Mountainsickness by Michael Dowdy
I would not describe my attachment to home as ghostly, but long-distanced. My ear has been licked
by so many other tongues. ~ C.D. Wright
A mountain is as indescribable as a man, so men give mountains names.
~ John Berger
In the mildewed atlas of my childhood, Blacksburg, Bluefield, and Bland made an Appalachian Triangle. Some days, a warm breeze sank me snug in the ridges. On others, the danger swayed like a bait net in the shallows. A drowning panic circling my tonsils. A lung-ripping jones to jet. For many years, all I knew how to do was clear my throat and spit.
Named for “first settler” William Black, from Turkey Day to Tax Day my hometown is gray as concrete and windy as rat-chewed conduit, awash in Buffalo wings and “New York-style” pizza. Outside magazine reports that the balance of the year is laurel and lean-back.
On a street bearing the name of the crusader Saint John of Capistrano, a split-level hides the sandbox my father built with railroad ties and beach from the Feed ‘n’ Seed. Along the sidewalk’s shore, my mother taught me the cartographer’s craft with twigs of birch and maple.
When other “first settlers” renamed the mountains—Grandfather, Bent, Brush, Angel’s Rest—the appellations buzzed in the air currents. One syllable swept north in the windy passes. Its echo fell to earth, drifting south in the streams—
Ap·pel·la·tion [ap-uh-LEY-shuhn]. A name that sings a lay low, lay of the land sound.
Ap·pa·la·chi·an [ap-uh-LACH-uhn]. A latch-key kid whose home hums a lonesome tune.
See also: 1. The orogeny during the Pennsylvanian and Permian periods. 2. The progeny of the Blast-and-Dash period.
My third-grade field trip to Dixie Caverns remains a flash of after-images—a shop of tiny Confederate flags, a darkness swimming behind my eyeballs, and my mother, the chaperone, squeezing my hand as we surfaced into the light.
I spent middle school afternoons taping the rap show on college radio—Boogie Down Productions, Big Daddy Kane, the Get Fresh Crew—mimicking every couplet, missing the samples and downbeats, dreaming of the grit and grind of the Big Apple.
The star of my high school basketball squad transferred from Nitro, West Virginia, where he stayed with his grandmother. Stayed was how he said it. In Blacksburg, he stayed with his cousin. They dubbed me Face, after a role player in The A-Team. The likeness must have been striking to the B.A. Baracus whose razor dribbled blood under his tongue, even during games.
The name Nitro is sawed off from nitrocellulose, a propellant. Manufactured there, it was known as guncotton, flash paper, and flash string. Named after a Motown crooner, our explosive import slurred every play he called.
Ten miles from my hometown, Poverty Creek and Sinking Creek empty into the New River. When these streams ran through my poems at a flatlands college the professor deemed them allegorical. They’re cold, I wish I’d said, mean as the metaphors they first were, piercing as icy springs splashed on the cheeks at sunrise, straight as the pipe hidden beneath the bank of a switchback.
After the Nile, the New is the world’s oldest river. Like the Nile, the New flows north. In summer, it’s a soup of beer and testosterone, never dipped in twice by the same reveler’s inner tube.
For his tenth birthday, my brother was given a prized Shetland. He named her Kirby, not for the vacuum as folks surmised, but for the Minnesota Twins’ outfielder. Back then, I hardly gave the guess a second thought, but what kind of a kid names his dog after a vacuum?
Five years later, the dawn I left for a flatlands college in the tidewater, Kirby crashed through our second-floor deck, plunging from its Astroturf onto the asphalt. She lived, with a hitch in her giddy-up. Mocked at the king and queen’s college, I covered my bumpy twang with artificial turf.
The provenance of a place name stakes dubious claims on the present. The nearby town of Narrows is, in a sense, narrow, though Richlands isn’t now, in any, rich. An old friend once swore that Princeton University had to be in Princeton, West Virginia. In those pre-internet days, he couldn’t be disproven so swiftly, our “Who’s on First?” banter slowly drowned out by the hole in his muffler.
At the king and queen’s college I caught a “temporary” condition. The diagnosis: homesick. I’d been a small pond’s big fish, so I’d drift into the cattails. The sludge made my breath catch—what a chore to lug my backpack around with muck pooling in the pockets. I dragged it everywhere, parties, dates. I slept with it. I was obsessed, but I wasn’t homesick. I was afraid of finding the oxygen the fire in my head sought so far from the mountains.
