The Life Truths I Learned in the Mountains
A couple of weeks after I quit my job, I woke up one morning next to a stuffed elephant. I hadn’t noticed it the night before, but stuffed elephants don’t just appear in the night, at least I hope they don’t, so I suppose I consented to the company. Outside the window, the morning sun tossed a deep orange glow toward the mountains. Downstairs I heard tiny voices, which caused adult voices to whisper, “Shhh, Mr. Mike is asleep upstairs,” which caused the kids to repeat them, Shhhh, which filled the whole house with Shhhh, Shhhh, SHHHH, which made me laugh, which made them laugh, and now the home was alive.
“Sorry, man,” my childhood friend Jason said, as if he needed to apologize. Who wouldn’t want to wake up to laughter?
This was the Thursday after Labor Day, and Jason and I were about to go on a long run. He and his wife, Emily, had recently moved into a new home with their kids, 4-year-old Ruby and 2-year-old Ben. I was the first overnight guest. This will become more intriguing to you when I tell you that their new home is a tiny house, like a real tiny house, the kind you’ve seen on TV. The reality show Tiny House Nation documented the construction of this place, complete with teases and commercials and a dramatic final unveiling. The episode aired two months before my visit, but reality shows have a way of not being all that real, and the cameras leave before the living begins. I wanted to see it for myself. Jason and Emily insisted that I stay here and not in a hotel room. It would hardly be the craziest thing Jason and I had done together, I figured, so the five of us spent the night in this 560-square-foot home in the Virginia hills, all of us a long way from our recent lives.
For most of the past five years, I’d wake up on weekdays around 6 a.m. in my condo in a busy city and head directly to my home-office desk. Working before work made working at work manageable. I was the editor of a magazine, and mornings were the only time I had to edit and write. The rest of the day was usually a mix of calls and emails, meetings and corporate directives to cut budgets for no good reason, if you ask me. I loved the job, but like in most careers, the more I took on, the more I distanced myself from the reason I got into the field. Early last summer I turned in eight weeks’ notice and started transitioning to a freelance writing career. I’d work for myself, set budgets that only I could cut, make time for family and old friends and maybe put on pants occasionally.
Related: How to Quit Your Job (and Still Win)
The Thursday I woke up at Jason’s house was the 13th day of this new existence. I hadn’t seen him in at least six years. I made the bed and staged the stuffed elephant in a place where it could see the mountains, then went downstairs.
COURTESY OF MICHAEL GRAFF
Jason and Emily were making coffee. She prefers a Keurig K-Cup and he likes his French press and they love each other anyway. One year ago, they were living in a 3,400-square-foot house near Fredericksburg, Virginia, about 55 miles south of Washington, D.C. They made good money and were climbing in their fields. Jason’s always been a blue-collar worker. He took a job in heating and air within a month of graduating high school. By 37, he was managing the HVAC systems for a major communications company in the Washington area, keeping the server rooms cool at the company’s main facilities, which were scattered around the region. He was on the road by 4 a.m. most mornings to beat the miserable Washington traffic, and he was always on call. In some emergencies he’d have to double back 90 miles to solve a problem. Meanwhile, Emily was an elementary school assistant principal who drove about an hour each way, and she had the task of dropping the kids at day care.
You never know when you’ll receive a sign to tell you something must go. The important thing is to recognize it when it arrives.
Money and drive times and day care. These were the conversations that dominated in their big home, way back then.
That changed on a Tuesday in January 2016, when Jason and Emily took 2-year-old Ruby to the pediatrician. She’d been sick for weeks and they couldn’t figure out why. An ultrasound revealed a Wilms tumor, a type of kidney cancer. They were sent to the children’s hospital in Washington where further tests revealed the tumor had wrapped around her left kidney; she needed surgery to remove the kidney and tumor immediately. Because the cancer had spread to other organs, it was considered stage 4. She would face 34 weeks of chemo treatments, with more than a week of radiation in there, too.
COURTESY OF MICHAEL GRAFF
They scheduled the surgery for Friday. That morning, the hospital chaplain visited Ruby and her family to say a prayer and drop off a gift.
“This is for the massive journey you’re about to begin,” the chaplain said, handing the little girl a stuffed elephant.
A few weeks ago, in the middle of the afternoon of a clear day with no wind to speak of, a big branch fell from a dead oak tree in my neighbor’s yard while she was at work. The branch weighed at least a couple of hundred pounds and landed in the spot where she usually parks her car. The danger in removing an old tree in a neighborhood like this is that by the time you realize it should come down, its canopy cranes over multiple bungalows. The tree removal team worked magic and pulleys for two days to take it down, branch by branch, then trunk piece by trunk piece, without incident.
You never know when you’ll receive a sign to tell you something must go. The important thing is to recognize it when it arrives, and to take care that you don’t make a mess of getting rid of it.
