Wednesday, August 19, 2009

West Virginia Stone House

1700 WV house 015 I love staying in friends' homes when I travel. It's a chance to spend time that is both catching up and being a part of the life they live at that moment. From morning coffee routines to making dinner together to sharing bathrooms and hallways, I literally enter their shells, breathe their air, hear the sounds they live with. Going into someone else's shell allows me to reflect, once again, on my own lifestyle and the house I live in now. How are my friends' routines different or the same? What fresh perspective will I bring home with me? Will I make my coffee differently or bake those rolls that my friend's mother baked us?1700 WV house 007

In West Virginia, I stayed in a small town of Romney. It's in the Appalachian mountains. My friend grew up in the house where I slept for 3 nights. His sons grew up there, too. The house is a big L-shaped brick house that still has a bullet hole from a civil war scuffle. In their backyard, a herd of deer appear at dusk. At night, the stars are so bright, layers of glittering chandeliers float above me like holograms. The Milky Way is painted across the great arch of our galaxy. I can see the curve! A screech owl calls from down the holler (that's West Virginian for "hollow"). In the city, where I live, the stars look faded and forgotten in comparison.

1700 WV house 002 About a mile down the road from my friend's house, his uncle, Dan Wagoner, a well-known dancer who had a dance company in NYC for more than 20 years, spends the summer in a stone house built in 1789. Dan still teaches dance at a university in Florida during the school year, but chooses to return to his childhood roots every summer to a place that has no electricity or running water.

1700 WV house 013 In this stone house, once owned by Dutch slave owners, Dan has released himself from the modern world. He says "it takes about 10 days for an inner shift to occur," before he slows to a different pace and way of thinking. He draws his water from an outside pump, and takes baths in his clawfoot tub under a tree. At night, the porch is illuminated by candles, and moonlight hovering over the distant hills.

1700 WV house 012 "Ten days for an inner shift to occur." I keep thinking about that phrase. How many of us give ourselves permission to make an inner shift? Or give ourselves ten days to let any kind of change happen?

1700 WV house 005 In this stone house, which my friend has helped restore over many years, Dan has created a way of being, a sensibility. I admire his courage, his ability to do this.

Could I do it? There's something inside me that wants to try and something else that is afraid. What would happen to me if I were to live in a house without electricity for two months? Would I want to return to the city or would I disappear? Become unknown or forgotten? Or would I uncover some sort of magic, another world that has been waiting for me?

1700 WV house 003 How do you think you would handle living in place like this? If you're a country person, please tell me your thoughts. If you've lived in cities most of your life as I have, I want to hear from you, too.


  1. The air in my lungs feels more real just thinking about being in this old stone house, stripped down to the essentials of being, living, away from all the distractions. Thanks for sharing!

  2. 10 days? I generally give myself 10 minutes, if I'm feeling particularly patient that day.

    It's something I always want to try - I have a friend with a house on a Greek island that has a pump for water and no electricity. She calls it "rustic" and her family members call it a wreck. Much as I want to try it, I don't know that I could manage it. Which is crazy. Any of us could manage it, really. My fear of being unable to cope (when there's very little that I'd have to cope with) is probably a sign that I really need to go unplug for a good long while.

  3. Ashley,
    Thanks for your thoughts. Puttering around that house did have a purifying effect.

  4. Krebiz,
    Our sense of timing and time has changed radically hasn't it? What are we missing in the rush?

  5. I want to believe I could live that way--I grew up wishing we lived way out in the country and relied on nothing. It was shy I was obsessed with Little House on the Prairie--I ached to live that way. But now, I don't know if I could.

  6. Hi, Tish.
    Maybe doing this part-time is the way to go. That way, you know it has an endpoint?

  7. Beautiful place!

    We once lost power and transportation/mobility (the roads were all covered in huge old trees that were blown over) due to a hurricane that came inland.

    It was a novelty for about 24 hours, then a nightmare for the rest of the first week, and then we hit a sort of quiet rhythm that was actually quite charming - story-time by candlelight, etc. It was almost like we forgot what it was like to have all those things we'd lost.

    We were in the middle of our capital city and had no power for over 3 weeks. Interesting b/c now that we're out in the country on a horse farm we are always prepared for that kind of thing - but in the city we felt immune.

