Authors: J.C. Conaway
Squaring his shoulders, Josh headed back toward the front door. He had finished with his past. He would not allow sentiment, an unwelcome companion, to remain by his side any longer.
"Are you ready?" Cresta asked with forced brightness as he climbed back into the cab.
"Yes, I'm ready. We're going to have to stop somewhere for gas, and to refresh my memory on how to get to Chestnut Ridge."
Cresta kissed his cheek. "Josh, I'm sorry. It can't be easy. Returning to the place where you were born and finding it in such a dreadful state."
"I'm all right," Josh said more sharply than he had meant to. He started up the motor and Cresta flipped on the radio. Country music filled the airwaves. "You can sure tell we're in West Virginia," commented Cresta, eying the looming mountain range. "Are you sure we can make it up there, Josh? I mean, when you were driving coal trucks, did you ever drive one up there?"
"Nope. I was never up there. Don't know why, but my parents never took me. And none of them came to visit except Aunt Avvie. That's funny. I don't recall any of them ever coming down. Of course, mountain people are like that. They don't like to mix except with their own kind."
Cresta laughed. "I don't know if it's the air or what, Josh, but your accent has suddenly returned."
A short time later they pulled into a dilapidated gas station which appeared to be constructed of advertising signs. Some probably dated back to the nineteen twenties - Mail Pouch Tobacco, Nehi Orange and Dr. Pepper. Standing forlornly in front of the station was a single gas pump. Josh blew the horn and the patched screen door opened. A wizened old man wearing overalls and clenching a corncob pipe between his gums emerged from the building. He slowly walked around the entire camper, spat a couple of times in begrudging admiration, then ambled up to the driver's window.
"What can I do ye fer?" he asked in a nasal twang.
"Fill the tank to the brim," said Josh. "I also have a couple of cans I want filled."
The old man appeared at the window. "Dollar thirty a gallon. I don't take none of 'em plastic cards."
"Will you write me a receipt?" asked Josh.
"Ye write it, I'll sign it." The old man looked oddly at Josh. "Where ye thinkin' of goin'?"
"Chestnut Ridge. I wonder if you can direct us there."
The old man spat and pronounced. "Never gonna git that big buggy up them moun-tains."
"Gonna try," replied Josh and then to Cresta, "You want a cold soda?"
"A Tab if they have one and something to nosh."
While the gas tank was being filled, Josh went into the gas station. The interior was crowded with dusty automobile parts and an untidy assortment of foodstuffs. Josh helped himself to the bottles of soda resting around a block of ice in an old-fashioned cooler. There were no Tabs, so he settled for two Dr. Peppers. He looked over the counter at the old man's selection of confections and his face lit up.
He joined Cresta in the cab. "No Tabs, just Dr. Pepper, but you won't believe what I found to snack on."
Cresta eyed the square waxed-paper packages with suspicion. "What are they?"
"Moon Pies. I haven't had one since I was a kid."
"But what are they?"
Josh laughed. "A couple of cardboardy cookies filled with gummy marshmallow, then the whole thing is dumped into imitation chocolate." Cresta made a face. "Come on, try it, you'll like it. They're so bad they're good."
"I thought we'd given up junk food." She took a small bite of the Moon Pie and began to chew it. The expression on her face changed from disgust to delight. "Say, this is really good."
A mile down the road Cresta was still laughing. "I can't - wait until you - present
receipt to the institute for reimbursement!" She was referring to the receipt Josh had laboriously made out. The old man had signed it with a shaky X.
They reached the turnoff for Chestnut Ridge. A dilapidated sign pointed to a washboard road, narrow and dusty, which disappeared into a clump of chestnut trees. Cresta and Josh got out of the camper and looked up the mountain range. The road wound upwards. It looked like a dull, yellow ribbon randomly laced over the crown of a green bonnet.
"Josh, you must be kidding. This is a camper, a home on wheels, not a mountain goat."
"Not to worry. I'll get us there," Josh grinned. "That is, if we don't meet someone on the way down."
"How did Harry and party manage to make it?"
"The river's between those two mountains up there. They took canoes and paddled upriver."
"Then how do we get to the digs?"
"We'll park our camper on the ridge and backpack down to Harry."
Cresta refrained from commenting. After all, she had asked to come along.
