Wordsworth Among the Rhododendron
We follow the driveway to the gravel road, going up and down, curving toward a trail we hiked many years ago. Hemlock Ally snakes around HWY 221, and another road begins, an acute slant downward to a pond. A dog warns us, along with the signs, that we veer into private property. A plastic square bolted to a spruce brandishes garish red letters: Trespassing. We slip past it, trying not to make too much noise and hunch to blend in with sapling pine and gathering rhododendron.
The gravel road-turned-private-drive transforms again, twisting off to the left. The trail emerges, a familiar face in a crowded restaurant. Grooves worn into the earth by feet, tires, and rain follow the remnants of construction abandoned to each side of the path, forgotten memorials to the labor expended to erect ever-more vacation homes and rental cottages. The trail fizzles out, and we are forced onto another gravel road. Is this a driveway? Is this a service road?
“I don’t remember this part,” my partner says. We stop and look for signs of the trail yet again.
“How long has it been since we did this hike?” I ask.
“Four or five years, probably,” he says.
“‘Five years have past . . . and again I hear these waters, rolling from their mountain-springs,’” I say.
“Yeah, but it’s winter. We shouldn’t hear any springs. It’s just wrong,” he says.
We meander along the gravel, gravitating toward a dense copse of trees. It goes on like this for a while. We navigate the discarded construction and development projects that now confuse our once-clear path until we are greeted with a steel gate and sign with faded brown letters bolted to it: NPS boundary. We cross the line into Pisgah National Forest.
Now we have our bearings.
Now we remember.
Now we feel we are hiking.
The scenery familiar yet changed. The cowpens, which once populated this super-secret, locals-only trail to Blue Ridge Parkway land, fall into each other, dilapidated. The cow fence used to look weathered. It now feels forgotten. Cracked and unhinged boards dangle from rotten posts and rusted out nails. The grasses haven’t felt the plodding weight of bovine hooves for years, at least that’s what the tall, dead, pokeweed signals.
We walk in silence for a little bit. The silence lingers, like the moments taken to remember dead family members. Their knowledge and memories gone with only faded traces left behind, like the dusting of white snow hidden along the shadows of riverbanks.
As we walk, we remember walking. The landscape absorbs us. The rhododendrons hug in close to the trail, crowding us. Then a wide pasture opens up, dotted with blue-grey stone outcroppings.
“This is my childhood,” he says. “I used to walk through the woods for hours.”
“This is my undergrad days,” I say, remembering the crunching hoarfrost of winter hikes. But it is warm now. About 60 degrees. The rhododendrons form velvet, spring buds in December. Our memories of colder, younger, different days stretch out before us like so many abandoned cow fields plowed over for vacation homes.
I think of Wordsworth as we walk in more silence.
We get back to the house and scrape brown Christmas mud off our shoes. I find my copy of “Tintern Abbey.”
. . . And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led.
“I hope we come to our senses,” I say.
The house, the cats, and everything in it, including my partner, don’t respond.