I went to say goodbye. Goodbye to the place I thought I couldn’t call home anymore. The place where ghosts lived and waited for me. I wrote about these ghosts a little while ago in the hopes that they’d stop haunting me. They wouldn’t stop, so while I once said I’d not go back, I went back to see if I could get them to stop.
The idea to go formed suddenly, about a week ago. I’ve been in a rut and haven’t felt like myself. Like I don’t have anything that is mine or do anything just for me. It’s my own doing. When the kids are home I toss aside whatever I might want and I do for them. I think of myself as a full-time dad but I only have them on a half-time schedule so I suppose I try too hard to make up for lost time. It seems like the right thing to do. When it’s just Allison and me I tend to defer to her wishes and don’t make decisions about what to do with our time. I think maybe I do this because I am the rare person whose job allows them do whatever he wants and thus I don’t depend so much on my free time. It usually doesn’t bother me to do what everyone else wants, but lately I feel like I’ve lost myself.
So I decided that I needed to take a day or two for just me and when no other option sounded satisfying I decided to go to Beckley to fight the ghosts.
The ghosts are my own creation so I can fight them wherever I want. I decided to draw them out of the buildings and houses and streets where they live into the open: the Glade Creek Trail off the New River. There I’d have miles of space to think and sweat and climb and fight. I left home at 6AM on Saturday and made the trailhead just before 11.
How do you fight ghosts? You put everything else out of your mind, depriving them of fuel and face them head-on rather than allow them to sneak up on you when you’re least able to handle it. They’re only scary when they can threaten things and people you hold dear now, in the present. But when the only sound you hear for hours is rushing whitewater, the only smell is the sweet, fresh and clean water of the New River and the forests which surround it and the only thoughts you have are of the ghosts themselves they seem far less scary.
The trail is about five and a half miles from the trailhead to the end and five and a half miles back, with a one mile turnoff to get to Katie’s Falls in the middle, making it a twelve mile hike. You gain 1,000 feet in elevation on the way out and get it back on the way back in. It’s a hot and muggy day everywhere around you, but the trail itself is cool and shaded for almost its entire length. If you’re still hot and sweaty from the hike you stand under Katie’s Falls and let the cold water soak and cool you. You yell out in a state of shock and near-catharsis when the water first hits you, knocking your glasses off into a little pool. You don’t even care. You’ll get them before you go.
On the way up the trail you realize that this country is a part of you. Maybe more a part of you than it is of those ghosts. You flash back to the time you spent on this river in your past. Time you didn’t think of as terribly significant when it happened, but which now you realize formed you. You remember looking down into the gorge from the Grandview overlook before going to see a performance of “Honey in the Rock” in the amphitheater. You remember another time looking up at the rim of the gorge toward Grandview, drinking beers with other teenagers, near a campsite at Prince, wondering if anyone up there is going to go see “Honey in the Rock.” You remember jumping into the river off the old, dilapidated Fayette Station bridge, putting a scare into those silly lawyers in from the big city to shoot the whitewater. You remember those times – after you became one of those silly lawyers from the big city – that you came back and shot the whitewater yourself, shaking your head and laughing at the teenagers jumping off into the river from the bridge.
On the way back down the trail you realize that you still have a claim to this country. That it’s not just a claim to the river but to everything around it that you always loved so much and that you’ve missed so much in the two years since you last saw it. Thunder claps and the sky opens up and rain comes pouring down on you as you hike and you don’t care. You are shouting out military marching cadences to get you through the mud forming on the trail. You fall on a slippery rock and you laugh out loud as you pick yourself up, not noticing the blood on your hands until hours later. You pass some hikers huddled under an outcropping of rock, waiting for the rain to pass and you shout at them that they’re not sugar and they won’t melt.
Back at the trailhead the rain has stopped. You get some dry clothes out of your car and change into them where Glade Creek meets the New and you don’t care if anyone sees your bare ass as you do it. You get into your car and drive out of the gorge and along Route 41 through a dozen places too small to be called towns. You stop and read historical markers about the Layland Mine Disaster. You take pictures of old company towns and ruins of old houses. You remember aimless drives through this country with friends as you looked to kill time when you were a teenager. You try to cast out the ghosts who may be there, waiting to haunt other people who come through here. Maybe people with connections to these houses. People who visit them when they find themselves in extremis like you’ve been lately. You hope you help them.
You wind into Fayetteville, a town split between the old mountain town that it is and the bohemian refuge it’s trying hard to become. A beer and a sandwich and a walk through the downtown you’ve been to countless times before gives you the confidence you’ve been looking for to do what you’ve been considering.
You drive south down Route 19 and turn right onto Maple Fork Road. You drive through the curves and hills you know better than any curves and hills on Earth. You turn right at the second church and drive into the holler where everything that mattered for two decades happened. You pull into the drive in front of the little tan house and you knock on the door.
The little old woman you love like your own mother – your former mother-in-law – answers the door, shocked to see you. You give her the hug you’ve wanted to give her for two years. You go inside. You spend a few minutes catching up. You make sure her people are OK and in good health. You tell her that yours are OK too and this makes her happy. You don’t talk about the hard recent past because it goes without saying and there’s no point in it. You just want her to know that you love her and care for her and miss her and wish that she wasn’t taken out of your life like she was. But when she talks to you like she hasn’t left your life at all – when the conversation could have been the same in 1993 or 2003 or yesterday – you realize that you haven’t lost anyone.
You say your goodbyes and you drive out of the holler. Just before the sun sets you drive by the house you lived in as a teenager. For a moment you are able to block out the houses people have built nearby and you remember when this house sat at the end of a dead end road next to a seemingly endless forest. You remember how you thought that everyone lived next to an endless forest and how sad you were when you realized that they didn’t and realized just how lucky you were to be able to walk through the woods whenever you wanted.
Back at the hotel you pour yourself a whiskey from your flask and you reflect on your day. You reflect on your life. You realize that you’re not saying goodbye to anything. There are still ghosts and they may still haunt you from time to time, but they have been put in their place. No one, living or dead, can take this place from you. It’s still yours.
You go to sleep. You wake up early the next day and pay a visit to your late father-in-law’s grave, where you pour out the last of the whiskey from your flask. You don’t believe in life after death or ghosts beyond the ones we allow to haunt us, but you nonetheless tell him that you’re doing OK and that his grandchildren, including his namesake grandson he never got a chance to meet, are wonderful and healthy and happy and you tell him how much you wish he got a chance to see them grow up.
Then you drive home. As you do, you make plans to come back. Often. You make plans to shoot that whitewater again. You make plans to hike those trails. You make plans to smell that sweet air and hear those rapids pour over those rocks and you remind yourself that you will not be an interloper when you do it for this is your home more than anyplace on Earth is your home.
And you make plans not to lose yourself again.