My beautiful neighbor here on the mountain. She is a sweet Grey Wolf who does philanthropy by helping people learn about how amazing she is, and how the wild needs her.
At the end of a long conversation, Steve Rothrock asked me,
“Why did you want to write about me?”
I was quiet for a few seconds.
“The wolves. The mountain. Your compassion. Your intelligence. Your love of solitude. Your writing.”
“The wolves. The mountain.”
When I asked Steve how he got from a long career as a social worker in New Jersey to life on a mountain in North Carolina, he answered as if it were obvious,
“I always wanted to live on a mountain.”
As simple as that.
Steve Rothrock, who always wanted to live on a mountain, was born in Holmdel, New Jersey, to a mother who was a social worker whose clients were Vietnam vets and a father who worked for Bell Telephone Research Labs and invented the answering machine. Steve “went to school with the kid whose father won the Nobel Prize for discovering the Big Bang.”
And so, this man of mountains, this New Jersey boy, became a social worker who “always wanted to work with kids” but discovered that “if you want to work with kids, you have to work with the adults they’re attached to.” For nearly two decades, employed by a local chapter of Community YMCA Family Services, he worked with and then supervised a program in homes “with children and their families where there was horrible abuse and neglect.” His success rate with those families, as recorded by the people who record such things, was 97%.
But he always wanted to live on a mountain, and so it happened that in 2012, after the deaths of both his parents, there was nothing to hold him in New Jersey. He had, in his words, “put in my time and served the community.”
Serving the community is a large part of who Steve Rothrock is.
He knew about the far western part of North Carolina because a close friend had a sustainable farm there. So he went south and looked at nearly sixty houses before he got up one morning and, during a desultory glance at the real estate listings, saw something that interested him. He called, he walked through the house and about an acre and a half of land, he sat on the back porch and looked at the mountains. He made an offer, paid cash, signed the documents, and picked up the key.
Steve Rothrock had found his mountain.
He is a half hour’s drive from Asheville, a little shy of 4000 feet up a mountain. At the top of the mountain is the peak from which he can see the boundary for the Smoky Mountains National Park.
He lives in a ravine and there is a series of waterfalls between his land and the neighbor he discovered not long after he arrived.
One evening at dusk, Steve heard howling that sounded just like wolves. But there are no wolves in North Carolina. It didn’t make sense, but he was more and more certain it was wolves.
The howling always came from the same direction.
In the course of things in this mountain life, Steve eventually met Rob, who lived on the next piece of land over, and they became friends. He found out that Rob owned what the mountain community called The Wolf Sanctuary.
What that meant in Rob’s world was that fifteen years ago he moved to the mountain and brought with him some wolves that had been given into his care. Because people knew him, or knew his reputation, he kept acquiring wolves, and as the original wolves died, they were replaced and the Wolf Sanctuary kept going.
The Sanctuary is Rob’s private residence, and he lives there with his wolves. Although his neighbors are welcome to visit, it has never been open to the public.
He keeps his wolves as near to wild as possible except that they don’t hunt, and he often brings them into the community. He has tremendous compassion for these animals and an exhaustive knowledge about them. He is committed to helping people understand them.
Rob is in his seventies now and down to three wolves. When they’re gone he won’t get more.
Compassion, the mountain, solitude, service to his community.
They became friends.
Steve’s father was seventy-one when he died. Steve wrote the obituary, which began,
“HAMILTON “ROCKY” ROTHROCK
AGE: 71 HOLMDEL
On October 29th Rocky left a Russian Icebreaker and flew by helicopter where he landed and set foot upon the ice atop the Weddell Sea near the coast of Antarctica. He walked a mile across that sea ice where he reached the Snow Hill Rookery of four thousand nesting Emperor Penguins. He pulled out his camera to take pictures and fell back and died of a heart attack on the ice. We believe he died of awe.”
“In June a large timber wolf literally walked into my cabin. The puppy and he got along. The Timberwolf, whose name is Rafe, isn’t part of the sanctuary. He lives with my neighbors Bob and Elaine, a gift from Rob.”
Steve has this to say about Puppy,
“Puppy is three, a rescue, a hound who didn’t get his hunting act together.”
As near to wild as possible except they don’t hunt.
Steve is not a religious man and I’m not sure how he would feel about my borrowing from the Hebrew Bible to describe him. Nonetheless, as I write this, a favorite line from Isaiah comes to mind:
“He was a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity (Isaiah 53:3).”
Steve would never describe himself as a man of suffering.
When I asked him to talk about his daily life on the mountain, he began,
“I literally live in paradise.”
In 2007, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He lost the sight in his left eye, then partially regained it. Peripheral neuropathy has left his lower legs unable to feel normally, but there is a constant, burning pain. He has to be very cautious when he walks, but the basic ability to walk hasn’t been compromised. And it hasn’t gotten any worse.
I set out to understand more about who Steve Rothrock is. At the end of the day, I asked him to say something about who he believes himself to be.
“I am a very shy introverted person who wanted to live a life that gave back more than I took.”
“I literally live in paradise. I wake up. I’ll go two weeks and never leave my mountain. I love the solitude and the beauty. It’s just me and my hound. I sleep by my fire at night. I write. During the day I live in the wild. I’m a carpenter. I have my workshop. I’m a gardener. I do a lot of stonework. I intend to live out my life here.”
The wolves. The mountain. Your compassion. Your intelligence. Your love of solitude. Your writing.
The wolves. The mountain.
The raccoons are not a part of Steve Rothrock’s mountain life but they mark, perhaps, the beginning of it.
During his career in New Jersey, he got to know raccoons. Endless hours of sitting in silence, waiting for them to approach him, “on their terms,” ended with four generations of raccoons bringing their babies to him because they knew he was safe.
I am irresistibly drawn back into my own life of keeping bees and raising llamas, both creatures who insist on being met on their own terms.
I recall with the sharp clarity of a late Fall day, standing in the sun, surrounded by my bees. In all the years I kept them, they never stung me.
When you live with llamas, you find out quickly that you can’t approach them directly. They are prey animals in their native habitat and a direct approach, or direct eye contact, poses an immediate threat.
On their terms.
We ask these living souls–llamas, raccoons, bees, wolves–to act against their own fear, fear that guaranteed their survival–because we are willing to be still, to be silent, to wait, to meet them where they are.
When he moved to his mountain, Steve Rothrock left those raccoons behind, walking into the wild alone. There were losses. There was pain.
But there is always the mountain.
On the mountain, he no longer feeds the wildlife. What he does instead is tend his hounds.
On his mountain, Steve Rothrock will build a sanctuary for hounds. He will teach them to survive on love rather than fear.