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.
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.
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.
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.