Low-hanging branches scraped the roof of the camper and berry bushes on either side of the road scratched the paint. The usually lush vegetation was showing signs of thirst, and the leaves drooped like the eyelids of senile old women. To avoid the dust Josh and Cresta rolled up the windows and turned on the air conditioner. A short time later the camper began its journey. Josh shifted into first gear. The road was bumpy, and the camper was brutally jolted. Several pots and pans fell from their places; Cresta climbed into the back to set things right. When she returned she asked cautiously, "How much longer is it?"
"Don't know." Josh was struggling with the steering wheel. "I guess we'll know when we get there."
"I feel like I'm leaving Kansas forever."
The road suddenly dipped into a gully dense with dying vegetation. An ancient log bridge crossed a dried-up creek. Cresta gasped. "Josh, that doesn't look strong enough to hold a shopping cart."
Josh parked, got out and examined the logs. They were split cypress and looked rotted. Even with his running shoes, Josh could kick away the outer layers. Still, the center seemed solid. He arranged his face into a smile and returned to Cresta. "They're just fine," he said cheerfully and pressed down on the accelerator. Cresta closed her eyes as they shot across the bridge. On the other side Josh said, "You can look now. We made it. I'm going to give the camper a rest. Let's get out and stretch."
For the first time since starting their ascent, Cresta and Josh took the time to drink in the breath taking vista. They stood beneath a palisade of fir trees on the southern side of the mountain. In the distance, rolling farmlands were crisscrossed by streams glinting in the sunlight like bands of crystal. The streams emptied into a lake - a sparkling mirror of blue glass. Moored boats fringed the lake and appeared as toys which had somehow escaped from their bottles. Moving patches of shade caused by the fast-traveling clouds constantly changed the pattern of the countryside. Behind them, the mountain rose like a great, verdant cone decorated with steep evergreen forests.
"Just smell the air, Cresta."
Cresta breathed deeply. "God, that's good. No soot, no pollution, no garbage. It's the difference between Perrier and Kool Aid." Then she noticed a colony of ants feeding on a dead squirrel. "Ugh! I spoke too soon." She got back in the camper.
The road shot upwards again at a forty-five-degree angle. The camper climbed steadily for more than an hour; then they reached a plateau, a narrow shelf set in the south side of the mountain. After a quarter of a mile, the road began winding higher toward the clouds. Suddenly there was a loud rumble like the sound of thunder. Josh looked up. A cloud of fast-moving dust was descending. "It's a landslide! Jesus H. Christ!"
He pressed his foot all the way to the floor and the camper zoomed forward. Cresta covered her ears and prayed as rocks and dirt bounced off the top of the vehicle. Josh stopped the camper when they were out of the way of the landslide. He got out. A great jumbled pile of rocks, dirt and uprooted bushes now covered the road not twenty feet behind them. When the yellow mist cleared away, he saw that the road was blocked by the landslide. The rubble was as high as six feet in some places.
"It looks like we aren't going back," Cresta said carefully.
"Not for a while, anyway. I'll tell the people up at the Ridge. They must have some facility for clearing the road when this happens."
"I certainly hope so. I told Jason I'd be gone three weeks, not three months."
As they climbed, the road ceased to be dusty and the air was cooler. They turned off the air conditioner and rolled down the windows. The scent of pine was so strong that it seemed all the Christmas trees in the world were growing on that mountain.
"Can't be much farther," worried Cresta. "I mean, we're practically at the mountain top." They passed through a pocket of fog, and when they emerged the country village of Chestnut Ridge was spread out before them. A dozen or so houses were visible between the trees; as they neared, the landscape became dotted with people.
"I can't believe it," exclaimed Cresta. "It's a backwoods version of Shangri-La."
Josh glanced up at the sun. "It took longer to get up here than I thought. Don't know if we'll make it to the campsite tonight." Josh took Cresta's hand. "Come on, let's drive down Main Street."
"Oh, Josh, give me a moment to freshen up first. I don't want to look travelworn."
"Cresta, this isn't an opening night."
"I know, but I want to make a good impression."
Josh knew better than to argue. He pulled over, made himself a drink, and sat down to wait for her to get ready.
