Earlier this week, I wrote a photo essay about an abandoned house. So many questions arose about the last occupant of the house who left an unfinished boat in the living room, that I decided to do some more research. This is what I found out:
John “Skip” Gerfin was passing through Dyer County, Tennessee, on that fateful day in late June 2003. He was on his way to Utah on his home-made motorcycle when he was pulled over by a deputy because his vehicle was missing a license plate.
For unknown reasons, Skip carried two weapons with him. The deputy claimed that Skip threatened him with a rifle when he was asked for his ID and driver’s license.
The deputy didn’t know that Skip, a 50-year old man appearing unkempt like a homeless person, probably never owned a driver’s license; nor did he want to be bothered with any other kind of bureaucratic procedures.
For over twenty years, Skip had been living by himself in a run-down house in an isolated valley in the Allegheny Mountains of Virginia. He arrived there in the late 1970s, with a young wife and 6-month old baby. It was the time for disenchanted young people to look for a simpler and more authentic life in the country. As luck had it, the owner of the house was leaving for India and gave him permission to live in the house without rent until he returned. There was no electricity, no running water, no indoor toilet, no telephone. Some of the windows were missing already and the house had no insulation. The wife didn’t last long and left him taking the baby with her. He never saw his son again.
After his wife left, Skip became a recluse. He worked odd jobs for local farmers making just enough money for his weekly grocery run. He had given up his old car after several run-ins with the law for not having a driver’s license. Going for groceries meant bicycling many miles, all the way to the nearest town in West Virginia and back again – a day trip and hard workout on a bicycle.
Despite his oddness and disinterest in carrying on conversations with people, the locals looked out for him. They gave him old clothes and shoes when it looked like he needed them; they fed him home-cooked meals when he looked too thin. He was a good worker, always on time despite the fact that he never owned a watch.
In his free time, he tinkered with different projects. He rigged together a motorcycle of sorts that he would take on road trips South to escape the harsh winter months in the mountains. He was quite a traveler and knew the back roads like few others.
He began building a boat from wood he gathered from the property. He fashioned his own planer and lathe, essential tools for a craftsman. He would melt down beer cans and turn them into metal fasteners for his big project.
The locals never saw him acting in any threatening manner, accepted him for his idiosyncratic tendencies, respected his need for privacy, and looked out for his wellbeing. When he returned in the spring from his winter trips, word spread around the county that Skip was back.
Nobody who knew Skip could really understand why he would have threatened a deputy with his rifle, or why he even traveled with two weapons. The deputy claimed he acted in self-defense when he shot Skip in the chest, killing him instantly.
After Skip’s death, the community found out that he had family members in Maine, an elderly mother and two sisters. His sister Allison said the following about Skip:
“The way he did things made it hard for himself, but I believe he found a peace most people never find. The world will be a little less free without him in it…. As tough as he seemed on the outside, he had a certain innocence, an idealism, that didn’t belong in this world.”
One of the local men who knew him called Skip “the only really free man I ever knew.”
Skip is buried in the village of Blue Grass, Virginia.
Many thanks to Anne Adams, owner of The Recorder (an award-winning newspaper in Highland County), who sent me a well researched article on Skip’s life, the obituary, and several letters to the editor from her archives.