Monday, April 30, 2012

Paradise On Five Dollars a Day

April 30, 2012


      Sorry to have been out of touch for a bit but I have had several distractions. There were some short stories that wouldn’t let me alone until I got them down on paper. I attempted a huge writing project but I got in over my head and had to face the fact that I wasn’t man enough for the job. One other, a more pleasant chore, was to gather and organize “my papers” which the Library of Virginia has consented to house and to nurture and to make available to one and all. There is pride!

So back to BETWEEN YOU, ME AND THE LAMP POST. I’m calling this entry:


       Every writer yearns for an inexpensive place were he can enjoy privacy and where he can write without interruption. Aware of that need, at this time of year, writer’s magazines arrive, not only with helpful tips on how to find an agent, how to conquer writer’s block, or the surest pathway to publication, but also with advertisements for writers retreats. Descriptions of such havens tend to sound more like poetry than invitations to a place to get some serious work done.

      Recent ads that I came across were: “Private room on the banks of the river Seine, only an hour from Paris!” “ Come to our mountain cottage for silence, solitude, and the sight of deer grazing in the meadow!” Or my favorite - “Old Virginia farmhouse on the James River in the Blue Ridge foothills, explore nearby vineyards and local history.”

      I once rented such a retreat. Following my graduation from the University of Cincinnati I had the good luck to land a job as a radio writer at WLW, the major radio station in the state.

     It was a terrific time in my life, a transition from student to professional writer, a time of growth, of learning, of forming friendships that would last a lifetime. Cincinnati was home to some of the most beautiful girls in the country and I fell in love with each and every one of them.

     WLW paid handsomely, and I led a frugal life that allowed me to save a sizeable nest egg.

     I once had the good fortune to interview Katherine Anne Porter. When I asked her to describe her writing process, she said, “Somewhere out of experience, out of travel, life, the past, or just imagination, an idea seizes me and won’t let go. I don’t act on it immediately but put it away to cook. After a while faces, language, customs, traits, colors, events, all come together around that idea like iron filings around a magnet. Even then I don’t begin writing, until one day the book tells me it is ready to be written and that is when I begin.”

    I knew what she was telling me. I had reached that point. The novel I had dreamed for years was clamoring somewhere in my brain - demanding to be written.

    I quit my job at WLW and rented a small cottage I found advertised in the “Writer’s Digest” column called “Paradise on Five Dollars a Day.”

    I rented “Paradise” sight unseen through the mail from the owner, a lady named B. B. Caverly. The ad described a small stone cottage at the foot of Rich Mountain in the heart of the Ouchita Mountains of Arkansas. The ad went on to mention that the cottage had neither electricity nor indoor plumbing. To compensate for the lack of such amenities, Miss Caverly informed me that food has a special flavor when cooked over an open fire and there were fish in the stream nearby for the price of a worm.

   I traveled by bus to the small town of Mena, Arkansas, and spent the first night in a charming old hotel called The Antlers. Miss Caverly, my new landlady, called for me there the next morning. There was a Texas twang in her speech and her dark hair and chinquapin eyes made me think she might be partly American Indian. Many folks in that part of the country do have Indian ancestry and will quickly and proudly boast of what percentage of Osage or Cherokee or Comanche blood runs in their veins.

   After a stop for groceries, Miss Caverly drove a distance out of town until we came to a deserted stretch of highway. She parked her pickup truck on the roadside and led the way down a narrow path through some underbrush. I carried my duffel bag and the groceries. She carried my portable typewriter. We crossed an abandoned railroad track where weeds grew up to our knees between the rusted rails and the rotting wooden ties.

   Past the railroad tracks she led me to a fallen tree trunk. It turned out to be the only access to the other side of a small creek. I wobbled across the log after her and made it successfully to the other side where a six foot long black snake reared up in the path ahead.

   I recoiled, ready to abandon “Paradise” and rush back to civilization, but the lady said, “Don’t be scared. It’s a good snake. They eat the poisonous ones! Practically wiped out the water moccasins!”

   Slightly reassured I followed her up the mountain to the cottage. It really was as charming as promised. There was a wide veranda across the front that afforded a fine view facing Rich Mountain. There was a kitchen, a living room with fireplace and a bedroom. A suitable distance out in the woods was an outhouse and in the side yard was the cooking facility – a barbeque grill made of the same native stone as the house.

   Before she left, Miss Caverly suggested that I not go out after dark, or if I did to carry a strong flashlight. She then went on to say that the cottage was in the middle of something called “a snake run.” She explained that the snake population at the top of the mountain had no water supply, and they came down to the creek whenever they got thirsty, and that the cottage happened to be right smack in the middle of their path.

