I’m in Stokes County, North Carolina—home to a sparsely-populated scattering of doublewides and country villages, 45-minutes north of Winston-Salem, the nearest urban center. In Stokes County there are three “No Trespassing” signs per capita, the median age is 67, and one-syllable curse words are drawn out into raspy haikus. Picture rolling green hills, winding country roads, corn rows, cabbage heads, and farmer-tanned arms dangling out the windows of well-polished pickups.
For the last month I’ve been living with a hermit (David), his cat (Lily), and his four chickens in his newly built home called Acorn Abbey. It’s a small, steep-roofed Gothic revival cottage nestled in the woods on a seldom-traveled gravel road about a half-dozen miles from the nearest town (Danbury, N.C. pop. 108). He thinks of it as a modern-day monastery and of himself, a monk, quietly living out his days with his books and garden.
David, 61, has recently retired from 30 years in the newspaper business. He will measure the success of his retirement by how well he can roll the clock back to 1935—when the farms were small and the people, self-reliant.
In years to come, the Abbey will support a fully-sustainable organic vegetable garden, an orchard of fruit trees—apples, pears, peaches, and figs, as well as grapes and blueberries—and his home will be—as he wishes it—entangled with vines, trees, and flowers, creeping, crawling, and buzzing with life.
For room and board, I’ve volunteered to be his groundskeeper. Because living in the van in temperatures commonly exceeding 95 degrees Fahrenheit was darn-near inconceivable, I needed a temporary upgrade.
While David in many ways is living a minimalist lifestyle, he does enjoy some of the finer things that have become alien to me these past few years. For instance, we have banana-nutmeg smoothies every morning and elegantly-prepared meals for lunch and supper. He likes to serve a glass of wine with dinner. We use napkins, plates, and silverware. We don’t eat out of the pot, we wash our dishes, and we communicate—oddly—not with an alphabet of snarls, grunts, farts, and chest-poundings, but with refined conversation.
David and I are both out-of-the-closet introverts so we preserve each other’s sanity by giving each other plenty of space and privacy. It’s common that we go almost an entire day without saying a word to one another. When working side-by-side in the garden, we’re like a pair of tight-lipped Amish men too focused on our work or the thoughts hurling through our heads to emit noise for no good reason.
At mealtime though, our thoughts, pent up from hours of reticence, unfurl in a thousand colors. We discuss UFO sightings, doomsday scenarios, minimalist philosophies, Joan of Arc, Asimov, Thoreau, and our life histories. Stokes County is our own little Concord, Massachusetts—and we’re a couple of nuts marooned on five acres of hillside where we can do things our own way.
We’ve lived together long enough now to notice some of each other’s quirks. I found it odd how David never walks on his grass, electing to take long detours via the road to get from one end of his lawn to the other. He also locks the doors up at night and gets up—sometimes several times—to make sure they’ve stayed locked—odd to me because we’re living in the middle of nowhere with few stealable possessions.
His explanations: first, he’s “rationally obsessive compulsive”; second, just two years ago his lawn looked like an apocalyptic wasteland after the loggers came in and removed a stand of pines (so he doesn’t want to do the slightest harm to his newly-grown lawn); and third, he checks the doors at night because I’ve had a tendency to leave them unlatched on my night outings and he fears that a random storm—which we occasionally get—will throw them open, allowing Lily to escape.
Generally, though, I look the other way at his quirks and he pretends not to hear me practicing curse words in my best southern accent in the shower.
What I didn’t get was his phobia of snakes. At the very mention of them, he shudders and his face winces as if there was one coiling around his neck and arms. Once, while watering some vegetables, I heard—above the gurgle of my hose—a girlish “I’m-about-to-get-disemboweled-in-a-horror-movie” squeal from the driveway. When I came over, David said something about seeing a snake slithering up the brake pedal and into the dash of his jeep. I put on some gloves and tried to look brave but my attempts at removing the snake went as far as me turning a flashlight on and pointing it into the glove compartment.
So for the next few days I accompanied him in the jeep as “moral support.” Since then, David hasn’t gotten into the jeep without tying strings around the bottom of his pant legs. Now, when we enter hardware stores, he carries with him the air of a Native American shaman with his dangling legging tassels and disquieted disposition. I thought it was ridiculous that a snake would seek solace in the upper-reaches of our groins, and that such precautions we’re over-the-top, but David’s attentiveness to worst-case scenarios had been rubbing off on me, so I ended up carefully rolling my pant legs into my socks.
Sure enough, despite my suspicions, there was a snake in the jeep, which I confirmed at the farmer’s market when I saw it on the floorboards. It was small, but unusually patterned: it had gray and black stripes with diamond formations. It slipped back up into the dash when it detected me so we tried to get it out by turning the heat up all the way and by relentlessly smacking the dash. To no avail, the snake seemed like it was up there for good.
Standing 30 feet from the jeep, we tried to look like we knew what we were doing, occasionally scanning floorboards, carrying serious expressions and talking with our hands on our knees like a couple of mechanics strategizing about how to best fix a transmission. People from the market would come over and inquire what we were doing and even passersby on the road pulled over to find out why two grown men were afraid to get in their own vehicle. Upon relaying the story, they’d guffaw, wearing expressions that seemed to say: “Shee-hitt. I guess yur jus outta luck.”
This tale ends when David bought a spray can of Glade from the Dollar General and when I sprayed it up into the dash, causing the snake—a confirmed copperhead—to leap out.
While David and I—whether building fences or fighting snakes—have gotten along grandly, I wish I could say the same about my relations with Lily, his neurotic, unsociable and morbidly-paranoid cat.
I’ve been here a month and she’s let me touch her maybe three times. Weeks after I arrived—when she was finally willing to get within arm’s reach of me—David thought it was time to advise me on how to properly pet Lily—a list of instructions so long and convoluted I might as well have been reading an engineering textbook in Mandarin.
“Focus on the neck,” he said. “She also likes getting her back rubbed—in a head to tail stroke of course—but always keep one hand scratching her neck. You know what, just stick with her neck for now.” He added this last part like a man who’s lived through troubled times: “Whatever you do, Ken, just don’t touch her belly.”
I was wary approaching Lily at first, but I calmed down once she started purring under my massaging fingers.
“Look David, she likes it!” I said.
Her belly, though, beckoned me. It looked so soft and fluffy; I wondered what ecstasies dwelt in that loose flap of hanging belly fur. Encouraged with my first petting session, skeptical of David’s advice, and drawn to—what had become—my forbidden fruit, I casually traipsed my hand to the other side of her body, causing her to unleash—with claws extended—a series of roundhouse swipes aimed at my clenched eyelids (which is how all subsequent petting sessions have ended).
David used to let her outside to wander each evening but he’s stopped doing that ever since I moved in because he worries “she won’t come back.” Nowadays, Lily and I play a little game called, “I walk into the house and she fears for her life under the sofa cushion.”
“I just have no idea why she’s so neurotic,” David says, flabbergasted, while roping up his ankles and eyeing the straightness of his “snake stick,” an old broom handle he carries around the yard.
Despite our quirks and my hostile relations with the cat, David and I make a fairly good duo. I’m eager to listen to his worldview, and he seems a little energized with my youthful adventurousness, enough so to suggest that we see if we can go a full week without using electricity, vehicles, and plumbing. I like working outside, he likes working inside. He loves to cook, I love to eat. And we both savor time alone, sporadically interrupted with full and genuine conversation.