©2019 Walt Hampton
If you have spent much time on this planet eventually you will accumulate a few locations that stick in the memory, places that for some reason or other strike a chord. From my own experience I could regale you with stories of Alaska or Wyoming, Key West and Mount Katahdin (perhaps some other time), but the spots that hit the top of my list are Appalachian. You can visit some of these places today, all it takes is time and a bit of effort; but I have to confess, I am holding back—there are a couple of spots that I keep just for me. Let’s start there.
Deep in the national forest there are a couple long-abandoned cemeteries, family plots that date to the early 19th Century. Both are well off the beaten path, the closest to the road over an hour’s hard walk. There is still a legible marker in one of them, barely, with a date of 1803. Most of the plots are only depressions in the ground, and if marked, marked with local fieldstone. From local old-timers I learned that both are reputed to be the final rest for, among others, Indian and pioneer children. I try to get back to these places once in a while; they are solemn and peaceful and they give me a perspective on my own life. You need not ask their exact locations.
Because I spent a good portion of my work career on government land I became intimately familiar with some of this ground. In some of those locations I believe that I was one of only a handful of people that have seen parts of those spots in the past two centuries. One area that will always be a favorite is Crawfish Valley, the headwaters and upper reaches of Reed Creek in Wythe County. Although not designated as such, it is a true wilderness in the sense that it is vast and the access is limited to foot traffic. Between 1978 and 1988 I did a great deal of wildlife management work in this area, even bringing nuisance beavers I had trapped in other areas to the upper valley (with U.S. Forest Service permission, of course), and they established a colony there. On my own time I would hike in and watch them for hours and even camped among them over a few weekends, exploring Big Turkey Knob and the north side of Walker Mountain. It was a wild place and not once during those trips did I encounter another person. Consider the fact that this place is within 3-hours drive of over 10 million people, and it remains much the same today as in 1978; you can see why it made the favorite list.
When Cecelia and I were first married we built our first house in the tiny community of Camp, Virginia, the last house on the road up into the national forest. We had a 110,000 acre back yard we used to brag, and it was true. Both of our sons were born while we lived there and we cherish that time in that tiny house; I drove by there the other day and the memories came flooding back, the people, the good times. We have friends still there today. It was where we started our story and for that we can never forget it; it is a tiny mark we left on the land.
The story of Appalachia is one of discovery, abandonment and re-discovery. When I think of my own life I am reminded of that famous T.S. Eliot quotation, and I leave it with you. Perhaps when you visit your favorite places it will for you, too, have some meaning.
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”