Snowed-In At Kentucky’s Pine Mountain: What The Past 2 Years Have Taught Us About Disconnecting

Jan 19, 2022 at 12:54 pm
Sean Patrick Hill traveled to Pine Mountain park to explore and take photos. He ended up getting snowed-in.
Sean Patrick Hill traveled to Pine Mountain park to explore and take photos. He ended up getting snowed-in. Art by Talon Hampton

I am standing at the window in a nearly 100-year-old cabin, waiting for the snowstorm to begin. It is late morning in early January, and I am at the edge of the Cumberland Plateau in southeast Kentucky, at 1,450 feet of elevation on the east face of Pine Mountain. The forecast calls for anywhere from four to eight inches of snow, which is expected to begin in the early afternoon and fall well into the night. The park ranger told me, when I arrived at the lodge, to be prepared to be snowed in, and that it would be unlikely I could get my car out until at least the following morning — that is, if the employees could make it up the mountain to plow. I couldn’t even hope for salted roads.

Though I had wanted to drive around the park the afternoon I arrived and photograph, I was not going to risk going anywhere. The road to the cabins, though paved, is steep. The ranger suggested I could park at the lodge and walk up, as some people do. I parked the car beside the cabin as close to the road as I could, being sure to set it on level ground. Inside, I set the thermostat at its highest level — 75 degrees. By the following morning, I was told, temperatures would plummet to single digits. 

I have come to Pine Mountain State Resort Park for the experience of this cabin in winter. It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression in what was to be Kentucky’s first state park. The cabin, one of three, is of a rustic design of logs chinked with plaster and a great fireplace in the middle of the room, fashioned of sandstone quarried from the mountain. Though it shows its age in many respects — the windows, for one, are original, only thin panes of glass in wooden frames fixed with metal latches to the sills, so that cold air easily leaks in — it is also modernized with electricity, hot water and forced air heat. The kitchen is equipped with a refrigerator, stove and microwave oven, and the bathroom has both a tub and a shower. There is ample lighting. A stack of wood has been left for me on the porch.

I drove three hours to be here. I’ve come with two days of food, several cameras, plenty of warm clothing and waterproof boots. I even packed a snow shovel. Though I did not expect this turn in the weather when I’d made my reservation weeks ago, I welcome it, even if I am a bit anxious. I have committed myself to stay for two nights.

At half past noon, the snow begins to fall. The road out quickly becomes impassable.

When I’d made plans to come here, I had wanted to travel further south to the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park to photograph. The day before I left, I’d called the park service and been told that the road to the Pinnacles — my main destination, in fact — was already closed. I gave thought to driving through the tunnel on U.S. 25 to the Virginia side of the park, where I could perhaps get into the lower elevations. Given the snowfall, I gave that idea up.

When I’d arrived at Pine Mountain, I left the highway and started up the back way to the lodge, thinking I could stop around Laurel Cove on the way up, but only a short distance in I found the road gated. Most of the state park, it turns out, was likewise already closed.

I took the other road to the main entrance. When I checked in, I was given some fire starter — sticks you strike like a match — and my key cards. I drove straight to the cabin and unloaded. I would not leave again for a full 48 hours. I brought in the cut wood and left the shovel on the porch. I settled in, as it were, for a long winter night.

When I had told my friend, Francine, a poet, where I was going, and that I was somewhat disappointed that my initial plans were thwarted, she offered me this simple piece of advice: “Remember not to view this as a detour,” she wrote me, “but as an opportunity to photograph something else…Bloom where you’re planted.”

The Familiar Feeling Of Locking Down

At one point, as the snow began, I was looking out the window and watching the peaks of the Log Mountains to the south disappear into mist. I thought how the pandemic, amongst many other things over the last two years, has also thwarted many of our plans. I thought of how many marriages — and funerals — were postponed or canceled outright, how many vacations were abandoned. I thought of everyone, myself included, who had lost jobs. In a sense, especially when so many of us stayed home for so long — and some of us continue to do so — that we were, or even continue to be, snowed in by circumstance. At times, it felt like there was no way out. I often struggled with loneliness.
click to enlarge Photos by Sean Patrick Hill
Photos by Sean Patrick Hill

What I am trying to discover here, now, is simply a way to live alone where that solitude seems more like an adventure and less like a burden. In the afternoon, I brewed myself a cup of English breakfast tea and warmed a homemade beef stew for dinner. In the evening, I took a hot bath. I laid out my yoga mat and stretched my low back, my hips, my shoulders. I read the book I’d brought, Beaumont Newhall’s “The History of Photography” from 1937, sprawled on the couch under a blanket. And I wrote on my laptop, the cool air touching my neck. 

