It just so happens that on the morning of July 4th, my car refused to start. Now, this wouldn’t have mattered all that much, except that I was the only person in the house that weekend, and I’d put off all my various errands until just then, and I had the car all packed with what I needed and ready to go. You know those days when you’ve got everything planned out and its going to be perfect, except that right at the very beginning things weren’t working out.
Our landlady’s Lexus SUV wouldn’t jumpstart mine, and none of the brigade of neighbors who, in these parts, are by some unseen force dispatched whenever someone is in need managed to fix the problem, either, as-seen-on-TV just plug and go car battery rechargers notwithstanding. So this leaves me, on perhaps the biggest of national holidays, dialing around the Whitesburg phonebook and trying to remember whether Dry Fork is one of those little towns that really ought just to be part of Whitesburg (like Ermine, where the Walmart is), or is halfway across the highway and up two hollows.
Eventually the car got started, thanks to Dry Fork really being just up the road a ways and the fact that for twenty-five dollars (twenty-four, if you don’t have exact change), Jimmy will drive over with his seven-year-old son in their wrecker and jumpstart your car for real. An hour or so of driving around nowhere in particular to recharge the battery later, and half an hour or so of listening to WMMT (where “that patriotic message was brought to you from our friends at moveon.org”), I’ve done my errands and headed home. But all this commotion meant that I got started on cooking dinner late, and headed out the door late for the hike I’d been planning all day, and ended up starting to walk up Town Hill at nine at night, just when it was getting so dark you couldn’t see your nose in front of your face, at least in the thick brush.
Town Hill isn’t really owned by anyone: to be precise its a patchwork of property owned by so many people that nobody can manage to buy enough of a piece of land to actually build anything. Which isn’t all that unusual up in this part of the country, though it seems strangely wonderful coming from more densely populated areas to find a place that isn’t really a park, but just a great big beautiful piece of land that you can freely roam around and do just about whatever on top of.
Its this kind of place that makes rural America so distinctly different from urban America. There wasn’t any particular planned event to draw them up, but wandering around on the vast flat space on top of the hill were practically half the population of the towns below. Just seemed right, this being the Fourth. People from Big Cowan and Little Cowan and Whitesburg and Craft’s Colley were tooling around on ATV’s or sitting around cases of beer shooting off fireworks. Dean or Tom or somebody or other had “a tent and a mattress – heck, three mattresses, and y’all can use them all you want.” And in spite of the three copperheads that he killed just the other day, Tom and his friends and their girlfriends drove up the rutted road in their pickup along with everyone else – you can see off into the misty night for counties around and every little town makes a glow in the rolling hills. It’s the kind of scene I would invent a metaphor for, were I a better writer. Instead, you’ll have to come up for yourself sometime and look, except that you probably won’t find it all that interesting, since the real beauty of the place is that its nothing out of the ordinary: just a little bit up the ways past the house where my mentor Michelle lives, past a few overly alert guard dogs and up some old car tracks until you start to level off, and think you’re suddenly in a different state (this is an old strip mining site, and restored strip mines are “beautiful… like Australia!”). At any rate, something changes inside you when you can walk for miles and not see anybody at all, when you darn well better remember how to get back to where you came from because cell phones don’t work and you’re just following some train tracks across the countryside (different hike, mind you).
I had to walk back down when the trail was pitch-black for the trees, and crossing under the interstate you could truly imagine the trucks as they passed overhead were some beings entirely mysterious and sinister, and not see the piles of pigeon dung and be corrected. The first lights of town were so bright, about thought I'd walked into the biggest city on earth -- but they wrapped around me and guided me home, right past the corner where "Bo Caudill -- Incomplete" lay in rest.