Not Lost, Never Found: Chasing Annie Dillard to Tinker Creek and Beyond

(A Literary Adventure)


“The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them.  The least we can do is try to be there.”

                                                 -Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

After a full meal at Harvest Table, Barbara Kingsolver’s locally sourced restaurant in the nethers of Virginia’s Appalachian hills, I coursed down valley toward Tinker Creek as the sun retreated behind me. I amazed at the wideness of the world which I had never known—which had never known me.  The blue ridges in fall were deep orange and brown.  The trees bore their branches like teeth against a tongueless sky.  I had recently left Nashville with a hope to lay to rest, and this seemed proper ground for burial.  Plus, I was chasing Annie Dillard.  Or at least the spirit she left behind looking for Meaning and Purpose in the susurrus of the creek.  Perhaps if I listened among the winding thrushes it would still whisper the selfsame secrets in the hush.

While listening the intricacies of the wild, she writes:

There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end.  It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage.

I won’t have it.  The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright.  We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

Go up into the gaps.  If you can find them; they shift and vanish too.  Stalk the gaps.  Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock more than a maple—a universe.  This is how you spend the afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon.  Spend the afternoon.  You can’t take it with you.

I wanted no itsy-bitsy conversation, no itsy-bitsy experience, no itsy-bitsy life.  I wanted it full.  Robust and brimming.  So I sought the spaces between the defined world.  I went in search of the gaps.  Ready to spend the shiny and throw the shroud at the banks of holiness as it burbled down the mountain, I turned up past the new suburbs of Roanoke toward Haymakertown (I’m not making this up) where my map promised a road approaching Tinker Creek.  I turned off the stereo in my faithful Corolla, Woozle, and rolled down the windows to let in the night.  The road wended among the hills, dipping and turning as the houses became more sparse.  At the bottom of the hill, where the tracks ran next to the creek was a sign, shining back in the lights: PRIVATE RAILROAD CROSSING, Use At Your Own Risk.  Just over the tracks the road split.  One fork bent in the undergrowth into a long driveway along the bank, the other, covered in fallen leaves, ran along the creek until crossing at an old wooden bridge.  I followed the latter and listened to the leaves like bones crush under the tires.

The wooden bridge heaved under Woozle’s weight.  NO TRUCKS, the sign at the close end dictated.  On the far end, now only visible in the headlights as Woozle and I were suspended over the creek, was a large sign on plywood nailed to a tree. “NO TRESS PASSING” was scrawled in red paint.  Underneath it in finer script: “THAT MEANS YOU!”  But I had come this far.  I had to see the creek.  Spend my evening.  Find the tree with the lights in it that Annie had seen.  Plus, I needed to pee.

The windy breath from the creek’s surface rose through the gaps in the bridge.  I listened to the sound beyond the rush for a moment, then went off to find an unsuspecting tree.  Mid-stream I heard the clack of a wooden door and turned to see a bobbing flashlight descending the hill.

I was stuck.

If I started Woozle back up, the headlights would give me away.  If I didn’t, I would not have an escape.  I didn’t know who this person was or what they were looking for or why they were here.  They could be friendly, just out for a walk, or something else entirely.  Then I realized they had the same conception of me.  And I was on their land, traipsing across their bridge like one of the Billy Goats Gruff.  I was contemplating how to extract myself from the creak of bridge and back to roads my map acknowledged without being discovered.  The last thing I needed was some troll to demand explanation for my presence.  Then the beam of the light lit upon me.  And it stayed.

Caught.  I had to play this out.  These cards had been dealt.  And I was all in.  I could have jumped in the car, and backed up, screeching off the rickety bridge and down the lane, but that would look even more suspicious.  Besides, I told myself, this guy was probably just out checking up on things.  Out for a nighttime stroll.  Unless he wasn’t.

This is how horror movies begin.  He might have a gun.  He might have nefarious intentions.  And I was, I think, on his property.  Though who really owns the air above a creek is a fine point of debate I’m not sure my soon to be interlocutor would appreciate.  The darkness thickened as my heart heaved forward.  My purview narrowed like the screen in a horror movie shrinks and keeps the suspense just out of view.  Around me was darkness.  I was in the gap between banks.  Below the creek ran on.  And the only light focused on me.  As I became more illumed, the more the world was cut off from my own perception.  Given this, I preferred the dark.

But confrontation was the only option.  I stepped closer to the nearing light and held my arms out to my side not in surrender, but in openness and friendliness—I hoped.

“I’m sorry, but I seem to be lost,” I call to the light bearer now fifty feet from me.  “I was looking for public access to the creek.”

“This is private property,” a deep voiced yelled. “There’s a sign.”  The flashlight wavered toward the plywood.

“Of course.  Could you tell me where the creek has pub . . .”

“Private Property!  I said.  Ain’t you seen the sign?”

“Yes. I made a wrong . . .”

“PRIIIIVAAATTTTE PRROOPPERRTYYYY!” He yelled, not allowing any nuance in conversation.

“Of course.  I’m leaving.”  I waved my empty hands at him and walked toward the car still under his beam of light.  He turned back up the hill.  Now again in the dark my eyes could apprehend the wider world.  In the silhouette cast from the distant house I could see the man’s form lumbering away, and clearly, the long barrel of a gun.

Wrong gap. I had come to pick from Annie’s garden.  To bask in what secrets had been there.  To fill up with sense like a bell ringing, as she says.  And I still sought.  All was not lost.  I had not been shot. And one must step outside of expectation and its predictable consequences if one is to pitch into the gaps.  I would just have to find another, less hostile gap.

I continued up the road to where the Appalachian Trail crosses the creek, and with my eyes open wide in the darkness, slung my sleeping bag and journal up the hill.  Dillard writes that “our lives are faint tracings on the surface of mystery.”  It was this mystery I sought.  A vagabond stalking gaps.  And in the swaddling dark I found welcome.  Or at least refuge. The safety of solitude made that much more profound by its momentary absence.

I brushed the broken, spider threads from me, laid my sleeping bag in a soft spot on the top of a cut bank, took a breath as big as a mountain, and opened. I cast my spirit into the water, knowing, as Dillard promises, it will throw it back.  The constant flow provides not a home, but a full life.  There I listened to the same sounds she heard.  In the same space.  And yet time, inhabitance, and individual were different.  I was an entirely different straggler than Annie.  But the essence of the creek had not changed.  Only the listener.  Here I breathed in the creek which, as she writes,  “runs on all night, new every minute, whether I wish it or know it or care, as a closed book on a shelf continues to whisper to itself its own exhaustible tale. . . this grace never flags, the pouring from ever-renewable sources is endless, impartial, and free.”  Even thirty years later it still whispered.  I had come to hear this very tale.

In the silence, I listened.

And I heard.  But not to or for the answers.  Those did not float by in the burble and flow.  Time did, however.  Tonight for the spending floated past just ahead of a tomorrow to be given freely.  Immersed in unearned majesty I slept above the creek as a microcosm of “the world with all its stimulus and beauty.”  And here I will awaken to the wide world.  Awaken to the mystery, awaken to splendor, to the light shining through the gaps in the mountain, to the life teeming underneath me and bearing me back to myself, awaken to the hope now buried in those hills, awaken to a life not deserved, a grace not willed, and a beauty beyond measure.  And awaken to the silence.  Among the loss and violence of memory, the mystery and hopes of the future, we awaken, if we awaken at all to silence.  To the silence of whatever Gods may be.  And to their interminable and barbaric yawp!

Steele Campbell at Tinker Creek


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