Milford Gap

February 27, 2023

The runners arriving at the Milford Gap aid station were exhausted, cold, bleary-eyed. Sarah, the station team lead, had prepared tasty, wood-fired pizza, they devoured it and guzzled water. It was a crystal-clear early morning, but really still the middle of the night. The stars and a quarter moon glowed in the mountain sky. We let the runners sit for a few minutes, checked their condition, then sent them north on the Massanutten Trail.

The team arrived at the station site mid-afternoon the previous day. Sarah picked up Stephanie, Mike, and Keith, all Milford Gap veterans, in Washington. She then stopped for me at a post office on Fort Valley Road, which runs through the eastern and western ridges of Virginia’s Massanutten range from Strasburg to Luray. We took a side road due east towards the ridge for maybe three miles. She found the trail intersection, pulled forward, and backed up the trail for a couple of hundred yards, nestling the car against the hillside on the passenger’s side. I shimmied out on the driver’s side.

Sarah, team lead

We hauled the folding table, portable stove, utensils, food, water, and bottles of Sarah’s choice of wines a steep half-mile up the Milford Gap trail. Larry, a team member who lives nearby, had erected a canopy and cut a couple of cords of firewood. We set up, Mike got the fire going.

This was for the Reverse Ring, a strange, 71-mile trail run held the last weekend of February by the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club. Milford Gap is an obscure place among many obscure places in the George Washington National Forest along the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail. Sarah had established the Milford station at the site eight years ago, roughly equidistant from the 45-mile aid-station at Camp Roosevelt and the finish at Signal Knob mountain, the northernmost point in the Massanuttens.

About 15 runners started the race at 6:00 AM Saturday. Ten stepped back on the trail that evening at Roosevelt for the 12 miles to Milford. We waited. Hours passed, the temperature dropped into the thirties, maybe twenties. Sitting near the fire we could see our breath. Sarah cooked the pizzas on the hot coals and passed them around. It was my birthday, she handed me the first slices. “Happy birthday,” everyone said with a smile.

We talked about trailrunning, family, work, health, got to know each other better. I recalled my last Reverse Ring in 2018, when I arrived at Milford around 2:00 AM, out of water and close to dehydration. The team refueled me and pointed me at the trail. “Stay on orange,” Sarah said, or something like that. The trail forks just below the station, a wrong turn would take the runner on a dangerous down-mountain trek into oblivion. I stumbled but got the turn right and finished in daylight.

Back in the moment I looked up and down the trail and recognized the gradual dip from the north into the station, the slight bend to the south. I trekked south out of camp a few hundred yards, feeling the strain on my out-of-shape lungs and legs. The trail climbed gently and curled west, then east, just as I remembered it. The forest was silent. We still were hours from seeing runners.

Around 10:00 PM we saw the gleam of a headlamp in the darkness. Our first runner arrived in good shape. We fed and refueled him, he thanked us and trotted down the trail. Close to an hour passed, a second customer showed up. More time passed, we fed the fire and looked up the dark trail. Two more showed up and stayed longer.

The Reverse Ring wears on the human body. The cold, the rocks, the wilderness solitude, the relentless climbing can break the spirit. Sarah kept making her pizzas. We shivered, nodded, closed our eyes. Sketchy data showed up on Mike’s cellphone. Runners Kathleen, Barry and his pacer, and Marty still were out there.

We stared at the dark trail. A light appeared, veteran trailrunner Kathleen glided in. She ate a bit, refueled, closed her eyes for a moment, then rose and headed out. An hour passed, we saw two lights moving slowly and heard voices. Barry and his pacer strolled in and took seats. They visited a while, thanked us, and disappeared.

“Marty!” we called. Where’s Marty? I didn’t pick up on the reference. Around 3:30 AM he appeared out of the night, striding softly. He was an old friend whom I had known for years with the club, had run with many times, until we packed up and moved away. He grinned and sprawled in a chair. “Give my best to Sandy,” he whispered. We talked a bit. He didn’t want food, but took water and stumbled into the darkness.

