Friday, January 21, 2005

One Hardscrabble Sumbitch

Like all of humanity (see previous Africa post) we Jingos have not always lived where we live now.

Some six months ago, faced with the realization that our once safe and sleepy bedroom community outside Washington, DC, had actually acquired a skyline (and, truth be told, faced with the prospect of endless permutations of this nauseating shit), we bugged out and split for the country. Not too far out, mind you, but far enough that tractors are a frequent navigational hazard on our dirt roads.

(I'd like it known right here and now that the Jingos did not cause a new house to be built in this terribly stressed county, which is selling its heritage to these assholes at an amazing rate -- we acquired a gently used one, and so you can take your snotty comments and stuff 'em. I don't play that way.)

Since the move I've become intensely aware of how the past informs the present. Out here, roads are named after the people who lived on them, or after the towns they connect. Walk through graveyards and the same names occur: generation after generation of Everhards, Wenners, Rodeffers, Georges, going back to the 1730s, Pennsylvania Dutch antinomians who leased these lands from the Donald Trumps of the time. These are the names on the mailboxes, too. You feel like a bit of an intruder, in that sense, that in putting your own name on your own mailbox you're putting your big dirty clodhoppers up on somebody's good tablecloth, stomping cigar ash into the carpet, roaring at the children.

I bought an 1859 map of the county, which I examine intensely for clues about the place. Many roads follow exactly the same routes as they do now, but with different, slightly comical names: Snickersville Pike, Old Carolina Road. But the map also shows many roads that have completely disappeared, their usefulness gone. This intrigues me -- who were those roads named for? What did they connect?

My house nestles at the foot of a ten-mile-long north-south ridge called Short Hill Mountain. Short Hill has a vertical drop of about 700 feet -- not an Alp, by any stretch, but respectable for the Virginia Piedmont. One of the first stories I heard when I moved in was of how, for fifty years on either side of the Civil War, from the first settlement until the internal combustion engine, locals would collect up eggs and milk from the surrounding farms, pack them onto mules, and hike them straight up and over Short Hill and down into Harpers Ferry a few miles upriver on the other side. The route they followed is still called Egg Path.

On a hike one day, I found Egg Path right where the map placed it. Much of the top portion was worn away, but for two-thirds of the way up the mountain it was unmistakable, a groove worn into the mountain's face, straight up, nearly vertical in places. I tried to imagine a life that thought it unremarkable -- a day's work! -- to lead a mule up that path (my legs were burning after only a few steps), walk into Harpers Ferry, sell the milk and eggs at a tavern, and then walk back the whole way, only to do it again a day or two later.

Imagine a life that considered worthwhile the (to me) painful effort of walking that path for the utter pittance that a sack of milk and eggs would have brought. Day after day after day. Until you die.

This was a living, for somebody.

My hat is off to him.

I want to save his path.

(My blog tagline is not entirely a joke.)

Following the Mobberly Trail? Up next: History? You're soaking in it!

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