My sense of time lost its measure when Rob died. Before, every phone call threatened a life-or-death emergency: Can you take me to the doctor? Can you pick up my prescription? I don’t know where I am but your phone number is in my wallet. Can you pick me up? Can you tell me where I am? Even its ring triggered panic – a racing pulse, the adrenalin surge. After, there was no reason to hurry or not to hurry. Time lacked punctuation or interval like poetry without line breaks. While nature changed seasons for others, while workers kept to the calendar and the clock, I stepped outside of time, or into nothing but slack time. The rift between my self and the world seemed unbridgeable.
I first went to Carvin’s Cove to find it. One of Roanoke, Virginia, city’s reservoirs, the Cove stood at full pond, its windless surface a mirror doubling the mountains that enfolded it. The second time I went to give new scenery to the dying eyes of my friend with AIDS. Robert’s wife had infected him with the virus, deliberately he believed, but she died before he learned of it. I drove him around. He would lean back in the car seat, rest his elbow out the window and look at things. His eyes were hungry, especially after he got the virus that led to blindness. That day he memorized the lake from the car.
Robert was the first person I knew who was my age when he died.
E-vac-u-ate: To draw out, to leave, to take the air out of, to create a vacuum.
My spirit was sucked out. Evacuated.
I became a habitual walker at the Cove. As if driven to put distance between me and something unnamable, I walked up and down the trail edging the water, three miles a day, day after day, not looking at the scenery but making mileage.
In the beginning I walked alone. I walked through all weather, past the stinging flies of summer, past the fire-burst leaves of sugar maple in fall, past the driving snow of winter, past the spring floods that washed over the trail. My first year became a second and a third. Then I believed no natural predators haunted these woods, though I entertained myself by imagining a bear coming down off the Appalachian Trail and chasing me. There is something about grief that makes a person mentally immune to danger. Snake bite, hungry predators, mad man bolting down the trail – I challenged myself with threats but nothing I imagined could make me feel worse than I already felt. Grief can block compassion because the human heart has its limits; filled with loss, there’s no room for anything else.
And nothing I imagined could make me feel for another human. Starving or sick children, widows, parents burdened with their own parents — mentally I found it easy to say you have yours, I have mine.
After a time, my friend Asli made walking rounds with me. Her petite form and pixie hair in hedgehog spikes gave her an elfin look. She made time pass easily by telling stories about the men-problems her women friends had – cheaters and abusers mocked into thin air, their legacy of heartaches dissolved into the changing tableau of the forest. Human activity seems to count little measured against the geological time this valley knows – though human hands built the dam that created the reservoir. One abysmal rainy day when Asli and I picked our way around deep puddles, a white city truck passed us, the driver calling thrown the window, “Do you want a ride?” He added, “Your feet are getting wet.” Standing at the low point in the trail where streams overran the banks, Asli and I stood imperturbable, part of the foul weather that engulfed us. Balanced on a grassy hillock and soaked to the bone, we laughed hysterically. We declined. The truck passed us by.
The Cove was closed for a week when a row boat drifted ashore without its owner. City workers searched the grounds for a body. When Asli and I next met at the Cove’s entrance, a slender young man, whose reddish-brown mustache was shaded by a khaki ball cap, told us, “It’s closed.” He pointed to the padlocked gate. Go away he seemed to say. Go now. His eyes did not reflect our humanity back to us. The park opened up again a week or so later when the body was found. Who was the man whose death shut down the park? — I didn’t know. My lingering grief blocked any sense of sympathy. I could not project myself imaginatively into the experience of another person, let alone a dead fisherman’s wife. I was just happy to be able to walk again.
After Asli moved to Canada, an older couple started talking to me in passing. Lawrence and Helen walked the trail after they visited Helen’s mother in the nursing home. “We wondered where you went,” Helen said after I disappeared for a summer. A short, dark-haired woman with a leg brace became a cross-reference of sorts for us. “You seen the lady with brace lately?” Lawrence asked. “No,” I said. “She’s got hunted by the wild dogs,” Helen said. When I next saw that lady, she warned me about two feral animals, the size of German shepherds. “They sat on opposite sides of the road. They growled at me. Best you get some pepper spray if you walk by yourself a lot.” She reported the dogs to security, and the dogs disappeared from our exchanges. Did I see the dogs myself, see the flicker of yellow fur against the brown leaves, and hear the heavy pad-padding of feet over dry sticks? My recall here is tentative. Her description and the fear it engendered in me burned the image of those dogs into my brain so vividly that I cannot be sure I did not see them. Fear told me my instinct for self-preservation still lived. This fear was a good thing.
