for most of his 67 years. Twenty years ago, for $10,000, he bought a hundred acres of rugged forest in southeastern West Virginia, near the old railroad town of Hinton. Improbably, the land had once been cultivated by a very determined family of farmers undeterred by the steep slopes and the hard clay soil. The farming project was abandoned during the Great Depression, the family's house on the highest point on the property burned and was carted away, and native oaks and poplars reclaimed the area.
When he first arrived, he had the old home-site felled of trees and graded, and built himself a small cabin and storehouse. Eventually he employed some nearby craftsmen to erect his dream-home, a 50-by-20-foot cinder-block structure sided with the locally traditional wood and mortar. The place has no electricity — "I refuse to connect to the Grid," Greg says; he uses an auto battery to charge up his only appliance, his cell phone. And there's no running water — rain off the roof is piped into a big plastic swimming pool, and it's a short but brisk walk to his spidery outhouse at the near edge of the forest. He cooks on an ancient wood-burning stove and wards off the darkness with oil lamps and Coleman lanterns.
The interior is one big room, furnished scavenger-style: a 1960's home-of-the-future kitchen counter whose double sinks drain into a bucket below, a summery patio dining set with glass- topped table and wicker chairs, threadbare but cushily comfortable sofa and settee, all from the ubiquitous local flea- markets, and beds salvaged from a defunct orphanage. The place would never make it into Country Home magazine, but Greg has no pretensions about rural life.
Country Home subscribers would also not appreciate the family of snakes, Southern Black Racers, that live cozily in the cabin's rafters. These elegant, non-poisonous reptiles, some of them six feet long, have been there for years. When people are present, they keep their distance, though occasionally you'll see one slithering out a crack in the ceiling and down the post of an open door to sun itself in the grass outside. When the cabin is unoccupied, the snakes take it over — Greg knows that from the droppings and shed skins he finds after a time away. He says he enjoys their company, and it's understandable — they're fascinating to watch, and they keep the cabin free of mice. His guests, however, require a bit of adjusting, especially at night.
Greg's most intriguing and utilitarian piece of scavengery is his 1958 Willys Jeep, which he bought for $795 off of somebody's front yard. It's the workhorse of his property, hauling loads, pulling up stumps, and getting him down and up the mountain on days of deluge or snow when even the Cherokee, its remote relative, would be immobilized.
It's essentially the same model that endeared itself to soldiers from World War II to Vietnam for its best-friend dependability in the very worst of conditions. Unlike the Humvees that replaced it in the military — those ungainly monsters full of computer chips and made-to-fail gadgetry — its workings are so simple that anyone with a little mechanical skill and interest can keep it in tip-top shape. I gave up working on my cars years ago, when they got so crammed with stuff I could barely find the oil filter, let alone replace it. Popping the hood of the Willys throws you back in time: There's nothing there but your basic four-cylinder engine, easy to understand and to get at. Driving it was time-travel too — with no power steering, no power anything, you're at one with the vehicle as it plows through mud and muck like some mechanical alligator.
The Willys is a symbol of Greg Lyttle's view of life: simple, and growing simpler. A compulsive reader and sometime scholar, his next project is to haul his mountain of books to the mountain and burn them in his stove, one by one.
The dirt road leads to Paradise.

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