I didn’t quit my job without a plan, and Jason and Emily didn’t move their family into a house that’s one sixth the size of their previous house without understanding what they were giving up. I set a modest financial goal for the first year of my freelance business; I aimed to make what I made in my full-time job the previous year. I created a spreadsheet of 12 paying publications that I’d either already worked for or had a good relationship with, then estimated how much I’d need to make from each. Suddenly the bigger number wasn’t as intimidating. Two weeks into freelancing, I’d already booked 37 percent of my yearly goal, which certainly made the five-hour drive from my home in Charlotte, North Carolina, to visit Jason more peaceful.
The first thing I noticed about Ruby was her hair. In most of the pictures I’d seen of her, she was bald. She appeared shortly after I arrived, rubbing her eyes after a nap, her blonde curls flopping around the harder she twisted the sleep away. Her mom had taught her two new words that day, predator and newsflash. Ruby spent most of the evening running around the house saying “newsflash” before any sentence, while her brother followed and repeated, “new-fash.”
It’s hard to imagine a tumor on a 2-year-old’s kidney, harder to imagine that its overall size was comparable to a volleyball, harder still to imagine preparing for a year of hospital visits that would include a port being surgically implanted in her chest and medicine that would make her sick and radiation that would burn her cells, but Jason and Emily didn’t have a choice.
After the surgery to remove the kidney and tumor, Ruby started rounds of chemo treatment. Jason took a leave of absence from work. Emily’s co-workers at school donated their leave to her. The hospitals that treated Ruby were all in Washington, about 60 miles from their home. Some weeks they’d spend all seven days there; others they’d commute for a morning treatment, then head home and come back the next day.
In the few moments they spent at their big house, they realized how little they needed all they had. They went weeks without going into the finished basement. The only time they used the entire house was for a Christmas party with Emily’s family. “Are we really going to have this house for one night a year?” Jason remembers asking Emily.
They’d just started exploring downsizing when they saw an episode of Tiny House Nation. Almost as a joke, Emily applied. By late summer 2016 the show signed them. Their responsibility was to pay for the home, $115,000, and find a piece of land to buy.
Jason had been a long-distance endurance runner since 2013, when he finished his first 50-mile mountain race in 11 hours, 44 minutes. He’d fallen for the mountains of Virginia, an area with thousands of miles of trails. After signing with the show, they purchased three acres in Crozet, about 30 minutes west of Charlottesville. Jason looked for work, and they figured out a budget that would allow them to live on one salary. Emily would finish the school year and move into the home in the summer of 2017, they decided, and then she’d take a year off. Jason would eventually take a job that paid him less money than his previous job, but came with commutes of a half-hour, tops.
All that mattered was family.
Jason was telling me all of this while Emily gave the kids baths the night I arrived. I was fidgeting with a flashlight and shined it into the field beside their house when I spotted two sets of eyes. A few days earlier, Jason had scared off a black bear that was trying to break into the coop where they keep their chickens, so he ran inside to get a better flashlight. The kids followed him back out. He aimed the light toward the eyes and started walking toward them, closer and closer until Emily hollered at him to stop. Then the eyes rose and revealed themselves as two harmless deer before bounding off. Jason came back to the porch laughing and hoisted Ruby onto his hip.
She whispered into his ear, “Were there predators?”
After coffee and breakfast, Emily got Ruby ready for preschool, and Jason and I got ready to do the thing he couldn’t wait to do: kill me.
He was training for a 50-miler called the Mountain Masochist, a race that I imagine earned its name honestly. I was preparing to wear a suit for my wedding. Not exactly the same thing, but I had been running regularly for a couple of months. In the first week after I quit my job I put in 32 miles, a respectable total, I figured.
COURTESY OF MICHAEL GRAFF
“That’s good, man,” Jason said.
I asked him what he averaged.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Fifty to 60 a week.”
We became friends sometime in middle school, around when we were 13 and growing up in southern Maryland, about 30 miles south of Washington. We smoked our first cigarettes together, stumbled through our first beer buzz together, and got rejected by the same girls all of the time. My family lived in a rural part of our county, in a house with only one neighbor in shouting distance. Jason lived “in town,” as we called it, with other kids around. I loved going there. We’d find pickup basketball games in different driveways, then come back to his house and play one-on-one until after dark. Eventually his mom would call us in, and we’d retreat to his basement to listen to Pearl Jam or Cypress Hill on CD. Mostly we talked about girls and sports, but we never shied away from deeper conversations, even as teenagers.
