Brasstown, North Carolina, is nestled within a national forest amid undulating gray-green hills. The de facto town landmark, a gas station called Clay’s Corner, has a sun-worn sign that reads, ominously, HOME OF THE POSSUM DROP. As I steer my rented Subaru toward John C. Campbell Folk School, I’m feeling planets away from home. (Worth noting: Brasstown’s entire population would fit neatly into the New York City skyscraper where I work.) The school, founded in 1925, is a place where rosy-cheeked adults come—from Florida and Norway and Seattle—to learn arcane, archaic skills like gourd basketry, Appalachian clogging, and “mosaic knitting.” Pottery is thrown, songs are warbled, and lightning bugs are the nightly attraction. There are no TVs. You’re called to meals by a giant bell, as if you’ve slipped through a wormhole into an Old West wagon train. I’m here to try my hand at blacksmithing, which I picked from the course catalog on a lark, figuring I could finally make good use of my above-average upper-body strength. I’ve never molded molten iron or tended a fire. The closest I get to creating something tangible is printing Microsoft Word documents.

When I heard about the school, I was drawn to its ye-olde-timey mystique, but more so, I craved an experience that wasn’t bloodless and digital. As a writer who spends nearly all my hours in one hermetically sealed urban box or another, I wanted to immerse myself in an authentic, palpable world. For one weekend, I’d be a female Thoreau, and the school my Walden Pond, albeit with more basket weaving. But when I haul myself to the 7:45 a.m. “Morningsong” in the main meeting hall, I’m struggling to get into the right headspace. While a Native American storyteller and flutist—with a waist-length gray ponytail—narrates a tale about a mischievous cricket, I’m wondering how many eye rolls one can stifle before suffering ocular damage.

My classes are held in a barn at the end of a long path through thick woods. Each of us aspiring Thors is assigned a forge—the tall furnace where we heat the metal—and we choose massive tongs and hammers from racks in a room that smells of sawdust. My fellow smiths all seem like sturdier folk, the kind of people who enjoy rather than tolerate camping. (Two different classmates’ fathers were mule farmers.) But I finally settle into a rhythm: building up my fire, cooking the iron rods until the tips turn the color of marigolds, finding the sweet spot on the anvil where I flatten the metal while sparks quite literally fly. To avoid blisters, I’ve bandaged my palms with white medical tape that’s black with soot by day’s end.

After eight hours crouched over an anvil, I flop face-first into bed both nights and am asleep in the span of a few deep breaths. The result of my labor feels completely different from a day’s worth of writing sassy emails: It’s as though my physical exhaustion has muted my mind’s backing track of banter and anxiety. By the end of the weekend, my classmates look less like exotic “country folk” than people who, like me, wanted to set down their burdens and phones and have something real to show for it. I leave the barn each night and walk over crunchy gravel past small buildings where other students are quietly melting glass or turning wood for fly-fishing rods, and I’m so moved by their guileless dedication to their craft that I feel like bursting into tears.

When the last class is done, I’m holding, improbably, some pieces of “art” I’ve made: hooks with sculpted leaves at one end, a plant hanger that actually resembles a plant hanger. I learned how to sort through the burnt coal to separate useless “clinker” from usable “coke,” and I’ve made progress toward mastering the smooth, gliding stroke that brings my weight effortlessly into the hammer. But I’m also full of some weird internal stillness, as if I’ve meditated for hours—and in a sense I have. In the moments when the fire in the forge was hot on my back and the metal was pliant, I didn’t care about my unreturned voice mails or how horrendous my soot- and sweat-soaked bangs must have looked: I was inside the heavy cadence of steel and bent iron, rooted all the way into the ground.

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