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Creek Running North

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January 08, 2006

Cheat River, 1999

Four miles north of Talmansville, West Virginia, home of the Sago Mine, US Route 33 winds through Randolph County. The slopes of the Appalachians are gentle between Buckhannon and Elkins, but still I fret. I have not driven in snow much since 1987 when I lived in DC. But the road has been mainly dry since Franklin, Pennsylvania. A few patches of drifted snow obscure the shoulder.

It has been an interesting day, or as interesting as the fifteenth day of a solo cross-country trip can be. I left my father's house in the morning and was out of New York State in an hour. When I was 17 I got stuck hitchhiking at the junction of Interstates 70 and 79 south of Pittsburgh. After an hour I gave up, and walked on farm dog roads through the hamlet of Eighty-Four. One wrong turn took me to a dead end in the woods. I sat on a mossy log and read for an hour: Ecclesiastes. And then back and on to the next exit. I slept that night in Youngwood, atop a picnic table in the town park. This afternoon I sped past the junction of 70 and 79 and thought of that day 22 years before, my comfortably bepickuptrucked thoughts opaque even to myself.

20 years in the West has altered my vision. What looked pastoral to me those days – even wild – now seems suburban, a Pennsylvania farmhouse every five or six miles. It was with relief that I crossed the West Virginia line. West Virginia has always felt oddly like home to me. On days in Washington when I had time off and Elissa's car, I'd head to Leesburg or Front Royal, across the Shenandoah Valley, and into the hills. By Romney I would start to feel like myself again.

The descent into Elkins is abrupt. Route 33 follows a small canyon of the Tygart River. The Tygart runs north to a reservoir near Grafton. I camped there once with my family: my father and I walked the shore as dark rain swelled. 33 meets 219 west of town. 219 runs through my dreams still. So many days spent on it in the rain, sometimes traveling by thumb. One day Joe Giardina's fuel line broke in his old Beetle, and I hitchhiked six miles up 219 to Springville, gas can in hand, peering off the bridge at Cattaraugus Creek far below. I look north on 219 for a moment. It pulls at me. Twelve hours driving through Accident and Bradford and Salamanca and I could be home.

I shake myself. Home is five days away and in a different direction. Buffalo has not been home for nearly two decades now.

I drive through Elkins. It looks interesting, a declining town kept afloat by a small college. I have a room waiting for me a few miles east of town, a fishing lodge on the Cheat River. I promise myself a good look at Elkins tomorrow.

The storm hits as I leave Elkins, grinding uphill and eastward. A quarter mile past town there is an inch of snow on the ground. A hundred yards farther it's two inches. I shift down into third, then second. An ambulance is ahead, on the right shoulder: another pickup has rolled. I try hard not to let my attention wander from the lane ahead of me.

Then I feel it start, a mild near-vertigo. I have lost my connection to the road. The rear of the truck begins to shudder, then swings into the lane to my right. I correct. I slow. Rear wheels slide toward the left shoulder. I correct again, cursing.

The snow is now eight inches deep on the road. I am doing maybe 17 miles an hour up the hill, fishtailing in the left lane, trying to bring the truck under control so that I can edge carefully over into the slow lane. The truck momentarily tamed, I try to change lanes and then the fishtailing starts again... just as a fully loaded logging truck passes me on the right at about 65 per.

Time seems to slow. I can see the insects on the bark of the logs as they pass, seeming inches from my face. My tailgate slides toward the logging truck's rear tires. I am suddenly, sickly certain that my trip will be ending right here, crushed beneath timber company wheels or flicked off the edge of the mountain like a picnic ant off a knee.

And then silence, or relative silence, just the sound of my tires on the ice as the logging truck disappears into the storm. Am I dead? I don't have a persuasive answer for or against. I put on the hazards and drive up the mountain into the storm at a reckless fifteen miles per hour.

I call home eight times that night, hoping to be told I'm not dead. No one answers. The next day the snow has melted, become mud. I hike into the Monongahela National Forest. Pin oak leaves carpet the old logging road, scaling a cliff high above the Cheat River. I wish my dog was with me. A crumbling shale outcrop across the road holds the promise of fossils. My feet sink deep into the sodden pile of talus at its base. I pick over the rock for a good hour, but find nothing.

Posted by Chris Clarke at January 8, 2006 09:14 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
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Comments

Pittsburgh PA has an h. Pittsburg CA doesn't. (It's Teddy Roosevelt's fault.)

Posted by: craig at January 9, 2006 12:26 AM
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I call home eight times that night, hoping to be told I'm not dead. No one answers.

For some reason, this part just keeps freaking me out. *shakes myself*

Posted by: Rana at January 9, 2006 09:43 AM
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Chris,

If you happen to be tracking down here to GA and would like to hike a portion of the Oconee National Forest in the lower piedmont, drop me an email.

I know a stretch where there are moderately mature citrus trees (obviously, grown up from seeds dropped by earlier hikers) which are underladen now with rotting fruit. There are other notable features; but I find these trees to a real curiosity.

BB

Posted by: Bill at January 9, 2006 09:48 AM
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Chris Clarke! I found you through a fun little link journey--the Eco Center just posted a study that a colleague is organizing a press conference around, which led me to the Center's website, which took me into Terrain, saw Ron & Joe's names, went to Ron's article, got sent to Faultlines old site, saw your blog, and ended up here, reading about Pennsylvania (I just returned from a NON-virtual tour of Pittsburgh). Funny, huh? Look me up! And be careful driving in the snow, you California transplant you....

Posted by: Raina at January 11, 2006 12:16 PM
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