Jagged peaks ripping into the horizon
was what I witnessed as we sped down I-8,
cutting through the middle of the state that is
only for lovers.
Signs for this cavern and that cavern, each
proclaiming the biggest and the best and the most
popular, with paved roads jutting into the untouched
surrounding forests and ridges.
“Hey writerman, take some snapshots,” proclaimed
my brotherman-slash-chauffeur. But I was too slow on the
iPhone draw, more concerned with the voices playing
hued pixels uploading into my grey matter hard drive
as the leaves of the enclaved
sugar maples, eastern hemlocks, and white oaks
dance in unison.
I had forgotten the virtuous awe and wonderment
of the millennia-old platonic crash, as ancient as my
distant childhood. The simplicity, highwayman
versus nature, discovering new valleys and ridges,
new hillocks and mountain bluffs,
dramatic cliffs, and rocky overhangs
as salient as the sky, higher than the
imagination of my inner sapling.
The trees and foothills whisked by
obscuring the trees and homes together
like a surrealist artist throwing his liquid
colors at random on an unsuspecting canvas.
“Speed Enforced by Aircraft” signs warned
as the chauffeur topped out between 80 and
85 mph. We saw zero helos or tiger drones
swooping down to catch a couple hippies by the toe.
I guess we were doing just fine, even
with the New York bumper fixture staring
at the motoring Southerners with a triumphant
middle finger waving high.
But the Empire State—despite her beautiful
Adirondacks and the brilliant Catskills
and the upstate rolling knolls and forests—
does not have picturesque landscapes like the dense communes
flying by at the speed of technology.
My hard drive was only able to absorb as
much as the critters, white-tailed deer,
black bears, and birds will allow,
while the flying squirrels and screech owls take
stock in the day and embrace the
night Virginian atmosphere, untouched by
the exhaust coughers and humming motors below.
In the midst of the light speed abstraction
approaching in slow motion within the claymation,
stop-action, choppy wave of foliage, there was an
electronic break, a glitch in matrices’ derivation,
valleys, without the spanning ditch over the
eclectic mountainside, in a rhythmic pattern
like pavement breaks sounding out
its tar-bumped beat into the undercarriage machinery.
These distressing glades weren’t where wild turkeys
roam and graze over grassy hills stacked on grassy hills,
giant staircases used by the gods of old
to climb the majestic mountainside and caress the ether.
They were paths straight through the besmirched
forest, plowed and hacked by loggers and
utility vehicles to erect the wooden crosses
of high-tension wires, alternating Edison’s
long-awaited discovery to feed the needs of
cities and towns; the radio and cell towers
arrogantly erected on the unreachable peaks
and ridges, bypassing the squalor and
shaky shacks of the dystopian deep
within the dark hollows of the forest floor,
ridge after ridge, through uncharted boulder
formations, deep into the range’s faded backdrop.
I thought I saw a large bird jet out of the vibrating
and intertwined canopy. Maybe it was a migrated
bald eagle, or hawk, or falcon, or an early-rising owl,
sightlines interrupted by an over usage of minutes,
data, or thousands of reliant townsfolk needing to
make a call or watch the “Price is Right” all at the
same time, crisscrossing sound and electromagnetic
waves, confusing its unreliable senses, forcing a
hasty retreat into the expanse where safety and clarity
only exist along the unsullied ridges and apexes.
A serrated, celestial path meant only for
birds and the ghosts of paramours.
September in Virginia. The leaves have yet to
change, summer’s grip holding on tightly while those
leaves clap in delight and welcome with open
branches the migrations of chilly feathers.
Was that my American robin neighbor from the old oak in my backyard
flitting about that adolescent red oak like a bright-eyed girl
on the first warm spring day after a brutal winter?
Northerners do enjoy the warm autumns and mild winters.
It brings me joy she found her way back here.
But those damnable mountain roads. Man’s insatiable
desire to intrude threw asphalt on the ground once
occupied by trees filled with songbirds skimming
along the moss and weeds and dead limbs,
singing songs of freedom and love to the falcons perched
on the highest bluff and the black bears foraging
through a camper’s cooler for processed treats.
The old vacation spot has lost some of
its luster; some birds finding more luxurious
habitats to coexist with, but she is still drawn to
the shimmering lakes to glisten with,
cascading waterways to run marathons with,
open meadows where she can play tag with sprites,
and profound shadowy forestlands to take her rest
away from the blinking metal giants.
Reality. The daydream was over. The paused movie
returned back to its normal 80 mph surrealistic blur along
my passenger seat window. The songbirds were still chirping
their concert on the wooden stage that’s
almost as big as Virginia itself, more monumental than Maine
and South Carolina, reaching higher than a concert
in Colorado’s Mile High Stadium, albeit the
songbirds may not sell out there.
