IT WAS ONE of those rivers which spends its whole life trying to seduce a highway. Coiling, twisting, sprawling libidinously over rocks and sand, forever ruffling itself up, whispering, cajoling, the river only sought to make the road unbend. Meanwhile, the highway dodged back and forth from canyon wall to cliffside, avoiding the river's embrace, grinding grimly and duty-driven as straight and narrow as it could--in short, a coward of a highway with a yellow stripe down the middle of its back, vaulting over danger spots where the river threatened to merge. It was one highway the bulldozers and steamrollers had pounded some morals into; and besides, this was North Carolina, where premarital merging is frowned upon.
"That's your river," the driver of the pick-up that had picked me up said, angling his head toward the silver glimmer amongst the roadside trees. "Haack sthu!" He dappled the road with a jowlful of juice from his Day's Work chewing tobacco. He had been a psychiatric social worker in Pennsylvania, he told me, consumed by a love affair with the Smoky Mountains, so when he retired he moved south to settle in the hills and woods of western North Carolina. He was a strange one, this pick-up trucker with long white hair and a stringy gray-and-tobacco-brown mustache. When he emoted about his organic garden, he sounded like nothing so much as General Jack "purify our bodily essences" Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, he was that intense and dogmatic about it. But he was vegetarian, he meditated, and his eyes twinkled when he mentioned his "cash crop"--marijuana.
He told me about a family of schizophrenics in Pennsylvania whom he visited every two weeks to refill their prescription of Thorazine, the mind-numbing drug modern psychiatrists give to people they feel would be better off not feeling. He told me that nobody had answered his knock on the front door, so he started around the house. On the side of the house in the driveway was an old Studebaker up on blocks, no wheels, two doors missing. Inside at the wheel was the father, going "vroom, vroom," beside him the mother and the youngest child, in the back seat the other four kids. Out for an afternoon drive.
The pick-up chugged along, with the cab humping upward every third beat somewhat like a caterpillar crawl. It was the single dirtiest vehicle I had ever ridden in--when I retrieved my bright-red backpack out of the back at the end of my ride, it had turned brown, brown with black racing stripes. Come to find out the driver carried his organic fertilizer around back there, mostly cow manure, that is, with pig and chicken droppings thrown in as a kicker. But you couldn't ask for a more pleasant ride--Mt. Pisgah National Forest, hills and dales, glinting little trickles sliding down valleys, evergreen air with the smell of steaming highway tar.
That morning I had found a note and a road map tacked to the door of a house in Black Mountain, N.C., where some friends of mine lived, a note which said "We've gone to Sliding Rock. Come!" with directions. Those directions had ended me up in this pick-up, and just around the corner was "my river," where Sliding Rock was. I had seen the gleam of contentment on the faces of those who knew about Sliding Rock before--to people who live in the mountains the Rock is what a mud slide is to otters, a day's worth of ecstasy.
My driver pulled off where three cars were parked on the side of the road, just before a curve that cut into the cliff above. "Follow the path," he said. He handed me a baggie full of his homegrown. "Straight and narrow." (People are always screaming about the dangers of hitchhiking. Why, back in seventh grade they even showed us a Highway Patrol film about murdered hitchers. The truth is that anybody who'd pick up travelers as scruffy as most hitchhikers are has got to have an ungodly quotient of Good Samaritanism--especially in North Carolina, where the only other people who stop are the state cops Goes to show.
At the bottom of the path down from the highway was the river, 30 feet wide, two to four inches deep, about to slant-drop over an immense 150-foot-long granite rock. And halfway down the rock were my five friends, hand-in-hand, sit-sliding...sploosh. They rode the tidal wave they made in the pearl-pool at the bottom, clambered out as if an ejector seat were pushing them, and toiled back up the path to where I was. Greetings, food, wine, smoke, sun, pine needles, my turn.
You had to wear blue jeans because the rock didn't really need the skin transplants it exacted from you. And even then your jeans grew white patches on the seat, and on the knees too if you were ever that foolish. The finest kind of slide was headfirst, though--the same way these friends of mine went at life, down a slope, no brakes, wide-open, kind a stupid when you come right down to it. There were three dips in the rock near the bottom, and if you played them right you could come flying off the rock in the air, and belly-bust halfway across the pool, the point being to stay out of the water as long as possible, it being that godawful cold.
Over and over, flip-flopping down, sideways, fishtailing-swandiving, Reggie Younging down down down. On your back, watching the sky and the two hawks seesawing on the updraft off the cliff, and the rude shock of the pool's liquid ice closing out the sky, and the clawing back up out of the water and up the trail. Nerves on millions of little trampolines, many falling off and breaking their necks. Tingles, rushes and fades.
After a day's worth of Sliding Rock, it was home to cornbread and vegetables from the backyard and a hammock on the porch in Black Mountain. The white-hotness of the day gave in to smoky candles, easy. After a time, there wasn't time.
* * *
Then back. North Carolina mountains give way to Virginny hills and suburbs, to Washington D.C. sodium orange crimefighter lights; then Maryland's middle classness from whence came Spiro; Delaware River a test-tube for dynamite, gunpowder and napalm; New Jersey wasteland where poets rot as general practitioners; New York where seven million were swallowed by the Tall Ships; Connecticut state cops always on the other side of a divided highway, thank Grasso! The Massachusetts autobahn.
Then Cambridge. The Charles a muddy sink with built-in garbage disposal. Walden Pond a kiddie matinee. Faucet water flat and stale as month-old Fritos. And even then, no shower attachment in the house. Sisters, mothers, water brothers, no place to go once a laughing river seduces you and runs away.