   At that point it crossed my mind that I might be sacrificing my life in order to write my book, but I bravely decided to risk a week or two before returning to civilization.

   Being an old country boy I was accustomed to the shrill and creepy sounds that come to life as soon as the sun goes down. But I had usually snuggled under the covers with the comfort of being surrounded by a sprawling family of brothers and sister, a protective mother and father. Now I was alone in strange country and the sounds were not familiar like the old hoot owl from back home, or the sleepy lowing of a cow. Out here in nowhere the night sounds reached a crescendo of screams, screeches, and howls. On top of that I was convinced there was a water moccasin under the bed. I slept not a wink.

   Gradually I grew used to being a hermit and facing the challenges of my paradise. I received my mail by tetter-tottering across that cursed log to get to a mail box on the highway. I hiked the four miles into town once in a while when supplies ran low. No matter how many times I made the trip I was never comfortable walking across the fallen log and the risk of falling into the moccasin-infested water.

   As primitive as my cottage was, it provided a perfect atmosphere in which to write. I had no human visitors. Occasionally a deer would wander across the property or a cottontail would hop by going about its business. There was no telephone, no radio and the only sounds were the songs from a variety of birds that came and went.

   By the end of that summer I had finished more than half of a manuscript that I had first conceived in the hedgerows of Normandy. It was to become my first published book and to this day I have to thank Miss Caverly for placing an ad in “The Writer’s Digest” titled “Paradise on Five Dollars A Day.”


  1. I love this story--i have a cabin in AR and find it especially funny.

  2. Outside of the Bible, I don't think there are any written words more comforting and inviting than those written by you, Earl. My only regret was that this ended too soon! Can't wait for the short stories to come out!

  3. Thank you Earl. I have missed hearing from you and this story more than makes up for your "vacation" from the blog.

    As a native Mississippi Deltan (with some proud Choctaw heritage)who grew up near the river, I too have lots of water moccasin stories, some scarier than yours. . .

    We also share a deep love for Virgina where I served as Director of the Federal Disaster Relief Office in Charlottesville in 1972 or 73.

    We lived in a wonderful 100+ year old house, (similar to the house on The Waltons)that was hidden away in a couple of thousand acres of forest.

    Bless you and your family,your enterprises and the rich legacy you have created of and for love, family and community.

    In case you didn't receive my earlier message, I thank God for your work, especially The Waltons which is still my all time favorite program.

  4. Ok snake run would have been what I would have been doing! There were no human visitors because all the water moccosins had eatten them LOL. I love your stories, thank you for writing them for all the world to read. We need more writers as yourself, the world has been so blessed and made a better place by you. Thank you and God bless you with many more.

  5. My grandfather (1887 - 1963) wrote stories about our family the way you have about your family. Thanks for sharing yours with us. I love the Walton TV show, too!

  6. I enjoyed your story. What a wonderful surprise to hear from you. Thanks for sharing and keep it coming. I look forward to visiting the Library of Virginia to view your collection of papers.
    Lou Edmondson-Gray

  7. What a wonderful surprise to hear from you on a day I needed cheering up. When I read your stories I feel a part of them. I think we share a special bond as native Virginians. The Waltons will remain as my favorite television show of all times. Looking forward to your next post.

  8. I'm afraid Miss Caverly's retreat would have inspired this writer to pen less an idyll than a Biblical tale involving a serpent in Paradise. Like Indiana Jones, I hate snakes. But I certainly admire you, Earl. Thank you for the stories.

  9. What a wonderful and inspiring post! It is very soothing and calming to read when the rest of the house is asleep.

  10. Wonderful, wonderful story... clapping, clapping! I love you, Earl Hamner.... and have since I viewed the first Waltons show in the early 1970s. You made me feel welcome and right at home on the mountian where you grew up, and you wrote my own story over and over during those episodes, and never even knew it. I was born and raised in Eastern NC and still live here.... so I feel a deep connection to the easy southern manners and customs that were such a large part of your show. Now I have to echo what Paul Sirmons (above) said... That this story ended way to soon. Keep writing and keep sharing with us, your loyal fans. We hold you dear to our hearts!!

    Libbie Adams

  11. What an interesting encounter it must have been meeting with the author Katherine Porter. Besides having an incredible resilency to enormous loss and hardship, she did have a tendency to marry often. She claims more than anyone knows. Are you possibly on that list of former husbands? I must say I love your blog. Your reflections make me long for an America when people regardless of their education loved to read.

    Elaine Darman Levitt

  12. Thank you, Mr. Hamner! Your posts are so wonderful. And The Waltons is my all-time favorite show. I was a redheaded kid who grew up with the program and wished I could have been a Walton myself. Not that I ever saw for myself that the Waltons were redheads...we still had black-and-white TV. Oh, the good old days!

