Forces of Nature
When the mandatory evacuation order hits the news, I am waiting in line at the pumps of the 7-11 across the street from my apartment. Racing home, I pack notebooks, dirty clothes, and my cat running toward my oil-leaking sedan. I leave the uncut celery and dirty dishes where they lay locking the doors behind me. I am through the underwater tunnel traveling north west away from Norfolk within twenty-minutes; my strawberries, grapes, and bananas in the front seat. The sky is clear and clouds cumulus. A perfect calm.
That night I sneak Shadow through the side door of a booked hotel and up the stairs into a room where clinically he isn’t welcome. The television blasts news of the storm while I mindlessly crochet a span of yarn that will become nothing. I’ve been doing this all week -- dedicating hours to nothing. Shadow lies on the bed beside me seeking comfort. Tomorrow we must travel further west and further north, but for now I listen to the broadcasters blather, they repeat themselves every thirty-minutes, then play the governor of South Carolina’s message then the images of the storm from space.
Florence is enormous in size in a way that my mind cannot fully comprehend. Her destruction eminent. A Category 4. The storm of a lifetime. These words keep repeating, but as I look up from my yarn toward the doppler, the computer-generated forecasts, she doesn’t seem real. I text my friends letting them know I’m safely out of town with one simple message: Mountain mama’s don’t do hurricanes.
There’s a certain point on my drive from Virginia to West Virginia when it stops feeling like the ocean and more like home. The land starts rising and falling around me; the homes look older, more broken, and the cars dirtier.
I pull off the highway and stop to use the restroom. As I step out of my car, I notice the calm of the fog, the quiet. Where there isn’t grey and rust, there is green all around me. The old Exxon station and its wood paneling and twangy register attendant seem more real than what I’ve grown used to these past two years.
Two years ago, when I moved to my little port city in Virginia, I fled from places like this, from rust and depression. A train rumbles past and the man in the car beside me hollers over the echoes. His car is like mine -- a Subaru made for the terrain but fifteen years too old to look fast or shiny.
He asks where in West Virginia I’m from, and I notice his grey beard looks like the hipsters’ in my neighborhood except somehow nothing like them. Something about it says age, says poverty. I’m reminded too of the strangers who approach me at the gas stations back in Norfolk, how I don’t speak or make eye contact when they ask for change, but this man feels familiar, safe.
“Five hours north in the Northern Panhandle,” I call back at him with a smile.
“It’s a beautiful state,” he replies.
Yes. It is.
The man gets out of his car, and I see that I’m parked in front of signage for cotton candy nailed to an old fence. From space Florence whirls like so many threads of cotton candy. Except this swirl of sticky, warm sugar is waiting to devour the East Coast.
One summer during my childhood, my aunt bought a pre-owned cotton candy maker. Mama drove us the hour drive down Ohio Route 7, a highway running between two gorges, the Ohio River in between just to taste its sweetness. My cousins and I congregated in the large two-door garage watching the stainless-steel bowl churn as it attempted to whip up clouds of sugar like a cyclone. We circled my aunt watching her inspect the new-ish appliance, each of us attempting a closer look at the sugar concoction. It spun and spun and yet no cotton candy. We played games, rode bikes. Waiting. Waiting. But it didn’t congeal. It never formed.
Before pulling out of the parking lot of the secluded Exxon, I put my old college town into the GPS. Jason’s hometown. No longer filled with the memories of football seasons and dumb decisions of youth. Instead it’s full of him, his chest, his parents, the freezing bathroom floor of his apartment, and the rickety space heater that he’d jam on during the early mornings that I spent with him. It’s only now in these foothills, three months after I have ended our relationship, that I realize how much I have missed him.
There’s no sky here, but the fog has lifted just enough to see the immediate tree line. Yesterday was 90 degrees and sweaty, but autumn has begun to envelop these hills. It’s 66 and clean. At least it feels cleaner. It’s a shock to the system, and I know that soon I’ll develop a sinus infection, a souvenir from home that I will take back with me once Florence is done dumping her vengeance, a phantom illness thanks to the differences in atmospheric pressure and hours of stress smoking.