An old couple — the man’s skin pale as emphysema under a black cowboy hat – eventually supplanted the lady with the brace. The man explained to me that that year the deer would thrive because the forest enjoyed a rich fall of acorns. He said this as “ake-erns.” I didn’t know that deer ate acorns. He gave me what I thought at the time was a fine compliment: “You are a fast walker.”
I was direct, fast and purposeful — though I could not have told you what my purpose was. I was also wearing two-pound ankle weights.
Although I started walking to deal with my feelings of loss – surely my feet had engraved it on the earth – I began to notice those people who noticed me in the middle of the woods. However much I had abandoned the human community, it had not abandoned me. While disaster might befall others in the wilderness, I found passers-by who secretly counted to themselves the times they had seen me last. They were keeping track of me, I noticed, and they were having me keep track of others by their questions.
A new walking buddy for the new millennium was Dan, a professor of Spanish. We entertained ourselves with word games and exercises, like naming the seven deadly sins, the presidents of modern countries and the capitals of states. We speculated about the origin of dust, how frogs froze over winter, and whether any dried grass could be considered hay. Our mileage never amounted to much, though, because Dan meandered, disappearing spontaneously into the brush. “I’m looking for mushrooms,” he explained. If we could find apple trees, Dan said, we might find precious morels growing on the roots. Three seasons served for our reconnaissance of apple trees and likely sites. As spring approached and apple trees blossomed, Dan grew more focused on going deeper into the woods. “Those look like them. . . .” – branches snapped on his vanishing shirt. But as no mushrooms showed themselves, I began to doubt his knowledge of natural history.
Dan’s quest for morels drew him out into the brush even on days I didn’t go with him. On a day he walked alone, Dan left the trail past the two-mile mark. When he heard a noise from a tree that sounded like a squirrel, he looked up and saw a bear. He picked up a rock to fight it. Fight a bear – what was he thinking? Realizing it was splitting bark in its slide down the tree, Dan ran away, dropping the rock to mark the spot. On our next walk together, we both were fast walkers looking for the bear tree — no more than a sapling. We got on hands and knees at its base, looking for traces, like footprints or crushed leaves or scat. Surely the bear had left a sign. Dan had not been out of my sight for long before I heard him call, “Morels!”
Each was the size of a tablespoon, with a clubbed head striated like a brain. On two trips we found 48 of them. Even cooked down, they filled the frying pan.
I had never believed they existed.
Dan made me see things when he got me looking for something I didn’t believe in. His gravity pulled me into his orbit; like a moon of Jupiter, I began to meander too. He drew me further into this world by naming it. When we walked up a stretch of steep incline, he called it “Heartbreak Hill”; when we walked down the same hill, it became the “Slippery Slope.” The foot of Heartbreak Hill always flooded; that was where Asli and I got our feet wet watching the security truck pass. A quarter mile from the parking lot stood a stump that in the dark resembled a dog or a bear. When the braced lady told me about the dog, I started to see this stump, at dusk, as a feral animal. It embodied the worst fears a human can imagine: together we named it the Stump of Dread.
After September Eleventh, the Cove closed for a month as local law enforcement agencies secured the water supply. When it opened a month later, strict security measures were in place: walkers had to register at the boat house, hang a decal in the car and carry a pass. I was forced to talk to people I had seen at a distance, like the man who spoke to me over the barricade or the security officer who passed in the truck. After September Eleventh, I lost what anonymity I had. But when you give personal information to strangers, they are no longer strangers.
One night in December, I started on the path alone around six, nearly night and very dark. My headphones were tuned to National Public Radio. As I turned the corner at the mile and half marker, I heard a noise – more heavy footed than deer or squirrel. I pulled my headphones off and searched the dark. A form moved on the ridge parallel to the path, and it was turning in my direction. Wild dogs? I knew about them. Coyotes? I saw front shoulders move with a ratcheting motion. A bear.
I ran down the path like my hair was on fire. At the bend I turned around expecting to see it loping after me. By then it was dark. My fear created its image, and on still I ran. My imagination added sound effects; to this bear I added a second, its mother. A giant, angry mother bear loped on a course parallel to mine. When the Stump of Dread appeared as the shadowy silhouette of a crouching predator, I screamed at the top of my lungs. By the time I ran to parking lot, my throat burned though my clothes felt drenched with sweat. I needed human contact. I knocked on the door of the security post. A large man stood in the door.
“Did you know there are bears in the woods?” I began.
“I know there are five bears that live here.”
