In Between Places
Sometime after we cross into West Virginia, after many miles of meandering two-lane roads, long after cell phone reception and streaming radio have vanished, my 19-year-old brother tells me he feels lost.
“I’m not myself anymore,” Joseph says. “I just want to be myself again.”
I know what it is like to want to go back, to re-inhabit a past self from an earlier, simpler time. Recently, I saw the name of a town on a TV weather map, a town I haven’t seen or thought of in over a decade. But that name—Dillwyn—opened some trap door in my mind. Out sprung a battered service station, its marquis advertising $1.36 per gallon gasoline. An acute longing filled me—a longing to be my 20-year-old self, speeding past that station, full of blind faith in the direction she was going, the man she was heading toward. Sometimes I think it would be nice to feel that way again, to be that blithe and foolish, just for a little while.
I do not tell my brother that there is no going back, that the self he yearns for died two years ago, with our father. And I don’t explain that the feelings of dissonance he’s experiencing are just part of growing up. Instead I tell him that I’ve started meditating, that the practice of mindfulness—of dwelling in the present (or at least directing my attention there)—is helping. The losses don’t feel as heavy as they used to; the longing doesn’t feel so intense.
It is strange and comforting to converse with my brother like this. Twelve years my junior, Joseph was only six when I left for college, and we haven’t lived within 500 miles of each other since then. The oldest and the youngest of four siblings, we’re called “the bookends” by family members. But for me, the nickname also represents the years and distance between us—and our contrasting dispositions. Affable and easygoing, my brother is the foil to my high-strung, anxious personality.
In part, I’ve invited Joseph on this trip because I want to perpetuate the love of wilderness and adventure that my father shared with all of his children. But there are other reasons. My baby brother has always felt slightly out of reach, and I want to know him—who he is and what he thinks about and if he’s okay. I want him to know me too. And walking in the woods together seems like a good way to make that happen.
We’re still in the car, and already, the perennial distance has compressed. At 19 and 31, we speak as intimates. I am not sure whether to credit this change to maturity or proximity or the pain we share. Also, there are the territories we have left—his life as a college student and mine as a college instructor—and the territory we have entered together—overlapping ridges of the Allegheny Mountains, fading from deep indigo to powder blue. I am experiencing the familiar inversion that occurs within me in wild places, the opening of my inner life and the internalizing of the exterior world. I’m curious if Joseph feels this too.
Signs for Dolly Sods Wilderness direct us down a Forest Service road unrecognized by my GPS. The screen shows us driving into a green void. Green is the right color. We travel beneath a lush canopy of summer foliage, bumping over gravel and through intermittent streams of sunlight.
Within the hour, we shoulder backpacks laden with camping equipment, rain gear, and four days’ worth of summer sausage, trail mix, freeze-dried dinners, and Snickers bars. We hop from rock to rock in the sodden Blackbird Knob Trail, passing over streams, through a fern-carpeted stand of beech trees, and into the redolent darkness of a red spruce grove. These are not the same giant spruces that forested the hunting grounds of indigenous Americans centuries ago, not the 90-foot-tall trees that German immigrant Johann Dahle drove his cattle through en route to high-altitude pastures called “sods” in the early 1800s.
This place has known loss. Loggers arrived in the late 19th century to hack their fortunes out of four-foot-thick trunks and enormous swathes of virgin forest. By the 1920s, the ridges and hollows had been reduced to stubble, and what little remained, fires took. Flames consumed the ancient layer of organic matter that mantled the mountain floor. The ground burned one, two, three feet deep until there was nothing more to burn, nothing left but an alien landscape of boulders and ash.
Trees planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s had hardly a decade to extend their branches before World War II arrived, bringing with it more destruction. For two years, the U.S. Army used Dolly Sods as a training ground. Cabin Mountain and Blackbird Knob served as designated targets for bombs that pocked the terrain. In spite of attempts to clear the area of artillery and mortar shells, signs warn present day visitors that live bombs may lie in wait, lodged between rocks or buried beneath soil.
