Wayward Virginian ~ Part One

When our son, Nathan, brought home a 1940s-vintage manual typewriter at Thanksgiving break our first autumn here on Goose Creek (in 1999) our curiosity was aroused. The muffled tick-tick-ching of the keys and carriage return upstairs rattled late into the night, long after the old folks had gone to bed. What could be going on with him?

Just before he left to go back to college, we learned his plan (we suspected that he might have a plan): to take a semester off that year; to find a cabin on a frozen lake he imagined in the far north (Canada someplace, he said–what his plan possessed in enthusiasm it lacked in particulars) and to write a book.

The memory of those days comes to me easily now; it was this time of year–in the bleak mid-winter of 2000–that we reluctantly wished him God speed, waved goodbye and sent him off for Maine, as he would have it no other way. The plan had finally morphed into this final form:  he would take the ferry from Bar Harbor over to Nova Scotia some months later in the spring when the ice broke up.

There, he would hike the entire coast of the island, and write about that experience. At least that is what he lead us to think his journey would be about, and we could only see the cost of this hole in his college career. Only he alone could see then all that was to be gained from it.

He found a barely-heated attic room for rent in Bar Harbor and took a job in a local deli there in town. On his days off, he hiked the mountains and shorelines of Arcadia National Park, and in winter, pretty much had it all to himself. Every couple of weeks, we got a request for first one bit, then another of my hiking and camping gear. He’d never shown that much interest in backpacking before, but of course now, he’d need it for Nova Scotia.

And as the first of April arrived, he called us to explain what he really intended. The horror.

“Mom, dad, I’m not going to hike Nova Scotia after all. What I’m going to do–and I know you’ll tell me a hundred good reasons why this is a crazy idea, and I don’t blame you but you just gotta trust me on this, I know it’s what I’m meant to do–I’m going to hike home along the back roads from one small village or town to the next, every step from Bar Harbor to Goose Creek.”

Stiffing wails of protest, his mother and I exchanged stunned and disbelieving gazes from our respective phones. Nate continued, with our full attention.

“I’m going to cast my fate on the kindness of strangers and show America that there are still good people in this country, caring and trusting people who will take me in and show hospitality to a kid just passing through. I’ll not be taking the Appalachian Trail–except maybe a little through New York and New Jersey.”

“If nobody offers to put me up for the night, dad, I have your tent and backpack and lots of warm clothes. And if there’s ever anything I don’t have and need, I’ll never be more than a hour or so away from a phone, and I’ll call you and tell you what post office to send it to. I’ve thought it all through. I’m not an idiot. Besides, it’s spring. I’ll be fine. You’ll see.”

We were far from convinced, but with our only son a thousand miles from home, we offered him as much support as our parental angst would allow. With no small despair, we prayed for road angels and good Samaritans.  We waited every day that first week for his calls as we anticipated his progress south on the map south from Maine, step by small step.

But to return safely home would take tens of thousands of steps–down empty, nameless roads, past junk-yard dogs and pickup trucks with gun racks in the back window with near-misses by reckless drivers; breathing exhaust fumes; hungry, exposed to the cold, wet wind and lost. We imagined the worst. What did he imagine? What did he know about the world and would his naiveté and trust be his undoing?

After writing this, I called Nate in Missouri (yes, he survived)  and convinced him that he owed his long-suffering parents a retrospective as to what had been going on in his young mind as he concocted and carried out his hair-brain idealistic plan. He agreed to write. And so for the next two installments here, I will sit back and let him tell his side of the story. This should be interesting. (This series began in the February 20 edition of the Floyd Press.)
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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I’ve been hoping to do more with Nate’s story, as he never followed through with some initial “bites” from publishers to carry it to print.

    So maybe, by the time we have these four installments, it will be fit for a magazine somewhere, I dunno, some other use.

    It will be a fun father-son project at any rate, and the first collaborative thing we’ve done together (not counting when we used to proof his high school essays he started at 11:00 the night before they were due.)



  3. Oh, I should caution: patience, dear readers.

    I’ll only post here after these serial episodes go to print in the Floyd Press, the next on March 6. Sorry, but do stay tuned!