“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.” ~W. Berry
|From Chimney Top Rock|
I think—without much fanfare, without any kind of public announcement—I’ve finally returned home. Back in the spring Mandy and I were going to have a “Triumphant Return” party on the five year anniversary of our departure from Kentucky to Colorado. We expected that departure was to be our last. We never intended to come back. Never say never. The party didn’t happen—mainly due to a busy schedule, but I think in a way we still celebrated that day with a bittersweet silence, and we recognized its significance fully.
It’s been a struggle. This past year has been difficult beyond my comprehension. I wouldn’t have anticipated all of the emotional ups and downs we’d all go through. I was most surprised by my own confused feelings. I’m not surprised that I’ve not completely resolved them. I foresee that in this next chapter of my life one of the major themes is going to be trying to sort out my own Appalachian Fatalism and the reason I continually run away from only to run back to my home in Powell County.
I need to sort it out so I can prevent the cycle from continuing. I want to be settled. I’m tired of looking for utopia. The apostle Paul writes: “. . . for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” I don’t know that I’ve learned that just yet. I’m trying. I’m studying on it. It’s what I’m searching for always. The stormy mind is no refuge for the weary.
In The Unforeseen Wilderness Berry also writes: “…my mind is still keyed to seventy miles an hour. And having come here so fast, it is still busy with the work I am usually doing.” He’s talking about leaving his work in Lexington and driving to the Red River Gorge to camp. He describes his journey from the drive, to unloading his pack, hiking into the woods, to erecting his camp, and finally settling in for the night. And at that point he is in the between world where he has not fully arrived in the wilderness but he has not fully left the built world.
Because he travelled between the two worlds in excess of a human speed his mind wasn’t capable of keeping up and processing the experience in real time. He didn’t have the bandwidth.
|Pinch Em Tight Gap|
Concerning our emigration back to Kentucky I am certain I have at long last fully arrived. The tipping point must have come recently, but all the accoutrements of my life seem to fit now in this place and are no longer relics from our time over the High Plains at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Oddly, I think this is a direct result of me getting out on the Cannonball and riding into the Gorge last Friday.
My intended trip was a bust: to bikepack into the Gorge with the Cannonball. However, the simple non-camping ride I ended up taking was the sort of trip through the lands of memory and presence that helped me to stitch up the wounds of the past year. I brought together the two ragged edges so the healing could finally begin.
Something was nagging at me as I wrote that last paragraph so I looked into it and confirmed…we left Colorado a year ago today. I’ve got to be honest—when I realized it my eyes blurred with tears. The memory is the bitterest and the sweetest; it’s agony and ecstasy. I didn’t want to leave, but I’m happy to be back. I’m back.
I take comfort in Wendell’s words nearer the end of the book: “I realize that, as much crossed as that country is by roads and trails, it is very likely impossible to get lost in it, at least not for a long time.” He’s talking about the Gorge. I don’t see a reason to turn the sentiment into some allegory.
Talking recently with Mark I remembered the time in my life when I systematically redrew the section of my mental map inscribed “Here Be Dragons.” Exploring the Red River Gorge as a young man prepared me for going into the wider world with confidence and determination. In trying to get lost there—knowing I couldn’t—I had much good practice to draw on when I entered places that were truly wild.
These days I find myself caught in a feedback loop of chasing ghosts and time travelers from the future while trying to maintain a foothold in the present. As I bike and hike along roads and trails to places I once visited years ago I’m also experiencing them with a new perspective and with new ambitions.
Berry writes about the transcendence of the landscape in our individual lives and in regards to civilization. The land is. Our experience of it has no bearing on its permanence or its destruction. We simply cannot fathom in a human mind the persistence of geologic time. Even a thousand years of change is beyond reckoning in our finiteness.
|The Red River Gorge near the mouth of Chimney Top Creek|
I’ve kept myself from the Gorge for the most part during this past year. I’ve avoided it like a bad love affair. My heart was full of fear that I would dive back in, get wrapped up in old habits, that I’d use the place as a refuge from my problems and my demons. I don’t know if the danger of that has passed, but I feel like I’m ready to begin revisiting those neural pathways that for so long have been dark and cold; to fire up the synapses of memory and vision and philosophy.
It’s a rugged place. In scale it’s not big: it does not compare to the Smokies or the Rockies. It’s a different kind of place. It’s like the mazes of your mind: folded in close, but separated by walls of gray matter and time. You can be in one valley without knowledge of the next one over the ridge but arrive at a confluence and see them both.
By returning to that place I’ve managed to fold myself and meld the layers of who I am and have been and will be into one. The intervening times of my absences are no longer relevant and I find the joining to be a healing and a new beginning. I can go away and return again, but the place where I hide my deepest hopes and dreams and fears is solid and rugged and an impenetrable vault.
“I am alive in the world, this moment, without the help of the interference of any machine. I can move without reference to anything except the lay of the land and the capabilities of my own body. The necessities of foot travel in this steep country have stripped away all superfluities. I simply could not enter into this place and assume its quiet with all the belongings of a family man and property holder. For the time, I am reduced to my irreducible self.”
Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness