Thursday, June 27, 2013

Travel Post 1: Mountains

I'm traveling for the summer, and am posting about my experiences, as they occur to me. I will post as often as I have internet access. Welcome to a life unhinged......
We are driving away from West Virginia, where we spent the weekend visiting with extended family and re-connecting with my partner’s fathers childhood in Huntington. I hadn’t thought much about this, our first stop on our trip, at all, instead focusing on the hours it would take to drive, the last push to get out of Westtown School. We did it, right on time, and managed to get to the Comfort Inn of Barboursville, adjacent to the Huntington Mall, in time for dinner on Friday.

The inn itself was a jarring reminder of what we were visiting. Truly a concrete jungle, the Huntington Mall stretches at least 50 acres, nestled in a ring of West Virginia mountains. The heat coming off the parking lot as we walked to dinner at Olive Garden was oppressive. The early morning jog I managed around the perimeter of the mall worked only because it was before sunrise. A few abandoned cars, or worse, cars with folks sleeping in them, smattered the giant grid of parking lines. It was surreal to say the least.

The family reunion was motivated by a cousin looking for his roots, in the face of the smallness of his immediate family. Four years ago, Paul sidled up to Milton, WV, on his hog, called over to Jeff Carter, his only contact, and started the journey of re-connection with this slice of land that, unbeknownst to me, is in my partner’s blood.

I really didn’t prepare for this trip. The depression of Huntington and Milton and Barboursville came like waves of nostalgia, reminding me of the depression of mid-80s Providence, Rhode Island, where I grew up.  Empty storefronts, the specter of industry and business, the population of Huntington currently half of what it was when Norman’s father was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s.

And more, the sense of pressure and brilliance of memory. I asked Norman’s father if he was enjoying the visit, as we wandered through Ritter Park, and he let me know there was a dual sense of the powerful memory of his childhood, and the pressure and tension of knowing that Huntington is much diminished from his time there. He let me know that for a time he had the sense of being attracted and repelled by moving back, and had the very common and compelling desire to regress into his childhood sense of safety, returning to his mother’s arms, safe as houses.

But he recognized the risk of regression and chose to lead a life unhinged from this place that holds the names of his ancestors on mausoleum wall and park title. Though the deep history calls, and he returns every couple of years. 

Visiting like this, given these broad swaths of information, was overwhelming, as we roasted in our mall adjacent Comfort Inn. The ring of mountains that witnessed the excess and decay of Barbourville seemed a rebuke that left me feeling like my sweat was from some unnamed shame, instead of the very normal heat ramped up by concrete. 

But that's too simple a judgment. At the reunion I attended, until my son called me back to frustrated napping attempts, I was struck by the bigness of the Carter family, and its location. Although there are slices of this extended family chaos that is as far flung as Alaska, Colorado, Massachusetts-- the largest grouping, hand over fist, is in the Huntington area. This family is this family because of the land on which they stand, and keeps them naming themselves as a part.   The history I witness, I now find myself a part of, lives in the land, the places and names themselves. This family is sacred, and deserves a place, a life if its own, in the land from where we come. 

We all come from these mountains, these places that are rare and precious, and endangered. These places live their sacred roles, their profane manifestations, as do we, as we live on and in these lands. The land is we, and we are the land. No matter how much concrete we chuck over it, or depressions we visit on its communities. Life wants to live, and all parts are in the river. 

I didn’t prepare for this trip, but family found me on it. Amen. Amen. 

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