How Many Leaves Has the River Borne Away?: Walking the Warrior's Path

Casey Clabough

We leave the port, and lands and towns retreat.
    —Virgil, The Aeneid

[1] The Monocacy River of western Maryland runs slow, creeps, a small green maple leaf on the surface taking what seems like an eternity to pass where I am standing, the small stone I cast after it bringing hardly a splash or a ripple, as if muffled by the river, swallowed in a placid murky silence that gives no sign of what has passed. These waters afford neither view nor reflection; they hold close their secrets, obscuring them with a dark cloudiness, bearing them away slowly, elsewhere ...

[2] Why my ancestors left this area of western Maryland for the foothills of the Smoky Mountains at the end of the eighteenth century remains a mystery that I may never understand, the clouds that veil the stars pressed close, unwilling to abate. Perhaps it was something akin to the dominant reason for their journey from Pennsylvania to Maryland, namely affordable land and greater cultural tolerance or isolation. Or it could have been something completely unlooked for, something averse to historical circumstance, a reason altogether unlikely. Dwelling on this question I realize that my travel based supposition, my vague feeling that following their route today might potentially provide answers or insight into their reasons for going, is perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of the entire undertaking, for it hinges altogether on the indistinct and evasive phenomenon of human experience. Whereas history may hold close her secrets from scholars and scribes, experience gladly doles out his brutal knowledge, however grudgingly, to those who, however foolishly, seek him out. History and experience are estranged lovers, the latter the event and the former the teller. Both are mysterious and perhaps ultimately unknowable, but that is precisely what makes them so seductive, both to each other and to us. The Spartan general lies dying on a field of battle twenty-four hundred years ago, perhaps wondering who will tell his story and recall his glory or dishonor, while the fragmentary data left in his wake fascinates the young historian, centuries later, hunched at a desk, in search of lost time, trying to make sense of, or even imagine, a place and worldview so far removed from hers that it might be considered alien. As the French poet Paul Valéry warned, "History is the most dangerous concoction the chemistry of the mind has produced. Its properties are well known. It sets people dreaming, intoxicates them, engenders false memories, exaggerates their reflexes, keeps old wounds open, torments their leisure, inspires them with megalomania or persecution complex, and makes nations bitter, proud, insufferable, and vain. History can justify anything you like. It teaches nothing, for it contains and gives examples of everything." Hardly an endorsement of the discipline. Yet, for all this, for all history's faulty detours and dead ends, agendas and distortions, illusions and compulsions, historians have ever echoed the Roman historian Livy in ultimately deeming "antiquity a rewarding study."

[3] History is twined and fraught with tales of departures, of migrations—vanishings from certain places recounted across epochs: sudden flights by single tribes or outcasts and great movements of entire populations over centuries. In the eighteenth century, in this particular area of mid-Atlantic North America, travel generally was a small sporadic affair involving usually a single family or perhaps a handful of them. Yet most of the routes they followed were already there, beaten down over the centuries by migrating animals and the humans who followed them. Wandering early settlers traveled mostly by foot or packhorse along these narrow Indian paths, marked occasionally by blazed tree boughs in places where they became dense with foliage or otherwise indistinct. Later, on broadened paths, families who could afford them began using Conestoga wagons, an innovation of Pennsylvania German carpenters and ironsmiths. The finest were built of hickory planks and deftly balanced on iron wheels with black gum hubcaps. A series of bent iron rods provided an elongated arched frame over which could be stretched a canopy—a roof to keep travelers and their goods dry. The fact that American steering systems are on the left side of the automobiles of our own time stems from the location of the wagon's driver seat, which was just to the inside of the left front wheel. From that position the driver vigilantly held the jerk line, which was attached to the bit of the left front or "wheel" horse. Tethered behind the wagon might have been a cow or a pig or a dog, and it was not unusual for there to be a chicken coop attached to the end of the bed, while beneath the better wagons there hung a tar bucket from the rear axle, the slick lubricant easing the wagon's labored turning over roads that often resembled little more than muddy bogs or rutted elongated clearings.

