Small Conceits

Musings. Stories. Poems. From where I stand.


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Grab a long tape measure piece of string and a friend or family member.

Find a large room in your home — your living room or family room; maybe a clear spot in your basement or garage. Or go outside, if you must. But I suspect most of you have a big enough space in your home.

Have your friend stand in the middle of the space, holding the end of the string or tape measure. Pull your end out to 20′ and slowly walk in a circle, your friend turning with you. See the circle. Feel the circle.

Now, imagine:

  • Where would you put your bed?
  • How would you create a miniature kitchen?
  • What furniture would you need to carve out a comfortable place to sit?
  • Where would you store clothes? Your dishes? Your books?

Never mind the bathroom for now. Just the living space. Focus there.

Ask yourself: What is truly necessary to live a life of contentment?

My yurt, at the Home & Garden Show, awaiting disassembly and delivery.


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A Walk with a Water Witch

The autumn sun streamed into the clearing, dusting the surrounding trees with gold. Lee squinted, more with concentration than from the intensity of the light, as he peered up into the forest to our east.

“This is a pretty clear draw,” he told us, tracing a slight depression in the overgrown slope with his forefinger. “The question is: Is it just surface runoff, or is it a deeper fracture?”

I breathed in slowly, gazing first at the brilliant blue sky, then down the length of the rutted tractor road running along the edge of the treed parcel of land I hoped to purchase. Some of the leaves were beginning to turn, but many had dried out and fallen off the trees in tired, lifeless crinkles. The last time I’d visited, the shower of leaves had been so thick that it was clearly audible in the breeze, a chorus of whispering sighs mimicking the sound of the rain the land sorely needed. I’d learned from a soil survey of the area that the whole county sat in a rain shadow, producing at least five inches less rainfall than surrounding areas.

I was walking the boot-shaped, 11-acre parcel of land I sought to buy with a man I hoped would give me answers about the availability of water here. Lee Barnes is a “water witch” — a dowser — and this meeting was the first step of the due diligence phase that had begun a few days prior, when the signed purchase agreement had gone into effect. Much rode on his findings: No water, no sale.

I turned my attention back to Lee, who was now pacing back and forth, in lines roughly perpendicular to the first small, blue flag he’d planted. Held loosely in his hands were two wooden handles, with L-shaped metal rods swinging freely from their tops, the long ends terminating in tiny spheres. Lee’s face was a study in concentration, his expression one of intent listening. Suddenly, the rods whipped sharply to the west, although Lee had made no movement with his hands.

“I never experienced that!” my father exclaimed. He’d done some dowsing for the family on occasion. I’d invited him along on the trip, knowing he’d find watching a professional dowser interesting.

Lee smiled without looking up. “That tells me the direction of the flow,” he explained, pausing in his pacing to add a flag a few yards north of the first one. “This looks like a pretty wide fracture,” he went on. “I’ll come back and mark a center-line once I’ve located a couple more possibilities for you and we’ve taken a look at where you think you might want your home site. That will give me a better idea which places I should mark for drilling.”

My Witch Hunt

Even before I found the land, I knew I’d want to work with a local dowser. Although well drillers are generally adept at predicting where to find underground sources of water, may factors play into the cost of a well. I’d heard too many stories about drilling through thick bedrock or hundreds of feet into the earth or even multiple drill sites, sometimes only to come up dry — or with slow-flowing or poor-quality water — all of which are expensive.

I’d learned a little about dowsing as a child, when my father bent two pieces of coat-hanger at the suggestion of a friend, and went in search of a water line break on our rural acre in Pennsylvania. He’d walked slowly back and forth across the yard, intently watching the ends of the hangers. When they’d slowly touched at their points, he’d marked the spot to guide the company doing the repairs, subverting the need to dig up the entire yard to find the leak. I figured if my father could locate an existing water system with a couple of bent coat-hangers, a professional should be able to accurately locate a site for a new well.

As I searched for a local water witch, one man kept surfacing as “the” dowser to work with: Lee Barnes. Coincidentally (or not), he was also re-elected by the Appalachian chapter of the American Society of Dowsers as their returning President. The more I read, the more I believed Lee was my ideal water witch. His first email — packed full of links to and attachments of resources to give me context for what he does and how he does it — sealed the deal. This man was, indeed, a professional. He has a PhD in environmental science and worked as a realtor in the area, giving him layers of intimate knowledge of local mountain properties. The fact that he offered a money-back guarantee on his dowsing consultation fee didn’t hurt, either.

