Sixth part of an eight-part series. Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3 – Part 4 – Part 5 – Part 7 – Part 8
Let’s begin this by looking back at me, the narrator. I took this photo in the Asheville hotel. As my expression may indicate, my perspective after the eclipse and after witch country was increasingly melancholy. I was enjoying the journey, but I was tasting the end of summer, and the two minute apocalypse I’d witnessed on a Monday afternoon kept bringing tears to my eyes.
The next drive was the other long one. Once we left Asheville, we would stay on the road, aside from the occasional stop for food or gas or restrooms, until we were back across the Mason-Dixon. Though I remarked to my husband that our destination sat in some of the Klanniest country currently documented. Again, “the North” is no true sanctuary.
And the remainder of the South that we saw— this continued to steal my breath in beauty and pain together. GPS navigation sent us right up through more of the Blue Ridge, deep into the Great Smokies. I hadn’t even expected to visit Tennessee, but when we left North Carolina we found ourselves crossing that border as part of our transit to Virginia. The mountains were higher but greener, having just been blessed by recent rain, and low clouds clung as fog to the very tops, rolling down the sides in misty torrents. Smoky indeed. I could have walked in this land and mistaken it for an otherworld.
We saw more churches again in the mountains’ embedded hamlets, and we counted our last flags of Confederate war. I wished the total eclipse had touched this land; I wanted to watch an eclipse at such elevations; I wanted to watch an eclipse anywhere that shimmered with such a sense of its own place.
Eventually, the GPS promised we would be entering West Virginia. This came as less of a surprise than Tennessee, but it excited me in a certain way; this much maligned and mistreated state actually held a taste of the familiar to me. As a child I would visit there about once per summer, joining my parents and their friends at a folk dance camp tucked away in what some people might call the middle of nowhere. My memories of that camp were sacred, not because my parents were still married, and not because of the attention I received for learning the dances very well; instead, because of the site itself. At night most of all. At night I would sit on a hillside and stare down into the valley at the pavilion, the dining tent, the other cabins, and I would hear the last music carrying from a Hardanger fiddle, and then I would look at the slopes around me in the starlight, and then I would gaze at the velvet sky and the million gems of the Milky Way spilling all across. There was music and warmth and stars and the sweetest darkness and in those moments I believed myself an immortal being of grace and wisdom. Of course I was very young, but I felt old in better ways than I can feel old now.
That was West Virginia to me. It held stillness and wonder. And when we drove through it, there were too many lights on the highway and the land nearby was too flat, but I trusted in my memory. We stopped at an Arby’s for dinner and the people working there were young and diverse. The state is very much a state of miners, but if I may make one plea, please remember that there are also other workers, and all of them, the miners and the not-miners, they are people.
By the time we finished that meal, it was past twilight, and we progressed into a thin strip of Maryland and then beyond. This was the Klan-land I had warned of. Estimates by the Southern Poverty Law Center put the highest number of “hate groups” (a complex term) in California, the next highest in Florida, the next in Texas, the next in New York, and the fifth highest in Pennsylvania. Some reports I’ve read have indicated that the southern part of that state holds the most obvious activity although fascist membership certainly doesn’t confine itself county by county.
We saw no burning crosses, no hoods, and no swastikas, but as we turned onto smaller and smaller highways, going directly through various towns, many of the buildings looked run down, and the businesses on major thoroughfares carried a certain aura. Bars, gun shops, strip clubs, motels, often with failing neon signs or little signage at all. There were few streetlights. These may have been pleasant places to live— I couldn’t extrapolate anything like that based on such fleeting impressions— but at night the towns looked liminal, and certain modes of thought can spring up in such in-between topologies, iron-clad ideas that serve as anchor points for people struggling to maintain material roots. I wondered what an eclipse would be like here as well. It would be dark, but not as dark as this. I still couldn’t see the Milky Way, but as we drove out from under a patch of forest, I looked up and noticed dozens of stars that I hadn’t been able to see in years as a citydweller.
And with those stars overhead, easily ten hours since we pulled away from Asheville, we arrived in Gettysburg.
D. Llywelyn Jones
To be continued in part 7.