[4] No matter the mode of travel, settlers left in the hopes of arriving ready to work, with dried food for eating, seeds for planting, and tools for building. Yet many things conspired to slow or even foil entirely the progress of their journeys: unease in the foul muddy weather, unfamiliarity with the route, the uncertainty of Indian encounters. All these things presented themselves to the traveler with a variable degree of uncertainty that might potentially carry with it dire consequences. However, as the old saying goes, "No amount of careful planning will ever replace dumb luck," and so the prepared and knowledgeable occasionally perished even as the more foolhardy travelers, hungry and cold, undersupplied and barely outfitted, lucked their way onto good building sites and fine ground, missing, by pure chance, the marauding Shawnee war party, late spring flood, or early autumn snow storm. Such is the pitiless and ironic hue history may sometimes take—an impressionistic montage of chance disasters and near misses randomly visited upon sage and fool alike. I can only hope my own ignorance and many other deficiencies will serve me as well, countered by the vagaries of history's favorable chaos, of unlooked for good fortune.

[5] I cross the Monocacy River by way of the bridge on Biggs Ford Road, the water's shallowness here indicating that in the time before the first bridge spanned the river it had once been a natural crossing place for wagons and horses, and the people who walked among them. Reaching Catoctin Mountain Highway, a busy four-lane road, I turn south along it, clinging to the outer portion of the shoulder, as far from the racing traffic as possible. Catoctin itself, the long geological feature off to my right, constitutes a kind of small easterly hiccup of the Blue Ridge, the range of which lies beyond my view to the west. I had once lived on a similar manner of mountain in the central country of Virginia, just south of the James River, the highest point from where mountains loom southeast of the Blue Ridge to the Atlantic Ocean, some two hundred miles distant. Because there were hardly any mountains to the east, the range afforded—despite its humble summit of sixteen hundred feet—a stunning view of the horizon that stretched unimpeded, concealing, far beyond my gaze, morning or evening, an invisible landscape.

[6] Here, on the road, below the interminable vistas of such easterly North American ridges, the horizon presses much closer, peppered by trees, homes, and automobiles—the latter both at rest and in the process of furious motion: revving, honking, passing each other in rapid vehement pursuit of unknown sundry errands. Though occasionally they inadvertently jump a guard rail or, shifting down into four-wheel drive, stray into fields, automobiles for the most part are thankfully confined by the roads that have been built, often thrown together haphazardly, for them. Over the long duration of his many travels, John Steinbeck noted that "roads change, increase, are widened or abandoned so often in our country that one must buy road maps like daily newspapers," the various routes—appearing, growing, vanishing—coming to resemble strange overlapping conjectures rather than authentic or definite avenues of transit. As the poet Laura Riding observed, "The map of places passes. The reality of paper tears."

