Big South Fork, 2004:
I awake to the chatter of cicadas and the low rasp of Dad’s voice. Come on, I want you to see something. I open my eyes but can’t see his face through the grainy black. The camper is thick with darkness save the dim light from the one-room bathhouse spilling in from where I unzipped the window’s canvas flap. What time is it? But his footsteps have already petered out. Behind him, the aluminum door latches back into place with a tinny clink. I’d better hurry.
I slip out of bed and step onto the cool linoleum. I have to be careful not to rock the camper and risk waking Maddie and Mom. Gingerly, I feel my way towards the door. I’m like a tight-rope walker, tip-toeing through the quiet. Outside, the heat of mid-July sticks to my skin, a film of sweat collecting beneath my thin cotton t-shirt. I can make out Dad’s silhouette on the paved road up ahead, and break into a run across our campsite. Wait up!
There are embers still smoldering in the fire pit outside of the camper, and a sheer veil of cinder smoke hovers like breath. The campsite is different at nighttime. The luster of the limestone arches in the daylight is blotted out, and the soft blues that color the grass have been replaced by a coat of darkness.
Evergreens have knit their needles together to form a thick dome. I can’t see the sky, my body shrouded in midnight. But at least there are fireflies to light the way. They move in blinking synchronicity beneath the lofty canopy of branches, their brightness flickering on and off like faulty Christmas lights. As I careen onto the pavement, I catch one in my outstretched palm. I cup her tightly in both hands, holding her close to my face so I can peek at the lightshow she makes on my skin. I watch as her yellow glow spreads into the tiny creases of my fingers, transfixed by the small shadows. Then, suddenly, her blinking sputters out altogether. I frown, disappointed. But I can’t help but think how trapped she must feel, all folded up in the dark cavern my hands have made. I let her go, and she springs upward towards the sky without any hesitation.
Finally, I catch up with Dad. Well, it’s about time you showed up, Hattie G. I scrunch my nose at the nickname, but take Dad’s hand anyway. His touch is warm, and I can smell the smokiness of the campfire on his shirt as he guides me. I concentrate on his stride, trying to match my steps with his. Maybe that’ll get us there faster, wherever there is. Dad, where are we going? But he just laughs and tousles my hair. You’ll see. We walk in silence down the road. The sky is still hidden from view, no fireflies in sight. No light, just darkness. Darkness sprawled out, the sounds of our bare feet smacking against the pavement. Mysterious hooting punctuating the near quiet, the chirps of crickets like occasional bells. The sounds of this nocturne live in my ears. How long does this strangeness go on, I wonder.
It’s sometime later when we come to a break in the tree cover. Light. The pavement and bark and leaves are alive with starlight, an electrifying brightness. What do you think, G? I let go of his hand and stand beneath the opening, gaping. Away from the campsite, the Kentucky night sky is clearer than I’ve ever seen it before. Every corner is illuminated, every star visible in sharpened detail. We lie down side by side in the center of the grass to get a better look. My eyes begin to water. I keep forgetting to blink.
You see that group of stars? Dad stretches out his arm and points out a constellation in the firmament. Then another. And another one after that. I lose track after a while. I’m full of wideness, spaciousness, brightness, fuller than the sky itself. Until now, I wasn’t aware of the fullness that stretches above our heads, above the Kentucky earth, above and within myself.
I don’t notice, but my porcelain skin has fissured open, and light spills out in every direction.
Mammoth Cave, 2011:
Dodging gluey bits of guano on the cave floor, I push through the stream of murky, knee-high water. Beneath the cloudy surface, tiny fish mouth at my ankles, their lips slimy and pinching. I bite back a scream. Need a hand, G? Mom reaches through the cool darkness, but I don’t reach back. Deep below ground, the temperatures are frigid, and the water numbs my legs. I wrap my arms tightly around my chest, teeth chattering as I find myself on dry rock again.
We’ve been meandering through these tunnels for hours, my family and I lugging heavy gear on our backs. Flashlight beams chase flurries of screeching bats back into the darkness, drops of unidentifiable wetness falling on my head. I rake a shaking hand through my sticky hair, my palms gathering sweat. Against the cave wall, my shadow dances in strange, jerking movements.
