There is a road high in the ancient Appalachian Mountains of the East that travels unimpeded and unfettered by any of the signs of commercial life (nor any signs much at all of modern human life save for the road itself) like those that carpet the highways found anywhere else – no billboards, shops, motels, trucks, travel plazas or the like. It runs for hundreds of miles from the Shenandoahs in northern and central Virginia to the southwest corner of North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains in a blissful ribbon along the ridge tops that connects the two national parks at those respective terminals. This road (or, two roads by name anyway) is a contiguous, simple two-lane blacktop with no shoulders that gives away immediately at its edges to the pristine landscape of lush wooded mountain tops that are home to some of the most diverse forests with ‘windows’ into some of the oldest geologic exposures on earth. It is as frequently bathed in the clouds as it is in the sun. A road of profound beauty and peace, it was, amazingly so, built for the sole purpose of the pleasure of the traveler upon it. It is a national park in the sky. In the Shenandoahs it is known as Skyline Drive and it seamlessly becomes The Blue Ridge Parkway as it heads south and then into North Carolina. It is a road with which I had the pleasure of becoming familiar while growing up and have just had the pleasure of traveling on for a week or so. It is for me, then, a kind of road into the past. It is, for me, a perfect road for it connects and travels to places I want to go, and it does so in a way that I quite prefer – away from the trappings of modern life in the solitude of nature, slow-going and sublime. It is like hiking for your car.
I have inherited, no doubt, my life-long love of meandering along this nation’s quieter byways from my father who spent much of his free time doing just the same, in search of the scenes of glorious Nature and also in search of, somewhat ironically I suppose, steam locomotives, ironical because the Age of Steam maybe a one-time symbol of Man’s conquest over Nature, but for my father, it was a symbol of a simpler, dying past, a past that is now quite and sadly dead. He lead me onto those roads through the mountains and hidden countryside, his camera in hand, seeking to preserve somehow the old world he grew up loving. He took me (and family) first on this road on the ridges, as he took me out onto other remote roads and cuts through this comparatively untouched region. At home, he would show us his striking photographs, in slide form, of his back-road and parkland America excursions along with his images of the final years of steam throughout those same regions, the pursuit of which had occupied much of his free time while a freer man before taking on a family. He was actually well-known among a certain crowd. “Gricers” they are called – or ferroequinologists (yea!), as the philologist and pleonastic sesquipedalian in me likes to say! 🙂 (Sorry!) All of ’em good damn words! – A gricer, so’s you knows, is a train-chaser or railroad fan, a lover of trains, called gricers for the similarity of these train hunters to hunters of grouse (I’m not sure if there is a quality unique among them that is shared with grouse hunters exclusively; it seems any hunter would do. But “gricer” it is.). He, my father, lived and breathed the sights, sounds, and smells of those steamy iron horses (hence “ferroequine“. See?) These shows and the photographic trips out with him would instill in me an adoration of the countryside and lost corners as well as the more famous grand vistas of our land. It’s in the blood, so to speak. I also learned from him the (analog) photographic arts, although I recall that with some shame now, for the only camera I had with me on this present trip was my phone, much to my father’s would-be dismay. However he died, right before my eyes and in my arms, years ago and thus was freed from any future dismay for the duration.
