As soon as the citrus hit my mouth, my mood shifted. Miles of winding downhill trails had left my knees battered and sore. Sitting on a rock overlooking the Tory’s Den gorge, I stare longingly into the bed of eastern pines below, hoping there’s someone out there to give me a lift back home. I peel the tangerine slowly, slipping my nail under the course exterior to reveal the bursting fruit within. Tracing my fingers along the edge, I draw them back as I would a pipette and feast my eyes on the six rounded pieces that would save my day. This tangerine, I thought, would barely keep my hunger at bay, so how could a hundred or more Tories sustain themselves when they called this cave their home. Although the landscape has clearly been disturbed, I can see minimal traces of deer or rabbit, which certainly wouldn’t have been good news for the huddling Tories. The gifts of food are irreplaceable, especially being able to provide enough for yourself over the course of a journey. Only a select few of us know what hunger is, and the reasons why we avoid it so adamantly.
Shortly after I began nibbling on a Cliff-Bar, I could hear a series of footfalls approaching. Each seemed to bound lightly off of the treated wood stairs marking the descent to the cave. From around the wall sprang a dog with brown and black fur, clearly a terrier mix. His tongue droops low from the corner of his mouth as he meanders closer. He sits at my right side, cocks his head slightly to the left, and give me the most irresistible puppy-dog eyes I have ever seen. I notice he has a collar, which thankfully relieves all my nightmares of getting bitten by a stray five miles from any kind of civilization. I start to hear more footsteps from behind the dog, and distant shouting: “Houston!” Figuring this was the dog’s name, I stuck out my hand open palmed for Houston to sniff. Clearly intrigued, he allows me to grace my fingers along the crown of his head, soaking in his soft fur as light as a comforter.
Houston’s owner rounded the curve a minute later, clearly pleased of his pup’s safety. He introduces himself as Lee, and we begin to talk about the strenuous hiking conditions that brought us here. Neither of us had expected to spend the better half of the day wandering this path, nor the series of signs that progressively increased the distance to the destination. Famished and tired, we decide to hike the remainder of the trail back together. It was clear that both of us prefer to hike alone, or more specifically, in the presence of very few others. Up until this point, I have been separated from any sustained human contact within the park. Passing people in the parking lot is one thing but engaging in lengthy conversation was entirely another. Walking with Lee, I reflected on my previous wanderings through this space. I have been alone, undisturbed, and completely free to move through this park with ease and security. Not once did I fear for my life or become skeptical about the ways in which my being would be interpreted.
As a white man, I have thrived in natural places. This has been the unfortunate norm for thousands of years, since the early push of Manifest Destiny and the rugged outdoorsmen conquering natural forces. After reading J. Drew Lanham’s memoir “The Home Place”, I poignantly realized that my own movements have rippling consequences. For a variety of reasons, ranging from the color of your skin to your place of origin, many groups are unable to access nature in the same way Lee and I could. The act of walking alone through a ribbon of pines can evoke dread out of so many but bring absolute joy to me. Wanderers like us owe a great debt to those who have not traveled these paths, placed their feet on these stones, or stared out at the range of vistas lining the Sauratowns. Hanging Rock State Park must be cherished by all, and yet so many are prevented from seeing it due to transportation costs, accessibility of trails, and public perceptions of their presence in this space.
No longer can we hold back the waters. The dam is about to burst, the water lapping at its top begging to be cast forward. By simply conversing with Lee, I realized my own complicity in keeping the waters contained. Once I am able to sacrifice myself for the inclusion of others, the floodgates will tear open and never be closed again. Much the Tories nestled in the den, Hanging Rock can become a home for everyone, a space that we can all make our own. This, perhaps, is the secret of life we’ve all been searching for.
knownnever come unknown – I learned that lesson lives ago”