I snap my eyes away and keep moving. Not much longer now.
Kentucky’s caves are notorious for their sinuous veins and sudden dead ends. It’s not hard to lose your way down here. My eyes and ears have already started playing tricks on me. Stalagmites and stalactites jutting out like jagged teeth. A low growl sounding from every direction. The opening narrowing, limestone creeping inward. Dampness shrink-wrapping my skin. My flashlight shorts out, and I’m propelled into darkness. My family’s footsteps abate, just distant echoes now. I try to call out, but no sound comes. I’m completely alone.
I shudder back to reality then, my heart pounding. Someone’s flashlight beam has sent a flurry of bats retreating into the eaves of the cave ceiling, the sound of their hurried flapping stirring me out of my daze. I drag a frantic hand across my face, reassuring myself that I’m still here. Guys, look at the bats! Maddie points excitedly upward, Dad reaching for the camera. But all I can think about is getting out. I need to get out of here, I think. Away. Back to where there’s sky and earth and sun, where the grass sways blue.
McConnell Springs, 2012:
The springs are a pair of deep blue eyes,
my reflection rippling in their fathomless
irises. A never-ending fountain,
my past, present, future all cascading.
Natural Bridge, 2015:
The arch curves like a crescent, its orange and yellow sandstone glaring against the soft blue sky. Around me, stacks of rubbery magnolia leaves stir in the spring air, pointing decidedly towards the summit. I’m being summoned, it seems, the wind blowing an invocation. But for now, I ignore it. I still need time to reflect, sift through my thoughts. I rest my head against the arch, pressing an ear to the cool limestone. Closing my eyes, I concentrate on the hollow sounds that permeate the rock, the history of silent truth it’s carried for centuries. I carry something similar within myself, too, a story of travels across Kentucky’s sloping topography, soft textures, deep contours. But like all stories, even this one will come to a close.
I come to the arch knowing that this will be my last adventure in Kentucky for a while. Less than a month away, graduation vibrates on the horizon of my mind. College is not that far off either, I realize, registration day lingering like a floater in my eye. So I take a gulp of water from my canteen and lean against the rock. I breathe in the loamy scent of earth and leaves, the midday breeze cool in my lungs. Saplings are poking up from the softening ground, I notice, and butterflies trace elliptical patterns in the air. I’m still. For the time being, I’m in no hurry.
When I finally peel myself from the rock, the sun is lower in the sky. Its colors have deepened slightly, the shade of evening approaching. Time to move. I suck in a deep breath and brace for the climb. Gripping a sturdy magnolia branch for support, I hoist myself onto the lowest rock jutting out at the base of the arch. Mindful of my footing, I traverse the rocks like stepping stones. Beads of sweat dot the back of my neck, heat rushing to my cheeks. I’m tempted to give up, but I’m nearly to the top, the magnolias becoming more and more scarce as the arch steepens. My mouth is already parched from the climb, and I find myself sipping air with shallow, raspy breaths. The end is just in sight. Before long, the rock has leveled out. I’ve made it to the top.
I step onto the wide arch with a sigh of relief, the smooth bridge of sandstone glittering before me like the surface of a lake. The rock is as bare as I remember, devoid of any flora or signs of life. It’s what I’ve always enjoyed most about it, the exposed rock and nothing else. There’s nothing to detract from the gaping openness, nothing between the bridge, myself, and sky. Down below, purple and green buds nod at the arch, burgeoning colors on the skeletal trees of a thawing winter. Even from such great heights, I can still catch whispers of bluegrass flickering in the distance. I laugh. No matter where I am in Kentucky, my eyes always seem gravitate towards bluegrass. I can’t help but stare.
For ages, I stand there taking in the view. When I finally turn my head and look to the opposite end of the bridge, I know that the view it offers will be different. New. Closing my eyes, I outstretch my arms and start in a straight line towards the precipice. I think of all those moments from my childhood, and I’m a tightrope walker again, tip-toeing through the quiet. I rely on feel and memory to know when to stop, and focus instead on steadying my breathing. At last, my feet come together and my arms fall to my sides.
When my eyes open, I can see for miles.