I spent two summers in the Appalachian mountains in the late '70's. The first year, I sold passes to the tourists who drove up the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Skyline Drive, where I greeted them from the tiny ranger station at the southern entrance. The second summer, I tooled around on a fat old Vespa motor scooter, stopping to collect the daily fee from the occupants of motorhomes and travel trailers parked in the campground. I chatted with the visitors and ate every brownie and cupcake I was offered.
Sometimes I drove a big green four-wheel drive truck on the fire roads or hiked into the back country to check on overnight campers. When a wildfire threatened acres of densely forested land, I supervised fire crews comprised of men at least twice my age, who dug trenches while I extinguished flames with the meager amount of water we were able to carry in bags on our backs. I was twenty-one years old.
On days off I'd hike deep into the back country, sometimes with another ranger, but most often alone. I visited the quiet places far off the trails, their secret locations marked on well-worn topographical maps. I didn't return to college after the second summer, remaining in the park until it closed in late autumn.
Although the days were shorter, so were my shifts. Dawn and evening brought cooler temperatures and spectacular electrical storms that illuminated the valley, sending gusts of wind towards our seats on the precipice of a cliff, where we watched until the clouds and rain descended like the plunge of a velvet curtain signalling the end of the show.
On my hikes, I collected perfect pairs of butterly wings left behind after the birds and insects had consumed their owners' bodies. I carefully placed them between the folds of my map. By the end of summer, my living room wall became a delicate collage.
I watched a water snake circle the perimiter of a shallow pond, a silver fish in its jaws, a ballet that began suddenly and violently, a pas de deux between captor and captive, a twirling, swirling, roiling dance that gradually lost its fervor and ended with the pair's disappearance into the deeper water beneath a waterfall.
I shared my trailer, for a time, with a woodrat who found her way in through a hole in the floor. Her presence eluded me until my bananas began to mysteriously disappear. One morning, when I pulled open the drawer to the broiler beneath the oven to toast a piece of bread, we came nose to nose. When I heard a rustle and bump in the cupboard that held the waste can, I threw open the door to the cabinet, grabbed the bin and carried it to the front stoop, where I freed her. That evening, during dinner, she made a scampering circuit from beneath the stove to the table and back.
I devised a variety of recipes that included potatoes and kale, the only vegetables that grew in the shady garden I planted with the other ranger who stayed through the fall. We collected the windfalls from the orchards planted by the early settlers and stored the jars of applesauce and apple butter in an open fronted cabinet constructed of weathered wormy chestnut planks rescued from the ruins of an abandoned shack.
We stripped naked to swim in the pools beneath the waterfalls, before stretching out on a warm flat rock for lunch and a nap, or, in my case, to write in my journal. The notebooks I kept are long gone. There wasn't room for them, or my uniforms, when I returned to school.
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I didn't get back to the park for many years. When I did, I was with my husband, who had reluctantly agreed to a detour adding a couple of hours to our trip home from his cousin's wedding. Our daughter, who had not yet taken her first steps, was learning to stand, wobbily, on her own. She grasped my fingers in her chubby fists and grinned happily at the people we met on the asphalt trail between the parking lot and the visitor's center.
I was disappointed I'd missed my old friend, who was on back country duty and was so deep in a hollow his radio was out of range. When his wife tried to reach him, all we heard was static.
My husband was anxious to get back on the road. As I pushed the stroller to our shiny new minivan, I looked across the meadow where I'd watched fireflies at dusk, waiting for the deer who came each night to graze as the sun set over the mountains. Everything I now owned was new. I no longer packed a cooler with ice before a bi-weekly excursion down the fire roads to the grocery store. I wore a deep pink jersey with a little green alligator instead of a grey uniform shirt and gold badge. A visor shielded my eyes from the sun, rather than a ranger stetson with a crooked brim.
As we strapped our sleeping daughter into her car seat, my husband asked nonchantly, "Why did you leave this?" His question was so unnerving, I couldn't meet his gaze. I answered without pausing to think.
"I don't know." I said, climbing into the back seat next to my daughter.