James River State Park in the Fall of 2014

When your life is fragmented, you pay more attention to the pieces. A uniform mirror presents an unremarkable surface. When it's broken the pieces glitter more brightly at sun down.

When you get older you pay more attention to the moments. In your mind you can see an imaginary egg timer and each one of those grains of sand you were so careless about in your youth, now seems worth re-examining. The voice from the end of Trainspotting urges you to "choose life."

Yet there are so many pressures to do otherwise. There are so many codes and so many ways we stop kids from being kids. There are so many fetters to the free spirit, so many restrictions  on how we should let the breeze fall on our faces.

Recently I took the kids camping to James River State Park. On so many occasions, all of the practicalities have overwhelmed me and I have given up, just one click away from booking. This time I went through with it and almost four hours later the undulating foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains were opening up before us.

The camp site was primitive - which means there are no showers and the toilets are holes in the ground. In other words only places you frequent in case of a serious emergency. But the site itself was gorgeous, a grassy meadow beside the James River. We put up the tent but still the infernal demons returned from time to time. Why give the kid a hard time for dropping wrappers? Why stress about where I was going to get 12 chunky batteries for the mega light?

I put the infernal demons to one side and we set out on a path beside the river. The sky was high and drifting and the crickets sang in the marshes. The corners of the river were coiling slowly and turning brown with fall, but the succulence of the summer was still heavy in the fields. Finally the pettiness and petulance was ebbing away from me in the vast beating heart of nature.

At night we started a fire. It did not matter that the hamburgers tasted like they were some kind of dead animal back in the day. At night we lost the mega lantern that we had spend a fortune loading up with batteries at the camp shop. We used a free give away flashlight instead. The temperature fell away and I stepped out of the tent in the middle of the night. I expected to see stars, but not stars like this. In the heavens above were layers of constellations intermingled with layers of constellations, winding like silvery cobwebs back to the dawn of time and beyond. I stopped there on the wet grass, taking in my own insignificance in the grand scheme of things. I let the cold wrap around me and imagined drifting away in space forever. Then I headed back to the comfort of the blanket.

The next day we walked to Tye River Overlook - the wooden platform that is known as the highlight of the park. The overlook affords a dramatic view of the confluence of the James and Tye River.

In the morning sunshine we read the story of the night the James River flowed backwards. As the remnants of Hurricane Camille moved through the mountains in 1969 it caused massive rainfall, flooding the Tye River and causing the James River to flow backwards, claiming 113 lives. I had never heard of such a tragedy back when I was a child. I felt a passing chill.

Even on the brightest days and in the most beautiful of places there is a darkness lurking in the most unlikely of places.


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