[7] Though its current appearance is altogether bland and modern, not unlike any other highway, the general thoroughfare (a linked collection of several roads) I hope to follow all the way to the Smoky Mountains is much older than any of my multi-wheeled fellow travelers likely would surmise. When, several hundred years ago, the supply of beaver dwindled in what is now upper New York state, Iroquoian-speaking tribes began to bicker among themselves. In search of furs and influence, warriors of the Iroquois, among them the Seneca, raided and did battle with the Conestoga of Pennsylvania and Maryland, as well as the Siouan tribes of Virginia. The route they followed southward through central Pennsylvania was called Athowominee, which means the "Path of the Armed Ones" or "The Warrior's Path." In Maryland it passed through what became Frederick County, following the eastern slope of the Catoctin ridges and the Monocacy River, on down to the Potomac and into the Shenandoah Valley, a venerable hunting ground for many different tribes. In 1739 the Maryland portion of the route was widened by local settlers to better accommodate wagon travel; by then it was known as the Monocacy Road. From the 1760s through most of the 1770s, in the northern part of the colonies, an ancestor of mine named John Clabough held a position called "master of the roads," which likely required surveying as well as the recruitment of his neighboring farmers for the purposes of adding rock, corduroying muddy places, grading, and other such tasks. It is an odd enough feeling to tread along such an ancient road, but the sensation becomes stranger still knowing that an ancestor was partially responsible for maintaining it nearly two and a half centuries ago. Yet, even as I dwell on the antiquity of the avenue and its relation to myself, I am simultaneously struck by the immense insignificance of that personal connection in light of the many people and animals who had used the route before my ancestor's arrival and the multitudes who would follow it in his wake, including those with whom I share it now, and the future travelers yet to embark. Southwest of here, the section of Athowominee that would come to be known in history by an assortment of various names ran from Wadkin's Ferry southward up the valley system of Virginia and, bearing west near the present day city of Bristol, on into the Holston River Valley and then southward, west of the Smoky Mountains. Somewhere between two and three hundred thousand hopeful settlers would follow that portion of the route between 1775 and 1810—an extraordinary number given North America's sparse population at the time. This then is not merely the story of my family's journey but the story of many—the fundamentally American tale of how people first traveled west along the mountains—and, more than this, regardless of its many changes, despite the complete extinction of the American frontier today, the story of the path and the regions through which it passes goes on, for it, like everything, is forever changing. The age and history of Athowominee are immense, yet, for all the entirety of its antiquity, the years of its use dwarfing the long miles it spans, it remains an ongoing journey itself—a trail always in the process of becoming, forever new.

[8] Despite its historical importance as a great highway, Athowominee is now by and large, with the notable exceptions of certain congested stretches, a route obscure and lonely, a network of paved secondary highways rendered quaint by the massive twentieth century construction of interstates. Despite the comparative lack of traffic however, such derelict roads still do not lend themselves well to foot travel. Although trail hiking carries with it considerable risks, road hiking, while generally offering more accessible terrain and better opportunities for resupply, remains considerably more challenging and dangerous. Trail hiking, after all, has its own peculiar support network: people often shed food and supplies for a later wanderer to use (these folks are sometimes referred to as "trail angels"); hikers generally communicate and share information with each other concerning terrain, weather, the nature of the nearest town, etc.; and the locals of hiking towns are often friendly to hikers, providing them with rides to stores or perhaps a with simple drink from a garden hose. Trail hikers usually are viewed romantically by the general population, striding over wooded hills or across grassy meadows that resemble in our imaginations Pindar's Nemean fields. By contrast, people walking along roads for the most part are labeled and dismissed as bums and vagrants. It is not uncommon for road hikers to be heckled, bombarded with trash, or even run into a ditch by a vehicle swerving toward the gravelly shoulder where they happen to be walking. Police and other motorists view them with suspicion or irritation, if they think about them at all. More than likely, if a hiker was injured, lying motionless, or dead, no one would stop, save perhaps the curious policeman or the passing motorized scavenger, bent on sifting quickly through his [or her] pockets and backpack.

[9] However unpleasant these phenomena may sound, they remain, after all, literal contingencies one may expect and prepare for. Of much greater difficulty and importance for my own journey are the abstract challenges—my uncertain, yet necessary, interactions with the shadowy specters of history and experience. Even covering the same or similar terrain on foot, I am not so presumptuous as to believe that I can imagine, even remotely, what travel must have been like for my ancestors—the slow laborious procession of all one's possessions, the terrible quality of the road, the utter absence of a doctor to treat the unlooked for illness or injury, and so on. Doubtful, too, is the extent of my specialized knowledge of this region's many collective, complex qualities—especially geological, biological and botanical, and anthropological: that which is learned, as the writer James Still said, "by convulsions of earth, by time, by winds, the water's wearings, and minute shapings of man."