Combining Science with Intuition

Dowsing for water combines principles of hydrogeology (a branch of earth science specifically dealing with the flow of water through aquifers, etc.) with intuition. Before he ever sees the site, Lee extensively researches regional soil surveys, topography, and other geological resources, which he also provides to his clients for reference. In fact, Lee maintains that the first step to knowing a bioregion is becoming familiar with its bedrock — in my case, a study of Appalachian hydrogeology, specifically — which is certainly critical information for drilling a well.

Once he’s on-site, Lee applies the research he’s done, observing variations in the landscape that indicate where water might be hiding: gullies, draws, and even overgrown ditches or streams. He then walks transect lines — or lines crossing the property — using his intuition. Lee has trained himself to notice fluctuations of energy in his body as he passes back and forth over the area. His dowsing rods, also sometimes called “divining rods,” confirm and clarify what he senses by moving toward or away from each other or, as my father was surprised to see, sharply to one side.ASD-smaller-logo

Dowsers use a variety of tools, including pendulums, bent metal rods, and the more traditional Y-shaped wooden stick or rod (which the American Society of Dowsers uses as their logo). Lee prefers the bent metal rods to other tools. At the beginning of his dowsing career, he used the traditional Y-shaped rod, which the dowser loosely grasps by the two short ends of the Y, using the longer end as an indicator. When I asked Lee why he no longer uses the traditional rod, he wryly replied, “They have a tendency either to jerk violently upward and nail me in the forehead or downward and hit me in the crotch. Neither experience is particularly pleasant.”

As Lee walks, he holds his dowsing rods close to his chest. “Your heart’s electromagnetic field amplitude is 60 times that of your brain’s,” he explained to my father and me, reminding me of the oft-heard, “Follow your heart.” Where he feels the strongest vibrations, and where his divining rods draw together into a point, Lee places a small, plastic flag to mark the spot.

My father, an electrical engineer, had some insight about the relationship of the energy fluctuations to the behavior of the rods. “The rods are closing the circuit,” he told us. “If you’re working with electromagnetic fields, and the rods are conductors, the rods will want to close the circuit. That’s why the tips move together like that.”

Beyond Simply Finding Water

“19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24…22…22,” Lee whispered to himself, tipping one of his dowsing rods up and down in front of his body. “Write down the number 22 next to the heading for gallons per minute,” he instructed before returning to whispering and tipping the brass rod. “60, 61, 62, 59, 58…” I fumbled with my phone, which I’d been using (ineptly) to capture video of him working and jotted the number into a small notebook he’d given me.

Lee was using one of his dowsing rods as a pendulum at this stage of his search.  He explained the process as “asking simple yes/no questions, allowing my sublingual self to provide thoughtful answers with the movement of a simple tool.” The result is that he’s able to predict the flow and quality of the water, as well as the depth of the hole that would be required to reach it and the depth to which the casing would have to be placed. It’s here that I lose most folks when I tell them about what Lee does. This, to them, is “mumbo-jumbo.”

Lee simply gave me a one-shouldered shrug when I mentioned others’ doubts. “You can believe it or not. The results are what matter. My clients will be happy to tell you that my results are good.” And they are: Lee has had a 90% success rate across 500 wells, over 25 years. With his preferred well driller, his success rate rises to 95% across about 50 wells.

Lee looks for well sites that are not only accessible to machinery — making them affordable to his clients — but also with plentiful, high-quality water. He selected two likely sites for me, which I later marked with sturdier stakes and flags, knowing it would be months before I’d drill.

There was still much more to do, and the due diligence period would soon come to a close.

Coming soon! I’d planned to include a video of Lee’s walk around my property, with clips focusing on his process and the movement of the divining tool. I decided not to let the post continue to languish while I did my editing, though, so…stay tuned. 


If you’d like to learn more about dowsing, check out the American Society of Dowsers. Their website offers a wealth of information and resources, as well as a member directory to help you find a dowser in your area.

To learn more about Lee Barnes, head out to the website for the Appalachian Chapter of the American Society of Dowsers, or take a look at his article about the practice of dowsing on the Free Library site. 

Video to follow…y’know, in its own time.


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The Quest for Home, Part 4: The Boot

Have you opened your email yet? came the text. I’d heard the notification, but I was still snuggled up with Bodhi, my big red Golden Retriever, and hadn’t wanted to dive into the day just yet.

Nope, I texted back.

Well, hang onto  your hat, came the reply. I just sent you some information from the seller’s realtor. You’re not going to believe this.

Intrigued, I opened my email and found the message from Pat, my realtor. There was a PDF attachment, so I opened that with only a glance at the body of the message, which was pretty much just, “I found this and thought your client might like to see it.” The PDF, on the other hand…

I bolted upright in the bed, nearly rolling Bodhi onto the floor. I’d just opened a preliminary design document for the 63 acres that included the 11-acre parcel Pat and I had looked at the day before. The last page of the document was a hand-drawn map of buildings and features and pastures and plantings…and for the first time, I saw the boot-shaped outline of the land I’d become increasingly interested in buying. It wasn’t just any development design.

