by Victoria Bloom
The summer of 2013 my family and I rode our bikes from one end of the Greenbrier River Trail to the other, for a total of seventy-eight miles. It took right under a week, every day graced by the serenity of lush summer green in the trees’ leaves, the thick, hot air cut clean by the cool river, and the comradery of setting up camp and fixing fire-roasted dinners. The pleasant, heartfelt company helped us abandon our worries with the carefree liberation of having nowhere to be but right where we were.
During the hot, soft summers in West by God Virginia, there is nothing quite like camping. Days layered with sweet air, river swimming, and the constant company of tall, green trees that sway lazily in the breeze. Nights that are painted with light from stars and stars and stars pouring bright beams of vision, soaked up by the lightning bugs that wander through the woods and the fires that burn up towards the heavens, returning light to the skies. Tents meant for four that fit two or three. Dewy mornings that breathe deeply, beckoning the sleeping world to wake and the wakened world to sleep. There is a pleasantness, a present-ness about camping, a cordial kindness extended by every being involved.
At some point in every day, our seven-person convoy elongated as our speeds stretched us apart until those farthest ahead stopped for a break, waiting for the others to catch up. Jacob tended to lead the troop, an air of machismo about him. My mother was always the last to arrive, her legs pedaling unhurriedly, her smile reflecting the day’s sunlight, her contentment bouncing off the flowers and into the birds’ spirited songs. She appeared to me to glow that week, amidst the freedom of nature, surrounded by love and leisure. She beamed at us, and yet made no effort to impose her pleasure upon us. Her love radiated out of her in a way I’d never known, a way that I came to see her for many years to come.
We swam in the afternoons, parking our bikes against the rocky, sun-soaked cliff-sides. The river swallowed us in placid gulps, and the sun bathed us on river rocks. The trees snickered silently as we quickly changed, tripping into dry clothes in an attempt not to be seen by oncomers. I observed that week, laughing and speaking when it was my turn and yet keeping to myself in hopes of taking in all the love through feeling alone. I found myself attentive to the banter between my brothers; playful tease and torment embellished their conversations, long immured brotherly love bubbling out of their mouths and glimmering in the air around them. Seth and Jacob were full grown men, and Tanner wasn’t far behind. “You couldn’t win if you tried,” Jacob said to Seth. “Come on then,” he replied, sitting down at the picnic table and readying his arm to wrestle. Tanner was clearly in favor of Seth winning, anything for Jacob to be taken down a notch. Grunts and gasping laughter escaped strained throats and red faces, the veins on their necks jutting out as their arms stood at a grinding standstill until Jacob’s at-stake pride fueled their arms to the table, winner once again. It was a gift simply to witness.
We passed through small towns next to train tracks. Pedaled fast through dusky tunnels, me holding my breath for the good luck of our whole party. I smiled with the sun going over bright bridges and squinted through dense, dark, swampy woods where mosquitos flickered in thick hordes, lingering and then latching onto our sweat-sweet skin for miles. In a little town called Marlinton we stopped and had ice cream, taking up two metal tables and savoring every melty bite in the afternoon heat.
Attached to the back spokes of whoever’s bike was lucky enough to tow it that day was a small black cart. It was heavy and awkward, filled with our supplies, and much like an accordion the cart pulled and pushed against the bike’s momentum. This job alternated between Seth, Jacob, and Tanner, and was often attended with mumbled, grumbling cussing. Moans of sore groins didn’t take long to surface out of each of them, and although my mother, Seth’s wife Bridget, Jacob’s girlfriend Paige, and I all damned our own painful bike seats, we derived sincere entertainment from the boys’ complaints of discomfort. Every day we rode around fifteen miles, and every night’s campsite was a wearied comfort. Three tents, one hammock, seven bikes. Our clotheslines wrapped from tree to tree, dripping with river-washed clothes and creating a half-hazard borderline of protection around us. We all worked together setting up camp, my mother’s house rule that you earn your keep leaking into our lives on the trail. We perfected silver turtles—veggies and potatoes wrapped in tinfoil and left in the fire for hours until they were soft and sapid—the bulk of our camp cuisine. Each night and each campsite felt like home for a while.
My mom and I shared a tent. Seth and Bridget in another, Jacob and Paige occupying the last. At one of the campsites a few days in—wide and shallow and shaded by trees—Tanner got rained on sleeping in his hammock; less weight to carry, easy to set up and tear down, but a hammock does nothing in the way of protection of any kind. Seth, Bridget, my mom and I all slumbered on inch-thick mattress pads, sliding around in our sleeping bags while Jacob and Paige blew up an air mattress every night—Paige’s stipulation for spending a week in the woods. We sat around the fires at every respected site telling jokes and stories, our hearts glowing well past dark.
Our last campground felt different than the others before. From the trail, the vacant spot was scooped out of the dark trees, its only contents a single picnic table and a large, graveled wooden frame on the ground—the contracted tent spot—with a short, wooden fence marking off its outer edge. The fire danced low and warm, being occasionally poked or prodded and flashing heat and embers as if to say, “don’t mess with me, I’m beautiful, and I bite.” The crickets and bullfrogs sang sweet and soft while the lightning bugs glittered about the darkening woods around us. In the evening, we sat around the picnic table, the sun slipping behind the mountains, basking us in the onset of an orange summer night. There were carvings all over the table, and I imagined blank faces and moments in time that claimed this place sometime before.
Jacob wasn’t there, and Tanner had just left. Tanner had a masonry job that departed him from our cavalcade a day early. His buddy and partner for the undertaking, Tyler, was picking him up at a trailhead slightly south of where we were. We bid him adieu, and our party reduced to six. Not long after, someone asked: “Where’s Jacob?” The question could have come from any one of us. “He’s in the woods, pushing down dead trees,” was the answer. Jacob spent much of his youth in the woods of West Virginia, pushing down trees for reasons unbeknownst to me, though logical in his world I have no doubt. He is a man of gruff fortitude. And so, laying dead trees to rest was not a surprising endeavor, and I thought little of him after knowing his vague whereabouts, settling into the evening and letting my mind move on.