So, having all too brief a time to do a thorough job of it, but nevertheless heading south from New York to visit family and friends, I became enrapt, as I am wont to become, at the supreme beauty of the countryside of this land (really, I am wont to become enrapt at the beauty of the countryside of just about any land, but for sake of this story, I’ll focus on “this” one…) Even immediately out of the metropolis, the Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania country seems endless and lush, broken by the mighty Delaware river, then the Susquehanna. Further afield there are the great rivers Monongahela, the Potomac, the Shenandoah, the James; the names themselves worthy of navigation (well, except perhaps for “the James”). They are broad, bold, grand, big-boat navigable rivers with green forested tracts clambering over their banks, everything so very well alive and growing, unlike rivers (with exceptions, of course) in California (where I have spent much and currently spend some of my time) with its rivers and arroyos of dry dirt and brown desert or chaparral living on next to nothing or commonly dead or dormant, a landscape only brought to life with irrigation or winter rains and only if there are any winter rains. Of course, there is a mightiness and profound beauty there as well, but a young, rugged, dry and brutal, struggling to survive kind of beauty, like a young whore, hardened and mean yet sexy. Here though, in the Appalachian East is a lush, dripping and teeming landscape, roiling with flowing rivers, lush greenery and flowers, soft and fragrant like a sweet grandma! And it’s all fed with plentiful rains and glorious sun and with a terrestrially appropriate Spring-Summer-Autumn-Winter pattern. For sure there are other, totally appropriate patterns in different parts of the world, but growing up in the Northern Hemisphere middle latitudes, this is just what feels right, smells right, looks right. To go out West, which even now I am doing and am always desirous of, has always been like going to another planet for me – with all the excitement and adventure which that entails, but I do love it as well. Comfortable with grandma or whore, I am like many Americans, a rootless cosmopolitan, grown up in a land not really “mine” with no deep roots and a yearn for moving on, always to see more, always wanting something else. At home in a variety of surroundings, I feel any land could be my home as much as I’ve ever had one. But whenever I return to these great old, old eastern mountains and rivers of America, I seem to sense something very deep indeed, as if transcending my actual, biological history and tapping into some primal belonging or meaning…. Of course, I know that this is just my own brain satisfying its incessant need to make connections quite literally and metaphorically, and I don’t mind that at all. I revel in it in fact. I did grow up here after all and received all my primal imprints amid the sights, smells and feels of the region; it is perfectly understandable that I would continue to feel something in its soft familiarity even though I have wandered so far and wide and for so long! We are so much of where we came from no matter how much more of our lives we’ve spent elsewhere.
A summer storm had bowled through western Virginia the night and morning before I rolled down the Shenandoah valley. The clouds that remained were rich and full of personality and dappled the late afternoon sun which spilled and poured through that irregular lattice like the bloody Hand of God!, illuminating with the sparkly clarity of fresh moistness and the vibrancy and contrast of their shadows the western flank of the Shenandoah mountains. I was, as I say, enrapt, and even more so for the solitude of driving alone through gorgeous country (even, at this point, only along the interstate) proves fertile territory for rapturous thoughts, especially, for me, whenever headed down the mountains of the East. This is a trip that, in my younger days, I did quite often, alone and wondering from the small-town southern homes of my family to the cities of the North and the excitement and urbanity that has apparently held onto me ever since, gateway as they are to the rest of the world. So it is a trip that, now having stationed myself somewhat in New York of late, when I get to take it, is quite an emotional journey back into a land that feels to me like a dream (the kind where you find yourself in what you feel to be a strange land, yet you somehow know it like no other). These emotions are to be expected when thinking of family and the past, I suppose. Coming from an old family (and of course, not getting any younger myself), many of my relatives have since died. There are entire towns that used to be longtime homes to my family’s names that are now devoid of anyone with those names, the names themselves even under threat of disappearing – as far as bloodline goes, anyway. This is particularly true of my name, my father’s name, that is. There were seven children in my immediate family and there is not even one grandchild, nor is there now much of a hope for any. With no Price cousins and all elder Prices gone, there may be no more after my brothers and I are gone. I know; it’s just a patriarchal chauvinism of sorts. “What’s in a name?” of course. Species go extinct; names die out, yet life goes on. It’s nothing, really. It still stings a little. It’s all very old fashioned maybe, but it is parting and loss that is such sorrow. Sweet sorrow, true, but anyway gives me a case of the emotions! That and a late afternoon Wagnerian sunset through the after-rain clouds on the Shenandoah mountains (and a good playlist of Shostakovitch, Jonny Greenwood, Scott Walker, Mica Levi,…) had me watery-eyed and whelmed yet loving life in all its splendor and sorrow.