It was a permaculture design.

The woman who owned the land had had big plans for the properties. And they were plans that spoke to the very heart of my own hopes and dreams. As I flipped through the 23 pages of the report, I could barely believe it. The spaces mapped on the 11-acre plot for intern cabins could easily be for guest yurts. The grey-water marsh could still serve the main house’s needs. The greenhouse could be the geodesic dome I wanted to use for winter gardening. Clearings were marked for passive and active solar, a bath house, a humanure composter, a cistern for rainwater collection.

I think I just peed the bed, I texted back to Pat.

Well, get yourself cleaned up and call me. We have work to do.

Walking the Boot

The day was grey and threatened rain, so I’d left Bodhi back in our room which also afforded me time to focus on something other than keeping track of his whereabouts. I parked my 4Runner near the entrance to the tractor road, which turned out to be a right-of-way separating a small stream from the main part of the property and ended at a farmer’s gate at the very back of the boot-shaped parcel. The area around the stream — or, more likely, drainage ditch — was choked with thorny brush and weeds, so it was impossible to know if it ran. The trees to the east of the drive stood tall and stately, silent and waiting.

I pulled the hand-drawn map out of my backpack and unfolded it. I told Pat I wanted to walk the land using the map as a reference, a way to envision a future in this forest. The seller’s realtor wasn’t able to accompany us because she had training she needed to complete that day, so Pat and I had the place to ourselves again.

I stood for a moment, trying to ground myself. Energy seemed to buzz up through the ground, mixing with my excitement and muddling my thoughts. The place felt strangely electric, magical. I closed my eyes and breathed in the pine-scented air, then started to walk toward the place marked as the main home-site on the map. Pat dropped in beside me then, suddenly, out of view. He popped up a moment later, holding something in his hand.

“For you,” he said. “I think it’s a hawk. No…a turkey. I always get them confused.”

As the feather crossed my palm, I thought I heard it say Barred owl. I stood staring at it, my head spinning. I managed to thank Pat in a hoarse whisper before moving on.

Summer’s exuberant growth slowed us as it had on our last visit. Blackberry thorns and multiflora rose canes tugged at our clothes, and we stepped carefully around healthy swaths of poison ivy. Here and there, we spotted tattered flags of colored landscape tape clinging to trees and marking goodness-knows-what. The sketched map was not to scale, so it was difficult to pick out the places the permaculture designer had designated for buildings and infrastructure. We followed the contours of the land, stopping now and then to peer at the map, point at a space, and imagine how my small yurt complex would nestle into the folds of the rises and hollows.

As we followed the line of the land down to its lowest point, I noticed the large colony of bright green crowsfoot I’d previously taken as a sign that this might be my Place. Then I saw another. And another. The pines and hemlocks swayed and creaked in the breeze as the sky darkened. The woods seemed so big, so…untamed. I suddenly felt intimidated by the place, by my own audacity. What am I thinking? I asked myself. I can’t do this! I can’t make a home out of all this wild space. I must be out of my mind. But as I walked, the idea of the place — its beauty, its quiet, its strength — began to take hold of me.

Touching the Tree

When we reached the lower edge of the property, we stopped. I looked back up the gentle rise, along the flat ridge bordering a neighbor’s property. I could just make out the roof of their pole-barn and a white flash of siding from their house through the undergrowth. My entire body was buzzing with energy.

“Well, what do you think?” Pat asked quietly, searching my face.

A light rain had begun to fall. I held my face up to it, letting it run down my cheeks and onto my neck. My head was still spinning — with questions, with answers, with fear, with excitement.

“I…I need to think,” was all I said.

“OK,” Pat said simply and let me stand there for a moment silently accepting the rain.

I heard a rustling sound and a small thump nearby. I opened my eyes and glanced in the direction of the sound to see that Pat — my absolutely perfect realtor — had taken a seat and was meditating. Excellent idea! I thought, and I found a place by a big pine to fold my own limbs as best I could in my hiking boots and close my eyes, leaning my back against the tall, rough trunk.

I slowed my breathing, focusing on the feeling of the rain still sweetly falling on my face. The woods was silent, still. When we first walked up the tractor road, it had felt like it was waiting. I got the same feeling again as I sat and tried to collect myself. I put my hand down into the dirt and felt for the tree’s roots.

I have nothing to offer you, I told the forest. But will you accept me? Will you allow me to build a place here for healing myself and others?