Things rush back. My birthday, once again on Reverse Ring weekend, the fifth anniversary of my last day and night in this place: the immortal, unchanging rock-choked trail, the dark ridges, the bright sky, the night lights against the Shenandoahs in the distance.

The hardness of the Massanutten range in winter settles in the mind and the heart.  I turned away from staring into the forest. The team was breaking camp. We put out the fire, packed the gear, the lighting, the odds and ends. It was 4:00 AM. We snapped on our headlamps and slogged down the Milford trail.             

Way to Go

February 20, 2023

Our parish is pushing to build a columbarium, to be called “Columbarium Garden.”  It will consist of six structures on the parish grounds, each containing 84 “niches” for a total of 504. A niche would accommodate one or two urns containing “cremains” of license holders.

The church has asked interested parishioners to purchase a license by late March, $10,000 for the dual niche, $5,000 for the single, payable upfront in full. The church needs the commitments, and the cash, for 100 dual licenses or the equivalent of single and dual licenses in value to award a construction contract.

The parish announced three informational meetings a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t pay attention. Sandy wanted to go, thinking ahead, as usual. 

Who thinks about death? That is, how on this earth you’ll be disposed of. We’re all reminded to make a will and do the associated paperwork, the advanced medical directive and so on. Funeral directors and the administrative people at cemeteries think about the business side—death is their business. So do churches that want to set up columbarians.

So apart from the philosophical/spiritual and the business side, there’s the question, where to end up. Until just now I’d never thought about it, life itself is overwhelming. I’ve been to the columbarium at Arlington National Cemetery, where veterans rest. The niches come in a range of  sizes. You can get roomy ones for two or more urns, or singles the size of a dresser drawer.

My parents and younger brother all are buried in traditional graves in a Catholic cemetery in New Jersey, a short drive from where they lived for most of their lives. It’s a serene, beautiful place. We drove to Jersey in August and visited their graves. It had been five years. But most of the remaining family moved hundreds of miles away.

Sandy’s family has a plot in the cemetery in her hometown of Cowan, Tennessee, at the foot of the Cumberland Plateau. A few years ago we stopped at the cemetery, a quiet, lovely spot. Only her grandparents and a couple of long-departed aunts and uncles repose there. Her parents and older brother are in a veterans’ cemetery 100 miles away in Nashville.

I don’t see us going to the Jersey cemetery. Sandy’s siblings moved away years ago, they’re not interested in the Cowan gravesites. That leaves two sites unclaimed but paid for. How about Cowan, I asked, half-kidding. She didn’t care for the idea, not at all. No one would ever come to visit us, she said. My answer: we wouldn’t know that and wouldn’t care.

For some folks, cremation allows flexibility, no earthly real estate required. We released a cousin’s ashes into the surf in Florida, within seconds they disappeared into the waves, into immortality. Scattering ashes on private property generally requires the owner’s permission.

Traditional Catholic teaching used to oppose cremation, holding that the deceased body remains, spiritually, the temple of the soul, and should not be shaken from a box to fly off in the air on a mountaintop, into a lake, or your backyard. In recent years, the rules have been modified to allow cremation. Still, the cremated remains, like a body buried in a coffin, must have an intact physical resting place, not including your mantel.

We went to the third meeting and picked up the brochure. Probably fifty or sixty folks showed up. Like us, most were up there in years. A few forward-thinking fifty-somethings attended.

A volunteer made the pitch. The background, he said, is that the parish purchased some land adjacent to the church grounds to avoid it being occupied by a 7-11, a gas station, or a McDonald’s. Then the idea came up. Other Catholic churches around the city already have established columbariums. An “opportunity survey” got 132 positive responses. The church got the go-ahead from the diocesan HQ in Charleston and hired an architect.

The volunteer called on a local funeral director who briefed the process. State law requires a cremation authorization certificate. The family can have the traditional viewing of the deceased in a coffin followed by a Mass or other funeral service, followed by cremation and interring in the niche. A variation: the body is cremated first, the deceased attends the service in his or her urn prior to being interred.