Related: The Science of Friendship
I was there when his mom called him upstairs to say she had breast cancer, and I remember how he came back down, sat on the edge of his bed, and said he didn’t think he’d be any fun that night. I was 15 when my great-uncle, the man who raised my father, committed suicide after his own battle with cancer became insurmountable. I confided in Jason first, telling him the story of how Uncle George did it, and how he’d left me a wristwatch in his will. Weeks later, Jason and I went to a pool party, and somehow I misplaced the watch. Jason tore the house apart, frantically asking people if they’d seen it. “You don’t understand,” I remember hearing him say, “we have to find that watch.” We eventually found it. Although I’d lose it for good a few years later in college, I’ll never forget his persistence that night.
“Fifty or 60 miles?” I said, nodding and sipping and looking toward the hills behind his house. “I guess that makes my 32 look like nothing.”
“You can’t go through life comparing yourself to other people, Mike,” he said. “Look at this house. Buying this house was like me throwing my arms up and saying, ‘I’m not playing your game anymore. I played your game and you won. Fine. But guess what? Your game’s stupid.’ ”
We drove his 14-year-old Toyota Camry up the mountain to the start of the run. He told me we’d go 8 miles total—4 miles out and 4 miles back, but that the view at the top of Turk Mountain, our destination, would be worth it.
We parked, waited for his GPS watch to set, and started jogging. The first mile was downhill, easy, into the Shenandoah National Park, where we linked up with the Appalachian Trail. It being late summer, we passed a few thru-hikers going south toward Georgia before the weather got cold. I wasn’t even breathing hard when Jason’s watch beeped. “We’re already a mile in, Mike Graff! Whoo!”
The last time I was out in the woods this far with Jason, we set everything on fire. We weren’t quite 16, and we’d discovered that if we went camping, our parents left us alone, which of course meant we’d go out and get drunk. We’d named the location “Rumplebutt” for reasons I can’t remember, but the campsite was near the top of a cliff that overlooked the Potomac River.
We met two other friends at the campsite that night, and they’d started a fire. It was mid-March and still chilly in southern Maryland, so we stamped on the fire and huddled in the tent with a deck of cards to play a drinking game like real woodsmen. Within a few minutes we noticed that the side of the tent had taken on a slightly orange tint. Jason crawled to the door, unzipped it, put his two palms outside on the leafy forest floor and looked left, then shouted about something holy. A fallen log was on fire.
You’ll trust me that this was serious when I tell you that three of us tried pouring beer on the flames. Jason jumped down the cliff to the river and tried to scoop water in his shirt and carry it back up the hill like a bowl. Shirts don’t work like that, so when he reached the top of the cliff, all he had were two hands and a wet shirt. He took it off and tried to beat the fire into submission.
We eventually gave up and ran away. I remember looking back and seeing the tops of trees in flames. We stopped at a friend’s house near the trail entrance and asked his parents if we could use their phone, first to call the fire department, then to make the terrifying calls to our parents. My dad didn’t say much, except to tell me to come with him while we told the firefighters who’d done it. Luckily for us, volunteers in small towns don’t care why a forest fire starts; they just want to fight it. We received no punishment, except for a look from my father a few weeks later when, after a conversation with one of his firefighter friends, he came home to ask, “So what kind of beer’d y’all have up there?”
The trail turned up after the 1-mile mark of our run. And up. And up. And up. No run of any distance on flat land can prepare you for a run up a mountain. My legs got heavy. My breath was gone. My heart screamed. About a mile into the climb, two miles into the run, I hollered, “Hang on.”
It went like this most of the rest of the way. Jason ran ahead of me and waited, ran ahead and waited, until one time I heard his voice from the other side of the bend, “Oh, you’re gonna hate me.” When I caught up, he had his hand on an Appalachian Trail signpost. We’d reached the 4-mile mark, and the signpost said we still had nine-tenths of a mile to the top of Turk Mountain.
“I swear I didn’t do this on purpose,” he said. “But this’ll mean we’ll go 10 miles instead of 8. The view’s worth it, though.”
He was never great at math, so I believed him. I also believed him when he said this last part of the climb was the worst part, nearly straight uphill, which it was. Even just hiking, his steps were effortless while I straggled behind, arms flinging back and forth, breathing heavy.
About a quarter-mile from the top, the trail took a sharp right turn, and Jason started talking. He told me he’d discovered this trail on a vacation with his brothers in November 2015, just before Ruby got sick.
“Every time I come up here, I think of that trip,” he said. “It was my last long run before everything changed.”
If you spend enough time in a tiny house, it won’t make you wish for more space. It’ll make you wish you hadn’t ever been wasteful with anything—space, time, money, whatever. Jason’s house looks sort of like a small farmhouse from the outside, with a gable roof and a main door in the middle. Walk in that door, and you’re in the living room. The kitchen runs along the wall to the right, and a set of stairs on the left leads up to the loft area where the kids sleep. (On my visit, Ruby slept with her parents, and Ben slept in his Pack ’n Play to make room for me in the loft.) On the wall opposite the front door, there’s a doorway to a laundry room on the right and a bathroom to the left. And Jason and Emily’s bedroom, about the size of a closet, is on the other side of the wall.
