Life post-pandemic may suit a "work from the woods" approach.
Not far out the door of his rental in Black Mountain, North Carolina, 39-year-old actor, Will Connell, hangs a right, then another, and onto an old service road. A series of trails leads 35 miles up to Mt. Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi. Remnants of an old railway dot the path: ghosted ruts where beams used to brace a trestle, rail spikes, and old ties lie hidden in the tangled mountain-laurel. He barrels up Rainbow Road, which is anything but a road – twisted roots and rocks gnarl the overgrown double track. There’s bear scat on a thick tree trunk and loud, colored signs warning hikers and trail runners to “run at their own risk.” The actor from Queens is a long way from home… or maybe he hasn’t made his mind up about that.
Like most mornings, he’d worked on scripts over breakfast, now as he huffs it up one of a thousand ridges in the Black Mountains, he runs his lines. Shakespeare and rhythm go hand in hand with steps per-minute and pace. On his daily bread and butter: a ten-miler with 2,000 feet of vert, Will repeats the same phrase over and over, changing the emphasis each time. (In the woods, nobody cares if you talk to yourself.) Later that night, he’ll record his scenes, taping lines in different spots in the room in case his memory slips. Two to three times a week, he’ll send tapes to his reps in NYC and hope for the best. Rinse. Repeat.
Still paying rent on his New York City apartment, he and his wife Hanley, also an actor, have been living in North Carolina since the pandemic. In the past, most theatre actors were bound to New York City, and if, like Will, you wanted to also do film and TV (he recently appeared in HBO’s Succession), L.A. would be your only other option. But COVID has abruptly levelled the playing field of these two Metro-titans. Now you can be a viable actor from any place you care to reside…as long as you have internet access.
In the Black Mountains, Will’s found the perfect synthesis of everything he aspires to do. “You can run your brains out then go act,” he says. Ambitious about both, he’s getting consistent work on stage and screen while placing in the top ten in his last 16 ultras. But like a lot of transplants from big cities, COVID didn’t force him to leave; it allowed him to.
It was 2019 when Will had an epiphany. He was doing a Broadway show called Ink, lifting weights, and training for the Burning River 100. Running in Astoria Park in Queens was picturesque, the city hovering over the East River like a model on a movie set, sinking beneath the dull, tangerine sunsets. He’d run over the Queensboro Bridge, into Manhattan, and around Central Park’s bridle path. Lacking, however, was any sense of elevation, and the footing could be managed with half-closed eyes; not the most conducive to becoming an elite ultra trailrunner.
When Burning River came, he got second, which was better than his previous two tries. But the serious-minded runner with an addict’s taste for trail felt he’d reached a wall. “That was about it, the most I could do living in NYC,” he says. “I needed trails, upstate or whatever.” But if he moved away, his acting opportunities would not just dwindle; they would vanish. Then, COVID came.
Will learned early in life the only way to survive was to be flexible, to be open. After his parents divorced, he was tossed around from school to school and eventually boarded away from his family. Each time he started over he was the odd man out. “There was always a corner table in the cafeteria with the dorks,” he says. “Those are my people.” He found the same camaraderie in theatre. The unpredictability of his youth came into focus with acting, where the mantra is often taught: “It’s not acting, it’s reacting” and “the best actors are the best listeners.” This outlook has carried over into everything he does. “The road map is going to crash,” he says with the tone of someone with experience. “You gotta let reality talk. You may think you want Gummy Bears at mile 17,” he laughs, “but when you get there, that might be the last thing you want. Then what?” According to Will, that holds true for life.
On Graybeard Mountain, the single track steepens near the top, but Will pushes up and over 6,000 feet and to the summit. It’s no larger than a Manhattan studio, but in the distance, the Seven Sisters stand on the horizon, some of North Carolina’s tallest peaks. Among them is the iconic Mt. Mitchell. It calls to the city boy’s adventurous side. (Next year, when he turns 40, he wants to run the “Gritchell” – a bumpy 100-mile trek from Grandfather Mountain to Mount Mitchell.)
Will isn’t ready to completely leave the city and admits the idea of letting go of his apartment is a bit scary. Part of him wants to keep a pinky-finger hold of it. But that urge is slipping as the distance between nature and our jobs and our dreams shrinks. Life post-pandemic may better suit a Thoreau-like “work from the woods” approach. And when you’re running and working in the heart of the Black Mountains, it’s hard not to feel you’ve found the best of both worlds.
As he bombs back down Graybeard before the sun sets and the wild critters come out, he passes a Christian College and into Montreat, population 723. The mountain cove’s name is a portmanteau of “Mountain” and “Retreat.” It has long been a home to seekers, hungry souls retreating from the world to find a deeper one within. The difference is, in the age of Zoom everything, you don’t have to renounce your career to become a mountain man, and likewise, you don’t need to live in a closet in a concrete jungle to chase your cinematic dreams.