When I wrote this article years ago, I used a pseudonym. Though decades had passed, the events I tried to describe still felt like an unhealed wound, bittersweet and opaque. If you’ve ever confessed to making serious mistakes or ignoring pachyderms in the parlor, you may recognize the difficulty of coming clean while not whitewashing facts. I know the girl I wrote about much better now though I buried her on Michael Road—figuratively. I went back and dug up her bones.
While the title is apt, The Gingerbread Girl would also work—except it turns out (thank my lucky charms) that I’m not magically delicious and didn’t get eaten by a fox. Instead, I became one. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay in the 1950s about the hedgehog (that knows one thing) and the fox (that knows many things). What I gleaned from the article enabled me to return to Michael Road with answers, and view some wounds as insignia’s—or tattoos for the ink timid. It also inspired me to create the fictional novel I intend to publish this year or next (working title Interpretation of Death: murder, magical connections, and unnatural nature in the Smoky Mountains). It’s also Pi Day—this is a slice of my life; it’s about the place where I learned few things are actually as easy as pie.
More specific signs might have been useful—like the one on matchbooks: Close cover before striking; or, in my case, run for cover before striking out into the here and now. In no uncertain terms—back then—I was no ‘roads scholar.’ I only knew Michael Road was not a place I could call home. I was 18; the imperative to flee was coursing through me, igniting like jet fuel.
I didn’t choose Independence Day to make my great escape—it chose me. The fight that day was no worse than countless others. It differed only in that this time I nearly—very nearly struck back. Confused and panicky, I locked myself in my bedroom, newly decorated in shades of lavender, gloss white, and silver. A purple neon star burst wallpaper was plastered across the wall where the door remained firmly shut and locked. I didn’t realize I’d trapped myself. The person I’d run from assured me I wouldn’t leave my room by wedging a chair against the hallway doorknob. Words that stung like rubber bullets leaked under and around the door frame and thudded inside my head. The master of the house and my siblings had gone into town. When they returned, I didn’t want to think what he’d do to me for standing up for myself.
The early 70s was a time of brilliant and distressing events—Apollo 13 circled the moon, the first Earth Day was celebrated, four students were killed at Kent State, and over 50,000 perished in an earthquake in Peru. Other famous names would join them in the hereafter, including Karen Silkwood, Egyptian President Nasser, Jimi Hendrix, Oz’s good witch Billie Burke, Janis Joplin, and Sonny Liston. The Beatles went their separate ways and Aquarius: Let the Sun Shine In won the Grammy for best song. Nixon ordered troops into Cambodia; IBM introduced the floppy disc; the first test tube baby was born; and Ford introduced the Pinto economy car.
I had saved a few hundred dollars towards the purchase of a used car—any vehicle would do. I often daydreamed about the places I’d visit and the distance I could put between myself and Michael Road, its occupants, and its dull geography. The double set of windows along the back wall of my bedroom framed a view of a narrow gravel walkway and steep embankment at the back of the house. It was not landscaped and full of scrub grass, blackberry briars, ironweed, exposed tree roots, a few ferns, and patches of red earth. The previous month I’d graduated from the local high school. A wee nudge was all that was needed to graduate me from this house, bedroom, and constrained view of the world. Women were burning their bras and demanding equal rights. No more fighting over being told what to do, what to wear, what to say—it was time to leave—before he returned and she told him I’d ducked when she threw the block of cheese at me and it left a greasy stain on the wall.
I turned on the radio and crammed clothes, souvenirs, jewelry, a few paperback books, and my bankbook into a duffle bag. I ignored the yelling issuing from the other side of the door. The window, barely a year old, rose silently. I placed a tall brass umbrella stand between the sill and the underside of the raised window so I could easily maneuver through the opening. The duffle bag thumped as loudly as my heart when it hit the gravel path. I climbed out the window backwards, dropped, rolled, and brushed myself off. Then I fled up graveled, potholed Michael Road. As roads went, it was no colossus—still, all roads lead somewhere.
I recall passing the back of the sign that said No Thru Road—a nicer way to say ‘dead end.’ At the top of the hill, I didn’t pause at the STOP sign. I picked up speed, sprinting past the unpainted, sun bleached hay barn and its stagnant pond. I sped past the neighbor’s burgeoning vegetable garden and up Monument Road. This time of year it was heady with the scent of honeysuckle. I paused for breath at the entrance to a State Park dedicated to George Washington. As a young surveyor, George explored the area and mapped an old Indian trail, now called the National Pike or alternate route 40. That’s where I was headed.
I didn’t know then for whom Michael Road was named, only that the origin of the name Michael was Hebrew, and meant ‘one who is like a god.’ That made me snort in derision. People that thought they were divine lived on Michael Road, of that I was sure. To the Christians, Michael was the patron saint of soldiers. I had referred to it as Michael’s hole, my cold home, and Michael rowed the boat and ran aground road more than once. Sometimes I’d attempt a foreign pronunciation and spelling—like the Hebrew Mikha or Russian Misha to give it a splash of exoticness. Towards the end of my senior year, I told acquaintances I lived halfway between the enchanted forest and glacier national park.