The truth you learn in the mountains is that everything evens out; on the way back, down becomes up.
It doesn’t feel small. It just feels like there’s nothing extra.
The most popular game in the house is chase. It makes use of the kitchen island that separates the kitchen from the living room. The deal is, you run around the kitchen island either in pursuit or being pursued. Ruby gets to decide who does the chasing, but each round of the game starts when Jason yells, “Bicycle!”
COURTESY OF MICHAEL GRAFF
I must’ve watched Jason and Emily do 500 laps around the island in my two-day visit, Ruby running behind them, Ben running behind her.
It’s easy to make excuses for why you lose touch with friends, but by far the easiest is work. For most of the past decade, Jason and I kept up with each other mostly through text messages. We don’t agree on politics, and that’s never mattered even once. We poke each other from time to time—I’ll call him crazy and he’ll call me soft—but in the end who gives a damn?
I’d gone a few months without hearing from him when, in the spring of 2016, I got an email with a link to a GoFundMe page with Ruby’s story. I read it three times before it sunk in: My childhood friend’s kid had cancer.
Jason and Emily had good insurance through her work in the school system, but insurance doesn’t cover unpaid leave, or hotel rooms and meals, or any of the other expenses that pile up for parents of sick children. Friends and family raised more than $30,000 during the course of Ruby’s treatments, and Jason and Emily still can’t believe their good fortune.
They became friends with other families in the hospital, some of whom lost their children. Relatives pitched in to babysit Ben. A family friend knew a friend whose child had died of cancer, and that man let them stay in his apartment near the hospital.
On more regular visits, if such a thing exists, Jason went on runs after Ruby and Emily fell asleep. On one difficult day, after watching doctors poke and pull on his daughter for hours as she cried, Jason jogged loops around the hospital. Each trip was about seven-tenths of a mile. He did 20 without thinking, a 14-mile run.
Ruby finished her treatments in October 2016 and went into remission. With any luck, she’ll never have to deal with cancer again. She still needs regular checkups, and she did lose a kidney. Fortunately, we all have an extra.
“We know so many other families who had it worse,” Emily told me. Tears filled her eyes whenever she talked about it, but then she’d blink hard and look around the home they’d created. “I didn’t know this world existed. I don’t feel like I know more than the next person or anything. I’m just more in tune to how terrible things could be.”
He was out of view when I heard him reach the top of Turk Mountain.
“Ahhh-ha-ha-ha!” he shouted.
I arrived a few minutes later, climbing up the last few rocks to the top of the nearly 3,000-foot peak. The valley below extended for miles. Homes looked like toys. Cars looked like they were driving in slow motion. And the Blue Ridge Mountains framed the scene.
I started asking stupid questions that nearly crashed the moment. “Do you know where your house is? What’s the name of the valley?”
“Nah,” he said, pacing back and forth on the top of a rock. “I don’t want to know. It’s like when you have a favorite song but then you hear it over and over. After a while all I hear is the beat and then I don’t like the song anymore. I don’t want that to happen with this. I always want it to be new.”
This was the same guy who, the night Maryland won a basketball national championship 15 years ago, celebrated by stripping down and streaking around a house party. Now here he was, teaching me how to live.
We took it relatively easy on the way back, running on the downhill sections and hiking uphill.
“Just 3 wimpy miles left!” he yelled at one point.
When we had about a mile to go, I remembered that this all started with that easy downhill jog. The truth you learn in the mountains is that everything evens out; on the way back, down becomes up. My feet ached, my calves were numb, and my quads felt like someone was punching them. At some point we crossed 1,300 feet of climbing, which Jason says is pretty good.
“Nothing bonds you like suffering with other people,” he said just before we reached the end, and just before I jokingly called off our friendship.
The temperature was only in the 70s, but I was soaked to the point where we had to put a towel down on the seat in his old car. Jason reminded me that the best part of a 10-mile run and hike in the mountains was “guilt-free beers” later, and that lifted my spirits. Then he drove us down the mountain and into his driveway, where we pulled up to see Ruby and Ben waiting with their hands pressed to the glass door.
I took a quick shower and changed. I was upstairs in the loft stuffing my wet clothes in a bag when I heard Jason shout downstairs, “Bicycle!”
I went to the railing and looked down and saw my old friend, the one I hadn’t seen in years because there’s never enough time, what with work and all. He was running round and round the kitchen island, less than an hour after a 10-mile run that left me so sore I could barely walk, round and round and round in this little house in the mountains, chased by the little girl who beat cancer, both of them giggling and full of everything they need.
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine.