A Drive Through Burning Hills | Will Halm

I once heard someone give a talk about our origins. About how we’re not from a stereotyped place, but rather from a locality. We live local, learn all the customs and internalize all the rules, take out the trash on Thursdays (not Wednesdays) and avoid that neck of the neighborhood, and that’s what we mean when we say we’re from Austin or L.A. We are each from a place distinctly real in its everyday practices—not the ideal of some city.

But what if you’re from nowhere? What if you’re from a place you vaguely call “Upstate New York” whenever someone asks you where you’re from? And what if, after they’ve pressed further, after you’ve specified “the Capital Region, you know, around Albany and Saratoga?” They still want to know more, so you grimace before you say that hamlet’s name: “Burnt Hills.” No one ever knows where it is, which should be a blessing. Everyone knows New York and has their own idea of it. But I’ve found that even when people don’t know a name, when they just know how it sounds and the way in which you say it, images still come into their mind that become stuck to their synapses like mud dried in the summer heat.

October. 2000. I’m not even a year old. The world has just begun to open up for me. My family moves from Ballston Spa to Burnt Hills, just a fifteen minute drive to our new home. Our house is in a nascent cul-de-sac enclosed by farms. It’s all I’ll really know for eighteen years.

The stench of manure that chokes the summer air. The silence that arrives just after it rains. All the neighbors’ treated lawns. All the flags hung in July. The sweet flowers: the lilacs, the roses, the pansies. Knees sunk in the dirt; embracing a plant by the hands. The thunderstorms, the blizzards, the tornado warnings, school shooter drills. Poisoned water from the well; suspending students who protest. And the nothing—the all-encompassing, soul-suffocating, youth-squashing, dream-killing, hope-shredding nothing that happens every day you stay here.

There’s a boredom that’s accompanied me for most of my life. A restlessness that festered early in my youth but blossomed into depression once fatigue set in. When I was a child I watched my sister dance and declared that I would do the same. I started in the beginner’s studio, then marched into the intermediate one, then it was onto the intimidating Studio One. And when that school shut down, I went running to another one, another studio, another grueling set of six-day weeks of practice, always practice. It was the same with school. I ate up books as a kid, hungering for something to satisfy me. But when older, that hunger morphed into a panic, and then an obligation, a desperate race to get out of the place that I hated to call my home.

I think I was aware that I was wasting my time, that I was squandering my youth with AP classes and extracurriculars, but what is there to do when the most exciting thing to happen every few years is when they build a new CVS? Almost from birth you know you have to leave the place of your upbringing, at least if you come from a small town. Colleges and jobs and people are all in different places. So you rush to leave, losing track of the middle, racing toward the end, making promises to yourself that you’ll be happier somewhere new with better things to do and better people to do them with.

But you’re never gonna stop running, kid. You’re never gonna stop shrugging off adults imploring you to “live a little.” You’re gonna have long nights in college staring up at the ceiling and justifying to yourself each and every one of your choices. Why you keep taking class after class (well, to get a job in this economy), why you keep the friends who talk shit about you (they’re better than the ones back home), or why you stumble in and out of relationships without a semblance of intent, fumbling for stability then staggering away toward someone new. You’ll keep running toward a horizon you cannot see, blinded by the lights of the golden hour that hit your eyes when you drove over those burning hills as a teenager, clinging on to the belief that the horizon would actually lead you somewhere.

But you can’t run from yourself. Any more than you can run from your home. Because you could make it out of here—finally go to the West Coast like you’ve always wanted to, find “your people,” make a difference, have a happy ending (or something similar)—and it would never really change you. You would still find fault in every place you’d go. You’d hate the vapid elites of the cities you’d move to just like you hated the shallow kids in college or the vultures of suburbia whose worst worries were always their kids’ sports or their identical lawns. You’d hate all these places until they blurred together into a clump.

So maybe some days in each new place you live in you’ll see a flower wilting on the side of the road, or an old barn rotting into the dirt, or smell the fresh-cut grass mixing with mud mid-spring and think that maybe it wasn’t that bad back then, maybe you were just being dramatic (like they always said you were), and that maybe the exaggerations we have in youth when we don’t yet know what life will become have left you running and empty.

Will Halm is an alumnus of Wesleyan University ’22, where he studied creative writing with Steve Almond and Robert Antoni. His writing runs the gamut from surrealist fiction to naturalistic poetry but currently centers around personal non-fiction. Originally from Upstate New York, his writing tends to feature nature, small towns, and a rural gothic aesthetic. He is currently working as a Research Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania while writing relentlessly on the side.

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