The Mountain Institute

“…those last 6 miles will take at least 20 minutes to drive, especially in a camper, so don’t worry, you’re not lost,” Shannon forewarned and reassured us in an email, describing how to get to The Mountain Institute in West Virginia where she lives and works.

It takes us nearly an hour to drive up the narrow dirt road, corkscrewing through the trees. It’s night and although the moon is almost full, it’s dark in the forest. Occasionally, around a bend, the headlights shine on a mailbox - a beacon of human presence.

Finally, we crest a peak and see a small wooden sign indicating our destination. Still enveloped in darkness, we strap on our headlamps and wander toward the soft light shining from Shannon’s house.

Shannon greets us with smiling eyes and a beaming grin. After our long and hairy ascent, it feels like sinking into a warm bath. Soft music plays in the background as a kettle hums in anticipation of a pot of tea.

Though it’s late, Shannon entertains us, answering our questions about The Mountain Institute, its history, and her relationship with the place.

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The Mountain Institute is perched just below Spruce Knob, which at over 4,800 feet in elevation, is the highest peak in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The environmental education center focuses on conservation and stewardship in mountainous regions. In addition to Appalachia, there are branches in Peru and Nepal.


Founded in the 1970s, The Mountain Institute was originally a therapeutic retreat for families. It provided a picturesque setting, removed from daily life, for parents and children to work on cross-generational issues.

Today, the Mountain Institute hosts students from near and far - from neighboring, rural towns to the boroughs of New York City. Through wilderness trips and science education, students learn the sacredness and importance of mountain ecosystems and cultures. By nurturing a respect for these places, The Mountain Institute strives toward conservation for future generations.

The 400-acre campus is a treasure trove of unusual, unconventional, and experimental structures.  One of the main offices is earth-sheltered. Two of its four walls are nestled against the hillside, providing natural temperature regulation in all seasons.


The two central buildings are large yurts that house a classroom, dining hall, kitchen, library, and offices. According to the folks at The Mountain Institute, the yurts’ circular design provides inherently democratic space that encourages discussion and participation.

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During our interview, Shannon describes the positive and negative aspects of living in such a remote location. With spotty cell reception and internet,  she admits that keeping in touch with friends and family can be challenging. She argues, however, that the limited technology promotes thoughtfulness and communication within the community.

Shannon considers the The Mountain Institute’s seclusion empowering. Its distance from certain amenities stimulates self-sufficiency and a community support system. Learning new skills and utilizing local resources and knowledge is an integral part of life on the mountain. 

Rural living is often deemed simple and uncluttered, particularly by urbanites. Shannon argues that the concept of “minimalism” is actually a product of urban living, where goods and services are abundant. “You actually need to have a lot of stuff to live this way,” Shannon notes.


Shannon’s relationship with The Mountain Institute began as a visiting student over a decade ago. As she chronicles her experiences, she seems amazed at how much time has passed.

After dinner on our last night, we make our way up the dirt road back to where the camper is parked on a grassy slope next to a school bus. Fog tumbles over the surrounding ridges, tinted violet from the setting sun. Young stars peek from behind dusk’s cloak and the air turns crisp. We look at each other, without speaking, both realizing how easy it would be to stay.

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Posted on September 21, 2015 .