But we are not thinking of bombs when we turn north onto Upper Red Creek Trail. No, we are thinking of berries. For the forest has fallen away, and we have entered a vast meadow, punctuated by exposed rocks and islands of wind-stunted spruce. The name for this habitat is “heath barren,” but this place is anything but barren. Blueberry and huckleberry bushes surround us, acres and acres of them. We climb, stopping periodically to fill our mouths with ripe fruit, and when we crest the hill, we see an ocean of berry bushes tumbling into swales and climbing up ridges.
The wind rushing across this land sounds like prophesy, like whispered words of the prophet Isaiah, “Beauty for ashes.”
We stop at an uprooted, sun-bleached tree. In its brittle remains, I see opportunity. We’ve noticed little in the way of firewood since entering this tundra, so we snap off branches and strap them to our packs.
Stirred by the transfigured landscape and by the prospect of turning lifeless limbs into heat and light, I ask Joseph, “Why do you think people are so resistant to change?”
We walk a ways, and he says, “Maybe it’s just fear of losing what we have.”
He is right. I’m well acquainted with attempts to capture present goodness, to convert it into a live-in diorama. I have clung, white knuckled, to the transitory, knowing I am powerless to make it permanent. When I was twenty-two years old, I lay in bed beside my new husband, crying bitterly over words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “For in the resurrection people neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” The thought that our union would not paint the skies of eternity filled me with despair.
It has been nine years since I wet my pillow with those silly, futile tears. The husband who wiped them from my cheeks is no longer my husband. I have learned that when you cling too tightly to any source of happiness, you either lose skin or strangle your beloved.
Joseph and I are lost. Not the existential kind of lost we spoke of in the car. And not the profound misplacement experienced by the early explorers of North America, men described by the book in my backpack as “wandering a continent about which they knew nothing…plunging into a place for which they had no words for places.”
Relying on memories of a previous visit, I led us too far north, to a place without water. We had no choice but to hoist our packs onto our backs and aim for the headwaters of Red Creek, the closest water source. Then, hoping to shave half-a-mile off a seven-mile day, we mistook a faint footpath for a shortcut to our campsite. When it dissipated, we opted not to turn back, instead skidding down a rocky slope covered in thistles and St. John’s wort.
The pond we spotted from above is no longer visible, but we’ve found a creek and are walking south over spongy beds of sphagnum moss. We bounce from one peaty bank to another, searching for firm footing as the stream forks and forks again. As we near the pond, rushes and reeds spring up, obscuring our view of what’s ahead and slowing our progress.
“We need to get to higher ground,” I say. “Let’s head for the trees over there.”
This proves to be no simple task. A labyrinth of streamlets winds through the shoulder-high foliage, and every few steps, the bog beneath our feet gives way and we sink shin-deep into water. I can feel the straps of my pack digging into my shoulders, and I worry that we are destroying rare wetland plants and vernal pools, inflicting more damage on this already damaged place.
Joseph groans in frustration at his water-filled shoes. I’m frustrated too, and I feel terrible, knowing that I am the one to blame for this predicament. I curse the muck, and I am grateful when he responds with laughter. His composure in the face of the unexpected makes me think he has perspective I lacked at his age.
I wonder if the losses my brother has experienced have made him wiser than I was at 19 and if they have better prepared him for the losses to come. Joseph was the only one of four siblings left at home when our father received a diagnosis of stage IV prostate cancer. Daily witness to five years of slow wasting, he was barely 17 and just a few days into his senior year of high school when our father died.
This we share—the loss of a good and gentle man who loved us fiercely. And we silently bear this grief together—that our father never reconciled himself to his imminent end. He never accepted that he would die, despite the scans showing multiplying metastases, debilitating pain in his bones, facial paralysis and warped vision, pronouncements of doctors, the arrival of hospice nurses, oxygen tubes and bedsores and visiting clergy.
