In 2017, Ricky Fell saw a job posting. It was for a position to take care of Georgetown’s Calcagnini Contemplative Center in the mountains of Virginia — and live there full-time.
No one else lived on the 55-acre property, apart from visiting retreatants on the weekend and a stray bear or two.
The center overlooks the Shenandoah Valley in Bluemont, Virginia, tucked in by the Appalachian Mountains. It offers retreats to students, staff and faculty, and has a chapel, dining hall, 28 cabins, a private hiking trail, and spaces to gather and pray.
Fell would be the first person to take the job. He had been working as an electrician on Georgetown’s main campus, and was ready for a quieter pace. He took it, and found the work and the quiet of the woods suited him.
“I prefer to be in the woods anyway,” he said. “I’m more in my environment. There’s bears up there. Deer. Turkey. It’s quite peaceful. That’s what I like. I’m not a limelight person.”
Seven years later, Fell continues to take care of the center. Although he has a different word for it.
“I’m like an innkeeper. I make sure everything is running right,” he said.
The facilities specialist makes sure the lawns are mowed before retreatants come and the rooms are cleaned when they leave. He coordinates with maintenance and landscaping crews, fixes things that break and maintains the buildings — a million behind-the-scenes things to make sure everything is running right.
When he’s not taking care of the property, Fell goes antiquing, hunts and fishes. He watches birds fly over the mountains from the retreat’s dining deck in the morning. Sees an elusive bobcat every once in a while. Visits with friends and family and the neighbors next door.
Fell doesn’t attend the retreats — “I’m just always there” — but he does like meeting visitors and seeing returning retreatants. And when they’re gone, he likes the peace and quiet of the grounds.
“It’s nice to not work in the rat race,” he said. “It’s quiet. I like quiet.”
On the 10th anniversary of his work at Georgetown, find out what it’s like living in the quiet woods, Fell’s antique skillet collection, and about that bear who snuck onto his front porch.
A typical day is: I usually get up at 5:30/6 a.m. My week is pretty much Friday-Monday, because the retreats are on the weekend and Monday is when the maids come. But if something breaks [on another day], I have to be there to accommodate who’s coming to fix it. It’s only me up there; I’m the one who takes care of problems. After breakfast, it depends on what I have to do that day, who’s coming. If people are coming, I put linens out, open up the buildings they want, and see what I can do to help them. After, around 7, I watch TV, eat and go to bed. I like [watching] outdoor stuff, the History Channel, Science Channel.
What I eat for breakfast: Eggs or cereal, bacon. I don’t like cooking. I’m plain Jane. I’m meat and potatoes. My palate is so elementary. I’m plain as can be – I’m worse than a little kid. About as wild as I’ll get [spice-wise] is pepper.
In my house, you’ll find: I collect Griswold cast-iron pans. I go to antique stores and flea markets and go ‘junkin’ as I call it. I probably have 100 skillets. I like old stuff. I like the old simple ways. A lot of [cast-iron pans] were made in the late 1800s, early 1900s. They’re still around; they’re still good. They’re something of the past … How people used to do stuff, I find that interesting … [Now] we gotta go to McDonalds or have microwaved food. We don’t make real food anymore; we’re too busy. I like simple and slow. [laughs]
What it’s like living alone in the woods: It’s peaceful. It gets lonely – most of my friends live at least an hour away. But I like my life up there. I do things outside that I like to do. When I go back to campus, I drive down the road and see high-rises and power cranes, and I’m like, why am I going here? I want to go back home.
Something about those woods: A therapist could not give me better therapy than being away from two-legged mammals. I enjoy visiting a city – New York City, San Francisco – but I wouldn’t want to live there. I’d rather hear the cows mooing, horses and cornfields. That’s where I’m at peace, I guess you could say. It’s quiet. I like quiet.
That time a bear stole my stuff: [Bears] have come on the porch. They took a 40-pound bucket of salt off the porch. He’s been there a couple times; I’ve seen him in the front yard. … I would be more fearful of rattlesnakes and copperheads than the bear. I’m not scared of the dark.
The funny thing about living at a Catholic retreat center: On my mom’s side, my grandmother and all my uncles who I fished with when I was a little kid, they were devout Catholics. My grandmother lived in Northeast DC, and I would go visit her two to three weekends a month. We always went to church. I got baptized Lutheran, because my father was Lutheran. … Now [being here], I’m back to where I started out in some sense.
Best view at the retreat center: Down there by the dining hall, looking at the mountains, the big open field. Or off the porch on the farmhouse, looking out there. The view is quiet. It’s peaceful. I sit on the porch and watch the birds in the morning or whatever’s out there.
When it’s not just me at the center: It’s interesting meeting the students. Sometimes I’m like, man, I used to have all that energy. Just seeing all the energy they have, it’s inspiring. [At the retreat] they get a chance to relax and see different scenery than the hustle and bustle of campus. … There’s a lot of nice people. It’s nice to see them come back. It’s like you met an old friend again.
Learn more about retreats at the Calcagnini Contemplative Center here.