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Traveling Will & Robin

Current travels: Three months in the wilderness of Siberia, Mongolia, and the South Pacific

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Wed
1
Sep '10

The Most Unlikely House In The Woods…

Paoli, Indiana: halfway between Illinois and Kentucky and a million miles from San Francisco. Wikipedia alleges the town to have a few thousand people, but it carries itself as a much smaller place. I pulled in during the waning hours of the afternoon heat and, not seeing any obvious camping spots, determined to meet a local to assist me in my quest. I walked into the dimly lit bar on the town square and took my seat on the faded and cracked barstool next to the small handful of regulars drinking at 4 on Tuesday. These are a worn, conservative, blue-collar people; I knew immediately that the conversation surrounding my journey would not be the excited admiration of fellow cyclists, but rather the incredulous exclamations of “Don’t you know they invented cars for that?!?” that account for a good portion of my interactions. This is a bar in which my use of the word “counter-intuitive” prompted the man with which I was conversing — mid-sixties, wearing cowboy boots and a grey Hulk Hogan moustache — to fix me with a deep stare and rumble, “Boy, that’s a pretty big word for Pa-oli”.

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So unexpected, and so true

Eventually I got a recommendation to camp at the trailhead for a horse trail about five miles out of town. Sisi, a mid-fifties woman raised in Paoli but only recently returned after a 20 year absence, said she’s stayed there and offered to give me a ride since it could be hard to find. Evening fell, and as we drove further into the forest, winding our way down a gravel path, I got an eerie sense of apprehension. How exactly did I end up in this strange car in a dark woods? “If you need breakfast in the morning,” she offered, “just go to the house across the road. My friend and high school gym teacher Linda lives there. Just tell her I sent you, and she’ll fix you up.” “Oh, okay,” I replied, having no intention of taking her up on the offer. “Here, I’ll introduce you,” she said as she passed the trailhead and turned onto a darker and even twistier gravel driveway. Hmm.

What I found at the end of that drive was stranger and more wonderful than any image I could have dreamt or conjured. For a few brief moments as we approached the giant dark house in the woods I was afraid that I was entering myself into a Midwestern Deliverance. But as we followed the sound of voices and light from the strangely cluttered porch, I saw this:

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Singing folk songs in the woods

Linda and Andy are, according to Sisi, “probably the most liberal people in Indiana”. Their home is a sprawling tribute to the outdoors; its giant wooden beams disappear at strange angles behind living trees, and its impossible to judge from any one spot how big the structure is. The first impression is that the house grew naturally in the space, and that’s not far from the truth: I found the couple and their friends in their kitchen, which happened to be a side porch. This is no accident — they sleep outdoors every night of the year on an unscreened upstairs porch, living together with the Indiana weather and whatever animals make their home around them. They are activists for forest protection, which eventually explained some of the scale of their home, which is a registered non-profit; they host groups and retreats here, and in my late-night wander around the grounds I found a small village of seemingly hand-built cabins, barns, meeting rooms, and composting toilets living among the trees. Andy soon fetched his guitar and commenced, with his guests, sang lovely original and traditional folk songs. A menagerie of dogs and cats wandered in and out while Linda cupped a tiny baby opossum in her palms, gently petting it to sleep. After enough wine and conversation I made my choice of sleeping quarters and curled up on fold-up cot on the sprawling back-porch-cum-dining-room. In the morning I awoke to the sun streaming through the trees and the crowing of the roosters that were beginning to wander out of the barn in search of food. Across the log railing that separates one porch from the other, Linda cooked breakfast. Eventually, I loaded my bike and kept moving on. But in the strangest and most incongruous 12 hours of my summer, I was reminded that there are still surprises in America.

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Linda is also known as "The Possum Lady"


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Living with a menagerie

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