He lived for three weeks without food, one week without water—longer than anyone expected. One afternoon, at a nurse’s encouragement, we surrounded his bed and told him it was okay to go. “Go where?” he rasped, indignant. Only in the depths of a morphine-assisted coma was he finally able to release, able to allow his heart the mercy of stopping.
When my father died, he left shelves of photo albums, a computer hard-drive full of digital photo files, and an entire walk-in closet lined with stacks of chronologically arranged pictures, slides, and negatives. These weren’t just the traditional birthday and Christmas morning and family vacation pictures. They featured the strange, the everyday, and the completely mundane. There are photos of us throwing temper tantrums as toddlers, of me getting my ears pierced, of my brother walking around the backyard with a BB gun. In them, we eat dinner, convalesce from colds, work on homework, sleep in front of the TV.
I now believe that my father’s obsession with taking pictures was his attempt to trap the goodness of the present. Amassing a collection of moments in freeze-frame was his way of coping with the terrifying knowledge that we would grow up and he would grow old, that everything would change. Maybe he viewed his photographs as portals to the past, insurance against the losses he feared most.
They don’t work that way for me. Rifling through those artifacts—two-dimensional glimpses into experiences I will never re-inhabit—makes the past, and my father, feel very far away. I prefer to imagine what life would be like if he still were here. I picture him holding my sister’s daughter, who would have been his first grandchild. I imagine our family finally taking that trip out west that we always talked about, caravanning across long stretches of desert highway. Sometimes, I invent different endings. I hear him assuring me that he lived a full and satisfying life. I envision a benevolent doctor and a prescription that would have spared him those final weeks of agony. I see his lifeless lips smiling, rather than contorted by a final, ragged gasp.
I know that these fantasies are just as powerless as the piles of photographs now gathering dust in some storage space in my sister’s house. I am working hard at releasing them, because I don’t want to be like my father, unable to accept my reality. This is one of the reasons I’ve started meditating. I recognize my need for a discipline that will help me rise above the noise in my head, the relentless wingbeats of fearful, anxious, and embittered thoughts. And I hope the practice of mindfulness will give me a broader, more accurate frame of reference for my experiences and healthier ways of responding to them.
When I meditate, my aim is to remain physically still and mentally present for ten, twenty, or thirty minutes at a time. Frequently, I use physical sensation as an anchor, focusing my attention on different areas of my body. I take note of numbness, tingling, and aching, but I consciously choose not to judge those impressions as pleasant or unpleasant. Instead, I relax and let go, one part at a time.
I am not very good at this. My mind wanders frequently, and I often find myself at the end of a long chain of thoughts, minutes in the making. I respond to physical sensations automatically—repositioning, stretching, or scratching before I realize what I am doing. At the end of some sessions, I feel calm and refreshed, but just as often, I feel tired or unsatisfied. Even so, I believe that meditation is helping me. The acceptance, non-judgment, and release that I practice during these sessions are slowly becoming habits of mind, ways of engaging with my everyday experiences. What I want is to be able to interpret my father’s death and manner of dying not as tragedies but simply as what was. When reminded of his absence, as I often am, I would like to receive it not as injustice but as what is. And instead of burdening myself with anxiety about the losses I will inevitably encounter—the passing of my youth, freedom, relationships, sense of identity, health, loved ones, and my time on this earth—I want to accept what is to come with grace. Surely, an open-handed life invites more peace than a closed-fisted one.
How fitting that the book I have chosen to carry on this trek in Dolly Sods is Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. In it, she ascribes a mystical, purifying, transformative power to being lost. She invokes the words of Henry David Thoreau: “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”
This is not the kind of thinking Joseph and I were raised on. Lost was what happened to children who wandered off at the mall or county fair, who went where they weren’t supposed to go and sometimes never came back. In sports and games, there were those who lost and those who won, and nobody wanted to be a loser. Our school teachers chastised us for getting lost in our thoughts. And in church, lost was the favored euphemism for the unrepentant sinner, the soul condemned to hell. It was the word the Bible used to describe people who were wicked, unclean, disobedient, and weak.
