"Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets; … for it and knowledge can raise man to the Divine."
Ludwig van Beethoven
Leonard Cohen 1934 - 2016
Thank you Leonard.
Tower of Song
A&M Records (1995)
Shenandoah Valley: INTO THE MIST
A True Story by Cameron Taylor
My journey home to Connecticut from Savannah where I had been visiting my parents began on a lazy, foggy September morning. I had changed my plans and decided to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I left the direct route home on I-95 and drove west to connect with the Blue Ridge Parkway and The Skyline Drive running through the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. Once on the parkway I expected to make it through the valley by sunset to Front Royal, Virginia. Little did I know how long and windy both highways would be.
Public radio out of Roanoke had an unexpected mix of bluegrass, folk, classical, country, dulcimer and sitar music, each blending naturally – and maybe a little too comforting – into the next. The eclectic playlist reminded me of Robert J. Lurtsema's radio show, "Morning Pro Musica," out of Boston.
The drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway was magnificent. The rolling hills were a sight of such limitless wonder moving west in a misty, blue-green splendor. The road itself was well maintained, the car gliding smoothly along never hitting a harsh bump. The property owners abutting the parkway knew their land and buildings were part of a historic stage set, each seemingly immaculately preserved. Many had worm fences, zig-zagging hardwood rails laid criss-cross on top of each other, following the curves of the road, defining a boundary but in a welcoming way, not saying "keep out." Despite its Civil War history, I felt like I was in a charmed and blessed place.
The music and the spell of the hills and the laziness of the fog reached a kind of hypnotic crescendo around mid-afternoon, and I got out of the car at one of the overlooks and wandered down a trail.
The fog was now thick and the path faded only a few feet ahead. The trail snaked along the top of a cliff. I didn’t go far when the trail opened onto a rocky ledge. I couldn’t resist the temptation to look over into the abyss. As I moved towards the edge where the mist seemed the thickest, I felt a dizzying pull. The ledge suddenly ended. I wavered to a jerky stop and stumbled back loosening some stones, which hit a few hundred feet down lost in the white soup. Instantly something stirred in the mist, something cold, something unmistakable and annoyed. Perhaps it was an animal startled by the crash of rocks. A shiver ran up my spine. I felt the mist and forest enclose and my skin start to crawl. The shadows grew and the cold intensified. I felt completely alone and sensed a menacing presence which had spotted me as easy prey. I rushed back to the car. I was not quite sure what to make of my imaginings or the rapid atmospheric change and tried to resist the chill of fear. I figured my vertigo at the cliff’s edge had unnerved my senses. But like Ichabod Crane, I felt warned and was then more than ever determined to get back on the road and definitely not sleep in this beautiful, but now unwelcoming valley.
The meager sunlight was dwindling rapidly as was the oncoming traffic. By the time I got to The Skyline Drive, it was pitch black and raining steadily. I seemed the only driver on the road. But I had to get through and not spend the night in my car at one of the rest stops – my survival depended upon it – so I pressed on.
A park ranger, after tailgating for a few miles, making me think I was not going fast enough, signaled me over and gave me a warning for speeding.
Unrepentent for the speeding warning I got back on the road and quickly back up to speed, and immediately ran over a skunk with such a severe and agonizingly pronounced crunch I still hear the crackle of its skull and feel the reverberations of its splintered bones running up my spine. As a last reminder of its existence, the poor creature responded with an explosive discharge from its specialized glands before departing. The acrid stench filled the car, ripened and intensified. Despite the heavy rain I had to roll down the window for the slightest breath of fresh air and in a vain attempt to flush out the nauseating odor.
The highway was now like an eerie ocean trench besieged by primordial creatures summoned by the skunk’s death. I slowed to a snail’s pace. Small red flashes and long red stares, like demonic fireflies, dotted and crisscrossed my path. Often I’d come to a complete stop to let some strange creature lope, meander or slither pass. For the next two hours, alone with my shame for ignoring the park ranger’s warning, the shame for my fear, the shame swelling with each noxious breath, I maneuvered painstakingly through the fog-enshrouded blackness. Some how I took control of my imagination and kept the mind-numbing demons at bay and made it safely to the end of The Drive without running over another creature or wrecking my car and ending up on the run from one of the valley’s predators or my own ghosts.
I think back now on that drive as a detour into my own “twilight zone.” One of those soul-shocking experiences where time and space is altered by both imagination and real events; where being swept away by the exhilaration of wonderful music in an extraordinary countryside rich with history and beauty, gives way to anxiety and flight; where the line between tricks of the mind and real danger is like that cloudy ledge back at the cliff: a dissolving path into wonder and oblivion.
But mostly I think about that ill-fated skunk … the crunch of its skull … the pervasive smell that lasted for days. I think about the timeline of cause and effect leading up to the nexus of its head with my tires. And I wonder which annoyed siren of my imagination rattled by the falling rocks at the abyss spooked me on that misty path in that Confederate wilderness, possibly saving me from the beckoning oblivion at the cliff’s edge, but for a sick laugh, set me and that skunk on a fateful, collision course.