I could feel the tears down deep inside, and I had to walk away. It was an abrupt ending to a mighty fine year, and I stayed till the bitter end.
I was camping in a car next to Jim at Clifftop during the annual Appalachian String Band Music Festival. It happened to be my first, and we delighted in staying up late till the wee hours of the morning, listening to all the regional traditions sung by folks from Tennessee, Georgia, Galax, Virginia, and hundreds of other cities.
Over four days of the festival, we would watch the fiddlers, banjo and mandolin players take a seat under one of hundreds of open canopies. Here, they would sit in and listen, or participate in dozens of jam sessions, so beautiful and free flow. More than 5,000 people travel to the historic Camp Washington Carver, many from across the world and in all 50 states. It was such a beautiful experience for me.
What a special treat to listen to the coal mining ballads and dulcimer sounds as groups of four or five musicians play inside their elaborate tent setups, just outside the woods. In a few more hours, I think, I will be leaving it all behind me.
For Jim, it was easy to console me, but he knew how hard it was for me to leave. In the last 14 days, I was making every attempt to see all I could of West Virginia, heading east to Thomas for bluegrass at the Purple Fiddle, or hiking near Blackwater Falls and Canaan Valley. I stopped into all the small towns, like Elkins and Buckhannon. I bought blueberry scones and craft beers. I stopped by the farmer’s markets for half-runners and hot peppers, enjoying every last bit of it.
I was wandering around that festival, thinking of all the things I didn’t do. I am running out of time, I thought, as I watched the last loads of trash, tarps and gear being loaded onto trucks. I packed up my car and drove a few short miles to Babcock State Park, one of the most highly photographed parks here in the mountains. I slept on a rock after three long days of fiddle playing. It was so wonderful to have heard so much of that Old Time Music, and it was a moment I would never forget.
I would have a few more days and then a final night in Fayetteville. I had a lot on my mind, since I had boxes in storage I had to worry about. Back at the campground, I was hustling to gather my things off the tent platform just before the sun went down, when somebody yelled over to me.
“Hey! We’re having a party!”
I hustled to move quickly and walked a mere 300 steps. A group of rafters and kayakers had rounded up the money to buy a keg while three different bands played. It really was a great way to end it all – ever so unscripted and really so unplanned. I stayed out a bit later than expected, but I knew I would never live this life again. Who would have thought I would make it five months living in a tent and five months living in a school? I really loved my VISTA life.
The next day, my co-workers and I gathered for a goodbye gathering and potluck meal. There, I decided to make up a game called “What Song Defined You in 7th Grade?” We had a tough time with the answers, since we range in age from 26 to 54. We played all the songs, too, and had a good time guessing who chose each song. My selection was Stairway to Heaven.
I was handed a copy of Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, their favorite Dr. Seuss book. I had never read it before, and it was fun to see how my co-workers signed it and gave it to me, just like they did with all the other VISTAs.
After a round of hugs and goodbyes, I finally got my car packed and made my way east on Interstate 64. Soon, I was driving just beyond the Elk River where I REMEMBERED THAT SMELL. That dreaded smell was a defining day for me in January 2014, when I was heading back from Florida after 30 days on the road. It was a chemical spill that came without warning, and when I stopped to get gas, they told me not to drink the water. That was the first time I wrote about my feelings for Appalachia, never realizing I would completely come full circle.
I spent three weeks in Ohio, then turned around and went back to West Virginia over Labor Day week to watch my friend’s dogs and pack up another load. I just wasn’t ready to go back to the real world, looking at a few job prospects and enjoying the warm summer sun near Summersville Lake.
It isn’t easy re-entering the atmosphere when you live such a simple life for 365 days. I have a small consulting project I am working on till I figure out what I want to do next. Sure I am making phone calls and interviewing, but I need to find the right fit.
Oh, the places I will go, Dr. Seuss. Who knows – who really knows what’s next for me?