The trees of November burst like fireworks against a gray morning sky and the cool Autumn rain cannot extinguish them. This Appalachian forest, aflame with yellow, orange, and red, provides an umbrella for my head and the trail ascending to heaven is paved with magenta as soggy as cornflakes left too long in the bowl.
Eventually, I happen upon a shelter that is scarred with graffiti: names, dates, initials, hearts, and promises of true love always and forever. My hopeless romantic mouth feels like it’s beginning to smile again. Invisible people suddenly surround me, dizzy, out of breath, coming to life in the walls.
“BEST KISS EVER—ON OUR KNEES—A RING ON HER FINGER—2014”
I’m skeptical. High mountain euphoria, possibly mistaken for love, yes, but more like erotic asphyxiation, a tingling sensation caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain, the delicious taste of a transient experience heightened and prolonged, carved into wood, immortalized. But this walk in the clouds is only temporary. The inevitable descent into the valley of men will decide who’s telling the truth.
A hiker’s log book is chained to the wall. I unscrew a thermos of hot, black coffee and sit down to read, feeling guilty, as if I’m poking around in someone else’s personal diary; but I open it anyway. Sentences rise like steam from pages jaundiced and wrinkled with age.
The first entry, in blue ink:
“And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.” (Revelation 20:12) Jeremy Blaine, January 1, 2018.
Wowzers. I wasn’t expecting a frightening bible verse, THE END for an opening line. Jeremy was taking a serious walk. Maybe it was a new year’s resolution: a 2,190-mile personal evaluation, prepping for the Great White Throne of God. The passage rings true, feels uncomfortably alive; a dark horse with a finger-pointing pale rider clomping through the woods, following me; an ominous warning to a deep red sinner, the day of reckoning coming fast in the clouds.
A twig snaps. I jump. A fat squirrel with heavy feet. I wish I could eat him, I really do.
Next page, next page, next page. On and on. Addicted to dry random facts: weather reports, birthday and anniversary announcements, mileage calculations, shout-outs from one unknown to another, declarations of residence. Then, sometimes, spellbound by the literary power of brevity, even with poor grammar and misspelled words—which normally drives me crazy, as I’m a lover of the English language—there were the following kind of entries, ranging from odd, interesting, funny, sad, eerie, disgusting, thoughtful, tragic, beautiful, touching, all the way to an epiphany.
–A man’s (Roger S.) fascinating encounter with a curious bear. An adorable, cuddly, stuffed nuisance rolling around. Damaging. Dangerous. Deadly.
–A woman’s (Carly P.) description of a bearded creeper with a gold tooth and wearing a child’s plastic backpack.
–A bloodied hand that smeared DNA and snake poison all over July 10 (David F., “bitten by the serpent of paradise and doomed to whack off with one hand for the rest of my life if not treated soon.”)
–A free verse poem that makes zero sense by “anonymous” and is entitled, “Flying Down the Upward Way,” penned in green ink. [I imagine a ponytailed hippie on LSD.] Dude . . . that’s deep, man.
–A dirty message in female script, signed with red lips, identified only by a phone number.
–A predictable, painfully-silly song lyric of a love that was lost (“Say’n sad goodbyes, brings tears to our eyes, as I go my way and you go yours”), notated in quarter time, and sung to the key of G. (Kevin D.)
–A tongue-in-cheek, “Ah, back to nature! I’ve got the shits and the itchiest farts in world with poison ivy crawling up my sensitive, spasming asshole.” (Hank from Steubenville)
–“Please keep this journal clean and free of fowl language.” (Ranger Mary Popoff, immediately after Hank’s entry–even though she misspelled “foul” and unintentionally flipped him a bird.)
–An artist’s breathtaking pencil sketch, an identical rendering of the immediate surroundings. (Amanda “Panda” Hollingsworth) I picture her with two black eyes.
–A marijuana leaf in a clear plastic baggy, taped to September 11, one word in square military print, “PEACE.” (Cpl. Mack Jeter, Semper Fi)
–A thematic question, “Are you on the right path?” followed by a series of Bible verses labeled as the “Romans Road” (by Pastor Pete). Hearty, happy amens from others who’ve littered the page with Christian encouragements like, “Tell it, brother!”