I breathed deeply and felt a small opening, a shift in my chest. The rain slowed, then stopped. A warm breeze lifted and played with my hair. My head began to clear. A calm knowing seeped up through the earth and into my palm.

After a few moments, I stood and brushed myself off. Pat was standing off to the side, looking out toward the road. He turned when he heard my footfalls in the thick covering of needles on the ground and smiled at me, waiting.

“Well,” I told him, “it isn’t what I was looking for, and it costs more than I wanted to pay, but I think it’s Home.” Tears welled in my eyes and spilled down the tracks left on my cheeks by the rain. “And I’m a silly old woman who’s crying over a piece of land.”

“I think it’s beautiful,” Pat said smiling, and we made our way back to my truck.


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The Quest for Home, Part 3: Follow the Signs

“Found it!” Pat called out to me, waving a piece of paper over his head without taking his eyes from his computer screen. Bodhi, my big, red Golden Retriever, reached him first, all wags and smiles, and Pat reached over to scratch his ears and give him a good thump before handing the paper to me.

“Uh…this is a little more than I intended to spend,” I said, gaping at a number five times larger than even my new, doubled budget. “And I thought it was only 11 acres, not 52.”

Pat laughed. “No, that’s the property across the road,” he told me. “We’re going to use it as a reference for finding the one you’re interested in. They’re both owned by the same person.”

“Ah,” I said, pursing my lips primly. “I thought maybe you were engaging in a little up-selling. Like, ‘Hey, take a look at this! Oh, this one seems a little steep? Well, then…have I got a deal for you with this other property — at only half the price!'”

Pat smirked, a mischievous glint in his eye. “Nah,” he said, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder at a man sitting behind him. “That guy’s the used car salesman. I’m on the up-and-up.” His poor colleague glanced up from his phone call, cocking his eyebrow at the two of us laughing at him before deciding he didn’t need to know.

“Let’s go!” Pat chirped chirped to Bodhi, and we were off.

Looking for Signs

Discouraged by my explorations the day before, I’d nearly quit my quest for finding rural mountain land. Intimidated by the remoteness of the properties and unsure of how I would afford one that met my needs, I’d sent up a prayer for a sign that I was on the right track. Typically, I ask the Universe to send crows as messengers because they were few and far between in my Indianapolis neighborhood, so I could consider a sighting as reasonably significant. However, as I drove back to my Airbnb lodgings that evening, I noticed that crows were as common as country daisies.

“If we’re going to use crows as our signal,” I muttered under my breath as yet another black flash of feathers crossed the highway in front of me, “you’ll have to send a whole damned murder of them.”

Crow sightings weren’t the only sign I needed. Pat and I had tried to find the 11.6-acre parcel after our nearly vertical climb to the top of a beautiful but — from my perspective — not very usable mountain property. We’d driven up and down the road but had seen no realty signs, which I’d learned from another property owner was not uncommon out in the country. And, because the land we were looking for was undeveloped property, listed as “young pine forest,” there would be no mailbox sporting a street address, assuming the numbering proceeded as logically as one might hope — and it often didn’t. The listing for the 52-acre parcel Pat had brought with us as a reference was for a small farm owned by the same person selling the land I was interested in. We had both an address and a farmhouse with a mailbox to use as a landmark.

OK, so maybe there wasn’t a farmhouse anymore…

“Uhhh…I think this is it,” Pat said, indicating a tractor road roughly cut into the hillside across from a mailbox bearing the address of the farm across the road (where a heap of stones indicated a former farmhouse). I turned my truck onto the deeply-rutted track and parked. We decided it would be imprudent to go too far up the drive until we knew whether or not we could get back out again.

Pat and I hopped out, and I released Bodhi, who immediately galloped about, pausing to sniff before charging off down the tractor road. Pat and I kept a more sedate pace behind him, peering into the undergrowth at the top of the road bank.

“It looks like they started to cut a driveway in here,” Pat said, indicating a pile of brush next to a partially-cleared swath through the trees, about two thirds the way up the road. “Let’s start there.”

A Murder of Crows(foot)

We had to move slowly at first; the brush piles from the aborted road excavation created more of a barrier than an inlet. Once we got past the initial jumble, the going got somewhat easier, and I could get a sense of the place.

There was much more biodiversity than the listing implied. Beeches and oaks and poplars and hemlocks grew among the pines. On the ground, I spotted something that looked a lot like wintergreen, although the leaf shape and coloring were unfamiliar. Pretty swirls of silver-painted, dark-green leaves grew here and there. I glanced up at something Pat was standing ankle-deep in, a vague memory tugging at me.

