“Look, Daddy, it’s a natural tree tunnel,” shrieked the six-year-old girl in delight.
From behind the wheel of the sky blue Valiant Station Wagon, Ross Figart clapped his strong, olive-colored hands together once and smiled his biggest, sweetest smile. This signified his approval of the moniker his daughter had coined for sections of curving mountain roads where the trees were so old and their branches so outstretched that they literally joined each other over the roadway, forming a canopy.
The diminutive child arched her back, lifted her pointed little chin, pushed her unruly camel-colored hair behind her elfin ears and breathlessly took in the overwhelming vision of deep green hues rushing by and encasing them in wonder.
“It’s like a dream world,” she cooed, peering out the window and into the shady branches as they careened past, hoping to glimpse at least one fairy.
The year was 1970 and the roads took us through the forested hills of Eastern Kentucky, where my father made his living as a Southern Baptist minister. He preached not hell and brimstone, but compassion and forgiveness. People adored him wherever he went, whether it was to Hyden or Hazard, Pikeville or Prestonsburg. And he adored the mountain people and their culture, a love he also instilled in me – along with his love of nature and of trees. The greatest gift he and my mother would give me was an idyllic childhood that could rival that of Wordsworth in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, on the wooded premises of a summer camp that was part of their ministry.
After I grew up and left Kentucky, whenever we would connect on the phone, I could hear Dad smiling as he’d say, “You’d like where I went today.” He would have just returned home from a trip to some remote community like Whitesburg, Grayson, Pippa Passes, or Booger Branch (yes, this is an actual place). “There were lots of natural tree tunnels.”
Thirty years later in 2000, eight years after my dad had passed on, I finally got an opportunity to realize a lifelong dream: I went on a quest to find some forested property to purchase in Eastern Kentucky. I will never forget the first time I ever drove down Mountain Springs Road in Estill County, in search of a remote cabin that was listed for sale in an area called Furnace.
My sidekick that day was my spiky-purple-haired New Yorker friend Cindi, who had implanted herself in Estill County a few years prior, and quite staunchly I might add. Even streetwise Cindi, who is rarely caught off guard, was taken somewhat aback when I began to shriek like a child at the amazing trees, whose branches bent and met as if in prayer over the winding gravel road. “These are the natural tree tunnels!” I screamed at her over the din of the Rav4’s tires on the thick gravel.
The cabin itself was situated on a knoll that crowned six acres, two miles in at the head of this heavenly mountain “holler.” The greater forest of which this small plot of land was part teemed with wildlife! To a wood spirit like me, the place was perfect. Tree-covered, rustic, comfortable, private (the nearest communities were all 30 minutes away) yet accessible (I could get to my office in Lexington in an hour) – and with a few improvements and embellishments, it became utterly and completely home. My plan, very simply, was to live out my life on Furnace Mountain.
But fate had other ideas. In a few short years, everything would change. And it all started because I loved – and lost – the trees.
About five years into my stay, much of the land around the cabin was unsustainably and mercilessly logged, the beautiful forest habitat ravaged by the largest and most ruthless equipment used in the state. Catalyzed by this catastrophe, which I worked for a year to try to prevent, changes would lead me to let go of the one thing I thought I’d always keep: I sold the cabin.
But letting go of what we can’t imagine letting go of always leads to new adventures – to realities that before could have only seemed like dream worlds from a childhood fantasy. Before long, I would be riding through natural tree tunnels in the lush forests of Costa Rica. And from that land of diversity, I’d eventually return to Kentucky to help my mother die, two decades after losing my father.
As I write this, I’m getting ready to spend my last day as a Kentucky resident. Tomorrow I’ll head south and try to make a new life for myself in Asheville, North Carolina. I’ll be living at 3,000 feet elevation overlooking the city and surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains, with abundant bird life, resident white squirrels, black bears passing by and natural tree tunnels surrounding me once more.
Last week, I returned to Mountain Springs Road for a hike with my dear friend Jane, who now has a small cabin not far from my erstwhile home, which is well cared for by its new owners. Every bend in the two-mile road brought memories flooding back. We hiked on Forest Service Road 2057, which I used to walk with my dogs almost every day for the six years I lived there; I was walking on that road when the planes hit the towers. We visited the special rock sanctuary there, a sacred formation known only to a handful of locals. And I said my goodbyes.
I love Eastern Kentucky. And, although I’m not sure what is coming next, I cannot deny that I also love change – probably as much as I love mountains, mountain people, and trees. North Carolina, ready or not, here I come.