–Mike, two months released from a five-year prison sentence, “FREE!” and “I hate cops.”
–Charlie from Pennsauken, New Jersey, walking in honor of his paralyzed father, a police officer shot in the line of duty while shielding a child from a cloud of bullets in a gang war.
–A recipe for mountain biscuits in vodka sauce. (Pamela J.) Not sure about that one.
–A cheer for a hockey team, “Go Flyers!” sketched with the Philadelphia emblem. (Pauly-wog C.)
–A prayer, “Dear God, may your icy cold rain numb away my pain.” (Jane V.)
–A suicidal note (Butch who refuses to live without her). I wonder if he succeeded or if someone intervened, another traveler hunting him down, a search and rescue.
–An unusual choice of a quote by Walt Whitman, “The beautiful uncut hair of graves.” (Henry G.) Why THAT line? Hell, I don’t know.
–A play on words, making the point with a single blank space that God is “nowhere” or God is “now here.” The same combination, two different viewpoints, a radically different outcome with the simple addition or subtraction of space. (Donna T., physicist)
–A face in thick, orange crayon. “Happy Halloween” from little Susan and her daddy “who is a silly old pumpkin head” on their way down to celebrate the holiday on city streets that are coated with sugar.
I check my watch. Ten months in an hour. Not bad.
TODAY: November 7th, 2018 (Empty so far, no entry yet, I’m the first.)
As a writer, I always carry pencils. Obsessed with mistakes and false starts, I erode every clean piece of paper with multiple eraser marks; in a sense, that seems to be the story of my life—if I were a pencil, that is—a chewed up and damaging pencil, shortening shorter and shorter, unusably dull in the sense of lacking any visible point and in dire need of sharpening. I’m writing my own story, as it were, where each new chapter is full of hope and endless possibilities but is ultimately smudged (by me, a careless and sinfully impulsive author) with ugly black streaks and unmendable holes, injuring or killing innocent characters, plotting myself into inescapable corners with sex, drugs, alcohol, and a severely weakened faith, barely alive; fighting my way out with swollen knuckles; crying to God at the midnight hour, eyes gouged blind like Sampson’s, shackled, chained, grinding at the mill, still dreaming of Delilah’s silky hot lap. I’ve hurt her more than she’s hurt me but I’m so many chapters into this sordid tale that a do over is no longer possible. If God were an editor, maybe He’d make me go back to when I was sixteen and still pure of heart. I was obsessed with the Creator of the stars and would enter into the night with a childlike trust and anticipation that Jehovah would answer me as audibly as He did Abraham, the father of all who believe. My first car was a 1978 Plymouth Fury. I’d drive to a dark place, park there, lay on the warm hood, listen to the resting engine click and tick as it cooled underneath my back, and aim a pair of high-powered binoculars at the heavens. The constellations of the sky would entrance me. These days, however, I’m less comforted by predictable patterns and tend to smile at the unexplainable attraction everyone feels toward a falling star, how it captures human attention and admiration. In a sense, I’m a dead comet, a sparkling streak on a dark purple night, a burn out, admittedly, yes, yes, yes, but doesn’t that kind of beauty only come in fragments? —a stream of broken pieces ignited by friction into a meteor shower that leads to godly prayers, magical wishes, and unforgettable, life-altering kisses. Maybe, just maybe, there’s still that. Something to show a watching world on my way out.
So, I decide not to make a new entry on a fresh page. I flip back to page one, to the END OF DAYS, where the dead, both small and great, stand before God and the books are opened. Above the verse, I write these words with today’s date: “May the fragments of my dead faith and dead love ignite once more—bursting into fiery flames, falling brightly to the earth in long-tailed streamers of beautiful words, piercing an atmosphere of darkened hearts with brilliant blue light—and save my broken soul.”
I close the chained journal and resume an unpredictable journey on a long trail. Pulsing with epiphany. Blazing with optimism. Down, down, down to whatever is waiting for me in the turbulent world below.