[10] But when and where the wise and distinguished are unable or unwilling to embark, it must fall to the lesser to go. This imperative may lead one to the vast and perhaps unanswerable question of what knowledge and wisdom truly are. The German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once had a character of his proclaim, "For all our science and art we can know nothing." The brilliant academic specialist may limn the detailed workings of even the minutest object or subject in his field, but does this make him a wise human being, or even a knowledgeable one? I have always had my doubts. A knowledgeable person possesses a capacity for prescience that consists of much more than the patterned bulk of abstract memory. People come to be known as knowledgeable often precisely because they acquire or make connections between things that are not taught or shared by others; sensibility, visceral experience, and the mysteries of the individual mind, and the magic of the personality, then conspire to transmute clinical data into something more than what others see in it, which is how invention happens. The wise are those who possess the ability to relate this kind of knowledge both to our lives and to the grand story of existence, often in astonishingly simple, completely nonintellectual terms. Wise people need not command endless lists of facts since for them proofs always give way to truths. A woman pushes her computer through the window of a twenty-three-story office building; a girl throws her softball high in the air. A physics professor calculates the velocity of these objects; a wise man like the philosopher Heraclitus tells us, "The way up and the way down are the same." Heraclitus was a Greek thinker who lived roughly twenty-five hundred years ago, before knowledge was hacked into the various regimented specialty areas familiar to us today. He and other early thinkers like Anaximander, both of whom preceded Socrates, were interested in things that exist beyond experience, but because there were no separate disciplines at the time, they were able to make unorthodox connections that seem wholly foreign to us now. Abstractions that eventually would become organized into distinct things like poetry, math, biology, history, and psychology remained overlapped and indistinct in their thought. Anaximander believed there was something ineffable from which all things come forth and return to again; Heraclitus saw everything in flux, what the despairing intellectual Cotswaldo would later call "that depressed and depressing world of chance." This would include knowledge and wisdom, both of which we attempt to journey toward but are themselves journeys, the navigation of the unknown soul through its sorrowful maze. Steinbeck believed, "A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike," and my own trip, several centuries and many lives removed from my ancestors, experienced in a different culture and rendered in another tongue, must necessarily remain foreign to theirs, the whoosh of traffic and the grim jolt of shoes on summer asphalt a hardly imaginable fantasy in an era of the slow, laborious creak of a wagon wheel, half-sunk in mud, turning slowly in the rain.

[11] In Frederick, which the French botanist André Michaux described in 1789 as "little but well-built," I switch over to Highway 340, the heavy oncoming traffic keeping my torpid mind wary beneath the unceasing afternoon sunlight that throbs down upon my head. The air is still, heavy, and vaguely brown, slightly dingy and disturbed only by the passing vehicles, the hot wind gusts blasting my body with the strong relentless fumes of burnt fuel, hot rubber, worn brakes. This is the mechanized odor of waste, of spent industrial energy, of, in a sense, death. Yet, for all the terrible smell and difficulty breathing amid the heat, I remind myself that it is actually healthier to inhale fumes along the hot open road than in the closed, cool sanctuary of one's automobile, which functions, in respiratory terms, as a kind of smallish, subtle gas chamber, filling gradually and becoming increasingly toxic with the chemicals of other people's automobiles the longer one drives with the windows closed and the air conditioning on. Many people of the twenty-first century spend most of their lives literally shut off from the outside world: in their homes, in their cars, at work, even in a tent; Americans in particular probably breathe more stale air than any human civilization before them, the industrial gasses of the outside sucked, only partially filtered, into the shiny, climate controlled building, where they are trapped, inhaled, and regurgitated room to room—an invisible process that goes all but unremarked, save the self-conscious sneeze or sudden shortness of breath. Whereas earlier humans depended on their ears and olfactories for essential things such as locating food and water and predicting weather, our own sensory-worn culture is most notably a society of gazing: at synthetic electric images on plastic boxes, at signs telling us where to go, at shiny manufactured objects amid the bright decorations of cavernous malls. It is hardly surprising that most of our senses, no longer critical for survival, have begun a slow decline toward atrophy—that which we hear must be ever louder, that which we smell ever stronger; the booming stereo, the reeking cologne hardly attracting our attention as we hurry through the crowded parking lot, more or less conditioned to the industrial odors on the vaguely shifting air, eyes fixed on the ground or set on a particular parking space, the dark clouds looming behind on the southwest horizon, a minor irrelevance—something to be ignored, if they are noticed at all.