The session had its moments. The volunteer stressed the somewhat elusive fact that the columbarian “opportunity” was being offered but not pushed. “We’re not saying, ‘wanna get cremated—we’ve got a spot for you,’” he said. “The niche is a permanent resting place for those who chose this option.”

The crowd had questions: What if you buy now then move away and change your mind, was one. “You write a letter, within 30 days the church may agree to refund the money, minus an administrative fee,” the volunteer said. If it doesn’t, you’re free to resell.

“So the church needs a million dollars by late March,” someone yelled. “That’s about right,” the volunteer said. He added that the church knows the 504 niches won’t be sold by March.

Lots of things come up for us, one being cost. The volunteer cited ballpark costs for other local columbarians, some were higher, others a tad lower. “We’re trying to thread the needle on cost,” he said. Then too, the $10,000/$5,000 is the current pricetag. Down the road it probably will be $12,000/$7,000. Like buying a car or renovating your kitchen. Everything goes up.

We saw some artist’s concepts. The columbarian will go in a pretty, wooded end of the property, with a small fountain in the center, an altar at one end, a nice walkway leading from the church. The six structures will be aligned, three on each side of a wide plaza-like space. There’s room for expansion, too.

The structures will be cut from high-grade Canadian granite. I thought of photos of German pillboxes at Normandy. Not much artistry needed for 84 niches.

Are we ready for this? Are we in this town for eternity? I’ve got another birthday this week, they’re piling up, along with medical care stretching out to the crack of doom, ha-ha. Looks that way, anyway.  What about the veterans’ cemetery over in Anderson? We could drive over. Just to look.

River and Woods

February 13, 2023

U.S. 11 curls southwest from Chesnee, in the remote north-central corner of South Carolina, through nearly empty country down to Lake Hartwell on the Georgia state line. It ends when the asphalt runs out at a red clay hill at the east side of an I-85 overpass.

The South Saluda River separates from the North and the Middle Saluda in the state’s northern tier and flows along Rte. 11, then turns south. At one point along the north side of the highway near Table Rock State Park the shoulder widens for parking. A cutout on the south side allows room for a half-dozen cars. Fishermen try for trout in the swift-flowing river that the state stocks a couple of times a year. In good weather all the spaces may be taken.

I had passed the spot many times, but until that afternoon never stopped. I parked at the cutout and walked into the woods, then through the underbrush to the river. A woman in a Carolina jacket stood next to the water waving a fishing rod, preparing to cast. I stopped and watched, she leaned forward and heaved her line a few feet into the current.

“Any luck?” I asked. She turned towards me. She had soft features, gentle, bright eyes, short gray hair. Her jacket descended below her waist to her faded blue jeans. I guessed she was around fifty.

“No, sir. My husband and I just got here. He’s downstream aways. We saw the state fisheries truck stop here to stock trout, so we said, ‘let’s try here.’ We’ve fished in lots of these creeks. I do it to relax. It relaxes me.” Her voice had the twangy lilt of the mint-julep South, Georgia or Alabama, instead of the Appalachian Southern accent I’m used to.

She reeled in and cast again, the bait flew off the hook and landed on the ground behind her.

“You lost your bait,” I said. The red salmon egg stood out against the dirt.

“I think I’ll try worms,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t really care if I catch anything. It relaxes me.” She lowered the rod and looked up the river in both directions.

“Good luck,” I called and turned away.

“Thank you, sir, have a wonderful day, sir.” She smiled and nodded.

I walked a couple of hundred yards down a trail that followed the river, but didn’t see anyone. I wondered if she was alone and mentioned the husband as a kind of security measure. In several places the underbrush had been stomped down to allow access to the water. I stepped onto the bank. The river flowed quickly, the surface smooth, rippling over snagged driftwood, the water so clear I could see the bottom, six or eight feet deep. I headed back to the road, but looked behind me. The woman stood on the bank, holding her rod stiffly in the air.

The parking area was empty. The spot was silent except for the occasional passing car. It was at that moment a kind of retreat, along a rural road through thick forest, a place of solitude in the middle of nowhere or close to it, at least 20 miles from the nearest town.

