Here’s my poem “John Cave,” about hiking in the Shenandoah National Park when I was 22 and finding the ruins of Appalachian settlers who once lived there:
I leave my home in Ohio, going
from Spruce Knob to Dark Hollow Falls
looking for some wilderness, drive south to the Shenandoah.
At dusk, I park by the side of the road
and follow a stream into the forest.
I pitch my tent under the stars,
wake up shivering in the dark
and stir the embers of the fire
but the wood I scoured is gone.
I sleep in my car with the engine running,
waiting for the first rays of sun.
In the morning I see it, all that is left:
an old foundation covered in moss and leaves,
saplings poking up beside cut stones,
an apple tree dropping its fruit
into a small clearing.
I stop a park ranger on the trail
and ask him who lived here.
The ranger tells me about John Cave
whose family farmed these rocky hillsides
before there were roads on this mountain.
Then the government bought up farms and moved the families.
John Cave dug in and wouldn’t leave,
rebutting every offer, firing his pistol
at the lawyers who knocked on his door.
At last the old cabin caught fire and burned down.
The ranger shrugs, nodding at the spot.
Were these the fruits of his labor?
Apples fall in the grass and rot,
too numerous for the deer and squirrels.
Vines muscle into the empty spaces between the tall spruce.
I think of the night that lies ahead
and my thin sleeping bag, hike back down,
keep driving south.