This essay first appeared in the Nova Quarterly, September, 1988. It is presented here by permission of the News and Publications Office, The University of Texas at El Paso.
I am driving eastward through the American heartland, happy with anticipation of the trip home, happy with the journey itself. Of course, I love to travel, have always loved it since early childhood, when for months at a time travel inevitably meant the Saturday trip to town, a custom my family shared with all the other farm families in the Ozark Mountains. For me, the simple act of going somewhere was a powerful treat, to be enjoyed in its moment and replayed as long as the fixative of memory held, for I was a contemplative child, nurtured by rural silences as well as by the richness of rural life.
To be the only child for ten or so miles in any direction meant long, slow stretches of time that were entirely my own, time to know–with all five senses–the white wooden house, the yard with its peony beds and tall oaks, the redolent barn lot, then the scented open fields, and always, the woods; the old mountains. I knew all these places and their vivid sensory signatures with the secure and permanent intimacy of a native, one who belongs. After all, generations of my kin had lived in the same house, had worked the same farmland, had traveled through the same worn mountains, tracing their way along the rocky backs of the ridges.
Let me speak of the pathways that, because of the fascination they have always held for me, are at the core of my understanding of travel. These are the first trails, and because they trace through the woods using paths of least resistance, usually the ridge tops that are the spines of our eroded limestone mountains, they are called traces, a word which perfectly suggests their ability to delineate a pathway and simultaneously evokes their tentative nature. My family’s land is transversed by such a trace, one of the great old ones. Within a short walking distance through the thicker part of the oak forest runs the White River Trace, an earthen thoroughfare not used since the last century, yet still spoken of in my grandmother’s time and in mine, its numinous quality, its ability to evoke the allure of journeying, as yet undimmed.
Sometimes I am struck by the contrasts—and the resulting tensions—that make up my personal history. Oddly, the most compelling of these is geographic, and perhaps most essentially climatic. The wooded mountain area of my birth is humid, green, and lush during most of the growing season, and wet and cold in winter. As an adult I have freely chosen to spend my working life in the Chihuahuan desert, attracted by the cultural mixture of the Southwest, so various when measured against the folkways of my native woodlands. I remember my first impressions of the desert, and the shock of pleasure when, at the end of a long westerly odyssey, I found, by following my affinity for high trails, a winding road up the flanks of the treeless mountains. It was, by coincidence, sunset, and when I silenced my engine at the summit, the sky was alive with color. Watching the lights of two bordering cities shimmer and pulse, I knew I had done well. In the succeeding years, the desert’s mingled peoples, like blended threads of color in a complicated tapestry, have for me been a sustaining interest, their beliefs and customs offering an inexhaustible voyage of discovery to the grown-up child who always wanted to go somewhere. But my paradox is to be perpetually drawn back, tethered by strands of desire, to the old climate, to the moist air, tangible against the skin, and the waters, trees, and trails of home.
Now I am traveling home. The interstate is a fast grey river alive with the improbable energy of numberless speeding cars and heavy diesels. Restless, I begin to imagine the metal river of which I am a part propelled by an unbroken chain of internal combustion engines, stretching the unimaginable miles from coast to coast. As I picture power and motion I feel a kind of apprehension as I think of the vulnerable mass of all the people on this curving highway, rushing down through the heart of the continent. I superimpose a kinder thought: older, slower automobiles fill my view as I force the fast traffic to give way to what I choose to see as a less hurried group of drivers. But I have no real affinity for these imaginary motorists at all, I think. As I wind the reel back, I set up another transparency–the wooden boxes of stagecoaches, or wagons, pulled by horses, mules, oxen. This pleases me, and the predictable culmination presses into my vision: I see now the foot travelers, edited quickly out of their pioneer costumes as my interest lags, now dressed as Indians, then in the skins and furs of the nomads of prehistory. With some effort I hold the four successively superimposed levels of my fantasy, the jarring speed and hard metal, the touring cars, the wagons, the walkers. I feel most drawn to the walkers; somehow, in the same way that my rural childhood was defined by the concrete and the tangible, they too, while most remote, seem most real.
Self-conscious and irritated by the neatness of my vision, I acknowledge the truth of this concrete river, but I am bored now and the imagery seems less clever. Then in a glad moment I see that I have moved into juxtaposition with a companion stream of life: it is spring, and above me the sky is traced by winding bands of migratory birds. Their essential color is silver grey, they too are numberless, and in this changing season they are going home.
