When I was 19, I worked for a summer at a river outfitter’s in Bentonville, VA (a town so tiny pretty much all that’s there are a couple canoe/kayak/raft outfitters and a couple general stores) owned by a friend of the family, and lived at my parents’ cabin in Lebanon Church, VA (another “town” about the same size as Bentonville, consisting mostly of farms, a church, a post office–on Post Office Road, naturally–and a farm market).
Every day on my way home from work, I’d drive over the little back roads of Bentonville, continue through the old part of Front Royal, hop on the interstate for about four miles, then get off at an exit whose exit-ramp sign had two arrows: one pointing left towards “Strasburg” (the nearest actual town, not “town” in quotes, to Lebanon Church) and one pointing right towards “Wardensville, WV.”
I’d turn right towards Wardensville, drive along Rt. 55, then split off onto Rt. 628, until I got to the mile-long gravel road that led to the cabin. It was the same route I’d driven, or been driven on, my entire life to get to our 20 acres out there, which my dad had owned since the 70s. But for some reason, during that summer I lived and worked in the area, I became enamored and mystified by Wardensville, WV.
It was about five miles from the exit sign to the point where I split off onto Rt. 628 to get to the house, and about ten miles more on Rt. 55 to Wardensville if you didn’t make that split. But I realized I’d been driving past the sign for Wardensville my entire life and never went those extra 10 miles to get there.
That summer, I just kept daydreaming about Wardensville, envisioning the kind of place it was and the people who lived there. It filled my thoughts, that one place out there I was sure would be waiting patiently for me with open arms whenever I made my way there. Until one night after a work, in what I think was a particularly turbulent 19-year-old time in my 19-year-old life back then, though I can’t remember exactly why, I passed the split-off for Rt. 628 and kept on 55, all the way to Wardensville. And when I got there it was…well, I don’t know. It was like any little blip of a Blue Ridge town (with no disrespect to Wardensville! I’m sure it’s a fine place), like countless others I’d seen, nothing distinctive about it at all.
I don’t know what I was expecting, except for some idealistic place I’d imagined that encompassed every ideal of every place I wanted to be, and was home to people who represented everything I wished I was. So I drove home, made dinner, went to bed, and went to work the next morning as usual, with a certain veil pulled back from over a piece of the world, knowing a part of it I could never un-know. But the experience stuck with me, and this is the poem that resulted, in its final iteration, six years later.
There are certain places I should never know
the details of. Some towns should just remain
an etching on a sign, an arrow pointing
North, a taste that tumbles off my tongue
when whispering the words inside a car
while passing: Wardensville, McGaheysville,
Monongah, Turkey Run, Star Tannery.
There are certain people I should never know
as true residents of houses, houses whose facades
of peeling paint and herds of Fischer-Pryce
toys left out lying on the lawns—like bushed
gazelle asleep among the grasses—I
have lingered over in my rearview mirror.
I suppose we never know ourselves
until whatever we once thought we were
is questioned. But anytime I’m faced again
with the recurring task of letting parts
of me slip through my fingertips and float
away, identifying who or what
has grown in place of them, I find myself
traversing hills and highway signs within
my mind, returning to those towns and plots
of land that seem to house a constant core
of something that I am. It’s something that’s
unchanging and uncompromising, always
built in the foundations of its porches,
steeped within its soil. I can sit
beside its windows, feel its wooden slats
beneath my feet, its cotton curtains moving
lightly on the kitchen window panes.
Or I can make a break for other houses, find
the folks whose histories and lives
played out behind my eyes each time I passed
those signs, whose moral compasses point straight,
who always spot the good and take it in,
and let the rest pass by. Those people who
can ride out any rapid, find an all-
consuming purpose in its current, in shaking
off the water from their pelts, an easy
beam etched permanently on their faces.
I can run to them in dimness, perch
myself beside their fire and slowly lap
up all their stories, lull myself with lilting words
in hopes that they’ll take shape upon my tongue.
That running fever always finds us pushing
on to higher altitudes, so sure
that longer, dustier, more snaking roads
can only lead us on to riper apples,
richer wine, more summits beautifully bewildering.
But only when their lengths remain within us.
Anytime that I return to places
in the flesh where I have spent more dreams
than waking days, their arms are not the warm
embrace I’ve come to know them for, their breath
not light but stale, their shoulders but a shrug.
No people ever are an echo
of the parts of me I wish made up the whole,
but fragmented as flesh and blood can only be.
And then I’m left there sloughing off the tether
of my soaking bones and feathers so that I can walk
back home again, when my attempts to fly
just end up drowning me in shallow waters,
swallowed by reflections of the sky.
Shenan Prestwich is a Washington, DC-area poet and graduate of Johns Hopkins University’s MA in Writing program. Her work has appeared in publications such as Slow Trains, PigeonBike, Lines + Stars, Dirtflask, Dr. Hurley’s Snake Oil Cure, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Orion headless, The Camel Saloon, and The Second Hump, Volume III, and she is a 2012 Best of the Net nominee. Besides writing, reading, hearing, watching, and sometimes tasting poetry, the wide array of things that make her happy include cognitive research, cameras, bluegrass, long drives, the great outdoors, good people, and bad karaoke.