But I don’t think of the imminent discomfort and the flooding that she is sure to leave behind -- for the first time I feel inspired to write, my notebook wedged against the steering wheel, going 65 on I-66 somewhere between Fredericksburg and Strausberg.
I will soon learn that the word hurricane comes from the Taino word hurakan meaning “god of the storm,” referring to the Mayan god of wind, storm, and fire. But hurricanes go by many names. When Atlantic storms were first recorded, they were named after saints such as Santa Ana; which hit Puerto Rico on July 26, 1825, the saint day of Saint Anne, mother of the Virgin, ironically the patron saint of sailors and protector from storms.
Raised Catholic and a student of Catholic schools most of my life, I find it odd that I have never encountered Saint Anne who seems to have become the patron saint to every lost cause: unmarried women, women in labor, educators and teachers, and the most intriguing-- miners.
I’m from the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia, sandwiched between Ohio and Pennsylvania, a portion of the Appalachians formed somewhere among the Carboniferous and Permian periods, a length of roughly 260 to 325 million years.
When Africa collided with North America to create the supercontinent of Pangea, the masses of rock surrounding the eastern seaboard pushed upward resisting collision. At the time of its birth, the Appalachians reached elevations similar to the Alps or Rockies; however, with time, erosion devoured these great peaks. When Pangea eventually broke apart, the African continent took segments of the Alleghenies with it and in this same process the Atlantic Ocean came into being.
If you look at a word long enough, meanings seem to spring forth from them. For instance, carboniferous-- a time when the earth was seemingly packed with carbon-based plants until they were enveloped once, twice, tenfold, rock upon rock. The carbon in these mountains is what brought us here. It brought my mother’s family here from Italy and my father’s family from Germany, Ireland, Europe in general. Carbon turned coal. Coal to coke. Coke to iron ore. And finally to steel.
Steel mill remnants litter the surrounding towns, rust smells like home. One mill, two mills, three mills, and the coke plant, lie dying in the twenty-one miles that separate my family home from the one my mother grew up in. My pap worked the mill and so did his dad, my Daddy’s dad did the books for one of the mines. When I look at my reflection, I strain to see the dirty fingernails of my ancestors, my cousins’ coal-rimmed eyes, like Egyptian royalty but not.
Or take for instance the word cyclone. Rather than calling them hurricanes, the National Hurricane Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration refer to them by their scientific name tropical cyclone. Tropical from the Greek tropikos “of or pertaining to a turn or change” and cyclone meaning circle or in the present active participle kukloo, “I circle.”
There are two types of mountain roads: those that glide straight up and down through the mountains and valleys only to go back up. These are the toughest on engines and the most terrifying to persons from flat lands. They don’t know what to do when their ears pop and trees around them stand tall above the 2,000 foot peaks.
The second kind are those roads that climb like a stretched out slinky slowly circling toward the peak. City drivers don’t encounter these roads often enough to refer to them when speaking of the mountains, because no engineers have built highways through these titans.
There’s something terrifying and native about speeding through these winding two-lane mountain top towns. I drive cautiously as pickups pass me on the left, and I worry if that nativism has been lost or if perhaps I have gotten myself lost.
I find the only station whose signal my car picks up and bob round and round to Loretta Lynn, a fellow daughter of Appalachia. The license plates gradually look like mine and the roads remind me of weekends in Pocy with Jason.
There are two routes I know well to get to Greenbank, a town in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, whose population rounds out at less than 150 residents, a town with no cell signal, a town home to the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope. In 1961 in the West Virginia Highlands, Frank Drake, an astronomer and astrophysicist, established the Drake Equation. Drake was attempting to establish a way to calculate the total number of extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy –an equation much disputed throughout science. However, most of the world has forgotten Drake and the telescope as much as the they have forgotten Greenbank. No trash services. Actual twenty-first century outhouses. It is both peaceful and decrepit, but Jason loved it there. And I made sure I did too.
One route takes you through the Monongahela National Forest and the Seneca State Forest two hours without gas stations or civilization. After our first break-up last spring, I drove from Virginia through the forests to meet Jason in his family’s field mouse mountain house where he’d told me during our first month of dating that he wanted to marry me.