[12] In addition to frequently filling my lungs with large volumes of tainted air, I know, too, that over the course of my journey I will be indiscriminately drinking plenty of bad water, especially in remote urban places like Frederick, where the treated water likely is flushed with a chlorinated compound that gives rise to carcinogenic pathogens and turbidity. When, as a boy, I would sip cold water from a spring, I was told to be careful not to disturb the sediment with a clumsy hand or to knock nearby leaves and debris, likely trodden upon by thirsty animals, into the water. The water itself was good, mostly devoid of run off, mineral rich, but naturally filtered and refined as it welled up out of the ground. In the case of much treated water, it is the water itself, a formulaic combination of what has been interpolated into it and what it lacks, that sometimes comes to constitute a problem, its natural contents, good and bad alike, purged utterly by the chlorinating agents, functioning not unlike some powerful antibiotic that annihilates all bacteria from the body. It is an irony that even as we believe we are refining health and medicine we are compromising and impairing ourselves in new ways.

[13] Early settlers around Fredericktown, as it was then known, despite or perhaps because of their vigorous subsistence lifestyle, enjoyed unusually long and healthy lives, more than two-thirds of them living past their sixtieth year, a generous span of existence for that era. My ancestor who came to the area in 1742 would die in his sixties, and one local gentleman of the period is on record for having made it to ninety-four, a birthday I'll probably never see. The proximity to the mountains and the lack of low marshy places also conspired to spare inhabitants from the widespread colonial menace of malaria that periodically struck eastern villages and towns, and for which treatment was decidedly wanting. All in all, people living around Fredericktown in the late 1700s enjoyed a standard of living considerably higher than all but a few of their fellow North American colonists. By twenty-first century standards, their physical trials were extraordinarily strenuous and mortality's toll on infants and the elderly was high. But for those who made it beyond the compromised conditions of the crib and avoided serious injury or infection, life generally was long and hardy, a robust existence, the fullness of which was occupied mostly by constant outdoor labor, but notably defined, rewarded, punctuated, by those with whom it was shared—the people who worked with you, the person you slept with, the child to whom life was passed—asleep at the foot of the bed or in the next room.

[14] Leaving Frederick, Catoctin Mountain, which had been obscured amid the suffocating traffic patterns and overpasses of Frederick, opens up before me, rising gradually on the horizon. At Catoctin Point, amidst the simple pleasures of having arrived at the ridges I'd glimpsed from afar, the hills rise up around a pass to the west. The Catoctin Mountain Highway continues south along the ridgeline, a divergent artery of the great Indian path that led down into the Virginia Piedmont, crossing the Potomac into Loudoun County, and spanning across red clay tobacco country southward into central North Carolina. This is an ancient crossroads, a good place to pause and sit, below the highway, along the northernmost branch of Tuscarora Creek, named for an Iroquoian- associated tribe forcibly driven by the British from their ancestral lands in eastern Virginia and North Carolina to this area, where they briefly established a village in the 1720s, only to continue northward soon thereafter into the regions that are today New York state and Ontario. Another of history's anecdotes of displacement—a tragic, minor one—but a story destined to unfold many times more, in much larger terms, a tale of sorrow that eventually would become familiar to nearly every North American tribe, a brutal repetitive drama performed across the continent: the bloody opening act of American civilization, of a nation yet to be.