“Hey,” I said, pointing to the fans of evergreen ground cover. “I think I read somewhere that the stuff you’re trampling is endangered.”

Pat lifted a Teva-ed foot to look beneath it. “I dunno,” he replied, frowning. “I see it all over this area.” He turned to take in his surroundings, gingerly moving off of to one side. “And it seems pretty plentiful here.”

A large growth of the stuff blanketed the slope in a brilliant green. It was breathtaking. I added its photo to the ones I’d been taking of the other plants so I could look it up later.

As we walked the parcel, a cautious hope welled in my chest. The slope was gentle, with one or two deeply-cut washes scoring its breadth. A nearly flat ridge ran along the eastern boundary, tapering gradually down to a large level area near the bottom of the plot before it dropped off to the road. There were numerous places to put a yurt. Pat and I darted about like wide-eyed children, calling out to each other with increasing excitement. “Here!” he’d yell. “You could put a yurt here!” “Check this out!” I’d yell back, waving him over to see a sunlit opening in the trees. And so it went for the better part of an hour until we loaded Bodhi — happily exhausted from his own exploring — into the truck and drove away.


Later, in my rented room, my head spinning with exhilaration and doubt and fear and hope, I found answers:

Striped wintergreen. Rattlesnake plantain. American holly. Partridge berry. Sensitive fern. Ladyslipper. 

Google returned a photo of the pretty evergreen fans that had, indeed, been listed as endangered at one time but were making a slow comeback. It was a ground cover. I gaped in disbelief as I read its common name, the hair on my arms standing at attention:

Crowsfoot.

It was a whole damned mess of crowsfoot.


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The Quest for Home, Part 2: Usable Mountain Land

“This isn’t going to work. We’re outta here.”

We’d just crossed the sixth one-lane bridge between the property we were driving into the mountains to look at and anything remotely resembling a town.  Six opportunities to be stuck on one side of a washed-out bridge or the other — going in or, more worrisome to me, coming out. Visions of not being able to get to a hospital spun around in my head.

My brother, John, didn’t take his eyes from the hairpin turns of the road I was cautiously navigating. “I don’t know why you didn’t turn around at bridge #3 when you first started saying that.”

I shrugged without looking at him. “Have you seen anywhere to turn around?”

“Good point,” he replied as a car whizzed past, its driver seemingly unconcerned that the two-lane road in the direction he was heading folded in half at the edge of a drop-off, then plunged up a blind hill. Maybe he was out of milk and eggs and had thrown caution to the wind, I silently posited.

I found a nearly-vertical driveway with a wide enough un-gated mouth to turn the 4Runner around without falling off into a ravine. It had a pretty decent view of the road snaking past it. Down below us, across the road, a cabin nestled in a sunlit clearing, the postcard version of all the similarly-nestled cabins we’d passed along the way. The cabin’s idyllic surroundings raised at least three flags for mistakes people make when buying rural land that formed the basis for my aversion to bridges. I peered as far up either side of the road as a I could, took a deep breath, and stomped on the accelerator, just as another car shot through the curve. I wasn’t comfortable with the margin by which we missed colliding but was thankful for it, nonetheless.

I risked a quick glance at my iPhone, where Google Maps was now showing us backtracking our route. The app had long since given up any active navigation and had simply been painting a blue line across the screen in the direction of the route it had chosen for us. As we retraced the route, the blue line became grey, indicating we were on the right road, which was a good thing, as I’d been so busy negotiating the crazy curves and hills that I wasn’t sure I could reverse the turns I’d taken on the way in without help.

“Google was showing we only had 10 minutes to go,” I smirked. “The listing said the property is 30 minutes from Asheville. I wonder if they confused 30 minutes with 30 miles.”

“The way people are driving up here,” John replied, “30 minutes and 30 miles are probably the same thing.”

Refining My “Requirements”

Western North Carolina’s rural landscape steals my breath away. Mountain coves hold in their embrace a patchwork of beautiful, rolling farmland and dark, stately forests stitched together by hair-raising two-lane roads. I found myself smitten with the area the first time I drove through it.

Just over a year later, having come to the realization that I’d been delaying a long-held dream to live more simply, more in sync with nature, I decided to make it my home.

However, driving through a place is far different from taking up residence. I was just now getting a taste for the challenges of mountain living. Although I plan to live off-grid in a yurt, I do not plan to homestead or live as a hermit, so there are a few modern conveniences, such as grocery stores, that I’ll still need access to. Because my plan also includes rental yurts for “glamping” — a trend that combines aspects of a camping experience with the ease of a bed-and-breakfast — I want to be reasonably close to restaurants and other attractions, without my guests losing the feeling of staying in a mountain retreat. And, frankly, at nearly 54 years old, I have to consider how likely it is that I’ll be able to age in place. I don’t want to build my dream only to find myself too frail to maintain and enjoy it.