Cresta shut the bathroom door behind her and pressed her head against the mirror over the miniature sink. Rarely had she experienced nervousness when meeting people, but the prospect of being confronted by Josh's aunt and perhaps other relatives unraveled her. She wanted them to like her. She opened the medicine cabinet and withdrew a plastic vial. After struggling with the child-guard cap, she placed a Valium on her tongue and swallowed it dry. She closed the cabinet door and promised her reflection, "Just this once."
The camper made its way onto the one and only thoroughfare - an unpaved street lined with one-story houses. People appeared in doorways and windows and on their porches, squinting at the approaching sight with unabashed interest. A pack of hounds ran after the vehicle, snapping at the rear tires and announcing its arrival.
Josh pulled to a stop in front of a building, and the couple got out. The structure was identified as "Sophie's General Merchandise Store." It was constructed of split logs, and a long, narrow porch running the full length of the front of the building was littered with sacks of feed, barrels of apples, piles of cordwood and strolling chickens.
"Why, it's a regular Bloomingdale's," whispered Cresta.
The townspeople remained at a comfortable distance, but they were staring.
"Why are they staring at us?" Cresta asked out of the side of her mouth.
," Josh replied. "You look like you're outfitted for St. Tropez." Cresta sported oversized sunglasses and a pink-and-lavender two-piece outfit consisting of a brief halter top and long pants which were cut low and very tight.
Eyeing him, Cresta retorted, "Well, you look like you're incognito." Josh was wearing a Yankee baseball cap, aviator sunglasses, and a designer shirt and jeans which she had bought for him.
A group of children appeared from behind the camper. There were four - three boys and a girl. They were barefoot and were wearing well-worn but clean clothes - a motley combination of homemade items, hand-me-downs and catalogue orders.
"Hi, kids," said Josh with false cordiality. Children made him nervous. He whispered to Cresta, "Should I give them some change?"
"Of course not, they're not beggars."
But they were odd. Their hairlines were low and uneven. Their eyes - all of them - were gray and flecked with yellow, and looked glazed over, as if they had been varnished. The lone girl, the oldest of the lot, stepped forward and presented Cresta with a purple wildflower. She was taller than her male companions and had a dark mane of hair which fell about her face like a heavy veil.
Cresta responded, "Why, thank you." The girl's extended arm was encased in a long sleeve, but Cresta could see that the hand which clutched the flower had only four fingers. The thumb was missing. Cresta managed a warm smile and took the proffered bloom. "I'm Cresta. What's your name?"
"Marinda," the girl replied in a husky voice and curtsied. Then she ran back to her male companions. They chattered in low, excited tones, then rushed away, playing tag as they ran. The thick yellow dust soon enveloped them and they were gone. "What's wrong with those children?" whispered Cresta. "They must be related."
"Closer than you think," Josh explained. "They're probably products of incest." He guided Cresta up the steps to the general store. The porch was decorated with a discarded barbershop pole and hand painted signs: "ice cole pop and beer," "pump gasolene," and "branch lettuse." They pushed open a screen door, and a tinkling bell announced their arrival. The interior was so full of aromatic scents that it made them catch their breath. Cloyingly sweet, tartly sour, pungently spicy, all the sharp odors blended together into one heady perfume.
They entered the apparently empty store and began looking over the unusual items which were for sale. Shelves and tables were laden with homemade cheeses, jars of sourwood honey, cider vinegar, and cough medicines. The rafters were festooned with dried leaves, herbs and pieces of bark. Alongside were spiraling strips of sticky paper randomly dotted with caught flies. Baskets and hampers were filled to overflowing with late summer fruits and vegetables. A variety of preserves - wild strawberry jam, blackberry jelly and apple butter gleamed from their tightly sealed jars. Open tin buckets containing sassafras bark and ginseng root sat on the edge of the counter. On the other end were glass containers chock-full of hard candy, licorice, and brown and sugary chunks of sea foam.
In addition to foodstuffs, there were other items in the store: cornshuck mops, pinecone wreaths, braided rugs and bolts of cloth. Part of one wall was hung with a gigantic quilt in the striking Double Wedding Ring pattern: scores of bright circle overlapped one another to form an all-over geometric motif. Cresta tugged at Josh's sleeve. "Josh, I've never seen anything so beautiful."