Tuesday, May 9, 2017


Road-weary and fish slime-crusted, I was chipping anxiously away at a newspaper column in the booth of a highway rest stop-associated fast food joint somewhere in the small state of Massachusetts. I had a meeting with a campfire and a spring creek full of brook trout 100 miles east before the sun went down, but my progress was being hindered by my inability to put into words the majesty I’d found in the few days before.

Photo by Matt Reilly.

    What I’ve found to be true of the western part of the Bay State is that it sits shadily catty-cornered to the portion of the East overrun with development and industry, and is not quite as well-loved for its northern forest atmosphere as are the rest of the New England states. As this thought fluttered into my mind, I caught the gaze of an elderly lady sitting with her husband a few feet away. I wasn’t unaccustomed to lingering—even cautious—stares from others; an unwashed, alone, far-from-home, young traveler, I’ve learned, raises certain flags. Nonetheless, after a few minutes, the lady got up from her seat and came to find the one across from me.

    “You look like you’ve had some adventure. Where are you going?” she asked.

    Relaxed at her apparent understanding of my for-the-time transient lifestyle, I answered that I was headed for the coast—Cape Cod—but that I had spent a few days in the fringes of the region called the Berkshires, and that I had been pleasantly surprised by what I had found there. Her eyes glowed, as did her husband’s, now swiveled in his seat to look onto the conversation.

    “That’s God’s Country. We love it there,” she waxed, before painting a romantic landscape of memories with the perspective of a gone-away native come back.

    I was familiar with the sentiment, and had used it myself on a number of occasions, otherwise unable to describe a landscape with the mystique and power it holds. To me, it communicates a spirituality strongly tied to the natural world and a respect for it in respect for its creator. God’s Country.

    But its utterance in that setting was striking to me, a relative stranger to the state of Massachusetts, if only subtly. I had previously only heard the term used to describe a different kind of landscape.

    A year or so later, smallmouth fishing with friend and fishing guide Brian Bodine on the James River, I heard the words again.

    In the summertime, Brian and I fish a stretch of the river around Scottsville on a weekly basis after I get off from work. Brian has been doing this for years, and is intimately familiar with the water, structure, and fish that call it home. We had caught plenty of fish throughout the evening, and were feeling pretty content.

    Then, in the fading light of the evening, before firing up his welded aluminum boat’s jet motor, Brain looked dreamy-eyed upriver and told me of a place with seemingly endless rocky cover and smallmouth—big ones—around every corner.

    “That’s God’s Country,” he said. And by the look in his eyes and the warmth in his voice, I knew it was.

    I feel at home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and it was there that I heard those words again, most recently.

    I was laying on my back, throwing my gaze south as far as the atmosphere would allow over layers of blue slopes, the warm rays of a warmer-than-typical autumn baking my front. Roan Mountain, the southernmost point of what has become my home range, was my bed. The swath of mountains extending northward to Shenandoah—and the rivers, hollows, and trails that exist there—have been the focus of my intimate attention for the 20 years I’ve been alive. God’s Country, if ever I’ve known it.

    As I stared south, deeper into Tennessee, I was staring into the unknown. 

    As my gaze wandered over the landscape, they came to focus on a scene in close. Three middle-aged women sat with backpacks unshouldered on a rocky outcropping at the very peak of the mountain, also looking south. They talked as close friends, equally comfortable with silence as with the voicing of deep, though spontaneous thoughts. One pulled a book from her backpack, and the three of them closed their eyes and spoke from the heart, to something unseen.

    They ceased speaking when their eyes opened, and none moved immediately. After several moments, the woman with the book returned to her pack slowly and traded the book for an urn.

    Together the women dispensed the contents. The dust lit on a breeze bound south, filtering through the autumn light, over God’s Country.

    And my faith in humanity was restored.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

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