On a crystalline May morning, Amy McGee and I set out to find the cave on Shut-In Creek where her great-grandfather’s cousin, the moonshiner and outlaw Wild Bill Puckett, kept his second wife. Amy is a librarian, a fellow writer, and a dear friend. This past December, her husband and her Mom died within two weeks of each other. Her grief is still raw. I know I can’t lessen it, no one can, but I thought the walk into the woods and into her family’s past might let her dwell on other things for a little while.
Shut-In Creek comes down the eastern ridge of Pine Log Mountain and empties into Lake Arrowhead. And under the lake are the remnants of the small village of Lost Town, where Amy’s great-great-great–grandfather John B. Puckett had a house. When the lake is low, you can still see the chimney.
Amy and I park near Lake Arrowhead’s Summit Trail and walk to where Shut-In Creek crosses under the old roadbed. This used to be where the Lake Arrowhead stables were, until they built the new golf course in 2007. I remember walking these trails when my daughter was a baby, tucked close against my chest in her baby bjorn. We’d stop to watch the horses grazing in meadows that are now part of the golf course.
We follow the creek. Amy is wearing black gaucho pants that keep slipping down and a lace thong that keeps riding up, a black-and-white striped sleeveless top that makes her look like a sexy pirate, and new hiking boots with purple laces. She looks daring and feisty, worthy of being the outlaw Will Puckett’s great-grand-niece.
Amy and her late husband Jon and their kids Kate and Sean have always loved dressing up. At the funeral home, there was a book of photographs of the whole crew in various outrageous get-ups. Anytime was Halloween for them. They all loved make-believe, whether Dungeons and Dragons or comic books or video games or sci fi or Haunted Houses. At the funeral home, my heart ached for the way they loved each other and played together, happy children all, until Jon got sick. Even after Jon got sick.
I don’t know of anyone braver than Amy in her new hiking boots, walking Wild Bill’s Moonshine Road. The overgrown roadbed parallels the creek to the point where the grade becomes steep. I’ve only walked it once before, when my stepdaughter and I got lost on the mountain and bushwhacked down the creek, not realizing there was a perfectly good trail about 20 yards away.
Walking up the creek is like walking into the heart of the mountain. You quickly leave civilization behind. The walls of the ravine are high on each side and the green valley is filled with new ferns and ancient boulders. The creek’s many small waterfalls tumble over rocks that time has strewn willy-nilly like blocks a child stacked and forgot, half fallen.
“He must have had a still back here,” I tell her, and we find a place where rocks have been arranged to create a channel from a flat spot down to the water. But no telltale rusting metal or busted glass. We scramble over boulders and through thickets and over slippery roots, and I am so proud of Amy, her face and her thick red hair wet with sweat, but she is not afraid.
Before we started the hike, she gave me a gift: snake gaiters she bought online, some for her and some for me, and on mine she’s written the names and numbers of Bible verses offering protection from snakes. Luke 10:19: “I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.”
She’d told me earlier that her grandfather used to make snake gaiters out of stove pipes, each shin sheathed with a length of pipe.
I wish I could have found the verse that would have protected Jon and Amy and Kate and Sean and Amy’s Mom Brenda. I wish I could have found the armor that foils death.
As we walk, we are brainstorming a title for my book about the mountain, and Amy says she has a good Bible verse for my title. She gets out her phone and googles it. It is from Isaiah: “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain.” It’s the same passage where the wolf will lie down with the lamb and the child will put his hand in the viper’s nest, unharmed. It’s a foreshadowing of Revelation, when every tear shall be wiped away, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.
We’re not there yet. But sometimes on the mountain I feel like I’m getting there. I’m closer than I usually am. The water in Shut-In Creek is so clear and pure. “We could probably drink it,” I tell her. But we don’t.
We come to a place where there are several overhanging rocks, a couple near the creek and a couple up higher on the side of the ravine. The roadbed seems to end here, and we figure this has got to be it. It would be a paradise for an outlaw, or for anyone, for that matter. I could build a shelter and live here myself.
I climb up on a boulder next to a waterfall and listen. My friend Tommy Hudson, who studies petroglyphs, told me that the places where the water speaks were sacred to the Cherokee and to the Native Americans who preceded them. The ancestors talk in the sound of falling water.
What would Will Puckett say if he could speak? He was by all accounts not a good guy, always in trouble with the law. He fled to California a couple of times to avoid jail, and he died in the poorhouse. But it was hard times back then, and the woods were full of stills. He chose this beautiful place. Did he love the woman he kept here? Did he love the creek as much as I do?
We decide to visit more of the Puckett dead at the old cemetery on a ridge above the lake. The graves of Amy’s great-great-great-grandfather John B. Puckett and many of his descendants are here, along with a man named G.W. Poole and his descendants. The grandest tombstone is that of an African-American man named Elic McCurley, 1856-1901. Amy doesn’t know who he was, just that his grave was moved here after a nearby church dug him up, refusing to give a black man a place among their dead.
Amy tells me that if you go on the website Find-A-Grave, it shows that Jon is buried here, but he is not. Amy lives on the Puckett family property off of Little Refuge Road, and when Jon died they started a new Puckett Family Cemetery there. The website has confused them.
The last thing we do is drive by the site of the old Lake Arrowhead clubhouse, now torn down. That’s where Amy and Jon got married. Relatives joked that the Pucketts had come back to claim Lost Town. The old clubhouse is now lost too, replaced by brand new, cookie-cutter McMansions.
Before we went on a hike, we visited another friend of ours in Lake Arrowhead, Lee Kearney. Many years ago, Lee lost her son Kevin to addiction and AIDS. She wrote a beautiful book about it, He Always Brought Me Flowers. Lee went on to become an addiction counselor and AIDS patient advocate, and although she is now retired, her very presence is warm and comforting. Loss has molded her into an earth mother who nurtures everyone she touches. When we entered Lee’s house, Amy said she thought of the hymn “There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place.” The dreamcatchers on Lee’s walls have caught and held grief and prayers and the other side of grief.
Lee made us coffee and we talked for a while, about Jon, who Lee had sung with in the church choir, about Lee’s late son Kevin, about my 15-year-old daughter who has left me to go live with her father. Amy wept and Lee beamed at her and said, “Good, good. You just cry now. What a great gift. I’m so glad you came today.”
Amy and I have both thought a lot about Lost Town. My house that burned was just a little farther up the ridge. We could both stare into that snaky lake and wonder, where did our lives go, the lives we thought we’d have?
Lee reminded us that there will be another side to grief. “I’ve made friends with death,” she told us. “Kevin talks to me all the time. I know I’ll see him again.” I don’t think Amy or I have made friends with death. We are still living in Lost Town. But we have made friends with each other, and that’s a place to start, walking the Moonshine Road together.