The Descent of Man

“Fire—there’s something about it, how it draws you in,” my friend muses, as we relax in our two chairs before the flames dancing in the iron circle. “Probably goes back to some primeval attraction we inherited from our ancestors.”

We sit and stare into the blaze, watching the logs shift as tongues of flame lick at their edges. The campfire throws a welcome heat across our faces and feet in the chilly northern Pennsylvania night. Overhead, bright stars bore through the canopy of tall wispy pines, while off in the distance spring peepers pipe their nocturnal serenade.

Far into the night we talk as the fire dies down to embers. My eyes grow heavy in the darkness. Soon we retire to the tent, crawl into our sleeping bags and drift off into the deep sleep that comes from breathing crisp night air in springtime.

The following morning we arise at first light, pull on our jackets and stamp off the cold. We lay another fire, feeding the fledgling flames with splintery tinder, and cook our breakfast over glowing coals: bacon, eggs and fried potatoes. Afterwards we set out on a morning hike, following the leaf-covered lake trail north along Little Pine Creek through the woods to an open meadow, where we cross the grassy plain to the stony bank of the creek. The water is high: clear and cold and deep. There are firm trout in the fast water, but we’ve brought no gear; fishing season doesn’t open until next weekend. We hunker down and splash cold water on our faces to cool from the morning sun. I slip a thin smooth round red stone into my pocket from the creek bed before we rise and retrace our steps back to camp.

A thundershower comes up suddenly that evening. High winds whip through the tall pines as lightning flashes across the overcast sky. I count the seconds before the thunder peals and mentally calculate the proximity of the strikes. We heat our stew over the small camp stove and eat under the dining fly while the water pours down in torrents. The campsite is soon drenched, but not enough to keep us from coaxing another fire from the split logs stored under the tarp.

The following morning we break camp and head out in separate vehicles. At the crossroads my friend turns northeast. I flash my headlights in farewell and head southwest along the divided highway. Several hours later I pull into the motel where I will spend the next two nights. I check in, find my room and toss my duffel on the bed. When I strip off the fleece that had kept me warm for the previous three days, my nostrils flare at the pungent residue of wood smoke. I recall the fire, remember the high fast stream and instinctively reach for the smooth round stone in my pocket.

This weekend there is a regional fishing tournament in town. By evening the motel parking lot is filled with sleek power boats hitched to huge pickup trucks. Bearded burly men hover around each boat, an occasional foot planted on the boat trailer, hands in pockets, discussing the possibilities of this or that artificial lure, and whether the big fish will be biting in the morning.

One by one my comrades arrive. Once we shared something in common: in our youth we ran together on the track and cross-country teams at the small liberal arts college housed on the hill above this sleepy central Pennsylvania town. Thirty-five years later we gather on this spring weekend to reminisce, to share a meal, to don our shoes and head out along one of the old running trails in the late afternoon. No matter our current vocations, no matter our present circumstances in life—for one short weekend we become forever young and strong and fast and free.

That afternoon, before the run, we stroll around the campus and stop by the Carnegie building to see the latest art exhibit: a collection of paintings bequeathed to the college by a wealthy alumnus, W. B. Stottlemyer. We browse muted oils depicting 19th century American wilderness landscapes and stand in silence before a genuine Rembrandt: a pen and ink rendition of Christ driving the moneychangers from the temple.

After the run we return to the motel for a round of beers at the picnic table. The burly fishermen have returned in their pickup trucks with their boats in tow. They recline in lounge chairs with a cold beer in hand and quietly eye us bantering in our running gear; we pretend not to notice.

That evening we gather at the home of our former running coach and chemistry professor for a traditional ham dinner. Several younger runners have joined the group: current members of the cross-country team. We talk until late in the night. I’m interested in my professor’s opinions on alternative energy sources: wind, solar, nuclear, water. The party breaks up after midnight; we say our good-byes and drive back to the motel.

I arise Sunday morning, pack the station wagon and head east along the highway that parallels the railroad. The sky is clear and blue; up ahead the empty road beckons. On a whim I take an alternate route north through the Big Valley, once inhabited by Native American tribes, later settled by plain people—Mennonite and Amish farmers. Nestled between high mountains on either side—mountains that resemble a sow nursing suckling spring piglets under a massive yellow-green blanket—the freshly plowed fields stretch over rolling hills. One by one I pass narrow lanes that lead back to small stands of barns, outbuildings and farmhouses. From each farmhouse chimney a plume of grey smoke rises in the clear morning air and drifts down the valley.

Up ahead I encounter a string of black buggies pulled by high-spirited horses, their hooves clip-clopping along the macadam. I signal to pass and glimpse the milk-white face of a young woman dressed in black sitting on the buckboard beside a young man: a Whistler portrait. Further along I pass by a simple graveyard, rows of short grey stones jutting up through the thick green grass, as though they themselves were the crop that had sprouted from previously planted seed.

Every so often I pass a sign posted in a field by the side of the road bearing a verse of scripture: “Serve one another in love.” “Strive to live at peace with one another.” “Love covers a multitude of sins.” Such signposts serve as a Sunday morning sermon in this spacious outdoor chapel.

After seventeen miles I turn into the entrance of the state highway. Across the road a tired horse strains at harness, ascending the hill with his portly master in tow. I glimpse the man’s red round bearded face before turning my eyes to the open road ahead that drops through the deep cut in the mountains in its descent to the ancient river below.

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One comment on “The Descent of Man

  1. ~ t says:

    I’d vote for day-tripin’ the Pine next year ….
    We’d need a little more time than this trip, but
    it’d be possible with the right water levels,
    logistics, etc. Put in at Ansonia; take out at
    Blackwell …It’s the shuttle at the end of a day’s
    constant paddling and river reading that makes the
    adventure seem like work. Add wet suits, cold water,
    variable weather conditions; and you’ve got a
    real Waldenesque tale to tell the grand kids,
    adding to a life well lived ….

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