This strange place somehow detached me for a short while from the hardness of the rest of the world, from sadness and tragedy. Ukrainians are fighting a brutal war. The earthquake in Turkey and Syria has killed thousands. Biden in his State of the Union didn’t mention it. He squabbled with Republicans who hated everything he said except “stand up for seniors!”

The U.S 11 cutoff isn’t scenic or lovely. On the north side is a marker for the Wildcat Wayside Wilderness, one of those off-the-map recreation points for passersby looking for something to do in the middle of a long trip. Beyond the sign a trail rises steeply up the mountainside and turns into dark forest.

As I started along the trail a spell of late-winter warmth and humidity passed through. The trail weaved upward along a creek, bounded by heavy rocks. The trees were bare, the rush of the water echoed softly. The earth became moist and muddy.

The trail wound for a mile through thick growth to a high ledge below a drizzling waterfall, the water falling over massive boulders and cascading into the creek.  From the waterfall the trail circles back to the road. Usually in these places you see other explorers, young adults, old adults, children, searching for whatever nature offers. Today, no one.

It was mid-afternoon, but the sun already had faded behind heavy gray overcast. The woods had become gloomy and strange, the way the South, and Southerners, sometimes become gloomy and strange.

In the eerie half-light the place called to mind “Deliverance,” the James Dickey book and movie about raw savagery in mountain hillbilly Georgia, which is not far from Wildfire Wayside. The culture of a place will set in. It was a half-dozen nights ago that in the Capitol some members of Congress, one of them the woman from North Georgia, showed off their coarseness of mind by cursing at Biden.

I struggled with that thought. As I hoofed it down the trail I wondered about the woman at the river. What did she think when she heard me approach behind her? Did the fishing bring a sense of serenity and comfort or like me, the images of “Deliverance?” Was she, alone in the woods, a bit nervous?

Mysteries of humanity, of our state of being, rise and pursue us. In remote places, things seem to come together or break apart. The hard, rocky roughness of the woods brought to mind the people in the House Chamber who shouted and cursed during the Biden speech, unfolding the “Deliverance” metaphor in that distant dimension.  

Then I thought of the woman with her fishing rod, her soft bearing, her compassionate eyes, her delicate, musical accent. I inhaled the rich aroma of the woods as it grew dim in late afternoon, feeling the mildness of the late-winter Southern air, the emptiness of the place, which can be ominous or sublime. I stepped from the trail into the fading light. 

The Cove

February 6, 2023

East Tennessee always was a mystery for us, a vast chunk of the deep-green hard-edged Appalachian complex: fundamentalist religion, isolated small towns, the tourist traps of Gatlinburg, Sevierville, Pigeon Forge. The majestic wilderness of the Great Smokies then becomes an escape from all that.

We’ve done a couple of junkets in those parts, once a couple of nights in Gatlinburg after delivering daughter Marie to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville; a night just outside Sevierville on the way to Virginia from Nashville, a weekend in Greeneville. The drive to Sevierville along TN 66 is a hard slog through relentless retail. Greeneville, farther north near I-81, still carries on a love affair for the city’s native son, first-to-be impeached pro-Confederacy President Andrew Johnson. Marty Robbins sang it: some bad memories never die.  

Winter is not the time to be in the Smokies, but you can always hope. We headed for Wears Valley, about ten miles south of Pigeon Forge and maybe 15 west of Gatlinburg. The route is either I-26 to Asheville to I-40 toward Knoxville, then south on local roads, or a state road through the national park.

Exit 447 off I-40 leads into Hartford, Tenn. Lindsey Gap Road then winds through dark mountain canyons out of Bluffton, for a dozen or more miles of backholler country with all its hidden sadness: ramshackle mobile homes and prefab shacks emitting ribbons of wood-stove smoke, collapsing heaps of firewood, broken appliances, tireless pickups scattered just off the asphalt. Then too, the occasional multi-story log mansion.