[15] Though frequently robbed, slaughtered, lied to, maimed, and disenfranchised by the newly arrived Europeans, Indians often took pleasure in and payment for leading their new neighbors across the region that was their home, ironically supplying the foreigners with much of the geographical knowledge necessary to colonize it, which in turn would lead to their own eventual removal. On the other side of the pass that runs beneath Catoctin Point, on a rise above Catoctin Creek, I glimpse the elder peaks of the Blue Ridge mountains for the first time, the smaller summits of South Mountain and Short Hill Mountain in the foreground, divided by the Potomac, with the chain proper rising behind them, dark amid late summer's white hot haze, great shadowy giants shrouded in pale mist on the horizon. My initial view of the ancient chain I will be skirting for hundreds of miles calls to my mind perhaps the earliest written description of the mountains, which, of special interest, also records the reactions of the Indian scouts who were present at the time. Writing in 1669, John Lederer spied the Blue Ridge from afar and "could barely discern whether they were Mountains or Clouds" until his native guides knelt suddenly in worship and "howled out after their barbarous manner, 'Okeepoeze! (God is nigh!).'" Though Lederer, like nearly every other European, generally painted the Indians of his acquaintance as savages, his description nonetheless captures the sheer enthusiasm, the worshipful admiration, experienced by them at the prospect of the grand peaks they considered holy—an unfeigned joy that translates across time, culture, and language (from their native tongue, to Lederer's recording of it in Latin, to our reading of it now in English). What makes this account strangely powerful likely stems from the fact that at their most fundamental and archetypal level, there is something inherently, unspeakably, and universally majestic about mountains, any mountain, rising as they do out of the landscape, crowned by rock and wind stunted branches, pointing heavenward, worn but defiant against all weather and time. The Blue Ridge chain is not an especially large orogen, but its distinctive mountains, being the oldest in the world, project a unique regal quality born of ancient being, long experience wrapped in a ghostly, shifting cloak of azure—an indistinct token of their peculiar living force, the process of hillside trees trapping generous portions of the water that accumulates on the mountainsides, which is then released during warmer weather through transpiration, resulting in the curious blue haze described by Lederer as cloudlike and admired in spiritual terms by many who have glimpsed it, both before and after him.

[16] One of the first Europeans to travel in the Blue Ridge, Lederer, a German doctor turned mapmaker and explorer, found the mountains alien and wonderful, perhaps even altogether overwhelming, recording as he did their qualities in arcane, outlandish terms. Among his eccentric observations are claims of having encountered lions and Amazons. Probably he lacked sufficient terminology to describe bobcats, mountain lions, and Indian women who appeared uncommonly active and assertive by European standards. When he returned to Williamsburg, his sponsor, William Berkeley, scoffed at his findings and refused to compensate him for his journey. Undeterred, Lederer would go on to explore the Shenandoah Valley the following year with the support of Maryland's Lord Calvert, who thought him "a modest ingenuous person, and a pretty scholar." Though it is perhaps easy now to find humor in many of Lederer's wild interpretations, his observations, for all their shortcomings, were, like my own, made in earnest, the strange fruit of a naked desire to know and experience his surroundings, and even now—for all we know, for all the time we have lived here—there remains much that is indistinct about the region, its constantly changing qualities and fluctuations ever humbling our comprehension, our vain suppositions that this place may be wholly known in its entirety.

[17] By the names we know today, Appalachia spans from Newfoundland to Mississippi; the Blue Ridge runs from northern Georgia to the small mountains of eastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey. It has been that way for what humans consider to be, if we can imagine it at all, a very long time, though not since always—a vague history only roughly understood, approximated at great intervals by human standards, in estimates of hundreds of millions of years. Most current earth historians trained in the scientific arts surmise that between nine hundred million to one and a quarter billion years ago the areas we identify now roughly as North America and Africa, along with Siberia and an indeterminate northern section of Europe, were joined as a gigantic land mass called "Rodinia." It is generally believed that this huge continent began breaking up about six hundred to eight hundred million years ago. When, around five hundred and fifty million years ago, Africa split off, the section of Maryland I am currently standing on, altogether unrecognizable, would have been located on the equator. About this time, or perhaps fifty million years or so thereafter, North America developed a continental shelf. These long gradual driftings and natural constructions of enormous stray fragments also resulted in a number of violent, land shaping collisions and upheavals. When, roughly four hundred and fifty million years ago, a volcanic island string hit North America the collision of continental plates resulted in the development of mountains in the Appalachian region, beneath which rest many of North America's current inland coal fields. Fifty million years later the Blue Ridge was a desert and fifty million years after that an inland sea stretched from its western reaches to the Mississippi, a geological occurrence that would later result in salt deposits. About three hundred million years ago, a large continental fragment collided with North America, the colossal impact forcing the land to ripple, producing massive ice-capped mountains as high as twenty-five thousand feet. Around this time, all of the continents had come together to produce the great land mass known as "Pangaea." A hundred million years later, the area still in the early process of becoming what would look to us like Appalachia was undergoing a gradual process of extension and erosion, the immense stretching of mountains and hollowing of basins. As Greenland broke away and Africa moved further east, the Atlantic Ocean began to form, the sea in its infancy fed and deepened by the slow recession of continents.