Enchanted forests are often portrayed as dark, wild places—where unseen magic turn family pets into deadly predators, and mists rise to obscure sink holes and swampy bogs. National parks are protected nature havens, guarded by rangers who recite rules about littering, lingering, and letting loose. Glaciers are tricky—sometimes less than 1/10 of its mountainous structure is visible above the water line. Glaciers are slow moving and highly individual—and can inspire awe, or sink seemingly indestructible ships. Yes, I’d named Michael Road accurately.
A rabid fox and a raccoon had recently been captured and killed, after biting a farmer’s dog on Monument Road. And the partial skeleton of a civil war soldier was discovered half a mile away, lodged in a 200 year old oak tree. That past winter, several feet of snow fell within a 24 hour period. The next evening, another foot and a half of white fluff descended. When the snow plow arrived the following day to clear the road, it got stuck. It took a much larger bulldozer and tow truck to pull the snow plow free and finish the job. Walls of ice crusted snow, which buried the old pine and wire fences, and no trespassing signs posted on bordering trees, gave the illusion of a glacier wonderland to Michael Road, at least for a few days. Enchanted forests and glacial parks, however, didn’t fit the image of the cosmopolitan women I knew I could become.
Such a common name Michael, though it’s initial mellow letter held such promise—like music, murmurings, money, milk, medicine, mirth, and in many languages some form of mama. She couldn’t make much rhyme with Michael—cycle, liable (a stretch), the alcohol spiked cold medicine that started with an N, and trifle. The sharp ‘k’ sound of the ‘ch’ in Michael gave the word vigor and a masculine edge—as in kite, kill, king. The ‘l’ gave the word a lively quality—as in life, love, liberty, learn, laugh, and long. When I walked up Michael Road to catch the school bus, or search for a missing sibling, or exercise one of the horses, I tried to make Michael Road sound like a place worth hurrying home to—I tried and failed countless times.
**¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤**
From Michael Road and the road that crossed and connected it, weary, resolute soldiers once marched, hid in nearby old growth trees, and sacrificed blood and limb during the civil war Battle of South Mountain. That battle was a prelude to the bloodiest battle of the civil war—the Battle of Antietam. At 18, I was already weary of war, its tragic consequences, and its energy depleting battles—within me, within my family, at schools where antiquated rules were being challenged, between women and men, between women and parochial attitudes, and the unofficial war being waged in Viet Nam.
As I dreamed about my future self, I gave little thought to people that had traveled this same road over previous decades and centuries—farmers, hunters, soldiers, explorers, trappers, hikers—and before that Indians. I paid no attention to the marker indicating the Appalachian Trail was a thousand feet to the right of the road. This trail was conceived in the 1930’s as a kind of vertically oriented park, stretching from Maine to Georgia. It cut through the backyards of local land owners and through the State Park a few roads over. I had lived in both Maine and Georgia—either of those states were preferable to Michael Road.
Two hundred years ago, this entire area was wilderness, hunting grounds for perhaps the Powhatan, Ottawa, Tuscaroras, or Mohican tribes. My primary thought was to leave my past behind—family, friends, history, memories, names, heritage . . . No, perhaps not heritage—I’d retain that and change everything else—including my first and surname and place of birth; I would craft a new ‘herstory.’ I would become part of an early witness relocation program. They would never find me.
Lines from an Irish toast burst into my head the day I dashed down the middle of a steep, curved section of Monument Road, “May the road rise up to greet you . . .” I slowed, transferred the duffel bag to my other shoulder, and pried a tissue out of a jean pocket. The road was swimming before me. I moved to the shoulder of the road and turned towards the woods as a wheezing old truck rushed past, heading up the mountain. Black Eyed Susan’s, mountain violets, and the lacy round, cream colored weed that resembled a bouquet of baby’s breath grew profusely at my feet. My tennis shoes were caked with red earth and grey dust—a souvenir from Michael Road and yesterday’s rain. I picked up a stick and began scraping off the red mud. The edge of my shoes were stained an orangey red. I think I might have grinned musing that perhaps Michael Road wanted to accompany me. By the time I reached the bottom of the long, worn road, the shadow of South Mountain was well behind me. The tissue was soaked, but my eyes were clear and dry.
A lovely school friend let me spend the night at her parent’s house, and another friend drove me to the bus station early the next morning. I rented a room at the YWCA in NW Washington DC and tried (and failed) to be a good Government civil servant. Though I returned to Michael Road a few months later for items from my discarded girlhood, and in ensuing years to introduce friends, husbands, and my daughter to the place I’d tried so hard to mispronounce, I did lose sight of Michael Road—and the transition and growing I was supposed to experience before leaving it.