We navigated one-lane bridges over rushing whitewater creeks and crossed from Cocke County into Sevier and hit camper rental paradise: Serendipity Falls, Wildwood Acres, Smoky Bear Campground and RV Park, Cosby Creek, Smoky Mountain Zipline, and on and on.

Sevierville, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge grew through the history of tough settlers blazing trails through jagged mountains to farm, hunt, and trap, bloody Cherokee wars, border disputes. But if you come, you should like miniature golf, wax museums, and pancake houses. We came in from northwest, past Smoky Mountain Moonshine, Hollywood Stars Museum, Alcatraz East Crime Museum, Top-Jump Trampoline & Extreme Arena, Ghost Walk of Gatlinburg, Ripley’s Marvelous Mirror Maze, you get the picture.

We fought our way south past downtown Pigeon Forge. The dreck thins out to the occasional souvenir shop and BBQ place. The view along U.S. 321 then calms down as it enters Wears Valley, a stretch of farmland, pastures, and gentle terrain spread beneath the surrounding peaks.

We turned up the heat at the cabin as the mercury dipped into the teens. We were at the cusp of the Smokies, which when framed by dawn rose darkly in the east. Within the park is the pristine jewel of Cades Cove, just past the hamlet of Townsend, which is one of those inconspicuous places that sees tourists flow by and wants them to hang around and spend some money. Nearness to Cades Cove helps.

John Oliver cabin

I saw the Cove in its vernal June wonder more than 40 years ago, then spent those years planning to go back. The park road twists (they all twist in East Tennessee) along the fast-moving Little River. Countless small spring-fed waterfalls that run down the mountain walls were frozen, turned to icicles. The Cove is the lush, sweeping meadow laid out inside the ridge mountains, ringed by an 11-mile loop road.

Cherokee warriors blazed trails through the valley before the 1700s, hunting deer, elk, bison, and bear. Some of their trails still lead into the forests. Early Whites were fur traders who came and went. John Oliver and his wife, Lurena Frazier, who arrived in 1818, were the first permanent White settlers.

Their two-story, two-room cabin, built of thick rough-hewn boards held together without nails, the chinks insulated with mud, is the first stop along the loop. They grew corn and hay in the valley. At one early point the Cherokees gave them food to keep them alive.   

In time, other Whites trickled in. The Shields, the Whiteheads, the Tiptons, the Lawsons, all built homes that still stand facing the center of the Cove. Eventually John Oliver’s son Elijah built a cabin at the west end, adding a “stranger room” to host overnight guests. Hundreds of others settled deeper in the forest, cutting trees to create farmland and pastures. They built humble one-room churches.

An upright piano stands next to the rude lectern in the Methodist church. In the small cemetery outside sleep the souls of Cove people born in the 1830s, including children whose tiny, worn grave markers reveal lives of one or two years.

By around 1850 some 600 pioneers had arrived. Farming was the livelihood. Some of the more prosperous built corn cribs, barns, blacksmith shops, smokehouses, and sorghum mills. A man named John Cable built a water-powered grist mill. The Cove folks started schools that early on taught two or three months of the year, the kids were needed on the farms.

As we moved through the Cove the sun shone but the midwinter chill hung on. So did the visitors. Great Smokies National Park is by far the country’s most visited, with around 12 million each year. Two million come to experience the Cove. On this February day the line of vehicles built up, we moved well along the narrow loop road, but sometimes inched forward. Folks wore parkas and wool caps against the cold, but wanted to be in the place.

Around the loop road, the panoramic breadth of the Cove stretches out to the hazy winter heights of the Smokes that ring it on all sides. The impression is one of serenity, the golden meadow grass meshing with the brown mountain silhouettes. The view off the road is empty of humans. Silence rules.         

A year ago we gambled and lost on a weekend trip to Hilton Head. We thought the South Carolina coast would give us a touch of spring, but got wind, rain, cold. At the Wears Valley cabin we dithered, wondering whether to try the Cove or Gatlinburg’s Parade of Tourist Shlock. The forecast looked grim and storms swept up through the South. This time we got lucky.