[18] About sixty million years ago Appalachia finally began to take on what we might consider a somewhat recognizable form, the millions of years leading up to our own time a long era of orogeny—of erosion, ever shaping and refining the terrain, while the sea retreated eastward and the first flowering plants began pushing their way tenuously upward through the soil, clinging precariously in the water-rich low places. Humans, late arrivals to the scene by any measure, moved into the Appalachian region no later than 10,000 B.C.E. Whether they arrived via arctic voyage, followed the stars and the winds over the Atlantic from Europe, or crossed a land bridge from northern Asia bearing their Clovis spearheads remains a cloudy point of dispute among loremasters of the species' early history. Although they passed through the vicinity in pursuit of game, it is unlikely that these initial nomadic humans would have settled or tarried long in the Appalachian region. Though gradually warming, the environment remained much colder than today, leading human groups to spend much of their time further east, in the Piedmont and Tidewater areas, whither permafrost receded, game assembled, and the gathering season lingered.

[19] By 2,500 B.C.E. humans were beginning to wander less and settle down more, forming small villages along rivers, creating primitive pottery, and periodically burning the forests in order to expedite the gathering and growing of various plants, including corn and beans, both of which gradually were introduced from southern areas of North America over a period of several thousand years. 2,000 B.C. was the era of a major technological breakthrough: the development of the bow and arrow, which revolutionized hunting and transformed animal meat and hides from a sporadic luxury into a reliable and regular commodity. The strange and sometimes large Indian burial mounds in the Appalachian region date from around this time up until about a thousand years ago, but apparently little was known about them among the succeeding Native American tribes—those that would be recognizable to the first European explorers—which began to form only several hundred years ago. Their general proximity to rivers was important in terms of game and crop growth, as well as having a reliable resource for navigation—a natural avenue along which journeys were made, the looping curves bearing travelers away, welcoming home the long departed.

[20] I make a gradual descent toward the Potomac, around which the Blue Ridge rises, by turns gradually and jaggedly, its diverse topography shaped by the confluence of the mountains and the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. This natural intersection is echoed in contemporary geopolitical terms by the coming together of the states of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. However, the river's history as a natural boundary is much older, defining, for example, the demarcation where the Iroquois and Algonquin would meet and trade—one of their linguistic connotations for the Potomac being "the place to which tribute is brought." Pockets all but empty and backpack stripped to a bare minimum, I have arrived here with almost nothing to exchange or offer, though it will not surprise me to encounter other wanderers on foot. Settlers would have taken the valley road. From the highway I am walking along to the ferry and on to what was then Shenandoah Falls, not far from where the Appalachian Trail now passes over the Potomac. In fact, the celebrated continuous footpath of southeastern North America crisscrosses the road I am following three times in four miles. Behind me, to the east, at a point I have already passed, it heads due north up South Mountain and along a series of ridges toward Pennsylvania. Here, at Sandy Hook, near the banks of the Potomac, it curves west with the river before passing over into what is now Harper's Ferry, the village named for Robert Harper, a millwright and carpenter. At the last crossing, below old Shenandoah Falls, it bears south into the Virginia Blue Ridge.

