A few days ago, I made another pilgrimage out to the coal country of Schuylkill County, the place where I was born. It was something of a sequel to the trip I made almost six years ago. That day, I visited Minersville, the old mining town where I spent the first four years of my life. I saw the church where I was baptized and the house I lived in. I walked the streets that I walked when I was much shorter, streets I was pushed in a stroller. I remember being very disenchanted that day, feeling a sense of desperation and depression, feeling like the dust and sadness of this old town was running through my veins.
And yet – that visit six years ago also contained the seed of the image of the “Darkwater,” and formed the core of the essay I wrote with the same name, a vision of hope and love, a vision of baptism and eternal life, a vision of God’s grace shining into and through me.
I took the name “Darkwater” from the name of a patch town not far from there called “Dark Water,” today not much more than a word on a map. I drove through it on my pilgrimage that day, and in fact spent some time impatiently behind a slow truck on Darkwater Road. I gave that name to the river that flows on the edge of Minersville, which in my vision flooded the town (and my heart) with hope and grace.
In reality, that river isn’t called Darkwater – it’s the West Branch Schuylkill River. And that’s what I was seeking in this second trip. I wanted to discover two things: just why that patch town was called Dark Water, and also what the West Branch Schuylkill was like.
I drove around through the forest for a while. I found a lot of no trespassing signs: some of the land is owned by coal companies; some of it is owned by the railroads; and a lot of it is owned by an offroad club, members only. I drove through the tiny village of Wadesville, where there were several nice family homes, alongside the dregs of former buildings. I found a few spots where I could explore into the woods without (apparently) trespassing. I found this:
I visited the Queen of the Universe Cemetery, a very nice quiet out-of-the-way graveyard with a name that felt so deep and powerful to me. While I was there, I wondered if perhaps I should buy a plot here for myself. After all, I don’t have a cemetery plot anywhere. And I really don’t know where I would want my final destination to be. This place is where I spent my first few years, but it’s not home. The town I spent most of my childhood – the trouble with that is that I spent most of that childhood planning to get out of there. The place I live now? I do love it, but I have no roots there. How about where my parents have purchased plots, the same place where all my grandparents are buried? I never lived in that area. Oh, I know it, but it’s just not home at all.
And maybe that’s what I was seeking out here in Schuylkill County today – my home.
So I finally drove into Minersville. I didn’t go to look at the old house, or the old church. I felt like I’d seen them already, even though it had been six years. No, I had one destination: the river. I crossed over the river to enter town, and quickly found my way to a large blue building, which looked like it had once been a banquet hall, maybe? I parked behind the building in an ample parking lot. The lot abutted a line of trees, behind which was the river. I got out of the car, and walked up to the trees. And there it was. The West Branch Schuylkill River. Not much of a river, it looked smaller than the Nescopeck Creek I grew up near. But its flow was strong. I looked upstream, and saw the relics of an old railroad trestle. I looked downstream, and saw ripples flowing and bubbling.
I sat on the bank, admiring the ripples, listening to the clear sound of water flowing over the rocks. It looked a bit dirty, and it wasn’t very deep, but it was beautiful. Beautiful and holy. These are my headwaters, I thought. In the Darkwater vision, this is the water that overflows into town, washing everything clean. This is where the water flowed to reach my head and my spirit in baptism. This little “river,” this brief trickle of water bound for Philadelphia, is where I came from. Where I belong. Where I was made.
I heard the sound of heavy equipment. I heard a dog barking. I saw the railroad track across the river, and some old-fashioned duplexes beyond. And I knew that this was my home. Not Minersville. Not that house on Lewis Street. Not English Lutheran Church. But here. This river, this spot, this is my home.
I knew I’d never live around here again. I might never even come back here again. But I found it – the lost memory. The hidden years that I could never remember because I was too young, years that I somehow always thought contained a secret to understanding my life. It was right here, in this water flowing beneath me. I may never have even been here at this spot before, and I’ll never know if I was. But now I had it.
And I felt something inside me. I heard the bubbling water deep within my heart. God is there, stirring me up. Stir me up, Lord! That’s the way all the Prayers of the Day begin in Advent. It’s Advent right now – stir me up!
I never found out anything about the town of Dark Water. The reason it’s named that remains a mystery to me. But I found my own Darkwater. I found the source of hope and joy and peace. It’s here. It’s within and outside me. And it’s a gift of God. Stir me up, Lord. Stir me up.