Yes, it’s a tall order. My requirements, in fact, completely blew my budget for the land purchase itself because finding such a property requires more acreage than I’d anticipated. Not only were covenants and restrictions a potential barrier to living the way I wanted to live, but so (apparently) was finding land that was both accessible and level enough to build on.

“Usable Mountain Land”

“This is a great piece of property,” Pat, my realtor breathed, turning to take in the cleared knoll at the top of what, for me, was a nearly vertical climb up a goat-path attempting to pass itself off as a road. “You could cut in another 15 feet or so, all the way around, and you’d have a nice homesite, with room for solar.”

On the climb up, necessitated by the fact that Pat didn’t think his minivan would make it up the unimproved road — which the boulder jutting out of the center of one of the steeper rises validated —  he’d pointed out patches of less-crazily tilting ground. To my eye, these were mere ledges jutting from a forest that vaulted skyward. He’d point at one ledge or another, telling me, “You could put a guest yurt there…and one there…” I tried to imagine my guests struggling up a rutted drive, parking their vehicles on a narrow switchback, and hauling their gear or suitcases across a walkway spanning a deep rift in the earth before arriving at a yurt perched on a deck that jutted over the sharp drop.

I pictured my elderly parents afraid to visit.

The knoll was lovely, and the perc testing conducted by its current owners indicated that at least four people could live up there full-time. A broad stream bubbled along the bottom of the parcel, by the road, so water was plentiful. I wondered what kind of power would be required to pump that water all the way up to where we were standing, and what it would take to get any kind of pressure.

“You rarely see mountain property with this much usable land,” Pat said after a moment, grinning enthusiastically. “This is really sweet.”

My heart sank. If this was what usable mountain land looked like, and it was beginning to look like it was, based on our explorations that day, I had no idea what I was doing.


Later, at dinner, I shared my fears with my brother and his wife, Kim, who had come up to join us from their home in South Carolina.

“Maybe I should give this up,” I lamented. “Maybe I’m not cut out for mountain life.”

In fact, maybe, I thought, I am completely off my rocker and should be staying put, safe in my sweet little house in the city.


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The Quest for Home, Part 1: Covenants and Restrictions

“Can I help you?”

While the lovely North Carolina drawl riveted my attention, it wasn’t what first attracted it. That dubious honor went to the tall, slender form of its speaker — a silver-haired man clad in jeans and a button-down shirt, emerging with leisurely grace from a silver Mercedes — even before he spoke.

After a few fleeting seconds of entertaining, then rejecting, less appropriate responses, I managed to collect myself enough to say, “Perhaps, if you’re the property owner.”

“I am,” he said simply, extending his hand and introducing himself as Hugh.

My brother John and I were casually looking at a few properties before I was scheduled to meet with my realtor, Pat, later in the day. I hoped to get a preview of what was available now that I was ready to begin my search in earnest, and we’d been trying to locate the first property on my list, a partially-cleared 11-acre parcel. Confused by the addresses, I’d pulled my old 4Runner into a cutout in the road, parking it up against a farm gate where a rutted drive ran between a sizable pond on the one side and a sunken field on the other. As we gazed down at the field below us, I remarked to John that if that was the acreage, I’d have to pass. It didn’t look like it would take much for the pond on the other side to spill over the retaining wall and flood the field. We couldn’t be sure we were looking at the right parcel, however, because the realty sign was missing, and addresses for undeveloped land are approximate.

“Addresses out here aren’t as orderly as they are in the city,” Hugh commented in his soft, southern accent. “We make the numbers up as we need them.” He also explained the missing realty sign: The listing agent had gotten sideways with a local mining company by defending homeowners whose properties were damaged by illegal blasting activities. The company’s employees retaliated by making it difficult for her to do business — including stealing or destroying her signs any time they found one. My brother and I exchanged a glance.

“But this isn’t the parcel you’re looking for,” Hugh continued quietly, the loud, incessant barking of penned hounds across the road nearly drowning him out. He swept his arm up and away to a parcel adjacent to the land on which the dog run sat. “It’s that one.”

A sunny meadow nestled into the embrace of a woods, running more-or-less gently down to the road but vaulting sharply up into the trees at its opposite end. It was beautiful, but I wondered — neither for the first nor the last — what it would take to balance a structure on the slope. Hugh had bought the property, as well as the one on which we were standing, as a “buffer” for the rest of the neighborhood. Over a decade ago, a developer expressed interest in the land, planning to put a trailer park on it. Hugh, a retired Christmas tree grower, wouldn’t have it. He’d purchased some 25 acres to prevent the developer’s progress. I thought of the dilapidated trailers and shacks we’d passed on our way up to this idyllic meadow. Less than picturesque, to be sure. Which begged the question Hugh asked next.

