The gap between the mountains was broader than many, about a half mile of relatively easy slope or level ground. My brother and I had read that there was a mountain village here between 1750 and 1900, and the last building, a church, had burned down in the 1930’s. All that remained would be a gravel road, a cemetery that had once surrounded the church, and a 12 acre clearing that still produced some hay.
As we walked down the Appalachian Trail toward the abandoned village we began to see some signs of stone foundations, overgrown pathways, and finally the road and the clearing. We wondered where the churchyard was. The guidebook was deep in the pack, so we didn’t dig for it, not remembering whether it told us more details or not. We explored the edges of the clearing for a while, but there were no signs of gravestones or anything other than timothy grass and weeds. Under the trees, deep ruts marked where streets had been. Since it was noon, we sat on some rocks that others before us had obviously used, and enjoyed our jerky, granola and water. Afterward we spent a little more time looking for that churchyard, wondering whether names and epitaphs would tell us more, but we didn’t find it. There were no wooden structures visible above the brush, no rock chimneys, no markers, just the depressions in the ground where once people lived and worked– who and how many, anyone’s guess. Whether they were some of our mountain ancestors or not, we had no clues. We met no one else in that place. We decided to walk on.
Across the earth the story repeats. Where once communities thrived for a time, sometimes for hundreds and thousands of years, there is little left to tell us. The accomplishments and monuments of the past disappear to all but the diggers and the story-tellers. We walked on in silence for awhile, imagining what life was like and what major events in people’s lives went unrecorded in that place. The hundred years that had passed might as well have been ten thousand years before, when the first people had come to those mountains.
If people had lived there for a hundred fifty years, or thousands, was it a failure of community that emptied that high pass, or simply time to move on, as for my brother and me in our much shorter stay? Even if we didn’t find it, was it a sign of the people’s endurance and faith that the churchyard had been among the last signs of occupation? Or was it the clearing that remained a hayfield that became the last will and testament to future passersby?
If we had dug in our pack and found the book, we would have known that the gravel road that intersected our trail would have led us down a gradual slope, around a bend, and ended at that churchyard a half mile northwest of our explorations. We were just not industrious enough to dig the book out and walk that far off our trail. It would have rewarded us. The book says that families gather there for reunions every summer. They must know the stories of the earlier days, and tell them to each other then, and continue the caring that began in that place. The road itself is their monument.