Sunday, November 27, 2005

Under the River

Somewhere out on the mountain, out beyond Zion and Goshen and Eden, you can go for a walk in the forest. Actually, you can go for a walk in a lot of places out there, but the place I am talking about is a special one. You’ll need to take a ride on the dirt roads, out on the McGeorge Road and onto the Caledonia Pike, and then keep going for a while. That’s the top of the mountain out there. You know this because you can hear the mountain wind blowing, and you can see the mountain birds in the trees if you look quick- the Verio and the Indigo Bunting and maybe even a Tanager.

Well, if you go out there far enough and turn off onto the right trail, soon you’ll come to some rocks- two huge rocks set back from the road, bigger than our house. You can walk on top of them, or crawl underneath them, or walk around them, but what’s most interesting is what’s between them. If you find the front of the rocks and look hard, you’ll see a path that runs between them, and then off into the woods. I know this because I found the rocks once, and then found the path. And of course I took it. I walked and walked, all through the morning and into the afternoon.

Now as I walked along, I started to notice that I was going downhill. I could tell this because the ground on either side of my path started to get ever so slightly higher. At first it was hardly anything at all, but soon there were real hills to my left and right. When I looked behind or in front, I couldn’t tell that I had come downhill at all. But those hills seemed to close me in like a big hug.

So I walked some more, and before I had even gone an hour, I found something new. It was water bubbling up from under a rock, right out of the ground- a spring. And this water turned into a nice little brook that flowed right alongside the path on ahead. Now there was no doubt that I was going downhill. Where the water came out the hills on the side looked taller than ever. And so I kept walking.

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever followed one of these little streams in a mountain valley, but they’re very tricky. One minute you’ll see just a little trickle of water, and before you know it the stream will be a foot deep and ten feet wide. That’s what happened here. I didn’t see any other streams coming in, but before I had walked much further at all, the stream was roaring along beside me. I even saw some trout in the water (when I held still), and once I saw some beaver chewings on the bank. There were boulders laying next to the path, and the little stream fell down over waterfalls and into pools, under logs and over rocks and sandy banks.

Now all these little streams from the mountain flow down into the river. They’ll just flow and flow until they come to the bottom of the mountain, and at the bottom of the mountain is the river. Maybe they’ll meet up with some other streams before, or run into a little lake and out the other side, but sooner or later they all wind up in the river. Now I know the river pretty well because I have looked often at the map, and I know all the streams that come into it from the mountain. In Curwensville there’s Anderson, and then Hartshorn, Montgomery and Moose Creek in Clearfield. Beyond that there’s Lick Run, Trout, Surveyor, Deer Creek, Sandy, Mosquito, Saltlick, Upper and Lower Three Runs, Birch Island, and then the great Sinnemahoning. I guessed that I was on the Mosquito Creek, or maybe Trout Run. So I decided that I’d walk down to the river and figure out in where I was. It’s always good to find the river.

And so I walked on. The little hills to my left and right got taller and taller above me, so that I couldn’t see the sun anymore, although I could see it glowing on the branches on the trees above, and I could see the blue sky above me. Still the little brook chattered on. So I kept to my path, and where a little trickle of water ran off the hillside, I found a bridge. And across the bridge was a little hut.

This was just a tiny thing, not much bigger than your bedroom. It was made of flat stones pasted together with mud. Moss had grown up on its stones in the front and one the sides, and the back was actually covered up with some stones and dirt that had fallen from the cliff. There was one small dark window in the front, and another on the side that had been broken out long ago. It had a big white door with an old black letter "W" painted on it, and an old rusty metal handle to open with. The roof was made with old shingles that mostly had fallen off, and there was a little chimney in the back, made out of stones just like the walls. And from the chimney came some smoke.

Now this was very exciting to me. I had walked a long way, and was a little tired. I hadn’t seen any person, or even a sign of a person, since I left the road and my truck above. So I knocked on the door of the little hut.

"Anybody home? Open up!"

And would you know it, but just as I finished banging I heard a scrape, and a creak, and the door opened. And I saw the littlest and oldest man I ever saw in my life. His face with wrinkled like a newspaper. He had just a few white hairs on the top of his head. He was so bent over that he had to turn his head up just to see my face. And on his face he had a great warm smile.

"Hello lad! What brings ye out here to my little hut?"

"Well, I found this little path on top of the mountain this very morning, and decided to follow it. First I came down into this valley, and then I found this little creek, and then I found your cabin. I want to keep going and find the river at the bottom. How far is it to the river?"

