CAWTHON'S CATHARSIS - Some Thoughts from a Mountain Top

By Jack Cawthon 2001

I can stand on the wooded knoll which rises to about 2,000 feet above sea level and on a good day look eastward into Maryland; on a bad day I can see Pennsylvania to the north. Garrett County, Maryland, is a continuation of the goodness and sameness of Preston County, West Virginia. Pennsylvania to me is a different state of mind.

I found this mountain more than 30 years ago. It is a mountain although a small one to those who have seen the Rockies or who have traveled elsewhere in the outside world. To one who has been provincial his whole life Chestnut Ridge stands as a real mountain and especially so to one who was raised in the choppy hills of Gilmer County, West Virginia.

I first came here seeking solitude, or on some unknown mystic inner quest in the late 1960s. Those of us who were raised on the hills farms where land was valued for its very subsistence purposes never lose the feeling that land can provide for us completely with not only food but as a place to seek refuge in times of turmoil.

Certainly times of turmoil are upon us now. On my wooded knoll lie the earthy remain of those who suffered far more greatly than we do today. They were the early pioneers into this rugged wilderness of the Big Sandy-Cheat River Canyon country. Cholera, smallpox, typhoid, diphtheria, pneumonia, tuberculosis, even the flu, took their toll. We panic at the thought of anthrax, but can it be compared to the multitude of maladies that once beset these people?

I am the self-appointed caretaker of the cemetery that once was the burial ground for much of this mountain's people. A later one in a better-accessed location took its place and now no one, note even those relatives living close by, visit this lonely mountaintop today.

I am pleased that they don't. I feel possessive of the people here, although I don't share a genetic bond with any of them. They in their silence let my mind imagine their individual roles on life's stage before the coming of good roads, rapid communications and vaccines and modern medicine replaced the home remedies and patent medicines. Today we live much, much longer lives, but are they better lives?

These early settlers were a hardy and sometimes desperate sort. Preston County winters are much harsher than those in the lower land westward. The remoteness and dangers developed a sense of neighborliness that shared troubles can bring about. As little ones died and mothers, especially, suffered the fate of their children or died trying to bring more into the world, a degree of fatalism arose of what will be will be.

We are often reminded of the immigrants and their struggles to adjust to a new life in a new country. All of these early pioneers stem from immigrant backgrounds-we all do. There was a heavy infusion of the Irish stock into this region and the frontier had its terrors of Indian attacks, the want of not enough food through the long winters and the ever-present threat of illnesses beyond our modern day concept.

Anthrax now has gripped the nation in a panic, but there are modern drugs to fight it. What must it have been like in those early years when a loved one developed a cough that would not go away or when a high fever came upon the cherished young?

The dead of my mountain burial ground keep me attuned to what fate holds in store for all of us. Each adult person here must have had days of joys and days of sorrow as we all do today. They had their dreams, ambitions and failures. They played their parts and now lie, most anonymously, beneath the ground. I like to think their spirits linger still.

No, I never see them and I never hear them. Yet, the stillness provides a welcome relief in a world of sound and fury and maybe that is their message. Sometimes we need such stillness to reflect on our own brief journey.

Most of us raised in the hills have somewhere in the back of our minds that certain fatalism. We have had our close associations with death and we cherish and honor our burying grounds. Many people in the cities have not and they may be overwhelmed by tragic endings that have been all too common to us.

West Virginia is our refuge. Those of us who were born here and who have lived our lives here know it, and I, perhaps a big selfishly, hope that the word doesn't greatly spread. But it may be too late. Already I read of an exodus from the cities to our Eastern Panhandle region, even beyond those commuters who discovered it years ago.

More isn't always better. Our blessing had been our open spaces and low population. Jobs may not be plentiful and we are always struggling to create more in our efforts at economic development, but maybe that which looks like poverty to some is really a richness in a unique lifestyle that others can only dream about.

The matter is complex. We can't ban the movement of people into our midst. The land that once was so wild and isolated that I can see from my mountain now has its own slow infusion of people. A new house here and there where once there were none can alter that which was once a rugged and remote wilderness.

From my standpoint, a wasteland is not such a terrible thing to mind.