So I tucked tail, scampering back to the hometown college not yet known for gun massacres and dog-fighting quarterbacks. Stranded on a shore between hunkered and ghosted, I didn’t have the word then and can only ballpark it now that I’ve moved seventeen times in the years since—Mountainsick. In the mountains, I made sense to myself from my arches to my Adam’s apple. Above this altitude—fog.
At a shindig within spitting distance of Strawberry Fields in Central Park, a famous writer asked how I’d escaped my upbringing. I couldn’t explain that karst runs through my veins, that it’s a college town, that my mother gave me her books, that now I had to back my way out of the pearly gates of Gotham.
Provenance has etymological roots in the Old French. The first use surely referred to newcomers in the village—they aren’t from around here. Or it might have wondered at the water sliding down a parched throat, the meat on a spit, a prophet’s gift of tongues.
Minutes before I backed the U-Haul into a dogwood you can’t get there from here was my father’s advice on routes from Blacksburg to Brooklyn. What he meant, with apologies to Gertrude Stein and Robert Morgan: There’s no here there.
As a boy I had the mountainbound’s fever for the sea. On the island bound by the East River and the Coney Island Wonder Wheel I never heard another shanty. At Abilene, a Brooklyn bar named for the town in Texas, we cozied up to old-time jams and bourbon in Mason jars.
I skipped town for good before it singed the headlines with senseless blood. At a shindig within spitting distance of Strawberry Fields in Central Park, a famous writer asked how I’d escaped my upbringing. I couldn’t explain that karst runs through my veins, that it’s a college town, that my mother gave me her books, that now I had to back my way out of the pearly gates of Gotham.
When my high school ditched its mascot after I moved, Save the Indian bumper stickers rode exhaust plumes into the sunset. Further into Virginia’s chisel end, where coal was king, mountaintops were scalped at dawn. Mist-shrouded, seeming still, blue ridges inched to the edge of extinction.
I hadn’t puckered a ramp before I lived in Brooklyn. Foraging the Carroll Gardens farmers market I found bunches of this “authentic” Appalachian staple, sparkling as tiny bars of Ivory soap. “If there is, among all words, one that is inauthentic,” Maurice Blanchot wrote, “then surely it is the word ‘authentic.’”
Since the early Seventies, activists have called Appalachia a National Sacrifice Zone. In election years, the name I prefer is Convenience Store. On a recent visit home the yard signs for a congressional candidate blared: From HERE. For US. Translation: White. For Whites.
Long before I had the foggiest of Marx’s commodity fetish, and before that fog bloomed into a pink dawn rising over brownstones and project houses, I had the mountainbound teenager’s shoe fetish. In eighth-grade Art I designed Nike Airs, Adidas Shell-Toes, Reebok Pumps. Pencil, paint, papier-mâché—I loosened my laces, popped my tongues, and took my first, blind steps toward the glow.
The Beach, we called the patch of sand below the New River’s McCoy Falls. To get there from here shotgun a Bud, squint an eye, cock your head, and fashion a mustache of algae and cigarette butts.
Mountainsick, I assumed it was the mountains themselves I missed or the folks there who make them. Years later, when my father’s drawl limped down Franklin Ave, his Giles County vowels washing over bubble gum and pigeon shit, I wondered if the cure lay in the ear.
On April 16, 2007, I got wind of the Virginia Tech shooting a short sail from Columbus Circle. Once the vertigo passed, my panic became a sea, my language of home a woeful paddle.
The next year, honeymooning in Mexico City, I caught a glimpse of Popocatépetl—Nahuatl for “Smoking Mountain”—from a bus window. Sucking debris of words from the thin, stale air, our throats ached with the refrain—we may not have volcanoes but our mountains are exploding.
The following April, I began reciting the thirty-two names of the dead. On that blustery morning, I placed thirty-two paper boats in the Gowanus Canal. When they reached the Atlantic, I imagined, they would crest on the waves of the blue field, ridged and endless.
The year after, I began to gather the mountain places with the names of other worlds. The alphabet started with Alma, Bolivar, Buena Vista, Cullowhee, and Chilhowie, which is Cherokee for “valley of many deer.” The hills harbor many tongues, though some are tied in the pits of their stomachs.
Around this time, I read about Agloe, a “scenic” hamlet in the Catskills. Agloe appeared on Standard Oil maps two years after my grandfather Jack was born, in 1923. A long life later, Agloe was 86’d from Google Maps. A cartographer’s “trap,” the town couldn’t be found by hipster explorers. I knew the feeling well—some towns come to exist only on paper.