  13. What a pleasure to hear from you again. Ironically today my family and i are leaving Connecticut and driving to Schuyler va to see your family home. The timing ia amazing. Im such a fan. Still watching and enjoying "The Waltons"

  14. Hi Earl,
    Great to hear from you!!! Thank you for sharing with us again. Loved reading the story of your retreat. Please write again soon. There is nothing on television better than the Waltons! God Bless You Earl.
    From your biggest fan (still) at Lynchburg College.

  15. Sir~ your story was inspiring. Great memories that propelled you from there to here. I hope one day to have the title of published author too. No doubt about it, something magical about Southern authors.


    Helen Wallace
    AKA~ Bella Stone

  16. I, too, enjoyed your story...You are a lot braver (or is that more determined?) than I! I watch the Waltons nearly every weekday (three episodes a day) and am almost always moved to tears...If I had to pick a favorite episode, it has to be the one where Grandma (Ellen Corby) came back from the hospital after her stroke... Each of the actors were so perfect and convincing in their roles...I especially like the tenderness and love between Olivia and John...

    Thank you for being unashamed to write about what family should be instead of some of the garbage out there today...There is a richness and purity in your writing that is rare today...

  17. Dear Earl,I was so happy and suprised to get and read your story today! I so enjoy what you write.I am not one to watch a movie that I have seen before , but I have seen most of the Walton's episodes many times! I am 68 years and as long as the Walton's comes on I will keep watching!!! I so identify.I have always wondered what your folks really called you, since your name isn't John.I kind of thought maybe Earl Jr. Thank you, I wish my childen could have lived that life! You were a blesed man.

  18. Great story! glad you were so moved to share it. Just wondering about your "papers" being housed in the Library of Virginia. Would that be the University Library (Charlottesville) or the State Library (Richmond)?
    God bless Earl!
    Cheryl (Charlottesviile, VA)

  19. I have a vacation cabin near Mena and just returned from there today. What a surprise I got when I read your blog and learned that you spent time there too. There are still alot of snakes around those mountains. I saw at least half a dozen over the last few days. Thanks for the wonderful story. I always enjoy your blog posts.

  20. Hi Earl, as usual, your stories make my day and I enjoy reading them, thankyou ;) Keep it up :)You are indeed, an inspiration :D

  21. I live in Springdale, Arkansas and approximately 30 miles from Mena, Arkansas. I love to hear about that old cabin and your time spent here in Arkansas.

    I have purchsed all of your books and have enjoyed each and every one. You have been such a blessing to my family. Thank you for your blog Mr. Earl. Please take care of yourself and keep on writing!
    Tammy N.
    Springdale, Arkansas

  22. Mr Hamner I have enjoy the waltons for four decades and I hope to for many more. I own almost all of your books and have enjoyed every one of them very much. I was thrilled to see you are back to your short stories on your blog. Please keep it up it brings me great joy to be able to read any of your work. Please email me whenever your can God bless you and yours always your friend and biggest fan. James

  23. Good to have you back Earl. Thanks for sharing a story about your early days. You wrote in the spirit of Thoreau, and Walden's Pond!

  24. Thank you Mr. Hammer,enjoy reading anything you write.
    David Wood

  25. Dear Mr. Hamner thank you for sharing your amazing talent with the world, one of my greatest hopes is to someday meet the man that created some of the greatest stories I have ever had the pleasure of reading or watching. When I read you can't get there from here I couldn't put it down I felt like I was part of the story. In my opinion one of the best writers ever if not the best. Thank you!

  26. What was this first manuscript you wrote there?

  27. You wrote, "Cincinnati was home to some of the most beautiful girls in the country and I fell in love with each and every one of them." Amen. And Amen, sir. My wife and I met 25 years ago at the University of Cincinnati, and it has been paradise ever since. Although not for $5.00 a day.

  28. Thank you for making me laugh this morning!! I'm trying to get started on the book again, got the day off work, and want to get back into the head and hearts of my characters! But your blog pulled me in. I don't know how you got past all those snakes, but if you can do it Mr. Hamner, then so can I!


  29. I for one feel extremely blessed that you became a writer. Your body of work is still blessing my life, especially The Waltons. Thank you Mr. Hamner.
    Sindee O'Dowd

  30. Thank you Mr. Hamner. I am soon going to introduce my 12 year old son to The Waltons. I'm sure he will enjoy it.

    I love your work. Went to the Waltons Museum in Schuyler years ago. My family never owned a mountain, but they did own a hill near Fincastle.

    May God bless you,
    Irving, TX


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