The kind of lost that we are now doesn’t feel like vanishing or defeat or detachment or depravity. Though wading through this mire is exhausting, it’s also gratifying. I can hear my heart and my breath. I am alive and fully engaged, connected to the earth and my brother and the act of walking.
Eventually, a muddy rut that just might be a footpath appears before us. We follow it through a cluster of alder bushes, across a grassy hummock, and into a stand of spruces. A fire ring greets us, and we whoop with delight.
On our second day in Dolly Sods, we hike along the spine of Cabin Mountain beneath roiling gray clouds. We traverse shadowy forests, hills, bogs, and long-abandoned orchards. It is early afternoon, and rain is falling steady and cold when we arrive at our campsite, a tongue of land in the intersection of the two upper branches of Red Creek. Rain soaks through my clothes to my bare skin, and soon, I’m shivering. We set up the tent, and I climb inside and change into dry clothes.
“Hey, I’m going exploring,” Joseph says.
“I think I’m just going to stay here and read,” I reply, slipping into my sleeping bag. “I’m still freezing.”
As some point, the murmuring of the creek and irregular rhythm of raindrops falling on the tent lull me to sleep. I wake up more than an hour later to a loud crack and high-spirited cheers from a handful of young men who’ve set up camp nearby. The sun has come out, infusing my tent with orange light. I climb out and watch the men, bare chested and bearded, lug an entire tree down the trail.
I look around for Joseph, but I don’t see him, so I walk to the rocky peninsula at the junction of the forks. The water is lower than it was the last time I was here, quietly spilling over a semicircular ledge where the two creek branches meet. I walk upstream along rippled slabs of Pottsville sandstone, stepping over water-filled fissures and cavities and pausing to admire the pale pink rhododendron blossoms on the far side. When the creek narrows and the banks become steep, I cup my hands and shout “Joseph” upstream, but my call goes unreturned.
I walk back to our camp through the woods and head up the left fork of the creek, picking my way over boulders. It’s slow-going in this direction—the water has plotted a wilder course in this branch, forming a series of chutes and cascades—so after shouting Joseph’s name again, I turn around and head for the trail that parallels Red Creek’s downstream run.
This isn’t the first time Joseph has disappeared in the wilderness. Just last night, he vanished and didn’t return until after dusk, when I called for him to haul water and help with dinner. When he arrived, he told me about the beavers he’d heard slapping their tails. Then he pulled me away from the campfire to show me the cluster of ghostly white plants he’d found growing at the base of a tree.
“What are they?” he asked, kneeling to get a better look at their bent, bell-shaped heads.
“Indian pipe.” I told him that the plants were non-photosynthetic, that instead of living off of sunlight, they lived off of decaying organic matter.
This is why I never chastise him for wandering off. Joseph’s childlike curiosity is a quality I am trying to cultivate in myself—what Zen Buddhists call “beginner’s mind,” a way of experiencing the fullness and beauty of the present.
For 15 minutes, I walk along the trail, which allows me to survey Red Creek from the steep slope above its western bank. I scan the rocky creekbed below, but I don’t see Joseph. When too many trees come between me and the water, I half-walk half-slide my way to the creek’s edge. Then I climb back to the trail, the poison of worry unfurling beneath my ribs. Aware of my tendency to assume the worst and overreact, I order myself to calm down. Joseph is a Boy Scout of Eagle rank, perfectly capable of handling himself in the woods. I turn toward camp, hoping he will be there when I return.
He is not.