But here, all of nature can revel in the
benevolence of the closing notes of the day’s
final concert of the summer and autumn long
Blue Ridge Mountain Music Festival.
My trance broke because a venom spitting semi growled
as it downshifted in the other lane. Passing the behemoth took
an eternity. The 18-wheeled inhibitor of my bird study slowly descended
from my periphery, and above its cabin was a flock of sparrows
scattering in every direction, startled by some movement of time.
Maybe they were wood thrushes interrupted by
the rudeness of Mr. Semi in nature’s audience, a heckler
interjecting into their high trilled melody with a begrudged
harrumph. Maybe they were cerulean warblers feeding
high in the trees along the steep bluffs and vertigo cliffs,
dancing to a little chirping jazz while dining with friends
and family. Birds of a feather and all that…
Higher above the panicking birds playing their
cacophonous game of tag, the cloud cover reminded
me of something distinct, something that dissidents
of music couldn’t possibly comprehend.
The sparrows or warblers or thrushes took shape,
a triangle in the expanse, a fighter plane formation.
One after the other they jumped in line—like the noise of
improvisational jazz blending together into a serenading melody—
and skirted the edge of a half-mile deep bowl climaxed
at the top of some ridge halfway between
the forefront mountain and faded peak fifty
miles away along the newly formed skyline.
They emulated the formation of the
altocumulus, a white sheet of rounded
semitransparent lines, like small continuous
waves rolling toward the horizon shoreline.
The arms of the cumulus pulled backward
just as the sparrow or warbler or thrush or hawk
would do if they were swooping down like
thrill-seeking skydivers. The warblers flocked and
jetted along the ridge, following along the
cumulus’ undulating flow, contiguous with the lay lines
created by the hum of the cobalt crests. It reminded me
of a Dead concert I saw in ’03. Already
a spectacular day with the noted musings
of Moe and ole Shotgun Willie. One didn’t need
their own pipe during that extravaganza. The emerald-studded
hillside backdrop to the stage where the sun was
bursting forth its alpenglow tantrum of crimson, gold
and burnt orange as it slunk down looked like a raging
maelstrom, a Fire on the Mountain, as the boys took the
stage and pounded their first note. A flock of thrushes buzzed
the communed crowd like the flock of sparrows diving down from
the altocumulus formation. They found their byline and flew around
the back screen like the Blue Angels or F-15
fighters would to tantalize excitedly anxious gawkers.
The flocks forebodingly ferried only feet above the
awestruck musicians and gathered thousands
to cheers and praises knowing a lost god
had returned to give us his blessing.
Maybe those carriers of ghosts scattered because they
were frightened by an unruly and impatient
black bear searching for food or brush in the brambles,
prepping for the mild winter. It could
very well be possible that one just picked an
unwilling, susceptible bark-curling tree to
give itself one hell of a back scratch that shook
the entire canopy to its foundations while
he, or she, let out a gentle and soothing roar.
But the thrushes, undaunted by creatures chained
to roam over the forest floor, in their military formation, take
hard lefts and sharp rights to get back to the cadence
of their home, absolute to avoid the amalgam of
disrupting powerlines protruding from the
rows of crosses and metal blinking giants.
They turn here, there, loop-de-loop;
it was almost as fun to watch as it is to sit in some
amusement park’s ancient rollercoaster, climbing way up,
shooting down, hard left, through coils and bowtie hoops.
As close to a bird as we will get.
As we passed by that random mountain, ridge,
bowl, and bluff, and begin to move on to the next,
I felt conflicted. I would’ve like to have stayed
and watched the encore of the day’s concert,
feel it reverberating through my ears and
spine from the natural amplifiers, generating
intense goose bumps with every growl, shrill,
tweet and caw, and the crescendo reaching a
penetrating pinnacle. I looked ahead, three hours
to go, almost the entire Lovers’ State to our final
destination, anxious for our own festive partaking
of musical genius, powered by one of the ubiquitous
paths of crosses cut through these majestic mountains, disrupting
our mother and her flocks. Maybe I could forgive that for four days,
or just forget about it until the drive home, watching the
stars from my campsite, jubilant for darkness.
I pulled out my camping pillow, stained with sweat, dirt, dried
rain spots and eagerness, and laid my head against my
voyeuristic window, settled in with a long blink
lulled by the heartbeat of the road.
I daydreamed about what the grand finale, the final woodnote,
would be high on that ragged bluff while the sun in the
backdrop freed its cascade of light spectrums outlining specters
and throws the day’s final demarcation onto the
hollows, dirt roads, powerlines and signal towers, creeping over
and flushing them into the black hole until the fiery star reawakens.
The final trill of the wood thrush sounded to the applause
of the white oaks and sugar maples,
and the spirits finally had peace.
This was originally published in Spring 2018 edition of The Helix.