I took another nostalgic road trip today.
It was kind of like the trip I took a few weeks ago, when I drove to Minersville, the town I lived in for the first four years of my life, and also the town that I experienced in a powerfully spiritual way when I received the vision of “Darkwater.” On that Minersville trip, I found what I was looking for — the West Branch of the Schuylkill River, flowing like a creek along the edge of town, and I experienced a sense that I had found my “headwaters,” my home, my identity, the source of who I was. If you missed it, read about that trip here.
So today’s trip wasn’t to Minersville. Instead, it was to St. Johns, the town I grew up in. In particular, I was looking to walk in the woods where I used to wander as a child and an adolescent, along the Nescopeck Creek. If possible, I was hoping to see “the Falls” again, a particular spot along the creek (mentioned in chapter 6 of Darkwater), where I once attempted suicide. I’ve wanted to see the Falls again for years, but I’ve never done so.
One of the roadblocks I knew I’d face was “No trespassing” signs. The woods I’d stomped through were never public property (at least I don’t think so), but they were never marked off-limits when I was a child, and nobody ever bothered me or any of the other kids for being there. But I knew that that had changed in the years since. Either ownership of the woods had changed, or the owner had decided to do some developing in them. I could see on Google Maps that there were some buildings in those woods that hadn’t been there in the 80s or 90s. I also knew that a 47-year-old can’t get away with walking through posted woods the same way a 12-year-old can, so I wanted to avoid any potentially difficult interaction. Plus, I really didn’t want to trespass — that’s not cool.
It was a nice journey there. I got off the highway earlier than necessary, so I could go through Freeland and travel on more of the country roads I used to know so well. My first stop was going to be at Abbey Road Traffic Control, because the quickest entry to the Falls is right behind it. When I was growing up, the Traffic Control company wasn’t there, and the building there was an old abandoned slaughterhouse. Back then, I could have simply walked through, and entered the woods at the rear of the lot and come right to the Falls. However, today it’s a busy business. I drove into the parking lot, and saw many vehicles there. Perhaps they had the day off — I don’t know. I didn’t see any people around. But day off or not, there was definitely a sign saying “Private Property — Keep Out.” So that was a no-go. I’m just not willing to trespass for the sake of nostalgia.
Next stop was to park and leave my car in the parking lot of the church I grew up in. No problem there.
So many memories in that church. Oh, but I had other plans for today. I’d been in that church as recently as eleven or twelve years ago — I was heading somewhere I hadn’t been for more than twice that long. I walked toward the house I grew up in, and turned at the Old Mill apartments. As I took the windy road down the hill past the apartments, I saw the creek appearing on my left. It was just as I remember; if anything, it was swifter and more robust. And there they were: the No Trespassing signs I’d feared, posted next to the road at the woods that abutted the creek. I approached the crossing right behind the Mill. The old rickety green bridge (marked clearly with a posted weight limit) was gone — in its place, a simple stone deck bridge. Stronger, certainly, but without the character. (Want to see some photos of the old bridge? Go here.)
Then the guardrail ended, and I saw on my left a spot I knew so well — a spot I’d entered these woods hundreds of times, on foot and on my old black dirt bike. I cringed as I looked for “No Trespassing” signs, and I saw none. Not one! I was ecstatic. Perhaps only the north bank of the creek was privately owned, or perhaps only on that side did the owner care. I looked all around again, and seeing absolutely nothing, I went in.
I knew this path. It came back to me in an instant — the way the ground went down away from the road, and then leveled off before turning slightly to the right as you entered an open area looking out at a section of the creek. I had forgotten just how much water was here — this was where Long Run converged with the Nescopeck Creek, and also where two forks of the Nescopeck came back together after separating a little ways upstream. There was flowing water everywhere, just like when I was a kid.
I remembered these views so well. This was a type of home to me, as I watched the water flowing from all directions, coming together, and heading west. To me, this wasn’t the Nescopeck Creek; this was just “the creek.” I just stood there and remembered so many moments of being here. Moments with friends. Moments alone. Moments filled with joy and fun. Other moments of sadness and despair, as I would often come here when I was sad or depressed. I had a vague memory of being here in the winter of my senior year in college, thinking that this might be the very last time I walk in these woods. I think I was right — that was the last time I came here, until now. Well over twenty-five years later. I loved this creek, this spot. There was so much of me still here; I could feel the wisps of the ghosts of my past.
I kept walking. I walked along the south bank. As I went away from that central convergence spot, my memories got more and more vague, and it didn’t look as familiar. Why? Maybe because I didn’t come down this way as frequently. Maybe because over the decades, some things had changed. Maybe because my memory was just cheating. Probably a bit of all three.
But eventually, I reached a familiar spot — the place where the old trolley used to run over the Nescopeck. It was just like I remembered, nothing but three large stone piers in the water, the bridge long gone. Oddly, the trusses seemed shorter than I remembered.
It was near this spot that my friend Steve once saved my life. He and I must have been about twelve, and we were walking on the creek with my younger sister. I say we were walking on the creek, because it was a cold winter, and the creek was frozen. We were having fun stomping around on the ice, and throwing rocks trying to break it. I think I was somewhere in the top left quadrant of the photo above when the ice beneath me broke, and I fell through. I was holding on by my arms, while I felt the frigid current pulling at my legs and torso. I started screaming, and Steve (who was some distance away at the time) ran over to me, ignoring the danger of running on ice that was clearly thin, and pulled me out. On the walk home, one of us was very cold, wet, and embarrassed. I’ve often wondered what would have happened had I gone under — would I have drowned? Quite possibly.
I walked up to the abutment where the trolley bridge once connected to the south bank, and looked across. The trolley bed was clearly visible, and I knew that just beyond my vision lay the Falls, where the trolley crossed Long Run. I was a tenth of a mile or two away from it. But it was out of my reach. Everything on that side of the creek was marked private property. But that was okay. I was close enough. And maybe it was okay that the Falls were out of reach. Perhaps those memories have been dug up enough.
I exited the woods behind the raceway, and walked back out to the windy road that went past the Mill. I considered walking around some more, considered going up the mountain just a bit to reach another part of the trolley bed, where we used to walk my dog Muppet. But it was cold, and my legs were starting to bother me. I could have done it, but I just didn’t feel the motivation. I realized that the only places I really felt driven to go to were along the creek. The closer I was to that water, the more emotional and vivid the memories were.
And I wondered about that. There was a big difference between this “nostalgia pilgrimage” and the one I took a few weeks ago to Minersville. That one was almost mythological — it dealt with my “hidden past,” the early childhood time before I had memories, and I experienced a sense of baptism there. This one was about my “historical past,” the childhood I do remember. The feelings were different, as they had memories attached. Yet in both times, my search was all about water, all about finding water flowing all around me. It seems like I keep learning in new ways how important and powerful the image of water is for me. I know — the author of a book called Darkwater is surprised by this.
I’m a very quick learner when it comes to some things, but regarding my spirit and my connection with God, I can be very slow. But I’m getting there. The water keeps pulling me along, day after day, year after year.