It's not widely known that when Thoreau wrote Walden he was within walking distance of town. Not exactly the howling wilderness, Thoreau's woods were almost, well, I'd have to say Suburban to portray things accurately. It's said that his one trip to Mount Katadin in Maine left him scarred and unwilling to venture into the woods again. Now Katadin is very much a howling wilderness, or as close as you get in the Eastern US, but that's no excuse to fake living in the woods when you're actually in Biltmore Forest. What a world-class bullshitter ...

Walden pond is now part of the Boston sprawl, it's probably since been paved over for all I know, but the idea of a simpler, nobler life lived by one's own hand off in the woods persists in myth, urban legend, and in certain specialist magazines.


Much to my overt surprise at the time, I was born in Manhasset on New York's Long Island which is not exactly howling wilderness either. I grew up in in central Georgia and it was many years later, when I was living in Atlanta, that I got to thinking about a simpler lifestyle, trading the Porsche for a pickup and potentially heating the house with wood. My then-wife thought I was nuts, but signed on provided she could bring her horses. Horses, if you didn't already know, are hard to keep in a city like Atlanta.

Construction on the house was the usual nightmare familiar to all homeowners with the added horror of doing quite a lot of the work myself. There's so much you simply take for granted in town: like running water for starts. I designed a water system that pumped from an artesian spring to a tank 100 feet up the mountain providing water pressure from gravity. Much like the Pyramids, the Coral Castle and some of the other Big Projects That People Talk About, the water system at Shoal Creek worked so well that it's been completely forgotten for over a decade. Fresh, cold spring water on tap and never a bother. Freeze-proof, drought-proof and, so far, idiot-proof. The whole place is a testament to a decade of diligent work, detailed and painstaking, with the goal of A Century Without Maintenance. In this era of self-obsolescent junk and injection-molded consumer garbage, I reveled in building things to stand for all time while still spending less than my neighbors who built, rebuilt and fixed things. Fifty years from now, there will still be spring water on tap at Shoal Creek and someone's grandchildren will hopefully smile at the Craft that built it. Art is beyond my skill. The highest compliment anyone can pay is to look at my work and, Mason that I am, call me a Craftsman.

Gardens were planted, bridges were built, ducks and fish raised and much was learned. I can plant a garden by the moon, fix a sick Diesel by candlelight, catch fish with homemade tackle, hear the wind tell stories from long ago. Life in the wilderness. Life on Telegraph Road.


Time passes. Trees are taller, the grounds get more manicured and settled. A dog howls in the distance. I notice it's my dog Cajun, and that he's gotten quite a bit greyer in twelve years, further noting the grey's rubbed off on me like something he rolled in. I've got it on me too. My wife has been gone for a few years, having left to pursue a career in aviation and a pilot with a winning smile. My 120 acres is surrounded by subdivisions promising a simpler life in the mountains, gorgeous views, and the once clean running water. People are moving up in droves and I find myself listening to Telegraph Road from Dire Strait's largely ignored album Love Over Gold. It's beautiful, haunting, and means so much to anyone who's lived in a peaceful, quiet place only to be surrounded by suburban sprawl and forced out by Progress:

A long time ago came a man on a track
Walking thirty miles with a pack on his back
And he put down his load where he thought it was the best
Made a home in the wilderness
He built a cabin and a winter store
And he ploughed up the ground by the cold lake shore
And the other travellers came riding down the track
And they never went further, no, they never went back
Then came the churches then came the schools
Then came the lawyers then came the rules
Then came the trains and the trucks with their loads
And the dirty old track was the telegraph road ...

Telegraphy. Of course, there is THAT too. There's always more to the story, more than you can ever tell, and I'm going to break with narrative tradition here and share some of the unrelated background with you. The world is actually made up from nearly equal parts of secrets, magic and private jokes, despite what some physicists might think. Telegraph Road, for example:

I actually know the Morse Code having learned it in the mid 1970's when I was still a kid in central Georgia. There is now no requirement from the FCC (or anyone else) for Morse, and CW proficiency marks me as a relic of the Tube Era, which is funny since I was so young then, not old enough to drive a car when I learned. It's only in our hurry up, fuck you, split-nanosecond culture than a man not quite to middle age can have seen so much, and have had so much of it obsoleted by his own work: long-haul HF radio has given way to satellites, Morse code to Yahoo! Instant Messenger. I can talk to Alexey in Russia as easily as I can type this manuscript, much more easily than with the 40 meter dipole antenna I once would have used.

I've actually got a bit of a Glass Arm from too much straight key telegraphy; a charming, if painful, 19th century affliction from the age of the lightning wire. It's similar to the carpal tunnel people get from text messaging on small keyboards. Same thing, a little further toward the elbow and from a long time ago.

Time is the trickster they call Coyote in the west. As any Shaman worth his feathers will tell you, it's not that Coyote is bad, its just that he'll go to absolutely unbelievable extremes for a joke: like making a decade blow by in just a few minutes. Coyote and I go way, way back, though he'll deny it if you ask.

OK, back to Walden:

Wood heat becomes central heat and air
Diesel power gives way to hydro, finally giving way to TVA
Hydrogen electrolyzers become propane tanks
Old tractors made in America get replaced with new ones from Japan
The pickups get traded for Porsches again since I still enjoy driving
My wife leaves
My girlfriend appears
I think seriously about selling the place
It sells in a single day

So why am I leaving my most treasured Shoal Creek Falls? Well, it's more the ghosts than anything else. Ghosts of what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be. I've done what I came here to do, did it well and completely, and now Growth requires that I move on to the next phase. Whatever that might be. Can't wait to see. It's kind of exciting in a truly scary way ...


One thing Thoreau never mentioned, and it's worth considering: while life in the woods can be fun, it can be exciting, and it can be very rewarding, the isolation is very hard on relationships. I don't think he was thinking about that and, in the end, relationships are what counts. People trump Place, and being among your own people and with the people you love is far, far more important than Where You Are. As I sit here typing this, the sun is setting over the most beautiful view of the West Mountains, the sky russet and gold, the temperature dropping and turning my mind turn to open fires and hot chocolate, both of which are typically made for two.

Am I going to miss my estate in the mountains? Yes, I am. The waterfall, the river, the bridge, my shop with the stained glass windows. I'm a typical engineer, though, and I'm already thinking about building another bridge, another shop, another House By The Falls. Once I recognized that I had done what I came to do I didn't see possibilities anymore, I saw accomplishments and knew it was time to go. So I charge forward, do what looks right, and try not to lock myself into habits of being that no longer make sense.

Every Craftsman knows you leave a piece of yourself in the work. What I never suspected was that the reverse is true also. I planted quite a lot in my garden, never suspecting the biggest growth crop would be me. So it's time to leave Walden to the Real Estate people. Time to build, time to plant, time to grow.