It had been a half hour or so when the sound of crunching first raised alarm amongst us. Long-dead leaves and brittle branches being chomped under quick, irritated steps coming out of the woods. And then I remembered him, the realization calming me down, but still feeling on edge as he came hastily toward us. “What’s wrong? What happened!” said someone, or maybe everyone. Jacob’s head was down, his hand on his face, and he was tense enough that the veins on his arms pressed against his skin, threatening to break loose at any moment. His eye was red and glossy, dripping tears in effort to help itself. He grumbled his answer, telling us how a piece of a dead tree had flown into his eye in the midst of him persuading it down to the forest floor. His anger told more than his words; his pride was shell shocked that he, the man of the woods, the chopper of trees, the puller of the bike cart, could be so demoralized by something as inconsequential as a dead tree. Somewhat of a hypochondriac, he assured us that he would, most seriously, go blind. He needed to leave, he told us. He had to go to a hospital and get the vengeful tree out of his eye and save it if at all possible. Without wasting much time, he and Paige hurried off onto the trail, into the swelling shadows.
It didn’t take long for the dark to close in on us, the trees seeming to edge closer in the camouflage of night. My mom and I sat at the picnic table, restlessly playing cards in absent- minded impulse. Something to keep our hands busy. Every sound on the trail perked our ears— hers in hope of someone coming back, and mine out of fear for lack of sight. Our fire burned low, casting shadows across my mother’s face. Every creak from the woods, every animal meandering home for the night sent shivers down my spine. Spirits wander in the dark. It had been hours since Tanner disappeared north of us, in the direction opposite of where Tyler was waiting. Hours since Jacob and Paige fled to a hospital, and hours since Seth and Bridget went searching—in aimless exploration—to find any one of them. “Can we wait in the tent?” I asked my mother in a pleading tone.
Eerie hours creeped by until voices carried us out of the tent. Seth and Bridget were back. They hadn’t found Jacob or Paige, but in a curious series of events had happened upon Tanner, who was at a house just off the trail, partying with strangers. Apparently, when he was unable to find the spot where he was to meet Tyler (about five miles south of where he was), he found a house and asked to use a phone. Being the charming people person that he is, he found himself invited to have a drink. A drink turned to a few, and rather than return to us just a few dark miles away, he decided he would stay and enjoy the benevolence of this clan. The surprise of it didn’t last long, as this was a very Tanner thing to do. And so, with a non-missing brother found, we waited patiently for the return of Jacob and Paige.
The sky was covered in a flood of clouds, no light from the stars or the moon. We talked in soft voices while our tinfoil-wrapped veggies cooked over the fire, waiting expectantly.
Crunching gravel broke up our conversation, two sets of steps making their way toward us from the trail. Paige and Jacob appeared in the dim light, weary and glad to be back. They told us about how a guard from a prison a few miles away had given them a ride on his side-by-side from the trail to the prison, where Paige had explained the situation and an ambulance came to escort Jacob to the hospital. They waited for what they said felt like days for scans and tests to quantify the damage, coming back in conclusion that his eye was only scratched, and would be just fine. Jacob had a friend who lived nearby who graciously returned them to the trail, where he left them to find their way back to us in blackish night. They’d walked two miles, guided only by the sound of their feet on gravel. We told them about finding Tanner, the curiosity of the evening’s events more and more ludicrous as we heard them in full. Fatigue settled onto us as questions were answered, our attentiveness deteriorating now that we were all accounted for. We fixed campfire burritos with that night’s batch of silver turtles and ate in silent astonishment of the evening’s auspicious change of course, turning in to our tents shortly after to sleep the strange day away.
Our excursion came to a quiet close. By the time we reached our pick-up post the next day, we were tired and dirty, weary from the previous night. We basked in the warm afternoon’s promise of taking a shower and sleeping in a bed. We sat around the grass in quiet reflection, laughing here and there, talking lightly about fresh memories. We pondered the events with affection, waiting patiently for my father to arrive and take us back to the world outside of the woods.
It is more than a leisure, to camp. It is a refuge, a welcoming home. A long-lost ode to our lineage. Walks on well-worn paths that are happily tamped into stretches and curves of guidance to exhibit natural treasures. Fishing on lakes or riverbanks until the fish won’t bite or it’s close to supper time. Birds serenading one another from the comfort of high branches who seem to sing to the people, too, in undertones of curiosity and opinion. Nature is our long-lost family who never ceases to welcome us with open arms. The river roars tenderly, the trees dance in the sky. The flowers smile and the animals ramble close enough to commemorate our company, some semblance of kinship floating through the air. The simple act of going to the woods is a deliverance, a temporary release of obligation, and a concession to the universe to take the reins for a little while.
My family and I lugged our bodies sluggishly into my father’s truck, and on the quiet ride home on the windy, wooded road, I smiled to myself knowing that it wasn’t effort that got us through the week; it was the opposite, in fact.
In clouds of easy laughter and lighthearted love, we drifted all those miles.
Biography for Victoria Bloom: “I am a senior writing major with a minor in religion, born and raised in Frankford, West by God Virginia. I have been writing stories since childhood, and I could think of no better art to pursue the career of. In addition to writing nonfiction and poetry, I love to play instruments and sing, go on long walks, and take long drives with the windows down and the 70’s music turned all the way up. Peace be.”
“In the Hands of Nature” won third place in the prose category of The Vandalia’s 2021 Art & Literature Contest.