Such a simple thing, to look up and see the stars at night. Not just a few faded twinkling lights, like those above the glowing dome of our fair city, but a sky full of ground glass on velvet, silver light everywhere. Up along the Appalachian Trail, from horizon to horizon, there was a glittery curtain of them. From the rock perch deep in the woods where the cabin sat, we could see down into the Page Valley, the little town of Elkton below, its grid of streetlights no match for the awesome celestial display overhead.
T. and I had hiked in after dark, feeling our way along a spidery trail that was still wet from an afternoon storm. When we finally arrived, slogging down a steep and uncertain path, E. was waiting on the stone porch, having hiked in earlier after a business trip to Harrisonburg. Pasta was hastily made, which quickly cooled on our dinner plates as a chilly wind blew up from the valley below. No matter: it was marvelous to sit perched on that ledge, looking out into space, starlight shining down on heaps of cold pasta. The war, and the awful casualties to come the next day, was to me as I was to the stars above: distant and inconsequential.
A little Wild Turkey showed up, in bottle form.
The rodent chewing on some wooden dowels beneath one of the cabin bunks was referred to over the weekend variously as The Chinchilla, The Wombat, The Weasel, The Hamster and The Creature. What he was exactly is still unconfirmed. Though it was agreed that “a cross between a squirrel and a hamster” best described the lil mofo, who walked toward me with such bravado as I shined my flashlight on him that it completely unnerved me. Would he be just as fearless during the night, while we slept, possibly chewing a hole into one of us, or curling up against one of our sleeping bags for warmth? Those were the questions turning over in my head as I fell asleep that night. He never reappeared after the first sighting. He must’ve been happy to simply secretly chew in some dark recess of the cabin.
M. arrived the next day, despite my bad directions. We met her on the path down from the summit of Hawksbill. A. arrived later in the afternoon, towing a six pack of beer, 6 bottles of artichoke hearts and a can of Brunswick stew (though no can opener). His dog Jack came too, to The Chinchilla’s chagrin, I’m sure. T. left a little later, after chopping his requisite amount of firewood. J. didn’t show at all, probably because of my bad directions.
I took in the sunset as I pee’d off of a rock. I felt like I was christening the dawning world. More pasta followed, accompanied rather jarringly with large cupfuls of Lynchburg Lemonade (bourbon + Crystal Light). We had planned a rather long hike the next day, and I needed some fortitude. So I had another cup, took another scenic, yet unsteady, pee, played Crazy 8s with the M. & E., and fell asleep as the wood stove roared and the wind outside strafed the cabin roof.
The next day, due to a wrong turn near the end of the trail, our 9-mile hike down Whiteoak Canyon turned into a bitter 13-mile endurance test. The falls, which ran along the trail most of the way, were spectacular. The snowmelt had caused the banks to swell, and the rushing water roared over the rocks and into the gorge. We had to do several stream crossings, one in our bare feet against strong currents and over sharp, slippery stones. It is hard to describe how the numbingly cold water felt: I would’ve cried if weeping would not have prolonged my time in the river. Seeing the faces of E. and M. as they crossed was confirmation that they probably felt the same. A. strolled across in his boots. Pussy.
We ended up stumbling down Skyline Drive the extra 2 miles to where our cars were parked. The tantalzing vision of a Dairy Queen sign, poking up over the treetops, kept my shell of a body hurtling forward despite being long past physical exaustion. Milkshakes. Dilly bars. A choice of toppings.
There was a DQ in Stanardsville, and though it didn’t make my feet feel any better, the vanilla milkshake I had did renew my flagging spirit. With each pull on my straw, I felt a little bit better.
As we drove east toward Richmond, listening to the dark news on the radio, I imagined Baghdad, only instead of being lit up by bombs, it was lit by starlight and full of primeval silence–and cold raging waters spilled down and rushed across the desert sand. People leapt into the icy torrent and were swept away, weeping, weeping, weeping with joy.