The shabby yellow home reminded me of a grandmother’s house-- safe and secluded. The lack of phone or internet, the hand-me-down bedspreads, old couches, and dishes from the 80’s placed me back in time and created a calmness that I hadn’t known I needed. During that first weekend together in months, we spent most of our time on the crooked front porch listening to the cicadas and the rush of the stream that ran along the gravel driveway.
There is a second route, one we took together the following winter, which winds through Elkins, West Virginia, another mountain town whose newspaper publishes weekly. From Elkins, you climb just a bit higher before diving into the valley. It was here among the bare snow laden trees that I caught a glimpse of an eagle whose white scalp I did not register until we had rounded a corner— both he and I traveling in different directions.
When I arrive home, my parents embrace me, and the weight of the unknown evaporates. I quickly grab snack foods and begin devouring them as my mother chats about the imminent hurricane. This is our natural habitat standing around our kitchen island eating chips and chatting, the television mumbling in the background. It’s just my parents and I, quiet compared the noise that I grew up with while my three siblings and I were together under the same roof. It’s strange to think of my parents living here without us of the quiet that must fill the house just the barking lap dog and the rumbling of the coffee pot.
The first day at home feels nauseous waiting for the storm seeing images on the television of past disasters and the death tolls that accompanied them, but mostly it's empty without Jason.
My mama is getting ready for work when I ask her why she married Daddy knowing he was an alcoholic. She puts down her straightener, and looks at me for a moment before answering. I’m in the doorway of my bedroom across from the bathroom, three feet of hardwood hallway between us. She’s standing in the bathroom in her fullback cotton undies and support bra, her makeup perfect, half her hair straightened and tidy.
“I always knew I couldn’t fix him, but I loved him so much. I never loved anyone else.”
I stay silent thinking about this. She didn’t know it would work out, that he’d find AA and be sober ten, twenty, thirty years. She looks at me a moment longer before I look away. We both know why I’m asking, that she’d suspected Jason had a problem from the beginning.
I grab my half-empty coffee cup breaking the silence and walk downstairs escaping the intimacy of the conversation.
I knew Jason for almost a year before we started dating. We worked together, him my manager at one of the restaurants I worked at between undergrad and grad school. He helped me get over Ryan. My heart broken the same time that his was. His black tees and matching chef pants reminded me of a white trash Johnny Cash, and I liked the way his shoulders pushed forward as he sauntered about the kitchen. He usually had a beer in his hand. Sometimes a bottle sometimes a draft. On rough days, he had a server mix him a drink. On rougher days, he’d have two drinks maybe three. I told him we could be together in three to five years – my way of telling him he needed to get his shit together, but I was weak. I liked the way he hugged me and encouraged me after a long shift. I liked his company during smoke breaks. The way his face lit up and he started running when I asked for help.
On day three of storm watch, I’m lying in bed when he messages me asking me if I’ve evacuated safely, and I reply that I have and am home. He asks if we can meet each other halfway between Weirton and Morgantown, and I reply that I can’t. I hold the phone close to my chest before asking him to never hate me for ending it. He replies I can’t. And I want to ask if he can never hate me or if he can’t promise that he never will. But instead, I leave the conversation there. I get up and leave my phone on the bed wiping the tears from my eyes. I walk downstairs past my dad to grab my cigarettes. My head down, I quickly move to the front porch, sandwiched between my mama’s wisteria and Japanese Maple. They’ve grown large, too large for our too small front yard. But they refuse to bloom. In the twenty years they’ve been there, never once have they sported a flowering.
I light my cigarette rocking back and forth on the antique furniture that once belonged to my great-grandmother. I inhale and exhale, each breath more calming than the last.
Jason and I used to smoke together.
I put it out, my throat hoarse from the incessant smoking.
When I’m back inside, my dad asks if I’m okay in a tender knowing voice. I tell him about Jason. I tell him that I can’t meet Jason. That’d I’d be too sick to drive home. That if I went I wouldn’t drive home without Jason and that above all else, I know that I can’t go back to him.
About the Author: Maddie Carey is a daughter of West Virginia and grew up enveloped in the Ohio River Valley amid fishing trips with her father and drives through winding mountain roads. She is pursuing her MFA at Old Dominion University in Creative Nonfiction and holds a BA from West Virginia University in English.