Thoughts of returning home draw me back in memory, and I am once again the secure child who confidently claimed and navigated the shaded yard, the barn-lot, and beyond. The thick lawn was subtly marked by trails, one made by my family rounding the corner of the yard, the other, more indistinct, made by the furred paws of our family of cats. This trail I preferred to follow as it wound with feline economy through the flowerbeds, under the fence, and out into the open meadow, where meals of field mice waited.
Once beyond the yard, the landscape of the farm was filled with possibilities for treks to wonderful places. The path to the barn, a tall structure of wood gone silver with age, was a road of hard-packed earth leading to dusky interiors where the huge cattle stood at milking time, exhaling heavily between mouthfuls of grain. The way to the henhouse was equally worn, smooth to bare feet, and was the avenue to another shadowy enclosure where sometimes eggs could be found underneath the warm feathers of the irritable birds.
But as always, I was drawn to journey farther. The lane was waiting, and beyond it, the woods.
Edged by a formal progression of walnut trees planted in the days when it served as a carriage row, the lane was rutted, well traveled, and sadly lacking in mystery. On its right side a bramble of blackberry bushes extended for some twelve feet, while on the left lay a large pasture, where the scent of mixed grasses and clover hung in the heavy air. Bemused by the warm humming of bees and by birdsong, I often detoured off the lane to follow faint animal trails through the tall grasses. If I moved quietly, watching for sharp stubble and snakes, I might surprise a groundhog or rabbit, for the pasture was alive with burrowing, nesting creatures.
At the edge of my knowledge of the world lay the woods, a place where recognitions of pathways held special importance, for these woods were large enough for a child or a stranger to become lost in them. Country-bred, I followed the cow paths that wound through the tall trees, avoiding the thickest underbrush. Oaks and some hickories dominated this secondary forest, but in spots hard for the 19th-century loggers to reach, enormous and ancient pines still stood, vestiges of the old virgin forest. My favorite place was a stand of pines at the top of a sheer bluff. As I looked out over the wooded valley, I could see my home, and beyond, the faint delineation of the White River Trace. Green and silver mosses grew luxuriantly under the high canopy, and dogwood and wild azalea caught the sun on the steepest slope. In most springs the blooming times of the dogwood and azalea overlapped, and then this high vantage point seemed to me the essence of all that I might ever desire. I never imagined in those days that I would mark out many seasons miles away from my native woodlands, or that the woodlands spring would exist for me in memory rather than in fact.
Now my journey is almost complete, and I can see that I have truly left the Chihuahuan desert behind. My desert-inured eyes, accustomed to sands and naked stones, the flat green spears and creamy flower heads of yucca, now record a deciduous forest. The earliness of the season is shown by the stages I see in the spring leaves, for the mixed wood is not yet completely leafed out. Although my eyes are drawn to the white patches made by blossoming wild hawthorn, the muted fuchsia of wild redbud and the brighter tones of flowering crabapple, I am most moved to see that I am returning in time for the new leaves, many not yet uncurled but showing a tender, vulnerable green. If I squint my eyes I can see that soft new green in an aureole around the top of each tree forming a subtle halo of promise over the wood. For the first seventeen springs of my life I took the color of new leaves for granted, never considering the possibility that experience could be squandered.
Hurrying now, I leave the paved road with relief and turn onto a remembered trail. My old home lies a few miles farther across the valley, but I am nearer to another homecoming. Leaving my car on the grassy shoulder of the road, I walk into the woods. The ground is soft and spongy underfoot, and the moist air forms a tangible envelope so heavy I feel that I can hold it in my outstretched palm. The path is easy to find, and I climb upward with confidence and growing joy.
Now I have gained the ridge top and am in full possession of the moment, as I stand near the edge of the bluff and gaze at the valley below. The house and the farm lot, the open fields and hedgerows and woodlands are unchanged, and overhead the pine trees stand as they always did. I notice with mild surprise that the years which marked a substantial portion of my lifespan have not been sufficient to register a change in the pines’ height or girth. Although both hawthorn and redbud are blooming nearby, it is too early in the season for the wild azalea and the dogwood; their heavy buds have not yet opened. This year I will be here for the entire blooming season before returning home to the Southwest, for I have restructured my priorities to include the luxury of extended travel. My woodlands, my desert; I have come to know that both speak to some essential wellspring whose importance I do not entirely understand but gladly acknowledge. As I look out over the valley, I notice the outlines of the White River Trace, which I have never followed, and I experience its old call. I feel a sense of peace. There is nothing, not even myself, to stop me.
Winning essay, John and Vida White 1988 Faculty/Staff Travel Essay Contest; 1st publication, Nova Quarterly
Trejo, Mary C. “Woodland Traces.” Nova Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 95; September 1988.