I found Cowboy sitting in a shelter with his bare legs dangling over the side and the sun shining on his bare chest. Wearing a straw cowboy hat, boxer shorts, and nothing else, he cupped his hands around his mouth and boomed, “Welcome to paradise!”
The natural state of Cowboy’s face was a smile. He laughed madly throughout our conversation, even when nothing seemed particularly funny at all. He laughed at everything, and in those rare moments when he wasn’t laughing, he looked like he was just a moment away from exploding all over again.
Cowboy made sure I knew that he wasn’t in any hurry. Partway through our conversation he grabbed his wallet from his wadded up shorts and showed me a picture of himself, sans cowboy hat, dressed in slacks and a collared shirt as he stood grinning before an enormous house. “That used to be me,” he said, breaking into wild, rolling laughter.
He’d been a highly successful salesman of some corporate sort. He lived in one of the wealthiest areas of Atlanta, ate at all the best restaurants, and all that sort of thing. But, more and more, he found that he was just bored. “Stone bored,” he said, shaking his head with a smirk. So he decided to use up all his stored up leave time and hit the Appalachian Trail. That was the summer previous to the one I’d met him.
He returned to his old life after finishing the trail that first time, but nothing felt the same. After a few months of trying to get back into his old routine, he quit his job, sold his cars, and put his house up on the market. His friends, of course, told him he’d lost his mind.
“They don’t know, man. They just don’t know. They spend all their time thinking they got it made ’cause they live inside these giant boxes. They don’t realize the real banquet’s out here, and they’re missing it!” He laughed wildly for a moment before shaking his head in befuddlement. “I’ll tell you what, man, people are crazy.”
We sat there for a while in silence, legs dangling over the side of the shelter in the sunshine. Funny how such a simple moment can be branded so deep in my mind that I can feel that warmth on my skin as I think of it.
A sign pinned to the wall of a general store offered home cooking and beer to any hikers that would help move furniture. The beer offer seemed mighty intriguing, so Puck, Brother Jones, and I called the number. The next day a woman named Sarah picked us up and drove us out to the country to help them move things across town to her mother’s house.
Four people lived in the house, including Mom, who was recovering from cancer, and her three children ranging in age early twenties to early forties. All that we ever learned of Mom’s husband was that he was a rotten son of a bitch who didn’t live there anymore.
As the day progressed, Mom shuttled in whole carloads of campers from the general store. The furniture was all moved by mid-afternoon, so we moved onto yard work. As we worked, we drank. Rob, Mom’s oldest son, made rounds among the huge and growing workforce, taking beer orders.
By nighttime, everyone was very drunk and doing a lot of work that didn’t need to be done. Mom’s backyard looked like a refugee camp full of tents, dirty folks in drum circles, and laundry lines strung from the trees. At some point, the party had ceased to serve a distinct a purpose and evolved into a self-sustaining organism. Over the following days, the family drove in shifts, shuttling hikers back and forth. They ran it on a strict schedule.
One night as I gagged on apple moonshine from a mason jar, I noticed the words ‘Heathen’s Haven’ written into a large, concrete slab that had once been the foundation of an old barn or shed that no longer stood. I asked about these words and Rob, drawing seriously on his cigarette, imparted the legend of the place to me.
Outlaws had been using the land as a hideout and shelter since the first days of the state’s founding. By the time Prohibition came, the spot had already long been known as Heathen’s Haven, and when moonshiners built their facilities on that land, they scrawled the name into the very foundation upon which it stood.
Ray related the legend solemnly to a small crowd. The locals, who knew the story well already, listened intently, the way people do when any sacred rite is being performed. The other hikers and I sat in rapt attention, shaking our heads in pleasant wonder to find ourselves camped upon such hallowed ground.
What was supposed to be a single day of work turned into six days of festivities. Mom hugged me before I headed back to the Trail and told me that the house was visible from the first outlook that I’d come to. When I got there, the valley below looked like a patchwork quilt, with squares of cultivated and forested land and the thin, grey lines of stone fences stitched between them like thread. I scanned the scene until I found Heathen’s Haven.
I hoped that Mom made a full recovery. I hoped that that spontaneous gathering of hikers became an annual tradition. Most of all, I hoped that the outlaws, wanderers, and adventurers of the world would find sanctuary at Heathen’s Haven for a long, long time.
“People Along the Path” comes in five parts, broken up mostly by the people I met while hiking the Appalachian Trail. I find it difficult sometimes to read long pieces on a computer monitor, so I’m experimenting with breaking things up in to smaller pieces. Feedback would be appreciated.