Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A Jar in Tennessee

Over the weekend, Michelle, the dogs, and I drove to the edge of Ohio to visit her family once again. Most of the drive is across the flat fields of corn, wheat, and barley on interstates that pulse with a steady stream of semis and commuters, but just east of Cambridge, we exit onto state route 22—a two-lane road that rolls and pitches through Salt Fork State park then up into bright green hills spotted with cattle and sheep. Most days, the drive is a pleasant tour of the countryside that is spotted with signs marking the passing of Amish buggies and wild deer. You never even pause to notice that most of this highway is missing a shoulder, or that the grass beyond the sharp turns clings to a frighteningly steep hillside. However, on Friday we reached 22 near midnight in the midst of a spring storm.

A few minutes after we merged onto 22, a car, traveling back toward Columbus, flashed its high beams. At first, Michelle and I had no idea why. We wondered aloud, over the sleeping puppies in the backseat, if a cop was up ahead. I even joked that it might be funny, once in a while, to flash your headlights at oncoming traffic to warn them of nothing in particular. But nothing seemed wrong. We didn’t see any police or any accidents. Then, on the edge of a tiny township that I haven’t been able to locate on any map, two people stood in the middle of the highway, waving flashlights.

I slowed, almost to a stop, and rolled down my window. A crew-cut man in a green knit shirt shined his flashlight into our car. Archie, our Italian greyhound, stirred from sleep in the backseat. The man leaned in and asked us where we were going.

“Why? What’s wrong?” I asked.

“You’re not getting through on 22. There’s a downed power line about a mile ahead. The whole highway’s closed.”

My wife leaned across my chest and told him where we were headed and that we could just circle back to 77.

Archie, now fully awake, cleared his throat and began a low, rumbling growl. I turned toward him, shushing him, as the man with the crew cut explained to my wife how we could keep from heading all the way back to the interstate. It would be, he said, a brief 5-minute detour.

My wife, thankfully, memorized the directions, so we crept forward about 100 yards to a three-way intersection where two women wearing plastic ponchos waved us to the right and onto Wolf’s Den Road. At first, it looked like any other suburban development, and Archie settled back down to join Dixie asleep on the backseat. Trimmed lawns and shuttered houses lined each side of the street. Maples and oaks bloomed in front yards. As we drove further on, there was less and less light. The trees around us thickened. The road narrowed. I wondered, for a moment, if we’d gone too far. A facade of trees replaced the houses that lined the road. Driveways became less and less frequent. In the distance, frogs filled the air with their croaks as unidentifiable night birds crooned high-pitched hoots, as if to startle us. After we crept on for about 2 miles, the road dipped into a near constant grade, before leveling off onto a gravel road that did not even seem wide enough for my sub-compact sedan. Sycamore trees, their bark splotched with patches of white and gray, mingled with black oaks to arch across the road, blocking even the faintest glow of moonlight. And as we edged forward, the trees grew thicker and thicker, until it seemed as if we’d found ourselves trespassing in the vestibule of some pagan cathedral.

"I’m kind of scared," I said.

"Yeah. It is kind of creepy here," Michelle answered.

"Do you think we've gone too far?"

To ease the peculiar tension and interrupt the mingled song of swamp frogs and owls, my wife and I kept talking.

"Do you think that crew cut guy was a cop?"

"He didn’t have a uniform."

"Yeah, but he talked like one."

"Where do we turn again?"

The road tumbled down another canted hill toward an overgrown creek. I slowed the car and inched across a single-lane, wooden bridge. Civilization seemed a distant memory. I feared that we might end up lost in some Ohio wood.

We’d been on unfamiliar roads in the middle of a forest for what seemed like hours without seeing a single car. Then, we reached Endley Road, which was paved. I made the sharp turn and headed toward 22. Occasionally, we wondered aloud whether or not we’d missed the turn off for the highway and even thought that perhaps the directions had been wrong. Or worse, intentionally flawed.

At last, we made it back to 22, where a line of cars was stalled. We were less than a mile from where we’d made that right turn into the unknown. Both of us laughed. I was exhilarated. Now, safely on a well-traveled highway, we could talk about the fear that had felt nearly palpable.

We laughed and joked about it.

"Was it just me, or did that feel like an episode of the X-Files?" I asked.

"Yeah, but I kept thinking I’d hear banjo music any second." Michelle said.

We both laughed and were on our way—slightly delayed, but safe.

In retrospect, I’m disappointed by the way my wife and I described the event to each other. We traveled briefly into the unknown, into a wild region that is only minutes away from a familiar path. And in that darkness, how could one not feel trepidation? How could you not experience the slightest twinge of anxiety after being instantly removed from a well-lit highway at the suggestion of a strong voice? Yet, our descriptions, while they do encapsulate aspects of how we felt, rely entirely on references to popular culture.

Think instead of the great themes of the Romantic poets. They were not mere nature poets; rather, they recognized that nature can inspire awe, that fear and reverence can commingle, and perhaps, that we should never forget how truly small we all are.

Poetry, to me, is like a trek into a dark wood. You never know what you will see, and when you see something that moves you, let your senses describe it. Don’t take your experiences and filter them through television, film, or pop music. Instead, describe them as they are. Otherwise, you could end up writing little more than the lyrics to the theme song that’s already stuck in all of our heads.


Blogger Les said...

A Wordsworth poem that nicely illustrates a Romantic's perspective on nature:


2:20 AM  

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