Now the old man’s big grin got even bigger, and his old eyes twinkled with delight. "This creek doesn’t run to the river, my boy. It doesn’t get into the river, you see, because it runs under the river."

Now this was just silly. "You old fool," I said. "There’s no such thing as under the river. You’re just teasing. I’m going to go on and find the river and figure out which creek this is."

"I’ll tell you which creek this is- it’s called the Lost Run. Don’t look on the map, because it’s not there. But I’m telling you, it runs under the river and on beyond to the other side."

"I don’t believe you. I don’t think you’re telling me the truth."

"Well, don’t believe me. If you don’t believe me about that though, you’ll never believe me about what you find after you pass to the other side."

"You’re right," I said. "I won’t believe you. I’m leaving."

And I left. I stormed right out of there, hotter than a tea kettle. I walked back out to the little trail, and the bridge where I left it and I turned my face down the valley, determined to find that river at any cost. And so I walked.

Now I was a little heated, and had forgotten a good rule about walking in the woods- to remember what time it is and when you must turn around by. And so, before I had got very far, it started to get very dark. I kept going and going though, until I couldn’t see a thin. Bythis time I wasn’t so hot any more from being mad. In fact, I was rather cold. So I stopped where I was, set about to gather up some sticks, and built myself a little fire to keep warm. And before you know it, I was fast asleep.

I must have slept for a very long time, because when I woke up, the sun was up again, and I could see around myself again. There was the little creek, just like I had followed it all day yesterday. It was deep now, so deep that I don’t think I could walk across it. The boulders were bigger than ever, and the cliffs steeper than any I had ever seen. And they towered up so high that it seemed like they were closer at the top than at the bottom. There was just a little crack of blue sky way above me.

So after I had a nice wash in the creek, and a good drink of that creek water (it was very clear and very cool and very refreshing water), I started to walk again. Now I wasn’t very mad at that old man any more, but I hadn’t come this far to turn around with finding the river and figuring out where I was. So down the valley I went.

And this day turned out to be very much like that last one. I kept going all morning, down and down the little valley. The creek turned first to the left, then to the right, and then back again, around big boulders fallen off the cliffs. Here and there little creeks fell off the hillsides in long waterfalls into the Lost Run, making a loud rushing sound that echoed loudly. And all along the way, that little crack of sunlight up above got thinner and thinner as the mountain top got higher and higher above me. I watched it very much as I walked, as it directed me along the path of my creek.

And before long something very strange happened to that little crack of sky- it went away. I could see right up the slopes of the cliffs, past some thin hemlock trees clinging to the sides, where rocks jutted out over me. But all the way up at the top the sides came together to touch, just letting in the light in a few places here and there.

Now this was terribly exciting to me. I immediately realized that the old man had told me the truth- that this little valley must just flow into a sort of cave, and that it could then run right beneath the river! I didn’t know how I would know when I had come beneath the river, but I had to find out. So I rushed on, walking as fast as I could. I don’t know how long I walked, although it must have been for hours. The funny thing down here was, although I could only see blue sky in a few places up above me (these must have been like little caves in the ground above), it was still bright like day time down here. And the little path kept going on and on, with the creek right beside it.

I had lost sight of the sky altogether for a good time when another remarkable thing happened. It started to rain! At first I just felt a few drops, but then it was coming down all around me in big, heavy drops. There was no clouds, no sky, and no wind- it was like the rain was coming right out of the rocks! And as I kept going it rained harder and harder. I don’t know if you’ve ever been out in the rain in March in your boots and coat, but it’s a miserable thing. And I was miserable. So I turned around and headed back as fast as I could, to see if the rain would pass.

And wouldn’t you know it, just up around the bend where the rain had started, it stopped again. I sat down on a log by a little rock ledge to rest for a moment and get dry. I could hear the rain coming down below me, and I thought a rock ledge would do me good. But it didn’t come up, but just kept raining down below.

And then I knew what that rain was. I looked up at the rocks way above my head, and I could see big flat brown rocks in the roof of my little cave. Now I don’t know if you’ve looked flat brown rocks like these, but there’s only one place you find them, and that’s in the river. They’re flat and smooth and sort of muddy, and they have little cracks that run through them, ever so thin. And that’s the sort of rocks that were up there above me. So I turned back into the rain, and looked up, and would you believe it? The rain coming down was not rain at all, but water from the river, slipping down between the cracks in the brown river stone. I was beneath the river!