Names. Names of towns, counties, streets, trees and flowers. Names that I have not heard, let alone thought of for decades, which are both just names and also reminders of happenings that took place in the environs of their subjects. They come absolutely flooding into my head at the mere sight of any one of them on a sign or wherever. Or even without the sight of one! I swear that just being in the region that was once the locus of these memories on earth seems to activate the locus in my brain where those memories have remained, dormant and undisturbed, and it just begins firing away and opening up a trove of ‘forgotten’ names. I suppose it is simply the biological reality of knowing where you are. I have always had an aptitude for geographical and directional memory, and I enjoy the confidence it brings. Like standing on solid ground. Not that I mind getting lost, but there is nevertheless a elative feeling of belonging when you’ve discovered where you are!
Thusly enrapt and self-possessed I pulled into a south Virginia town where, as I say, once lived an entire branch of my people, now all gone. I had not been there since a child. So now a total stranger, I ate at a downtown pub, roamed the night covered streets, wandered past my dead aunt and uncle’s house and holed up in a cheap motel for the night.
The Blue Ridge Parkway comes out of those graceful, grandmotherly Shenandoahs and crosses over to North Carolina into the range for which it is named through lower, rolling Virginia hills marked with a few farms and apparently abandoned old houses, but quickly it is up on the ridge tops of the Blue Ridge seldom dropping below 3000 feet. Up here, life is pristine. All you can see are the green, green tops of the mountains and the lay of their green, green valleys. It seems the perfect altitude to somehow mask what towns lie down there, the larger ones being off and away from this more craggy terrain. One can almost imagine the land, this very populated land, as it would be without population. This is not entirely true, of course; the irony not being lost on me that the only reason one can have this particular experience is the fact that there is a very well laid and man-made road that allows for it, a road that, for sure, can be sometimes crowded with people – on holidays, ‘leaf season’ and the like. But for me, this time, it was not. It was more like being the last man on earth, able to cruise the world without the benefit of other people. “Hell is other people”, Sartre wrote. And though his meaning was perhaps more complex, the very simple, more obvious and perhaps misanthropic sense is one that I can sometimes quite agree with – present company, my friends, and you possibly 8 readers excepted! I am, it seems, a paradoxical misanthrope, holding the general masses largely in contempt while feeling an almost unassailable love for my friends and the sustainably growing communities that are made up of the, say, three degrees of separation of their existence. But I digress – and possibly disclose too much of myself!
The North Carolina section of the parkway was the sight and scene of many of my young adult firsts in the field of the passionate arts in the form of: altered states of consciousness, epiphanic insights, naked communion with nature and, similarly, that with Woman (well one woman anyway – a girl really and me just a boy) – the poetry of Life and the Road, etc. Whenever I got my first bit of American Freedom in the form of an automobile (first a Valiant, then a Satellite – both Plymouths, both 1971), I turned up onto this road to seek out the heights of those exaltations; to find myself by losing myself. I rode it down now in a similar state, wanting for nothing except, obviously, erstwhile Youth and, perhaps, the satisfaction of a total possession of this land (or, maybe the same thing, possession by it) , this being a common misappropriation of the feeling of total Love, believing as we do that to love something we must own it, devour it. We are not content to simply and un-distractedly be with it, among it, and to become it. Despite this unsatisfied wanton desire, the desire to eat my own eyes for the total consumption of the seeing of such gratuitous beauty, I was satisfied. And in Heaven. For, as that great poet once said(….I forget who exactly) , “Heaven is a place on Earth”. And here it was!
Green, so green it was! A green so green that all the green of the world seemed to have abandoned all else in order to be green only here! A green so green that Green itself must have been green with envy of it’s own Greenness! A self-perpetuating green that brooks no other color save that it be borne out of Greenness! Green. Were there a god, it would be green. Green. Nature’s skin. Holy fuck! It’s so glorious to see things growing on their own. I have had to check my response to seeing so much of it from years living in California where I’d come to think, “Oh, how ostentatious and what a waste of water all this greenery is!” and back to one based on its manifest propriety. This is actually the way things are supposed to be for Fuck’s sake!, and things get that way all on there own! Mankind has spent so much time trying to conquer the jungle (or “chunngl” as I can’t help but always hear or want to say in a Herzog-ian accent), but it would seem to just rebound when we have turned our backs…. (as long as there’s water, of course, a resource that California has not had the benefit of for quite a while)…. And as long as there are not too many of us so as to preclude too many backs not being turned…. Anyway, Green still rules in some places on this blue planet.
