Halfway to Tallulah Falls, my son spills his entire bottle of Gatorade into his lap. “Um, Mommmmmay?” He says in a tentative, keening voice, emphasis on the last syllable, the way he always does, adding a frantic edge to what is not really an emergency. “I spilled my drink.” I sigh, tilting back my own water bottle and taking an eager gulp. Thankfully I have leather seats, though we didn’t bring any spare pants and I have no idea how he’s going to hike down a mountain with his butt soaked through.
“We’ll figure it out,” I say to my husband, who is in the driver’s seat, and turn up the radio, melting into the sunlight-warmed car, listening to the equally sunny, warm voice of Chris Cornell. I’m happy, because I’ve just signed a contract with Regal House Publishing for my much-beloved-and-agonized-over manuscript, Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree. I haven’t told anyone yet, save for the two people in this car with me, and my friend Alice. We are taking an impromptu drive to the mountains – one of my biggest sources of inspiration, and part of the novel’s locale – to celebrate. We’ve had coffee and breakfast already, and soaked pants or not, we’re going out into the air to watch the last remnants of autumn drift from the trees. The burgundy, green-yellow, and day-glow orange of the leaves cannot wait for us any longer.
The mountains are my happy place. Long before I ever knew I had ancestors who hailed from there, I relished my visits to Helen, to Hiawassee, to Tallulah Gorge, to Mt. Airy. There is a quality to the air, and it’s not just the clean, thin breath of the mountain, the fog that settles over the crisp leaves – it’s the spirit there, the life-force. You can taste it, you can feel it running over your skin, making it cool. The way the light falls on the red earth, the mottled gray-brown trees, the blue of the sky – like the most underrated colors in the Crayola box, they alight my senses and make me breathe in deep. If you listen, you can hear the whispers of the trees.
Up the mountain, we stop in the gift shop and buy the kid a pair of leggings and a piece of rock candy in his newest favorite color; cyan. On the way outside, he stops to study a taxidermied fox. We visit the museum exhibit, and I point out the boxcars, the butter churn, the crisp, thin white dresses with their square collars; all relics from a time gone by, with lessons to be gleaned. He nods, but isn’t really paying attention. What use does an eight year old have for sack dresses? He wants to get outside, into the air, to touch the stone and bark, to walk the paths, to hear the delicious crunch of the leaves beneath his feet, and I don’t blame him.
It is a bond we share, this love of the outdoors. Together we have traipsed through forests in Rutledge, swam in the lake beneath Mt. Airy, stood under Ana Ruby Falls, marveled at the ceremonial mounds in Sautee-Nacoochee, collected shells on the beach at Jekyll Island, touched statues in the square in Savannah, bent down to smell mountain herbs in Hiawassee, dipped our feet into the creek, counting turtles basking in the sunlight in Athens, and stood on the banks of the Oconee River in Nicholson, Georgia, fishing with my Papa.
When he was two he wandered off while I was putting his carseat in – I turned and he had vanished. Those ten minutes felt like hours, and when we found him, he was wandering out of the woods – the forests in Oconee County are heady and thick with skinny, gray-brown pine trees, tall and imposing, but full of a gentle kind of calm, as though benevolent ghosts might pass their days there in a cocoon of sweet silence – with our little beagle in tow, humming a little tune as his fat, toddler hands grazed each tree, oblivious and full of joy. He is a natural wanderer, my kid – and while it isn’t always ideal, and are sometimes stressful, these wanderings – I always understand them. I always understand him. In so many ways just like me, but in others so wholly different, so pure and clear-eyed and awake. I feel I know him better than I’ve ever known myself. He is a natural wanderer, fluent in the woods, a real-life tree hugger. He has always felt at home there in the silence of the woods, a place where he is heard and understood, nurtured and adored.
It is a gift I passed along to him, the one I’m most grateful for. Just like every other kid his age, he’s more interested in video games, Captain Underpants and YouTube videos than he is anything else, but he’ll stop everything if I say, “Want to go for a hike?”
I make it a point to walk behind him, present and ready should he have need of me, but content to watch his footfalls on the path, clumsy and childlike but full of innocent purpose. He blazes down trails, forgetting us, forgetting all. He has been begging for a compass for years but he doesn’t really want one – he has his own sense of purpose, his own rhythm that he dances to. I think when he’s an adult, he’ll really love Thoreau.
When he graduates high school, I plan to take him on a hike through the Appalachian Trail. I haven’t told him yet, but it’s a secret dream. It seems poignant, appropriate. I can picture him, sweaty blonde hair, cheeks flushed with red in the cool air, panting with exertion, a heavy backpack weighing down wide shoulders. Undoubtedly he’ll have spilled his Gatorade on his pants, or tripped and skinned a knee, but there will be joy.
For now, my husband and I follow his lead, his skinny legging-clad legs pumping double time down the small trail, as though we’re late for something important. As it turns out, we are – just as we arrive at the first viewing platform, the people gathered there drift away and we see that the noon day sun has just settled on the trickling water, glinting off the rocks, making them look like diamonds. It is what photographers call perfect light. The water pools, and the cool air hints at what it might feel like to dip your fingers in. We stand there, forgetting to take our photos, content instead to just stand and bear witness. People fall away, and it’s just us there, the rock solid and welcoming beneath our feet, the water below quietly trickling a Hello.
My son takes a mischievous look around, and seeing no people in his vicinity, gives us a sly grin and lies down right on the rock, spreading out his arms and legs, closing his eyes and tilting back his head to the sun. He is making a stone-angel.
I laugh, shake my head, and say, “You’re ridiculous.” It’s true, but its said with the utmost love and respect, because it is a kind of ridiculous I understand, and covet, and miss.
He grins, but doesn’t answer. There’s no needs for words here. They are all unspoken, written on the wind.
Lillah Lawson is the author of the upcoming work of historical fiction Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree. When she isn’t writing, you can find her out traipsing through the forest, cycling, playing bass, or parked in a corner with her nose in a book. She currently resides in North Georgia, where she lives out in the country with her husband, son, her two sardonic cats and a goofy dog.
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