Unfolding the Map
Twisty and spine-wrenching roads can often lead to interesting places. What begins, in this post, as a reflection on winding roads at home leads to the realization and exploration of how two places can engender a feeling of connection and comfort. All this takes place in the winding mountain roads of West Virginia. (Note: William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) refers to "Mouth of Seneca" in his quote. However, the town has since renamed itself "Seneca Rocks," and I use their current name throughout this post.)
"The road, a thing to wrench an eel's spine, went at the mountains in all the ways: up, down, around, over, through, under, between. I've heard - who knows the truth - that if you rolled West Virginia out like a flapjack, it would be as large as Texas. Where possible in the mountainous interruptions, towns opened briefly: Judy Gap, Mouth of Seneca, Elkins."
Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 3
Judy Gap, Seneca Rocks and Elkins, West Virginia
I grew up in a small Northern California town, and the only way in and out of town is by one of three highways. Either one drives Highway 20 from Willits over to my hometown of Fort Bragg, or drives Highway 128 from Cloverdale to the mouth of the Navarro River, and then north on Highway 1. The other access into town was one we never took because we rarely went north. That route comes south from Highway 101 at Leggett down Highway 1.
These roads run through the Coast Range and therefore, like LHM describes, are enough to "wrench an eel's spine." Curves, and switchbacks. Horrible drop-offs into valleys, rivers or oceans. Rarely can one get enough speed to reach 50 miles per hour safely except on the occasional straight stretch that might run for a quarter mile or so. While only 35 miles, it could easily take 45 minutes to an hour to traverse the distance between Willits and Fort Bragg. Highway 128 was about 75 miles from Cloverdale to the coast, but the 35 mile stretch between Cloverdale and Boonville is one of the worst stretches of twisty road I've ever driven, until it flattens and becomes more straight in the Anderson Valley and along the Navarro River.
When I visited Appalachian Kentucky for the first time in my mid-twenties, and drove through the mountains of West Virginia in my late twenties and early thirties, I felt like I was home. The roads twist and turn and often reminded me of stretches along Highways 20 and 128. The sheer drop offs over valleys, like that of the New River, and the way that the curves stretch short distances into driving odysseys, made driving those areas an exercise in the awakening of memory. Had I grown up in Appalachia I most likely would have gotten car sick fairly regularly in the first few years of my life, just like I experienced in my youth in Northern California.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that my biological mother's family was from a mountainous area of West Virginia! I was recently talking to someone who posed the theory that we are a product of the places where we were raised, and that our connection to place might even be lodged in our genetic material. Given the feeling of comfort that I had when in Appalachia, particularly in the pace of life, the people, the mountains and the natural beauty, I can almost believe in a genetic attachment. How could I have felt so much at home there if some kind of genetic connection had not been passed through generations to my biological mother and then to me?
You may disagree, Littourati. The similarity of the area may only have awakened deep-seated longings for home. The mountains may have simply reminded me of the mountains surrounding my home town. The way of life in rural areas may not be much different regardless of the region or area, and the people may have similar ways of looking at things. I grew up in a blue-collar town, and a lot of Appalachian towns are mining towns and therefore blue-collar also. Blue-collar people simply have a similar outlook on life regardless of where they are.
And you might be right. But whether it is a genetic connection, or just reminders of home, I felt something driving through those mountains. That feeling of home, whether I am in Northern California or 3,000 miles away in West Virginia, taught me that I never have to be homesick if I don't wish to. Each time I am by an ocean, or even a large lake, I can find things that remind me of my beloved Pacific. I was especially surprised to find such similarities once while driving along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Whenever I am in mountains, memories of my youth come flooding back, and I am always ready to explore a gulch, valley or holler, and to sit and dip my toes in a creek, stream or river. The vegetation and animal life may be a little different, but I find that my connection always has to do with the feeling of the place, not the specifics.
I remember that my wife and I went to visit some friends in Hazard, Kentucky before we were married. It was a late afternoon and I was sitting on a porch of a house that looked very much like the cabin where I spent my summers in my youth. I used to sit on the deck by our cabin in the late afternoon, listening to the ball game or maybe the lonely wail of the approaching train from Willits. The sun, as it lowered in the sky, shone through the leaves of the oak trees that bordered our deck. The light diffusing through the leaves gave them a brilliant green hue that often struck me dumb with amazement. I also remember the scent of the afternoon forest, the music of the river over its rocks, the soft rustle of the leaves as they in a late afternoon breeze, and the sound of insects that pervaded throughout. My father, often very Buddha-like as he sat in shorts, bare-chested, with me on the deck sometimes would say "Listen, Michael. Listen to the trees. They are telling you something, if you just listen." On that day in Hazard, Kentucky, in the late afternoon, I had the same kind of feeling and I smelled a similar scent in the forest. The breeze through the trees, and the sun shining through the leaves, was very similar to that of home. Even the insects seemed to sing the same song.
I told my friends to be quiet, and listen to what the trees were saying. They thought it was weird, and soon went back to chatting. I just smiled, and enjoyed a warm and familiar feeling, because I knew what the trees were saying...
Peace, they rustled, as the sun slowly sank behind the mountains.
I always liked this song, Peaceful Easy Feeling by The Eagles, though the subject of the lyrics is a little off the topic of the post. I used to imagine lying with a girl under those same trees I described, in the afternoon sun, looking up at the brilliant green leaves offsetting with the brilliant blue sky, amid the dappling of shadows and sunlight on the ground. I thought that there could be nothing more romantic.
If you want to know more about Judy Gap, Mouth of Seneca and Elkins
City of Elkins
e-WV: Judy Gap
The InterMountain (Elkins newspaper)
Virginia Wind: Seneca Rocks
Wikipedia: Judy Gap
Wikipedia: Seneca Rocks (geological formation)
Wikipedia: Seneca Rocks (town
Next up: Buckhannon, West Virginia