[21] Where the Appalachian Trail crosses the highway, just before the bridge and the river, my glance draws me astray, luring me into the deep shade that encompasses the popular twentieth-century footpath, so different from the parched, sun-beaten roar of the hard summer highway. Beneath the cover of green canopy, the air cools noticeably, the whoosh and grind of traffic recedes, replaced by overlapping birdsong, the distinct tapping of a woodpecker, the vague drone of insects. Straying a few feet from the trail, I remove my pack and lean against the trunk of a hickory for a few moments, eating dried fruit and sipping water, the bark grooved and cool through the sweat-laden shirt on my back. The trail appears worn and eroded, but the woods are silent and dark, no fragment of conversation or footfall approaches. Having rested a few moments longer, I heft my pack again and return, not without reluctance, to the path I have chosen to follow—the suffocating din, the inferno that is the highway—just above the bridge that spans the cool waters of the Potomac.

[22] Stepping onto the bridge, pressing against a concrete rail, as far from the traffic as possible, I try to concentrate on the Potomac, which rushes beneath as well as flanks me, stretching east and west—a wide immemorial conglomeration of rock and current, rapids and pools, carved through the mountains over the immense duration of centuries. Pausing, turning to gaze downriver, I remove from my pocket a hickory leaf—veined, oblong, pointed, green—plucked from the lowest branch of the bough I had rested against in the woods. Arm stretched out over the railing, I release the leaf, watching it flutter as it falls, suggesting in its motion the flight of some fantastic, deciduous butterfly. Touching the water, it vanishes immediately, current and rock conspiring to pull it under; though beneath the surface—among sand, darting living things, the organic matter that makes its home below the waters—I imagine the leaf swept downstream, jerked and then tumbled by the current, pressed flat for an instant against a rock, torn slightly as it slips free, borne via dim, chaotic avenues, the slight puppet of liquid energy, along the bottom. The last river I had crossed, the Monocacy, had appeared brown and murky, contemplative and secretive; the Potomac is passion and fury, the ancient Blue Ridge and the hydrological physics of mass drainage contending with each other, hard matter beset by motion and froth, the stolidity of stone held fast while the Chesapeake Bay, watery gateway to the Atlantic Ocean, beckons, nearly two hundred miles to the southeast.

[22] I am in motion again, walking along the bridge, reminding myself that it remains within our power to plan and predict the routes of our journeys, dates of departures and points of arrivals, while the manner of our passing, the collective untold variables of the path's unfolding, ever dances imperceptibly somewhere on the horizon, evading the gaze of even the most lengthy foresight. Whether having chosen or been pressed to embark, we lay ourselves open to the vagaries of the journey, floating precariously like leaves on the river: by turns submerged, pummeled, torn, pushed, pulled, swept continuously by the erratic overwhelming energy that shapes being in the world. In the midst of our mad journeys, unpredictable wanderings—events wearing upon us, shaped as they are by forces beyond us—the accuracy of observation remains only intermittent: the blur of passing landscape, the memory of spent action, bloomed before its time into colorful suspect meanings, indistinct rumors. Knowledge and theories of knowing, understandings and suspicions of life in the present, ultimately give way to idle wonder at the happenstance of our passing and all—only partially imagined—that has passed before. We are left then at last with questions, most of them unanswerable, though it may be, after all, the asking that is of greatest importance—inquiries that expect no answer.

[23] I am nearing the end of the bridge, departing the river from above. If, for centuries, humans truly knew the Potomac as "the place to which tribute is brought," it would please me to leave something for it—a token of my respect, of my own minuscule passing. But then, what does a river need? Another question whose answer evades me, the empty circumstance of which reluctantly concedes the form of an answer unlooked for. Because they are all I have, because I am rich in them, the recipient of a vast wealthy inheritance, I will offer then, in parting and tribute, my questions to the river: to be borne away, drowned, salvaged as debris by others. The fact that I am not the first to do so is an assertion that is less a fact, less an answer, and more another invitation to inquiry. They arrive even as I depart, these questions, floating from upstream, over washboard rapids and around jutting rocks, faster than I can offer them up...

[24] How many dawns, prying through eastern clouds, have glanced off these waters flowing into them?

[25] How many leaves has the river borne away?