Finding Wild Roots was a hell of an adventure, emphasis on both the hell and the adventure. The commune was tucked away in some secret corner along a dangerously winding mountain road, so the travel wasn’t like the interstate hitchhiking I was used to. At one point I got picked up by a truck driver who was going almost the whole distance I had remaining. I was ecstatic, thought it would finally be the day I arrived — a relief, since I was already a day later than I had said I’d be there.
But a delay happened at the loading site, so the driver and I sat for almost two hours just talking, talking, talking, about his son, the racial politics of truck driving, and the uses of the kudzu strewn out on the forest canopy in front of us. I ended up giving him my phone, wanted to get rid of it since I was — finally — going to start the hard-nosed part of the uncivilization experiment. Except I missed my exit and accidentally crossed the border into TN. I told him he could let me off at exit 15, and I decided I would try to hitchhike back.
Unfortunately, the roads weren’t that amenable to it, and it was rapidly getting dark. Only twenty minutes into walking I came across a bridge with no walking space on the edge, and cars sped across it unpredictably. So I waited a few hours with my thumb out, figuring that if I didn’t catch a ride — and I knew I wouldn’t — I could at least make my way under the bridge to set up camp. But I had to wait until the night hit, because the cars were, as I said, unpredictable, and the only way under the bridge was from the other side.
Since I didn’t have my phone, I had no idea what time it was when I finally decided to cross. But I do remember being fed up. I’d waited for hours and not one car even slowed down. And no matter how dark it seemed to get they didn’t come at any slower or uncommoner of a pace. So I strapped my backpack on tightly, practiced running with it along the road, and I waited, car, waited, car, waited, waited… I ran, and made it across half the bridge when I heard an 18-fucking-wheeler rumbling from a fast-approaching distance. I realized I might very well die, so I ran for my fucking life and like a scene out of a god damned movie jumped into the bushes the moment I reached the end of the bridge, barely missing the 18-wheeler, which disappeared with a long, anxious, drawn out hoooooonk.
I felt a little stupid, but also invigorated. I couldn’t help but think, “Hell, yeah, this is what this is all about.” But the excitement was short-lived. I realized I needed to lighten my pack, and I had no clue how I was going to get to Wild Roots at this point. So I started a fire under the bridge and washed my clothes in the river. I rummaged through my stuff, putting anything I didn’t immediately need into a plastic bag that I stored under the bridge, sure I would be able to pick it up later. I engaged in a little bit of fantasy, imagining I was some future primitive living in the outskirts of industrial society. But then I remembered that I was mostly lost, and decided at the end of the night that I would have to backtrack to Asheville and start hitching from there again. The roads were too desolate for directions, and the map I’d printed out only made sense from the city.
The plan worked, but only because my second ride decided to take me directly to the location. He worked for some university I can’t remember, screening college applications, so we talked a lot about that and about my goals in going to Wild Roots, a little about my political opinions, which I’d decided from the outset to keep mostly hidden. The whole time he, a black man, interrupted our conversations by mentioning the prevalence of white nationalists in the area. If there was one thing I’ve learned while travelling, it’s that you can’t escape racial politics in America. They pervade everything. So we talked about that for a while. I was enthralled by him, and he was enthralled by me, so we were a good match for such a long ride. He had a jolly sort of charisma and seemed to know something I didn’t know. Eventually, though, we had to part ways. He took me to the address the caretaker of the commune had given me, but there was no obvious commune or entrance to a commune in sight. Still, he’d driven me this far, and we were, in fact, at the address, so I told him thank you, he could go on his way, I’d figure it out from here.
After twenty minutes of walking back and forth along another windy mountain road with no edges for walking, I was close to abandoning my hopes of ever finding this Wild Roots place. Thankfully, I found a mailbox marked with the address number Tod had given me — it was next door to where Google said it would be — and started walking up an extremely steep gravel path. As I neared the top I ran into what looked like a junkyard: scrap pieces of metal, barrels, chopped wood haphazardly organized into piles. I considered that maybe I hadn’t found Wild Roots after all, but then I noticed a clay building in front of me. Oh, I thought, I guess they’re just a little junky…
My first sight of any person were the bare nipples of Tod’s girlfriend, Deborah, sitting topless on a tree stump. Tod was blacksmithing and Deborah’s daughter, Mace, was eating snacks out of a blue barrel. They looked surprised when they saw me, but revelation quickly fell over Tod’s face.
“Ah, you’re John?” he asked.
I was surprised too. These were some hippie mother fuckers. “Yeah,” I said.
They told me I’d arrived just in time, they were about to eat dinner, but don’t get the impression they were exactly welcoming. More suspicious. I was surprised. I had told them I was coming beforehand. It must be because I was late, I thought. So I walked down a winding trail toward a stream they called Squeaky, treading carefully as though I was in another person’s house. The forest was mostly wild, definitely, but you could tell it was someone’s home.
At dinner they hosted three guests, one of whom, the woman, seemed to be a long term friend. An older man who appeared to be her father sat next to her, and a kid she had with her, I don’t think it was hers, played with Mace. Mace, though, eight-years-old, seemed more interested in me, a new face, and used the opportunity to let me know the three most important things I should know about her: she flicked me off, she cussed me out, and she farted in my face. Then she started climbing on me like a jungle gym. Later she would teach me all the first plants I learned at Wild Roots.
The woman guest, I learned, lived in a sister-commune to Wild Roots, Hummingbird Sanctuary. She carried a tree-bark backpack and halfway through the meal pulled a tiny mouse out of it that she had caught in the forest. The whole dinner had that sort of magical quality about it. I didn’t think people like this really existed; I thought it was all TV hooplah. But here we were.