“And what do you plan to build on the property you buy?”

I took a deep breath, inwardly steeling myself before levelly replying: “I plan to put a yurt on it.”

Blowing My Land Budget

When I’d started my search for land in western North Carolina, more than a year prior to meeting Hugh, I’d told my first realtor (Laura) I wanted a three-to-five-acre plot, partly wooded, with a mountain view. I wanted enough space for my own yurt as well as two or three guest yurts that would become a source of income, as well as guest quarters for visiting family and friends. Using my sister’s three-acre lot as a guide, I determined that a similarly-sized lot would afford me a little privacy without putting too much distance between myself and my guests.

Linda obliged me by sending links to listings within about a 25-mile radius of Asheville, which I hoped to make a kind of hub for shopping, eating out, and social activities. Being reasonably close to Asheville would be a bonus for yurt renters and guests, as well, since it’s a sought-out destination for everything from brew pubs to fall color tours to tours of the Biltmore Estate. But I also wanted to be far enough away from the city for my home to feel like a retreat into nature.

And, so I’d explored the area, mapping out routes to the listings Linda sent me, taking notes about the tiny towns and rolling countryside, getting a feeling for this place I was considering making my home. I thought a lot on those drives: about the kind of neighbors I hoped I’d have; about driveways and right-of-ways; about mountain views and valley vistas; about forests and meadows and streams. I dreamed. I planned. I learned.

Before I knew it, a year had passed, and I had a new realtor, Pat, whom I’d contacted and with whom shared my vision. I was still readying my house in Indianapolis for the market when he sent the first set of listings. I was over the moon when I sat down to open them. And then…

What the heck?! Ten acres? Eleven? THIRTY???!!!

I fired off a (slightly testy) email, reminding him what I’d asked him to find for me. He responded to my email with a phone call — as he (thankfully) so often does — and patiently explained.

Smaller plots, like the ones I sought, are generally situated in or near developments, where covenants and restrictions apply — and, while defaulted loans and estate sales happen, those plots are quickly snatched up. So Pat was sending me listings for at least 10 acres to help me realize my stated goals for the property. They were twice the acreage I’d planned for, more than twice what my projected budget would allow. But they were more likely to afford me the flexibility I wanted.

As long as what I wanted didn’t conflict too drastically with the aesthetic of where I planned to buy.

Covenants and Revisions

At the mention of a yurt, Hugh’s face stiffened, almost imperceptibly.

“I think you should drive on up the road there,” he suggested, tightly controlling his tone and indicating the ridge behind us with its big homes and beautiful approaches, “and see what we’re trying to accomplish here.”

“That’s a good idea,” I replied neutrally. “And I’ll definitely do that. But it seems you have…hesitations. Maybe you’d do me the favor of sharing them?”

Hugh let out a big sigh, then expressed concerns about how yurts would look from the road and what they might lead others to believe they could bring into the area — implying that I’d be setting a bad example.

“You know, Hugh,” I said carefully, “I don’t have to plunk a yurt right in the middle of that meadow. In fact, they’re devilishly difficult to cool in the summer, and I like my privacy, so it would actually be better if I tucked it back in the trees, away from view.”

Hugh pursed his lips and squinted at the tree line. “So we’d really only see it in the winter…”

“Exactly,” I told him. “And, you know, I’m certainly not opposed to planting trees and shrubs to screen people’s view. I love beautiful landscaping. Living in a yurt won’t change that.” I spent a few minutes painting a picture of my vision, of the need for beauty and for living in closer harmony with whatever land I bought, about the value of leaving some spaces natural. When I paused for a moment, Hugh offered to drive me up the ridge to show me where I would cut my driveway in from the road. My brother and I jumped into the truck with Bodhi, who had been waiting patiently for us, and we followed Hugh’s silver Mercedes up the rise, away from the ear-splitting racket of the neighbors’ hounds.


Later, in Pat’s office, we reviewed the listings he’d sent me, eliminating some of them because they were too remote, too hard to access, had too many bridges to wash out between the grocery store and me. As he clicked through the links, he found a listing for 11 acres of partially-wooded land.

“Well, that one’s out,” Pat said with a little grimace. “There are covenants restricting what you can build there. It has to be at least 1600 square feet, and…”

“What’s the address?” I interrupted. He told me.

“Oh, Hugh’s place.”