Into it and through it, taking my time, headed to friends and then family, I stopped as much as I drove, hiking off to find my memories of time lost. Occasionally, on the turn-offs and trailheads, I would come upon others, a noisome impediment to the enjoyment and communing, quaquaquaqua, especially when arriving in bulk, quaquaquaqua, in mega-bus quaquaquaqua and gathering for their horrid Christian pep-talks before heading out into godless Nature en masse (Well, that happened once, anyway – Certainly the last thing anyone needs in the woods is church, borne out of cloistered, sexless fear of Nature as it is, after all!) Ech! Bushwhacking, then, away so as to avoid the path, through blooming rhododendron and trillium, I was led by some more primal compass to find a waterfall on a creek where, now near three decades ago (!), I enjoyed some of my earliest encounters with the more primal drives. Love, physical love, expressed in nature, among nature, will always be one of the holiest of sacraments. It would seem to complete that urge, mentioned above, to somehow devour/be devoured by all this beauty. To engage in it with naked vulnerability is to become of it, to dissolve into its…. if you will permit me, its ‘ness’ – that is, the ‘ness’ of being-ness, nature-ness, one-ness, all-ness, together-ness. Of course, this is an experiential pleasure and preferably private. No doubt, it wouldn’t do as an observational pleasure. No one wants to come upon a couple of damn hippies in the depths of rut in the middle of their afternoon hike with the kids! All the more reason to avoid other people when the opportunity permits. There was no opportunity here for me (to rut, that is) this time, and having resisted the urge to make love to the loamy earth before, I had to remain satisfied with the more spectative enjoyment of Nature’s pornography and make my way. But I found it: my way and the waterfall.
Down and back, the Road led on through dell and knoll, holler and heath, forest after green forest. I came down to see friends who live on its slopes, family at its end. Through the mist of a morning, I later climbed up from Skyline to its ‘highest point’, an escarpment jutting through the clouds, to watch as those clouds rose to their own demise as the noon sun boiled them off to a brilliant afternoon. While coming down, again in a daze, I came upon a single black bear, my size (that is, my size if I were to be, say, cut off at the knees and then hunched over on-all-fours in a fur coat), rummaging in the under. Their existence is of course threatened, but this was the first of two that I saw that day, another one being sighted at my friends’ house a few mornings before. It is a mixed blessing to see them, their habitat disappearing, they come closer and closer to mankind out of desperation and want of territory and food. Although here on the ridges, one would only hope to see them mucking about in their own bailiwick, so to speak. He/she raised nose and muzzle at my approach and scurried back to a safer distance and on.
And on, so I. Never time enough. Always something to do back in the lowlands, I nevertheless took my time in returning north to New York, preferring small roads through the northern Chesapeake Bay region in order to visit a town that figured into the final delirious days of E.A. Poe and the symbolic subject of a play I had recently seen in New York. For no other reason than this (well, and its fantastic name!), I side-tripped to Havre de Grace and then up the Susquehanna river, through the farmlands of northeastern Maryland and eastern PA. Even in these well-used, industrialized, populous lands from which most folks feel a need to flee West-ward or Big City-ward there is still country that harkens one to the rapture of Nature, sublime and glorious!
And back to Gotham and on a plane and off to California where, even now, I have headed out for the rapture of its wilder ness, already walking through its crackly, dry redwood forests, trading poison ivy for poison oak, feeling and knowing and being awestruck by its beauty, but somehow not entirely remembering it.
We may be at the brink of a new great loss, what with meltings and extinctions and mass-scale changes as the doom-seers say. But being on a brink, we can still look back and down the road from which we came and we can choose to return down it to grab what we forgot, or to disappear among its side-lands where we have enjoyed ourselves, or simply to remember what we don’t want to loose and then choose how to proceed, if to proceed. There is joy and sorrow on both sides of this brink, to be sure.