August 23, 2014
I walked outside at five-thirty this morning. It was eighty degrees. My shirt got soaked before I could reach the road. A weather forecaster last night said, for the next few days this area would be more humid than the Brazilian jungle.
In the rain forest, branches and twigs snapped: wild animals retreating from my yard. Squirrels jumped in place on tree branches and baby birds lined the fence top, waiting for the gorge of seeds and worms from their mother’s mouths. A gaggle of doves perched on the electric wire that runs along my road. They neither mourned nor stirred; they looked like chess pieces.
On the River Road trail, an old man appeared in the mist, walking east and swinging a three foot stick like a divining rod. He was thin but his belly was as big as a beach ball. “I got the spider webs for you.”
Overnight, spiders build traps across the trail. The first hiker will get entangled. The old man had missed one. I walked into it, my mouth agape to pull in thick air, my diaphragm spasmodically making me cough, and I dined on spider’s lace and did a Saint Vitus dance, swiping my back and shoulders for any hitchhiking arachnids.
Past Scotch Jimmy Island, a southwest breeze cooled the air by five degrees. The current helped a fallen maple leaf rise and walk on the trail, its points like tiny feet. It walked past me then collapsed. No wonder our ancestors invented fairies; the prairie grasses are full of dancers and gospel singers.
I removed my ball cap and wiped running streams of sweat from my face, flinging the drops from my fingers and watering wildflowers. The sunrise flung down light from the treetops and lit Our Lady of the Rivers, the twenty-five foot tall fiberglass statue of Mary, standing on the Missouri shore, a mile west from where I watched.
The slant of the orange light was like a spotlight. It bathed a straw field, and a native cactus, full and green and thorn-spiked, shone. It was hiding in plain sight; I had missed it all the fourteen months of my walk.
I turned onto Stanka Lane, the wetland trees standing like soldiers at attention, the massive whine of mosquitoes above the brackish water making me walk faster. The world belongs to the insects. One need only stand still, to be devoured.
Sometime in the early 90’s, my then ten-year-old nephew, David and I took what was meant to be a half day hike in the Murder Hole Wilderness, outside of Roanoke, Virginia. We got lost—a storm had wiped out the trail signs—so we headed off trail, down the mountain. I stepped into a yellow jacket nest and was stung over a hundred times and was paralyzed. We sat in a stream bed over a waterfall, no food or water, in tee shirts and shorts, for a day and a half. Our bodies became swollen from fire ant bites, from mosquito vampires draining us of blood, from horseflies biting our backs. David never again entered the wilderness. He had sobbed inconsolably, in the middle of that night, that when we died on this mountain, he was going to hell. A fifth grader was going to hell.
I passed Hummingbird Man’s house—no birds, no people. Farther on, a young, unshaven man sat on his porch at the foot of Stroke Hill. He was looking up at the sky—I thought he might be praying. He looked weary. He saw me and waved.
The mile and a half climb up the steep hill nearly did me in, gnat clouds on me like a living hat. A large king snake was stretched straight and perpendicular to the road. I thought it might be dead. If it was alive, a car would dispatch it to snake heaven. I reached for the reptile, to relocate it, and the ungrateful creature coiled and hissed and spat. I raised my hands and walked on, and the snake wriggled into the weeds by the old White’s Greenhouse.
At the very top of the hill, above the mushroom fairy ring, something white, in the soft tar of the roadbed, caught my eye. It was a pair of panties, crusted with dried, rust-colored blood, as though someone had dipped the underwear in a pond of blood.
I was horrified. I am horrified. The panties hadn’t been there yesterday. What happened in the rain forest night?
The sun rose up, small comfort.