Orogeny, I learned long ago in geology class, is the process of mountain making. Progeny, I discovered in 2012, is its auto-correct.
On April 16, 2014, “Virginia Tech shooting” was the first auto-fill in Google. My language of home desperately needed a pail. Now, three years later, on the tenth “anniversary” and after countless attempts to write the disaster, I’m giving up, unable to distinguish between the words that bail and those that drown.
Maybe the mountainsick are simply homesick—for one’s people and place, not for a whole tottering world. But that doesn’t sit right. Take my grandfather Jack. His gusher was roadside motels, where the Beverley Hillbillies licked black mold with Technicolor tongues. An angular lodge in Humbert Humbert’s Americana was a legacy I left behind—a there’s no there there Super 8, where I caulked over pubic hairs for minimum wage.
Jack was a man who cut things down. Oh, the stupendous trees! A magnolia, blooms bright as Armor All’d whitewalls. Why he stripped the yard bare no one had a clue. House in full flower, allergies, a dream of lightning and gale? Chainsaw in the headwind, Grandpa’s lips hummed tight as lug nuts, his cheeks smooth as buffed fenders.
In a yellowed newspaper clipping in my dad’s dresser my grandfather flaunts a check wide and blurry as a drunk’s highway. Jack’s three sons fondle keys to kingdoms soon in hock to bank and law, the bondsmen of fleeting Horatio Algers. In ‘68 he bought identical canary yellow Olds 442s—four on the floor, four barrels, dual exhaust. The talismanic Detroit fired on the first syllable, the iamb too weak to muffle their teenage tongues.
Jack’s grandfather, and my great-great grandfather, Colonel Robert Christian, fought for the South in the Shiloh of my adolescent mind. We never bothered to verify his side. Just across the West Virginia line his granite musket still tickles the tonsils of the Confederacy.
Maybe he saw no use in leaf or limb, the man who cared little for beauty. When I saw his wedding portrait, a scary handsome boy leaning at the lens, Grandma beat by a country mile, I knew—he had to bang that sexy tree doornail dead.
For years his El Camino prowled the highways for motels he bought with handshakes and sold for thumbs. He racked up miles and debts and rumors but eventually came home to Grandma chasing vans full of grandkids. A butch ride, that Mermaid of autos, and his whore. What else can be said of a car with a bed?
During my freshman year at the king and queen’s college, a crash launched him through the windshield. The ditch flooded his lungs with stormwater. The wallop crossed the lines in his head. When the man who’d never said I love you suddenly couldn’t stop, no one took it lying down.
As his whistling drawl loped down Atlantic Ave in the weeks after he passed, a dozen loopy, carless years after the crash, his Little Stony Creek vowels washed over car horns, exhaust, and gingko, and I wondered if the clue lay in the ear or if ears, like clues, lie.
Since that first jones to jet was itched, I’ve made seventeen entries in Chronicles of Gone in the Wrong Direction. South to the coast and back, beach dream drowned hurricane-quick. South to the Piedmont. North to Brooklyn. South to the Piedmont. North to Brooklyn. Due north to New Haven. Down south to the Midlands.
I’ll never get closer than these two hard-driving hours from the mountains. I’ve made my choices, and my choices have made me, but they haven’t made me over.
My daughter was born on September 11 during our Brooklyn years, a decade after the steel mountains fell. She carries my cave-dark eyes but surely not my tongue, her first hills blooming with streetlights, asphalt, sneakers, yellow blurs.
In her belly, my fever for the sea has become an umbilical firebreak winding into the mountains. In the Pisgah, she wonders why the ridges turn blue at the witching hour. We tell her the earth dreams all day of being the sky. Sometimes the sky comes down to visit. In Pembroke, her grandparents step out of the shade her father has thrown and whisper the trees and the waters have parted the clouds.
Appalachia may be, as Wendell Berry wrote, the “territory underfoot.” But it’s also, in one historian’s words, a “territory of the mind.” I’ve come to see it as a forking tongue—terroir and story, spit and dream, a daughter who’ll surf a legion of ancestor feet in the trails surrounding Celo. Not hippie, hipster, or hillbilly, not her mother, father, or grandparents, but herself—progeny of leave-takers and hunkerers with the rattle of roads in their bones.
He thanks Shelley Welton and William Kelley Woolfitt for their insightful comments on drafts of this essay.