Nowhere to Stop | a short essay on place

I prefer the road to the left after crossing the Kanawha River. Today a spiral staircase appears out of the rock face, and the last step drops just in front of my car.

My eyes have seen these delicate tiers, must have seen them, thousands of times. I was conceived in these hills. Only now on this autumn afternoon do the little elevations register.

Gorgeous golden sandstone, sculpted beyond pure function into art, I realize I have missed them all of my life because they are nearly one with the rock, tight to the white line of the road.

One has to have distance to see them.

I promise myself I will return, slow down, but when I go back I can’t pause. There are people behind me. They are pushing me along.

Next time, I will make it happen.

Next time, I will look for a place to pull over and take a photograph, but next time I realize there is no place to stop. One side is rock and one side is guard rail. There is no margin.

Who built you?

I drive this Appalachian road up from downtown Charleston because I can. There are other ways but I choose this one every time. It winds in unsurpassed beauty each season across water, over railroad tracks, gently up and up into layers of gracious homes and luscious trees. Every yard travelled pulls me more deeply into a sensed but barely visible past. At one turn there is a tiny set of graves. I must stop, unless turning right. If I turn right I may miss the dead, so focused I am on the Children’s Consignment Fair sign or the Old Colony Real Estate sign.

I promise myself this time, this time, I will focus. I will see those stairs to the top. I am sure they must no longer connect to anything, the mansion they once served long gone. I am certain the stairway’s connection has dissolved.

As I pass, unable to stop – there is nowhere to stop – I see where they lead.

They still climb to a house. I see young, contemporary dark wood in shocking contrast to the one hundred year old organic mineral steps; this is not their builder’s home, but I recognize this place. It is the home where my father’s friend lay dying for years, unable to live in this world and unable to find purchase in the next.

When I passed on the road above I would avert my eyes from this place. The pain was alternately dull and ripping to be outside looking in. I stopped looking. I stopped seeing. I stopped passing on the road above.

The road below brought me the staircase. I drive as carefully as I can, the visual distractions now equal between the captivating winding stairs and the dangers of looking too long.

There are others behind me, and nowhere to stop.