I didn’t understand why he couldn’t figure out that I had seen one, that I was trying to get my words together so I could sound calm. Furthermore, he said, they “live here” as if they belonged and I was the intruder.
“I saw one out there.”
“Come in.” He held open the door. “Do you want a glass of water?”
My gulps drowned out the local news broadcast on the television set in the security office. I explained what I had seen and heard, trying desperately to sound calm and be precise in my details, but the truth was that I knew the bear’s mother was going to kill me and eat me and no one would know what happened. For all I knew, she lurked behind my car, ready to pounce when I crossed the parking lot.
Then he asked, “What happened to your nose?”
One of my cats had thwacked my nose to wake me up and left a huge scratch there. Probably he thought the bear had attacked me.
“It was my cat.”
I don’t know what else was said that evening, except the more I talked, the more strained my voice became. I sounded nutty, even to myself, so I knew it was time for me to leave.
When I came out the next day with Dan, who wanted to see the place of the bear, some people in the parking lot haled us. “Hey,” one man called, “heard you saw a bear.”
“They want the bear report,” the security person said. His name was Phil.
Early in February, Phil started walking with Dan and me.
In his middle fifties Phil was a rugged-looking man the size of a refrigerator. A former deputy sheriff and son of a police officer, he took early retirement with the police force to take this job as Conservator of the Peace. Conserve the peace he did: when drunk fishermen returned rented boats with prohibited beer spilled in the bottom, Phil called each of their wives to pick them up. Phil patrolled the grounds, blazed paths, and pulled things out of the reservoir like an Uzi submachine gun, its numbers eroded so badly the FBI could not trace it. He had put up mile markers and made benches. He was the kind of man you know would have measured out the mileage precisely, and he was the one who had driven past Asli and me as we walked, worrying about our feet getting wet in the mud. He had been married once, for 26 years, to his high school sweetheart, he told me on a walk. One day his wife got sick, went into the hospital, and died; she left behind three boys. When he started dating again, his first girlfriend had a drinking problem, and their bad breakup made up made him bitter about women. He remembers this as the time he really walked through the Cove.
At the end of February, the weather man promised snow and freezing rain, so I squeezed out for one more walk while it was clear. It was the kind of day I walked alone. John checked my pass. Once he sent Asli and me away as he spoke over a barricade; once he seemed a sinister country boy. Dead winter this day, he came out to my car, stood enveloped by blowing snow in the deserted parking lot. “There’s no one else out here. It’s snowed out here twice already.” The cracked skin on his dry hands made my eyes hurt to see them. His father died recently, and his mother shortly after. Forty years old, John lived with his parents all his life. “Have a good walk,” he said.
A layer of white powder covered the trails. When the wind blew, snow flew up into the air, as if gravity had been reversed. Wind gusts up to forty miles m.p.h. were predicted. Two pair of tights shielded my knees and shins. Even with lined gloves and a woolen scarf knotted twice around my throat, the wind cut to the skin. As I went farther into the wood, flurries increased as the light faded. I imagined that coyotes across the mountains crossed the pass and would jump me any minute. I expected to hear their yelps carried on the whining wind.
God knows, why did I go out there?
That was the question I explored that day with no human company, no promise of deer, and nature turned upside-down.
Sometimes I go to be alone, to abide with myself as if my mind were a separate entity from my self, and I needed to sit at its edge to understand it. Sometimes I go to feel feelings so large, it takes a forest to hold them or a sleet storm to diminish them. Other times, I like to feel how puny I am when the wind makes me double into it. I go there to meet people and I go there to hide from people. If I could understand how a single place could be the focus of so many opposite desires, I might know something more than I know now.
When I took care of Robert, his family would not talk to him because they were ashamed of his disease, a colleague asked me not to bring him to a Thanksgiving dinner, and a local pastor withdrew his hand from Robert’s. Good people treated him badly when they thought no one was looking – who listened to the walking dead? Worst of all, I remember how, when he was buried, I had no one to share my grief. When I came upon the bench at the mile marker – just two stumps with a plank crosspiece – I remembered that Phil had put them the time he walked a lot. He understood how feelings can be so deep it takes four miles to find them.
The Cove Alum Springs resort once stood on the regular stagecoach route from Salem to Fincastle. The resort burned down in 1877, and few signs of it remain, but we found them the day we went out for a long hike. Dan and I followed Phil off the path, hopped a stream, and walked on a carpet of pine needles before we found the foundation stones. Rows of daffodils continued to bloom. Once they would have lined the hotel’s base and entrance, but now there’s nothing there. The built structure long ago dissolved into nothingness. It was odd to see those lines of yellow flowers in the middle of the woods, embodying a moral about how nature persists.