Not all roads lead to roam. Michael Road, slow to change its scenery and texture—waited for me to return and resume residency. It became, at least symbolically, an umbilical cord and a bridge, meant to lead me onward—to other destinations, to roads across the sea with authentic foreign names, to the summit of breathtaking mountain landscapes, to places where roads ended and oceans or seas began—to new loves and experiences. Eventually Michael Road led me back—to face what I’d thought I’d escaped.
We had both matured. Michael Road was paved now and connected at both ends to bigger roads and vistas. Hundred year old trees had been felled and burned to make room for modern homes, log cabins, and camping retreats. A new speed limit was posted, as well as a YIELD sign, and traffic had increased. I had not had the way paved for me. That was my choice. I earned and paid for multiple college degrees; accumulated business titles, credentials, connections; gave birth to a beautiful being, and acquired mortgages. I often yielded to temptation when it came to men, and seldom voiced a middle of the road opinion. I noted my addresses often ended in ‘way’ or ‘circle,’ rather than X road or street, and I never stayed more than a few years at any one address. I varied my pace, and seldom stood as still as I had that day when I attempted to scrap all traces of Michael Road from my traveling self.
Over the years, I navigated, aviated, gyrated, prestidigitated, and expiated the slights, disappointments, and imperfections of my girlhood years. I explored distant lands, took extra course… I learned how to apply philosophy to solve problems and probe wounds, and psychology to understand what had gone wrong that day, that entire last year I lived on Michael Road. I realized Michael Road represented grounding, roots, and tradition. My girlhood-self wanted freeways, speedways, and highways. She thought she had 1,000s of ‘roads to hoe’ and no time to waste. She thought she had to ‘go all the way,’ whatever that meant.
A Dakota Indian proverb says ‘we will be known forever by the tracks we leave behind.’ Michael Road had felt my agitated vibrations, sensed my restless, ever curious mind and feet, and like a wise parent, let me go. For a road is, first and foremost, a thoroughfare, allowing passage from one place to another. It’s seldom straight or perfect; its scenery changes with the seasons. A road is patient and accommodating to the traffic it bears.
Nearly twenty five years after I’d hauled my duffle bag up Michael Road and headed into the great unknown, I parked my ‘road warrior’ all terrain vehicle in the exact spot where I’d once stood to catch the school bus, at the intersection of two roads. I stared at my clean, white tennis shoes and then walked down the smooth, dark macadam of Michael Road. In another sense, I also stood at the intersection of sorrow and success, of middle age and eternity. Once, the tracks I left here were road runner-esque skid marks. Now I wished I could stop time—reverse it. I wasn’t sure why I’d driven here. My parents had sold all their acres and houses. Two of my siblings had moved to the west coast. Only one sister remained within the shadow of South Mountain.
I looked into the woods to my left. We’d hunted chanterelle mushrooms and snipes there. And up Frost Town Road, my brother and I had raced our horses, and inhaled the fragrance issuing from pine and wood burning stoves. We’d whispered secrets and searched for civil war ghosts. To my right, in the cleared meadow, I had once left salt licks and corn cobs, and tried to befriend the skittish deer. The pond—fed by an underground stream—was still there. We’d pitched tents nearby and swatted at mosquitoes and tiny no see um gnats. We dug a garden at the top of the hill, unearthing enough rocks to build a small fort in the process. The year I left the snow had covered the land like continuous pages from the world’s unwritten books. It covered the trees like divinity frosting from 1,000s of unbaked cakes.
I picked a few wildflowers that were poking up brazenly between shoulder road pebbles and hard clumps of earth, climbed back in my car, and laid the fragile flowers on the passenger seat. Later, I put the flowers on my father’s grave. There was a movie I’d once watched that made me cry and think about home and Michael Road. It was billed as a thoughtful western entitled Jeremiah Johnson. The movie starred Robert Redford (Jeremiah) and Will Geer (Bear Claw). At the end of the movie, after Redford has escaped the horrors of the Mexican War and fought vengeful Indians, wandered over vast mountain ranges in the Rockies, lost loved ones, and earned the right to be called a mountain man, he meets the old trapper who had helped him years ago. They have a simple conversation. Bear Claw says, “You’ve come far, pilgrim.” Redford nods and replies, “Yep, feels like far.” That’s how I felt the day I went back to Michael Road after everyone else had left.
There was no one I could tell what I’d finally understood—no one at all. That was OK. I routed in the trunk of my car until I found a utility shovel and a plastic bag. I dug up a few handfuls of the soft, red clay shoulder of Michael Road, and put the dirt in my bag. From under my shirt, I tugged and broke the cord attached to a small leather drawstring bag, favored by shamans, druids, and mages. The bag was full of bits of organic things—small shells, a few semi-precious gemstones, feathers, and slivers of wood I’d collected during my travels. I gently placed the bag into the hole. Using my hands and the back of the shovel, I refilled the hole with dirt and gravel, and stomped on it with my slightly orangy-red tinged shoes. I bent down and patted the earth, jumped into my car, and headed down Michael Road—to its other end. Where would it lead? ###