    To go without by choice would be easier I think, but I'd guess there would be that "de-compression" time where we'd miss the conveniences.

  8. Billie-I've gone without for 24 hours, or maybe two days. By then, worries of freezers melting and food spoiling started to take over. But other thoughts also took over--the quiet in the house without all the underlying hums of refrigerators and computers. And a re-acquaintance with natural light and the Earth itself.

  9. Jennifer JeffersonAugust 23, 2009 at 10:14 AM

    Jessica, I read this post a few days ago and have been thinking about it ever since. My father's family was from West Virginia and I used to go stay in the big farmhouse there in the summers. Alas, it has been sold, but I have wonderful memories of a different time and place.

    Sometimes I do wonder how many modern conveniences I could live without. We have a house in the Catskill Mountains with no cell phone or internet service and are finally breaking down and putting in internet so we can work from there sometimes and stay longer. But we have rarely missed it and visitors have commented how nice it is to not be tethered to their cell phones. (I even had a 17 year old girl mention that.)

    For me, I think my basic level of comfort would be to have a phone, a radio and plumbing. I would want the phone for emergencies, the radio for baseball games, and the plumbing because I'm lazy. I think it would be good for me to live without internet and tv for one month a year or one week a month.

    I just read the best novel I've read on a long time, Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson. A 67-year old Norwegian man moves to a cabin with no modern conveniences. It's an amazing book about home and family--I think you'd love it.

  10. Jennifer- What part of W. Virginia? For those of you who don't know the state, its tag line is: West Virginia Wild, Wonderful (I think I have that right). It truly feels that way.

    Boy, isn't it true about letting go of the cell phone. I've been in a lot of mountain regions these past few weeks, yet I still want access to the internet. Much of its work-related, but even if it were not, I'd want this.

    Thanks for the book recommendation. How perfectly timed!

  11. Jennifer JeffersonAugust 24, 2009 at 12:22 AM

    Wheeling, W. VA.

  12. Jessica, this sounds absolutely lovely! And I know what you mean about an "inner shift." Since moving to Vermont, I feel like I'm on a different timetable than many of my out of state friends. Whenever I return to here from somewhere else, I can feel my soul exhale. Yes, we can see the stars here, too. Glorious!

  13. Wendy, I admire you for moving to a place that allows your soul to exhale.

  14. Wow! What a place! Could I do it? You bet. I have and I will again. And yes--life without bright stars and a dark sky is something I did for a few years, but I always came back to the country.

    I don't think I could do without internet anymore, though.


  15. Amy,
    You are one of the few on our side of the world who has done this. How long did you live without electricity? Do you think it reshaped how you think and work today?


  16. We had limited electricity for about a year. But I think what really buzzed for me was the self-sufficiency, meaning, not buying anything, electricity or no electricity. The complete lack of need for any outside things (bar trading) was something that gave me freedom beyond anything I'd experienced. Coming back to the real world is still hard for me. I don't like to buy things, and I still would prefer to do building work myself. I think this changed the way I see consumerism and our complete reliance on bought things. In turn, it highlights how many people think in relation to commercialism and things, whereas, I'd much more sit and talk to a tree. Also, not watching TV changed my life. It makes it difficult to have a conversation with people who only talk about things they saw on TV, but for me, life is easier without it.

  17. Makes me think about Hurricane Bob in 1991 (?) We were without electricity for 9 days--and the difficulty and drabness of life remains with me. But maybe I would have felt differently if I'd had one more day to make the "mental shift?"

  18. Patry,
    You didn't choose Hurricane Bob. I think that makes all the difference.

  19. I love to go camping, and we go rustic. A tent rather than a camper, for example. But even then we have battery operated flashlights and a camp stove so we can have coffee. (We do not, however, bring a TV or even a radio.)

    I think it depends on the circumstances. A week without electricity might be great...after that I'd start to feel cut off, isolated and stir crazy.

    Our generation is hyper-connected and that can be a drawback. (Note: I do not own a Blackberry or similar and so when I'm out of the house, I'm out of touch except for emergencies) but in most ways, the connected world has kept me from losing my grip on the world outside my walls...since I work at home.

    I like a break from society, but I don't like extended isolation, and I think a lack of electricity would lead to that. At least for me.