A different time, we tread higher ground, where Engle’s Gap sat like a saddle on the mountain ridge between the reservoir and Daleville. The gap was named for the property-owner, German-born John William Engle, who crossed the mountain there twice a day when he went to school. We walked the last half mile on hills contoured like waves, crests as high as troughs were deep. Tulip poplar, pine and maple trees rose up on both sides. These undulations tripled the ground we covered on an early spring day, mild at forty degrees. Progressive ascent stole wind out of words. At the top, panting, Dan and I stood on the ridge and looked down and out over Daleville, the farmland below criss-crossed by roads. The view was so broad and clear, we might have been seated in an airplane.
“Turn around,” Phil said. “Look behind you.”
For the first time, the reservoir was visible in its entirety, spread out like a luminous blue-green amoeba that stretched for miles. Mountains jutted up behind it, and another spine of mountains spiked the air beyond them. The air was sharp enough to delineate the contours of every fir at the tree line. From that perspective, with stunning views on both sides, it was clear why Engel’s Gap became known as Angel’s Gap.
Taking Phil’s advice figuratively, I considered what lay behind me. After over a decade of walking, all the miles I have put in to get distance have shifted in quality — no longer miles away from something but miles turned forward, moving toward something, like sowing seed or writing a sentence — years as an approach to a prospect as high as angels see.
There are all kinds of ghosts in this forest – historical ones like the men who have drowned in the reservoir, and ones closer to home, shades of the newly dead. I still think of Robert as a ghost of the place. Walks took a place in his ongoing story of his future. Maybe when his viral load lessened, maybe when his health was restored, maybe when his miracle came – maybe then he could walk. Time was his – and life’s — enemy. He was a touchstone for me, a human clock ticking away mortality, but also — more dire and nearly unspeakable – I saw that other people treated him as an outcast, this diseased man murdered by his wife. If that was what human community offered, I had wanted no part of it, my spirit tainted by an irrefutable misanthropy. Years after his death, I feared I would be frozen in time, my life marked with a sadness that never dissolved. Regeneration could be a nightmare if grief bloomed like daffodils year after year, always in the same straight line.
But something, now, has changed for me. Angel’s Gap has offered the right amount of height and time to see my narrow world as a whole without losing all the detail. It has given me the impression that steps might accumulate, beyond repetition, to build momentum, the way an electron jumps to the next energy level. It has given me perspective. For Renaissance writers, the fact that all things changed gave a dismal cast to their concept of mutability; I have not forgotten the shadows. The Stump of Dread ever stands on the trail.
But people only see the Stump of Dread when they walk alone.
The Cove suffered a drought the next winter, and in early spring the water shortage made the evening news on two local channels. Media coverage raised attendance at the Cove. People came out to look at the depleted water supply. John said, “When I ask people why they’re coming out here, ninety percent say to look at the low water.” Drought has downed the floating dock, its articulated parts twisted over the uneven surface of the lake bottom. The receding shore line bared steep gravel banks, where the slashed earth revealed sediments. Formerly submerged, an orchard of stumps seemed to grow up out the water. The drought progressively drew back water to reveal twisted boughs, and then torqued bases. At the water’s edge, the ghost Cove Road rose up from the bottom of the valley to track the edges of hills before it dropped into the water again, reappearing on the next rise. “Four more feet,” Phil said, “we might be able to see the plane.” The plane, a private craft, hit the water years before I started walking.
By the end of February, two hundred new passes were issued to visitors.
In early spring, the local TV station sent a film crew. The reporter stood at the water side, microphone, studying the water level for signs of a ruined future. The camera man took live footage of an increasing loss. New visitors and fisherman gathered around the man with the mike. They made a chorus to loss: “It’s low, low, low.”
We were there too. From inside the trees, we watched them, we watched you. Undivided from the world we inhabit, we watch like deer, seeing you not seeing us.
Marilyn Moriarty’s work has been published in The Antioch Review, The Kenyon Review, Faultline, Nimrod, Quarterly West, and other literary journals and anthologies. Her book MOSES UNCHAINED won the AWP creative nonfiction contest and was published in 1006. More recently, her essay on eminent domain was published in The Antioch Review (2012) and another essay received honorable mention in the Winning Writers sports writing contest (2012). She is a professor of literature at Hollins University, in Roanoke, Virginia. And she has been regular walker at Carvin’s Cove, the Roanoke city reservoir, in Virginia, for over fifteen years.