A long story about a long day during the last week of Cassie’s 500 mile walk:
Ellen and I went back and forth over email and text for a few days before I left for West Virginia. “It’s so beautiful here”, she said. “Bring some books. All you do is wait for them at the half-way point, eat lunch with them, drive to the final meeting point of the day, and then camp out at night. I love it.”
Ellen, Dance Exchange’s Managing Director, was calling me from Pipestem Resort State Park, where she was waiting to meet Cassie and Matt, who were walking toward her and finishing up their morning mileage. Cassie sustained an overuse injury a few weeks prior, and the best way for her to finish the walk was for someone from Dance Exchange to go out and provide “road support” with a car. This meant Cassie and Matt could then walk without their packs, which meant walking lighter, which meant walking faster, which meant finishing the walk sooner.
I drove out to West Virginia in a rented Mercury Mariner on Tuesday, May 29. I brought five books, my leftover protein bars from the first part of the Walk, and my ukulele. I planned to read and sleep and learn how to play the Carter Family’s version of “Wildwood Flower”. I camped out with Cassie and Matt in Camp Creek State Park on Tuesday night, and on Wednesday morning they started walking toward our lunch-time meeting point. I stayed in the park for a while to hike and run and be outside. I could feel the thing that happens to me when I am away from a city and highways: I start noticing what is above and below my line of vision, and I sigh a lot with relief.
With about an hour before our lunchtime rendezvous I left for the meeting point, a thirty-minute drive away. iPhone in hand, I drove out of Camp Creek with my windows down and “Mambo #5” playing on the only radio station I could pick up. I turned down Camp Creek Trail Road, and thought about how different roads are in West Virginia. We don’t have “backroads” in DC—not like these anyway. The road was gravel and narrow. And then gravel and rock. And then rock and dirt and tree branches slapping up against my car. And then me gripping the steering wheel and muscling the car over rocks and looking over the edge of the road into a well of brush and trees. I should turn around, I thought. I can’t turn around—the road isn’t wide enough. It’s only a few more miles. I will get there.
I drove down the hill and found a pool of standing water covering the road. At this point, the road branches off into two more roads. I get out of my car, and run down the first one to see if I can drive on it. No: water and mud. I run down the second one: Okay, this will work. And Google Maps says it connects to another road I can use to get to Cassie and Matt. Back in the car, I hit the gas to push through a big puddle, and then through another. But, no. This road isn’t a road—it falls apart past the trees. I have no cell phone service. I’m late to meet Cassie and Matt. I just need to go back the way I came and get there late. I need to go now. There is a small clearing. I drive into it and turn my car around. I put the car back in “drive” and head toward the road. I head toward the road. I head toward the road. I am stuck.
I rev the engine. No. No. No. Stop revving the engine it’s making it worse. I get out. I look at the car. I cannot be stuck. I reverse the car. No. I pull brush out of the ground and shove it under the muddy tires. No. I take my travel mug to the field next to me and dig up dirt with one of the oars leftover from Cassie and Matt’s attempt to raft part of their mileage when Cassie was still injured. I fill the cup up with dirt, and run it back to the car and put it under the tires. I fill a whole tote bag with dirt, and distribute it under the tires. I pray: God, please get this car out of the mud. I get in the car and accelerate. No. I put the car in neutral, and stand with one sandaled foot out of the car, and one in and rock the car. No. I get out. I get behind the car and push. No. I open the trunk and pull clothes out of my bag and shove those under the tires. No. Okay.
I change out of my skirt and into my sister’s jean cutoffs and put on tennis shoes. I shove two protein bars and my water bottle in my purse. I walk away from the car and toward the road. I tie a shirt to a tree where I turned off the road so I can find my car again. And I walk. It’s now an hour past my meeting time with Cassie and Matt. I know they are worried. I walk mad and replay what I did wrong. I should have turned back sooner in the car.
Further down the road I was supposed to be able to drive on, I wade through a creek up to my knees. The cold water–! Walk up the hill, and up and up. I have service. I text Matt and Cassie: The car is stuck. I am walking toward the meeting point. They text back: Send us your location. I send them a drop pin. They call: We are five miles away. We’ll get there as fast as we can.
I walk toward them and they walk toward me.
I will find Matt and Cassie, I tell myself. We’ll walk to the car and then we’ll push it out. I pray more. We will do this. We can do this. I will not call Ellen and tell her the car is stuck in the mud in West Virginia. I will not get lost in the woods. I will find my friends.
I reach a road that is actually a road and turn right. A few minutes later, I hear an ATV behind me. I turn around and I think: Should I wave? He slows down. Is everything okay? I’m walking to meet my friends—hikers—my car—Camp Creek Trail Road. He says: Well, you’re in a hell of a situation, aren’t you?
Shawn is wearing a camo hat and camo shorts. He looks about 40 years old and is quick to smile. I ask if he’s a hunter. He says he used to be, but he hurt his back, so it’s something he doesn’t do very often. I’m comforted—my dad is a hunter. I like hunters. He says he’ll take me to his house, and then we can get his truck, and find my friends, and go get my car. He has an NRA sticker on his ATV. I smile. My dad has an NRA sticker on his truck.
