January 2, 2023
The cruelty of winter at Christmas stunned us. Snow and cold spread hellish suffering across one-third of the country down to the southern border. Courage, love, and grace were present. Good people stepped up to protect, rescue, and sustain victims, in Buffalo, Chicago, elsewhere. They will be needed again. Winter ends, the call on our humanity never does.
In these parts a stale chill hangs on. South Carolina doesn’t have Minnesota’s or Maine’s majestic icy blasts, instead a moist dreariness, bitter after dark. The roads are nearly deserted through the weak sunrises.
Our summers make even a humble dose of winter seem harsh. Here the brown zoysia sets off the evergreen shrubbery, bare crooked limbs of oaks and maples wave at dead landscaping. The once-forested lot at the end of our street was sold a month ago, a woodchipper appeared and turned the trees to sawdust, the hillside is left gaunt and bare. New homes are going up in the mud, testifying that as the economy booms, green space with street access faces bulldozers and concrete mixers.
Meanwhile, winter cold every year turns Yankee minds to Florida. A young cousin is getting married near Orlando in a couple of weeks. We have family there, it will be a happy time.
I went to Fort Lauderdale in June 2019 for a memorial service, held on a suffocating afternoon. In the evening we scattered my cousin’s ashes in the surf. Nine months later Sandy and I drove to Sarasota on the eve of the covid shutdown. We visited friends and family, took in the sea breezes, and saw a Yankees spring training game before the season was canceled. We ascended the scary Sunshine Skyway Bridge that crosses Tampa Bay, and walked on the beach on the Atlantic side.
Memories rush back, then slip away. At New Years, the time for recapping and anticipating, we’re looking at family birthdays, then a bleak litany of medical drills stretching across a dismal calendar.
Still, for the past week we filled the indoor hours with a cheerful topic, the “On the Road” theme: where to go next. Our son and daughter-in-law are heading to Key West. I’d like to go, to see Ernest Hemingway’s house with the cats, the Truman Little White House, the nice weather.
The ideas come, homing on someplace warm. We have family in southern California and friends in Texas and New Mexico. But we have not done anything about our stillborn plan for a family stay to a mountainside cabin, canceled twice three years ago because of covid. The family, me excepted, no longer is interested. What is there to do at for a week at a forest cabin except hike or read? Well, visit and talk. But I get it.
What about a trip to England? What about Hawaii or Alaska? A friend has been to Hawaii 14 times—fun trips, which he pulls off by shrewd management of frequent-flyer miles. We don’t have frequent-flyer miles, but we’ve watched several British detective series and beach travel shows. Others say, “just go,” but it always seems complicated. These places are far away. They then say that’s why you take an airplane.
Along with all the talk, an image haunts me: a fast-moving stream called Passage Creek, hundreds of miles from here. It flows a crooked northeast course 30 miles through the George Washington National Forest along VA 678, or Fort Valley Road, in the northwest corner of Virginia. The road bisects a semi-mythical place called Fort Valley. The creek joins the north fork of the Shenandoah River near Strasburg.
Just past a picnic spot called Camp Roosevelt, Fort Valley Road becomes Crisman Hollow Road, a rough gravel fire road that winds for seven miles through the silent forest. Occasionally tents and solitary campers can be seen along the creek. A lonely camper will show up, tending his fire, chopping wood.
The creek flows past odd landmarks called Elizabeth Furnace, Veach Gap, and Gap Creek. The silence, the wooded denseness, the rocky, unforgiving ascents exert a mysterious hold that has endured for us over the years before we packed up and moved 500 miles south.
Winter nights can be bitter in those parts. Someday we will go back. Maybe we’ll go back.
Crisman Hollow descends to U.S. 211, the in a few miles west reaches New Market, astride I-81 in Shenandoah County. Luray Caverns, near Luray, maybe 15 miles from New Market, is the big tourist draw. Nearby is the site the Battle of New Market of May 1864, a minor Confederate victory, where Virginia Military Institute cadets fought with the rebels.
A few miles east of Luray is a gateway to Shenandoah National Park, a place of unique beauty with a legacy of tragedy. To create the park in the 1930s the federal government expelled thousands of local farmers and miners from their hardscrabble settlements and land they had worked for generations.
A few historical markers and museum exhibits tell of their suffering. In the deepest reaches of the park, far from the picnickers’ trails are the remnants of their stone walls and dwellings, long overgrown. They are scars of injustice, hidden and forgotten.
No one I know is interested in these obscurities. I tell the stories and get polite stares. Memories of these places are fading, but remain as a hazy, ambiguous metaphor for whatever lies ahead. What lies ahead, above all, is a need for uncomplicated, indispensable human connections, the connections of love for those closest to us, for those who have propped us up, who are here, and everywhere.