His Name was Skip

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.

The house Skip lived in

The house Skip lived in

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.

homemade lathe

homemade lathe

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.

Skip's unfinished boat

Skip’s unfinished boat

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.


About Beauty Along the Road

A blog about discovering beauty in all its ordinary and extraordinary manifestations.
This entry was posted in Appalachia, History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to His Name was Skip

  1. Thank you! What an interesting character!


  2. I do remember hearing about this when we lived in TN. Poor Skip. You are an amazing journalist. I’m so glad you discovered the history of Skip. Thanks so much. So many times, we never find out the truth behind the headlines. It still remains a mystery, though.


  3. Tish Farrell says:

    That is one nugget of a story, Annette. I bet it made your neck hairs tingle when you discovered all those details. Someone who lived in the margins.


  4. So sad…..and the question left in my mind was
    Did the police officer tell the truth?
    Did Skip really even have the guns never mind threaten the officer….
    Such a waste of life


    • Good questions, Seonaid, and I don’t think we’ll ever know what really happened. Skip was not known to drink, do drugs, or ever threaten anyone -ever. But he also had very poor communication skills and didn’t act like everyone else; on top of that, he looked like a homeless vagrant. Maybe this is what led to him being perceived as a threat by the cop who killed him? I wonder what he could have contributed to society under the right circumstances?


  5. Monique says:

    What a lovely story Annette, this is movie script material!!!


    • It could make an interesting movie with a number of themes thrown in to ponder: What does it mean to be “free?” Why do some people with extraordinary skills “succeed” and become famous while others remain unknown? How do we train police officers to interact with people who are not like everyone else? Are small communities more likely to make room for people who are different? What is the continuum of dis-engaging from materialism?


  6. Aggie says:

    Thank you for this.


  7. Barneysday says:

    What an incredibly touching story. Skip is the kind of independent soul many of us would like to believe we were, but few of us are willing to suffer the pain and loneliness involved. There is also a sad metaphor here, for those who want to live totally free, and society’s way of crushing that spirit and putting an end to such independence.

    Thank you so much for doing the research on Skip and the abandoned house. Its an incredible story.


  8. Oh yes, Annette, people on the fringes are so much more vulnerable than main streamers are to misunderstandings, violence, and in this case even death. I feel so sad looking at that boat. Skip just wanted to live his life on his terms. Henry David Thoreau would have applauded.


  9. cindy knoke says:

    I think I would have liked him~


  10. Apu/Thorsten says:

    thanks for this interesting research to fill this “gap”. now the house has its interior life back.


  11. I’m so sad that he came to such an untimely and tragic end. What lovely tributes from his sister, and also from his friend.


  12. Loca Gringa says:

    We never truly know what is in the mind and the heart of another. In these times people have become so negative and suspicious that, more often than not, it’s shoot first and ask questions later. Being reclusive is not indicative of being dangerous 😦


  13. Barneysday says:

    Reblogged this on Views from the Hill and commented:
    Something to really think about…


  14. suzjones says:

    Thank you. It’s good to know the story. 🙂


  15. what an amazing story you came across, Annette, you certainly have the talents to capture a story like this. It’s always interesting to discover what’s behind the walls of an abundant house. Thank you for sharing!


  16. hermitsdoor says:

    Living a few counties north of Highlands, I know pleanty of “Skips”. The conflict with their lives is usually when they come in contact with the social norms of city life, whether this is became our populations centers spread into their regions or they have a reason to travel outside the rural corridors of our states.


  17. It’s great that you were able to find out the history of Skip’s life. I guess he had his own particular way of looking at the world, and wanted to live life on his own terms. Too bad that he was killed in such a violent way.


  18. That’s such a sad story. It’s really amazing that you were able to find out so much about this “abandoned” house. How many untold stories are out there though? You really can’t assume or judge anything…..


    • So true, GC Chef. About the story, it helps to know the best journalist in the county, she provided me with most of the info I summarized here. Plus, there are plenty of people who remember Skip and I heard a few stories from them as well.


  19. Hartwell Gary says:

    You really must see what the house looks like now! My uncle Fitz Gary owns the property; two summers ago he refurbished the house, and did an amazing job. Email me at hartwellhgary@gmail.com and I’ll tell you how you can reach him get a tour next time he is in the area (he comes roughly 2-3 times per year).

    Liked by 1 person

Let me know what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s