He drives fast, waving at neighbors. I look at my phone’s map. I’m traveling away from Cassie and Matt. We get to his house and I call Cassie and Matt to tell them I found someone who can help us. Shawn says: Come in the house and you can meet my mom. I go in his house. His mom is standing in the kitchen and looks surprised to see me. She says: You’re pretty. I laugh. I ask about her house and her dogs and ask her what town we’re in. She says we’re in Mercer County. She gives me a bottle of cold water.
Shawn and I drive his truck toward where we think we’ll find Cassie and Matt. He doesn’t recognize the location Matt sent me. I write Cassie’s phone number on my thigh because my battery is so low and no sooner than I get it written down, my phone dies. We decide to go find my car first, and then find Cassie and Matt. In the car, I ask Shawn questions and he tells me about his family, friends, dogs, neighbors, his injury. He was a welder. He spent too many years working his body too hard and eventually his body gave out. I tell him he sounds like a dancer. I tell him why Cassie and Matt are walking—do people in this area talk much about mountaintop removal? Not much, really, it is sort of seen as a necessary evil, he says. People might not like it, but they want to turn the lights on in their house and that’s what makes it possible. He talks about how his town has changed and how sad he is for those changes and sad for the loss of land.
We drive down Camp Creek Trail Road. He fights the road the way I did. I push tree branches out of the way through my open window so they don’t scratch his truck. He stops: there’s a grouse! You hardly see them anymore. He leans out his window, his face two feet from the side of the hill next to the driver’s side and makes a soft call: “bird…bird bird bird”. We drive on. You know, this isn’t a road, he tells me. It hasn’t been a road since the 80’s when the bridge over the creek collapsed. The phone told me it was a road, I say.
The road gets worse, and more narrow. You’re brave, he says. I can’t believe you drove all the way down here. I say: Brave? Or stupid, maybe? Brave, he says.
I see the turquoise shirt I tied to a tree hours before: we’re here! Turn left! He turns the truck and pops through the mud puddles and to the clearing. I don’t see the car. I don’t. What. No. Wait. Okay. It’s just a little further. I really drove this far?
He pulls out chains and a blanket and lays the blanket out in front of my car. He lays down on the blanket and attaches the chains. I hand him the next set. He gets up. Turn your car on. When you feel a tug from my truck you hit the gas.
I feel the car nudge forward and I hit the gas. I fly up out of the mud and swerve toward the trees. I straighten the car. We go again—I accelerate and his truck pulls me through two more big puddles. We stop, and take off the chains. My car is free. I’ll follow you up the road, I say, and can you stay?—I want my friends to meet you! Sure, he says. I run back to get my muddy clothes that were under the car, and untie my shirt from the tree. We drive up the hill and a text comes through from Cassie: We are at your first location. I stop the car and honk at Shawn. I text them: Keep walking. You will see me soon. Shawn and I hug and say goodbye and I take his picture. You saved me! I tell him. He says: You know, when I woke up this morning I never thought that I might be doing this today. I laugh—me neither!
I drive down the hill back toward the point where the road branches off and I pull the car over. Alone again in the woods, I feel sick. I walk toward Cassie and Matt: back through the creek, up the hill. I see my tracks from before. I know I will see Cassie and Matt soon. I see them! We all smile, relieved. We were all scared. We didn’t know where you were! I had no service! I messed up your mileage! It doesn’t matter. Cassie, how does your foot feel? Pretty good. Well, how was your morning?
I wade through the creek for the third time that day and we get to the car. We drive. I think: it’s not over yet. I have to get us up this hill. I drive and we bump over rocks and Matt films from the back. I start to breathe a little more deeply.
There is a tree in the road. The is a tree in the only road out of the woods. It had rained in the days before, but here on this bright, sunny, hot day, the tree has fallen in the thirty minutes since Shawn drove away. A tree is in the road! We laugh. It is a big tree. Matt looks at the break—Sarah, this just happened! Okay. We rock the tree and it slides a little down the hill. We rock the tree more. We scramble up the hillside, toward the top of the tree. Cassie pulls a tree branch back out of the way so the tree will be free to slide down the hill. Matt moves to the bottom of the tree, Cassie holds the branch back with all her weight, I scramble back up the hill. 1, 2, 3: move. 1, 2, 3, move. The tree is moving inches. Matt stands on the bottom of the tree that hangs over the side of the road and the tree becomes a see-saw, lifting up from the road as Matt stands on it. Sarah, I think you could get the car underneath of the branch if Matt does that, Cassie says. I hop in the car, Matt stands on the end of the tree, I slowly move the car underneath of the tree and just barely clear it. I cheer. We did it!
We get back in the car and drive up the road. We smile and laugh—we would have had adventure enough to talk about, but now we can say that we ended our day by moving a tree. Matt giggles in the back seat.
What? We say.
That was so much fun.
Visit www.500miles500stories.com for more adventures from the trail.