ON THIS HOT SUMMER day, the meadow at the foot of Droop Mountain seems alive. Children gallop around the high grass in sizable herds. Their parents, in their late thirties and early forties, with bare feet and well-worn cottons, play volleyball, give each other massages and, from a collection of dulcimers, banjos and mandolins, make music.
Every summer for 12 years they have been gathering here in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. In the beginning, the weekend gathering was held for moral support when they were outlanders with a mission in a conservative, rural and tightknit West Virginia community. You can call them old hippies, the lost tribe of the 1960s, new age survivalists or "folks ain't from here," as many local people refer to them. They called themselves "homesteaders," borrowing a name from the Old West, and after more than a decade of hard work, frequent disillusionment and simply growing older, they have made this southern corner of West Virginia their home.
Hair is peppered now with gray; there are spouses and children and full-time jobs. If once they liked to spend their days getting stoned, they now drink mostly beer, since drug enforcement efforts have made marijuana growing too risky an undertaking.
The original idea was to have control over their lives, build their own homes, stay out of the cash economy, be self-sufficient in food, fuel, medicine. Some of those dreams have been tempered by reality.
Once the talk at these gatherings was of practical things: goat herding, chicken raising, building water and heating systems. Over the years, these skills have largely been mastered, but this year economics was still on people's minds -- the sparsity of jobs in the area, the low prices of beef, what the big tourist hotels are paying for fruits and vegetables.
Larry Levine, 38, a graduate of the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, is a slender man who was supposed to join his family's prosperous textile business. He moved instead to West Virginia and with a group of friends bought a 250-acre farm. They went into raising cows, both beef and dairy, and goats.
"With the cows," he recalls, "it was some mismanagement and a lot the state of the market. We bought high and sold low, and it doesn't work out very well to do that. With the goats, we learned from The Wall Street Journal and the goat bulletins that, as the economy went down, the goat market was supposed to be going up. But it didn't. In one year, our average milking goat went from $125 to $25, at which point we couldn't afford to feed them."
Now Levine, who has a wife and three daughters, works full-time as a general contractor to support his family on their farm. Among the four other families sharing acreage with him, he can count two pediatricians, a landscaper, a horticultural therapist, a potter, a leather worker, a glassworker, a carpenter and a mason.
Dave Galiano, 31, used to live on $1,500 or $2,000 a year, doing odd jobs when necessary -- surviving generally "on barter and all-around wit." He moved to West Virginia in the early 1970s, because "it was the prettiest place I had seen in a long time," he says, "and I could live here without moving into the money flow at all."
But now Galiano is married and has two children. He decided that he was spending too much time and energy trying to make small bits of money, so he has gone to a local community college to study finance. "It's kind of like you can bring your firewood in a little bit at a time," he says, "but then when it runs low, you've got to go out even when the weather's bad and get wet wood. It's a lot of extra trouble for not having taken care of it. And I thought that money's the same stuff. They just grind it up and print it. So I'd like to get a supply of that in so I can have an easy winter."
Galiano is the undisputed czar of the weekend's focal point -- a field kitchen that consists of an open-sided structure about 15 feet square sheltering a massive cast-iron stove. There are braised vegetables stuffed with tofu, brown rice and lentils in pots large enough to bathe two children at once, whole wheat linguine with pesto; acres of salads and corn bread in industrial-size pans are issuing out of this kitchen to the great satisfaction of the assembled crowd. On Saturday night, Galiano grills a goat on an open fire.
The children are the centerpiece of the homesteaders' life style. Parents do not seek child care outside the home or that of close friends. Many even school their children at home to preserve their own values. But for those without children or lovers or spouses there is another companion: loneliness.
A slender, dark-haired woman with a PhD from the University of California, is 45 and a longtime homesteader. She lives alone in the cabin she and her former lover built "from scratch" in 1972, and doesn't want her situation well-known. Her nearest neighbors live three miles in one direction and five in the other.
"I wanted to have a place that was isolated enough so that if the whole world filled up with TVs and campers that all my friends and I could move into the very center of a piece of land and have some kind of retreat, some kind of sanctuary."
In the beginning, she says, there were problems adjusting. "At first, it was scary every time it got dark and I was alone," she confesses, laughing slightly. "I'd think, well, if something's wrong, the dog will bark. But, of course, dogs bark all the time."
Robby Gordon, who moved to West Virginia in 1975, is articulate about the hardships of wintertime isolation. He is a thin, long man who is disabled from a spinal injury he suffered years ago when he fell off an apple tree while tripping on acid. It was, he says, his last acid trip.
Like Rosanna, Robby lives alone in a cabin in a remote spot. When he originally moved into the hollow, which had previously been occupied by moonshiners, five others came with him, building homes either from scratch or out of disassembled log cabins brought in from elsewhere. "We all moved in in the middle 1970s, and it looked to me like I was going to have a little neighborhood of people for a real long time," he says.
But the men couldn't find work and some of the women felt isolated up in the mountain. Arguments broke out among those remaining. One by one, they all moved away, leaving Robby alone on Tom's Run.
Those who have stayed, however, are bound together by the shared experience of abandoning the lives that had been expected of them by their middle-class parents and by the society that nurtured and molded them in their early years. In Saturday's dusk, they form a huge circle that includes all the men and women and children. They leave off skinny dipping in the pond and put down the volleyball and stop stirring the pots. The instruments fall silent as everyone comes to join hands together -- plumbers, builders, river guides, teachers, potters, farmers, doctors, healers, mothers, carpenters. Swaying back and forth in a huge circle, they sing a simple song as they scan the eyes of their many friends in the shadow of the mountains that they have made their home. To the tune of the childhood round, "Hey Ho, Nobody's Home," the song runs:
Dear Friends, Dear Friends
Let me tell you how I am feeling
You have given me such treasures
I love you so, I love you so.
They sing it again and again.