This was more than I could take. I couldn’t wait to go beyond it and see what there was to see. So I ran down into the river rain, sprinting along the little path as I got wetter and wetter. This was the greatest adventure of my life! I ran past where I had stopped and around a new bend to the left. The rain came down so hard that I could hardly see ahead of me. I had to keep with the path and the stream on my right. I was running I was so excited.

And just around that bend I saw some bright lights. They were hanging on the sides of the hillsides above me, lined up like streetlights. I could not make out what they came from though, because of how thick the rain was. And there was a noise like music that I could just barely hear above the roar of the creek and the rain.

But I had to pull up and stop, because the rain came down so hard here that it flooded my path, and a deep pool of water backed up behind a log that was laying across the path. I only hesitated a moment before I jumped right into that pool, boots and coat and all. And it was deeper than I thought. My feet didn’t touch the bottom, and the current caught me up and took me right towards that log.

And all I could do was struggle with all my might to swim. I kicked and kicked, and just before it seemed like my head would go over, I got hold of the rocks from where I had jumped in and pulled myself back out onto the ground, rain coming down all around.

Now I hadn’t thought of it for all the adventures, but I had been walking for two days now without any stops, and most importantly without anything to eat. I was very hungry and very tired, and I knew that I couldn’t get across that pool to the other side to keep going. I sat and looked at those lights up above me, and strained to hear those sounds coming from them, and I felt very sad. But I knew that this was the end. I had to turn around and go back.

So I turned back, headed back up the path towards the little hut, the little old man, and my car. For the first time that little stream was on my left, and it was running away to where I had not been. I trudged up that hill, back past where the river rain started, and before long I could see patches of sunshine up above me, and then the thin strip of sky, and then the old man’s little hut. I banged on the door, and there he was.

"You again? Did ye find your river?"

I just slumped my shoulders and looked him. I didn’t know what to say to him. Besides, I was all wore out.

"Well, you better get in here and get out of your wet clothes and have a bite to eat." And that’s what I did. He had a nice fire going that was keeping the place warm, and had some stale bread and apples there that he gave me. It could have been steak and chocolate cake for all I knew, I was so hungry. I gobbled it all up and felt so much better. I told the old man about how I found the river, and tried to get through, and had to turn around.

"Well, that’s just the way it goes. You best be better prepared next time you try such a long walk," he said.

"I sure know it now. And better to listen to good advice when you get it!" I exclaimed. But then I had to ask. "Just one thing though. You said that there was something beyond the river, underneath it. And I saw the lights and heard that music. What is down there? What was that?"

The old man just grinned. "Ah, that’s the secret now, isn’t it? And I’m not going to tell ye. If I told you about simple things like where to find the river, and you wouldn’t believe me, how would you believe me if I told you about something so mysterious as what’s beyond under the river?"

And try as I could, I couldn’t get him to tell me what it was. So I left him. I thought for a moment about turning down the valley again, but I got the feeling that he wouldn’t be so accomodating a second time around. And he was right- I needed to be better prepared. So I set out up the valley, on the way back to my truck. The blue sky above started to change colors, like it does when the sun sets. The mountain cliffs turned dark and the path got hard to find. Yet it seemed to get brighter as I walked. And that was because, as I came out of the valley, the moon came up higher and higher and lighted up my path ahead of me. And it seemed like just an hour or so when I saw the moon herself, shining at me over a hillside that wasn’t very high at all. It lit up the trees around me, and the little creek, and the hillsides beside me. And before long those hillsides were gone, and there were those two big rocks, and there was my truck, just where I had left it.

Now that’s mostly the end of this story. I got in my car and drove it home and slept for a whole day. And then when I got up I ate everything in my house and some from the restaurant, I was so hungry. And then I slept some more. And before long I had to go back to work and I didn’t have a chance to go back out and try that path again. And when I finally did, I drove and looked for those rocks and that path, but I couldn’t find it. I looked on the map and never saw Lost Run on it at all. I thought I found the rocks once, but there was no trail there at all. And then I couldn’t even find that place any more, and I gave up looking.

And now to this day I think about what good things must be beyond that river, things so good that the old man couldn’t tell a foolish boy like myself. I wondered what those mysterious lights were and what made that music that came from beyond the flood, and hope that someday I might get back to see. And I hope that someday you’ll go out on the mountain and look, and perhaps you’ll find those two big rocks and the little path, and you’ll be better prepared to follow it than I was.

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