I tried to pay attention to everything, examining the grain in the log walls, guessing the species of trees without leaves, watching a deer carefully cross the road, a pileated woodpecker in a tangle of limbs. I listened to the crows. I went outside in the last light to brush off the car and just stood there, in the still air, breathing. I brought out my camera on a tripod and made a long exposure of one massive tree that hovered over the cabin — I would spend the next day photographing this tree extensively. When the snowplow first came up the road in the dark, the blade dragging and sparking on the pavement, I was almost disappointed.

The irony occurs to me: I have relieved my “cabin fever” by renting a cabin.

Without Distraction 

Snowed in, relegated to a single room in a cabin equipped with firewood but not Wi-Fi, I think most of us would become restless, if not uncomfortable (there is a television here, but I won’t consider it — I don’t own one back home, anyway). Were the electricity to go out, the heat would go, too, and the phone that connects the cabin to the lodge would also be down. When the snow begins settling on the roof, so does the fear. Knowing that there is an AT&T cell tower on the mountain — I could quickly dial 911 if I needed to — doesn’t fully dispel the anxiety. And of course, I could walk down to the lodge, albeit in below freezing weather on a steep, icy road. But there is more to the uneasiness than even this.

I realize, as I’ve realized hundreds of times before, that I am simply afraid of sitting still. Having been stimulated for years by the internet, by social media and by the constant barrage of news from the election cycles, the protests and the rapid descent into climatic changes that result in chaos, I am afraid of finding myself with nothing to do, with nothing, as it were, to pay attention to.

I don’t intend the things I brought—the January issue of Harper’s, my yoga mat, the laptop or even the smart phone—to be distractions; rather, I brought them so I could really engage with good reading, with stretching my body, and with writing. The phone will be handy, of course, in the case of emergency.

It occurs to me that we have all been suffocated for nearly two years with distraction. I often found myself, especially in the early days of the pandemic and the protests, constantly checking news feeds, social media, the internet, and I wasn’t the only one. Many of us, maybe most of us, ended up fatigued, overwhelmed.

I am mindful here of unplugging from websites, from devices, and disregarding the stifling climate of opinion and division. I do not think, ultimately, the answer lies in more engagement but rather with disengagement, with at the very least an occasional disconnection from knowing at every moment what is happening in the world, as if knowing would change the course of history. It won’t.

What will change the world, I think, is respite. Quiet space. To sit in a spare cabin, hearing crows in the crowns of the oaks, knowing that one will vanish for a time beneath the snow, is to appreciate one’s insignificance. It is no sin to be small and unknown. We do not all have to contribute our opinion to the arguments. We do not even need to find answers. It may help, rather, to learn instead how to frame the right questions.

When the snow slowed, I went out in the last light to photograph the blanketed trees. Then I built a fire on the iron grill and watched the flames. 

Don’t Let The Fire Go Out 

When I wake the next morning, more than an hour before sunrise, it is 20 degrees below freezing. The cabin is warm, safe. I get up to make coffee. I pour a cup and pull the comforter from the bed, bringing it to the couch. The windows tick in the chill. Sitting on the couch, I feel the faint touch of cold at my neck. I light a new fire. A fire isn’t necessary, I suppose, but it adds to the ambience. The sound of it, the glow.

I pull the blind on the kitchen window and catch sight of a titmouse in the snow, a nuthatch probing the bark of a tree. The last flurries are drifting down and, in the distance, I am beginning to see the ridge of Pine Mountain. This is not disconnection. What I am doing, even as the news piles up, is reconnecting to the world that lies typically beyond my experience. I am recalibrating, I hope, my values. At the very least, I am questioning what I too often find important.

“If we really deny ourselves,” Thomas Merton has written, “our self-denial will sometimes even deprive us of things we really need. Therefore we will feel the need for them.” 

For us, that need is often for stimulation, for diversion, for entertainment. Even for human company, for a touch or a glance. To some degree, we do need these things. It doesn’t hurt, though, to occasionally fast.

Here in this cabin, what I am experiencing is enough. The hiss of burning wood, wet with snow. The colors of the sunset through the trees. The knowing that friends are concerned about me. I am experiencing my own body, my own capacity for silence. It is a life anyone could love.

In living this life, I think that, in both home and body, we maintain a hearth. Here on Pine Mountain, the winter night pressing in, I have been tending this fire all day. There are many flames we tend — our inspiration, our passion, our convictions. No matter what darkness drapes us, no matter the iron weight of the cold, we mind the hearth.

It is like what an old man said, whom I met just before Christmas in the Big South Fork, when I stayed in a cabin there, working over a manuscript by the light of a propane lantern, getting up in the night to feed the iron stove. He told me, “Don’t let your fire go out.”

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