Pat cocked an eyebrow at me, and my brother cut in. “Yeah, he’ll be fine. Denise had him changing the covenants for her by the time they were done talking. It took her 20 minutes.”

Pat raised both his eyebrows at that, then laughed. “Really?”

John shrugged with feigned casualness. “Yeah, she was a bit off her game today.”


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A Serendipitous Beer — and the Perfect Realtor

“Do you mind if I sit there?”

The speaker, in his late 30s or early 40s, indicated a seat that would require climbing over my dog (lying quietly in the cramped corner I’d specifically selected to keep him out from under other patrons’ feet), then squeezing his hiking-pants-clad fanny through the ridiculously narrow aisle into a chair adjacent to mine. I squelched an introverted sigh, resisted the urge glance down the long, double row of empty tables lining the porch, and smiled as welcoming a “go ahead” as I could manage.

Once his wiry frame was comfortably sprawled in the chair — and having given Bodhi a friendly pat after nearly tragically jostling my beer — the man reached into his pocket to retrieve a ringing cell phone and cheerily greet the caller at the other end of the line. Great, I thought. There goes my peaceful brew break!

I’d spent the past several days working down a list of rural properties my realtor had made available to me via an online portal. She’d reasoned that, since my search was in its most nascent of phases — at least a year away — it would be a waste of both our time for her to escort me from listing to listing.

“Besides,” she’d told me during our single phone conversation, “this way you can learn your way around a little. People don’t pay as much attention to navigation from the passenger seat of a car.”

While her lack of enthusiasm left me underwhelmed, her assertions made good, logical sense. I’d gamely wandered the countryside alone, exploring small towns, farmland, and forested mountainsides, and creating a checklist for what I liked — and didn’t like — to guide my anticipated purchase. I still had purging to do, a house to sell, and a plan to develop for selecting and buying the yurt that would become my home. But I wanted to get a sense for what undeveloped land cost — and where I’d find it in this beautiful, mountainous side of western North Carolina. I’d encountered parcels with stunning views (and suspicious neighbors with big dogs); glorious pine forests (in humid lowlands); regal mountaintops (on roads that would be all but inaccessible after an ice storm); sweet meadows (that had obviously been used by their owners as dumps for discarded farm and construction machinery). I’d found tiny, rural towns with surprising businesses: chiropractors, acupuncturists, kundalini yoga classes, holistic veterinarians. I’d found gorgeous lots surrounded by shacks and trailers moldering away in abject poverty. One by one, I’d drawn a line through or annotated the listings for later reference. I was now sitting on a long porch in a small town, drinking a locally-brewed beer, and quietly processing all I’d seen and experienced on my drives.

Well, at least I had been.

Some part of the gregarious phone conversation next to me worked its way into my attention and piqued my interest. I couldn’t really help listening in, given our proximity, but I didn’t really apply myself either. Despite my desire for a little peaceful contemplation — and the rules of courtesy demanding that one never comment on an overheard conversation — I addressed him when he hung up.

“I couldn’t help hearing…” I started, indicating the inches separating us with a tilt of my head, “but did you say you were heading out to Stonehenge?”

The man smiled, a warm expression freely extending to his eyes, and introduced himself as Pat. He was a local and was not only able to suggest a delicious pizza to complement my beer but was also fascinating to talk to. We chatted amiably as we ate. He told me about his upcoming trip to the UK — the first trip he and his wife would take without their daughters — about his wife’s energy healing practice, about meditation and yoga and ancient ways of connecting with the earth, and, lastly, about his band (Americana folk with jazz leanings). As he spoke, my amusement grew. It was just like me to strike up a conversation with a random stranger, only to find he wasn’t as random as I’d believed him to be.

I finally paused in my own questions to allow him to ask a few about me. I told him about my recent decision to go out on my own as a freelancer, about adopting the dog panting happily at our feet, about my growing dissatisfaction with city life, and, finally, about the land I sought to buy and live on in a yurt.

“I’m a realtor,” Pat told me, offering his card over the pizza he’d ordered for himself ans was steadily munching his way through. “My office is right…there,” he continued, pointing at a sign about three buildings away from where we sat.

I responded I was already working with someone, but I accepted his card anyway, telling him that things could change over the course of the next year or so. I’d never met the efficient, professional woman sending me links to real estate listings, but something told me that, even if I had, I would still find Pat a better fit. His easygoing manner and flashes of humor made me comfortable. I got the sense, from his contributions to our conversation, that he understood my goals, my hopes, my concerns. In some important ways, me. And, dammit, I liked him.

Yes, things could change, I thought as I bid Pat farewell and guided Bodhi back to where my truck was parked.

And, almost exactly a year later, they did.