I decide to stay busy purifying water. Sitting on a rock, swirling a UV light in liter after liter of creek water, I attempt to focus on my breathing. I attune myself to the feeling of air in my nostrils, air in my throat, air filling then leaving my lungs, and I try to let my anxious thoughts glide past like clouds. But my mind’s eye centers on darkness, discounting rational explanations in favor of this image: Joseph face-down in the creek—unconscious, maybe drowned—having slipped on a rock and hit his head. I debate when to seek help from nearby campers. 5:00? 5:30? It’s been nearly three hours since I’ve seen him. When is it reasonable to panic?
Reason and mindfulness do not prevail. I imagine a helicopter circling, first responders tromping down the trail with a rescue litter. I imagine my mother crumpling on the kitchen floor. In my gut, I feel the sharp, sucking sensation of fresh loss. And in that moment, my past, present, and imagined future coalesce. I am not just the negligent sister, who led her brother to his end. I am the forsaken wife, kneeling on the floor of a dark living room, reading and rereading the note on the coffee table. And I am the fatherless daughter, folded over the hospital bed in my parents’ bedroom, cheek pressed against an unmoving chest. A familiar refrain loops in my head: Come back. Come back. Come back.
Once more, I walk to the base of the forks and shout “Joseph!” downstream. Then I issue the summons our father taught us, a call he and his college friends developed to find each other in crowds: “Cha-choo! Cha-choo!” I listen and hear only moving water and birdsong.
I repeat this process upstream, at both the left fork and the right. Searching for movement, I see nothing but the fluid motion of the creek and trembling leaves.
Slowly, I walk back to our campsite. I look at my watch and see that it is almost 5:00. A wave of anguish swallows me, and I throw my head back and wail. My eyes blur with tears. My arms go limp. My shoulders shake. Then, like the grieving woman in the Gospel stories, I hear a voice behind me. I hear my name.
I whirl around, and there is Joseph—unharmed, smiling, whole.
He sees I’m crying and rushes to hug me. “I heard you calling. Are you okay? What happened?”
“I thought you were dead,” I say.
“Why?” he asks.
“You were gone for three hours. I didn’t know where you were.”
Joseph tilts his head. “Really? It was that long?”
“Sorry,” he says. Then he pulls his phone out of his pocket. “Look what I found.”
On his camera roll, there are close-up pictures of a yellow amanita mushroom and a water-filled maple leaf. Bright red tips of British soldier lichen top pale green stems. There are flat stones piled into a cairn and side-by-side cross-sections of rocks split in two. There’s a crawfish no bigger than a quarter, peeling curls of birch bark, and shelves of bracket fungi climbing up a tree.
“Beautiful,” I say.
Later, I ponder the terror I experienced when faced with the unlikely possibility of my brother’s death. What was that? The survival instinct in hyper-drive? A vestigial compulsion to protect anyone who shares my DNA? We are intelligent creatures endowed with consciousness. Maybe that’s part of the problem—we “tax [our] lives with forethought of grief,” as the farmer-poet Wendell Berry so aptly puts it. But the large frontal lobes of our brains also allow us to control our biological impulses and our perceptions of reality. Caution and an awareness of danger are useful attitudes, but what advantage is there to unremitting dread of death, the most inevitable and ordinary condition of existence? We cannot escape this truth: we will lose what we have—all that we love and hate, everything we know and do not know, our minds and memories and bodies. All of us will die. Given this reality, shouldn’t our species be better at letting go?
I am not advocating indifference to death, and I am not suggesting that the particular, intimate losses we experience are meaningless. Poet Pattiann Rogers’ thoughts on this matter resonate with me: “Every death, whether creature or flower, whether a thousand pine needles of the forest or a weak hatchling pushed from its nest or a whale stranded on a beach or a deer starving on the plains… each and every death is mighty and significant.”
We are part of a great web of being, all of us connected. When one creature ceases to be, that changes the fabric of existence. I want to wrap myself in this ever-changing fabric, this substrate in which death and life are inextricable and incarnation is fleeting, and to feel peace.
The next morning, I spend ten minutes watching a slug inch its way over a branch we set in its path. I am reminded of two principles of mindfulness—ones I find difficult to implement and easy to ignore: patience and non-striving. I want to be a non-anxious, open, fully present person, but punishing myself for slow progress is counterproductive. Meditation instructor Jon Kabat-Zinn describes movement toward our goals in meditation not as linear, but as an unfolding we allow to happen within ourselves. I find this reassuring.
After breakfast, we set off on a side trip to Breathed Mountain. Without weight on our backs, we move quickly, talking about the Solnit essay Joseph read last night when he borrowed my book.
“I like what she said about being lost,” he says, “how you get un-lost not by going back, but by turning into something else. That makes sense.”
“Instar,” I say. The word has been rolling around my mind since I read its definition yesterday—a stage between two successive molts. “I like the idea of being a creature in the process of becoming.”
I tell Joseph about a podcast I recently listened to about the metamorphosis of butterflies: A caterpillar constructs its chrysalis and, once safely inside, liquefies. Cut open that fragile shell early on, and you will find primordial goo. Given enough time, that goo will aggregate into a butterfly. How that happens is something of a mystery, even to entomologists.
What most intrigues me about the metaphor of insect metamorphosis is that transformation hinges on inaction and undoing. Sure, the larva must build its chrysalis, but the act of building isn’t the point. Pupation is where the magic happens. In transmutation, doing is subordinate to being.
I want to ask Joseph what and who and how he wants to be, but I’m concerned those questions will just make him feel more pressure. The burden of doing already weights heavy on him. Declare a major. Choose the right classes. Get that internship. Make connections and money and a name for yourself. I want to tell him not to worry about any of that—it’s all bullshit, anyway, distractions from the deep stuff, from the kind of living that will give him a rich inner life. But who am I to criticize worry? And why should I assume my way of making meaning is the best or only way? How to live—that’s something Joseph will have to figure it out on his own.
We turn off the rocky trail into an opening in a rhododendron thicket. From there, we follow a series of cairns through the forest, up a pile of boulders, and onto the summit of Breathed Mountain, which reminds me of an enormous fractured tabletop. We leap over cracks and chasms and scramble over inclined ledges, working our way to the eastern edge of the escarpment. Finally, we stop and take in the view. We face the deep, narrow gorge formed by Red Creek, which marks the end of the Allegheny Plateau and the beginning of the Allegheny Front. Standing at the precipice, we stare into undulating green ridges.
It has been raining since we arrived at our campsite on the banks of Alder Run. We managed to collect a little firewood and to cover it with my poncho before it got too wet to burn, but the rain hasn’t let up. Undeterred by the weather, Joseph has gone out and returned from his daily exploration. We’ve cooked and eaten dinner in the rain. There’s nothing to do but sit in the tent and wait for night to come. We play tic-tac-toe and dots on scrap paper. We drain my phone battery listening to a reading of a short story. Neither of us feel much like talking.
I’m just starting to feel sleepy when Joseph announces that he thinks he can get a fire started in the island in the creek. He tells me that earlier, he discovered a fire ring there that’s sheltered by a thick stand of spruce trees. Their overlapping branches will have kept it relatively dry.
“You don’t have to come,” he says.
I admit that I’m disinclined to abandon the warmth and dryness of my sleeping bag. But it is our last night in Dolly Sods, and I don’t want to lose this time with Joseph. I don my jacket and pull on soggy shoes. Arms loaded with firewood, we wobble unsteadily across the creek.
It takes a while, but Joseph eventually produces a small flame. Soon, darkness swallows the forest around us. There is only the fire, and our faces, and flickering light on nearby tree trunks. We listen to water—that gentle carver of mountains—dripping through the trees, gliding over and around stones in its eternal downstream passage. We sit on this island, this in-between place—content, for the moment, to be together, to be still.