The first time I drove to Chatham that summer, it was the middle of the night. I hurried along the two-lane highways, dodging possum, unsure that I would make it there without getting lost. But I made it to his house, relieved, and without a wrong turn. He didn’t have to tell me he needed me.

The next day I returned the way I had come, going back to life in my own town, some 35 miles away. I was curious about this bucolic country I had traversed, and tried to get familiar with my route. And along the road home, I noticed a road break away, a county highway with a sign pointing east that read: Churchtown.

It was early summer, a time of year that for me had always meant gleeful exploring, hiking, and swimming, indulging ones curiosity in the world around them. Brimming with expectation, I dragged him out swimming one day, but the experience made him sick and we drove back quickly, my desire for shared adventure becoming tinged with worry and guilt.

We rarely went out. Groups of people, public places all made him uncomfortable, and oftentimes physically ill. So we’d stay in his house, happy in each other’s company, but many times my mind wandered over the places I had seen driving, the places we one day might investigate together. I imagined what it would be like to live in many of the houses along the way, what it would be like if explored together some small hamlet in the hills.

The more he descended into agoraphobia, the more I came to enjoy the trip from my house to Chatham I explored the intervening stretches of earth with my eyes, caressing the landscape with my gaze like my fingers would have lingered over the texture of a soft fabric. I encountered it in the summer sun, the wind and the rain, and more often than not, in the dead of the night, if only to arrive at my destination and succumb to sleep. Whether on a whim or if I was urgently needed, the hills, trees, and creeks along the way ushered me across the miles.

I made this journey enough times that in anyone else’s mind it would have become dull, a drive made on mental autopilot, a commute. I became fascinated with each county highway and country road that broke away from my route. And I explored many of them, criss-crossing southern Columbia County on the way to my destination. But I never could bring myself to try going to Churchtown. I always saved that adventure for some other day.

Churchtown, in my mind, was always just over the crest of the next hill, on the other side of those wide open fields of who knows what lush green crop, beyond the stands of unnamed trees. I envisioned a crossroads, flanked on all sides by white clapboard churches, for surely a hamlet named Churchtown would have to have more than one. It would be a charming place with large shady trees with inviting farm houses like the ones in which I might someday live.

It occurs to me now that the cynical might think I was deluding myself, becoming entranced by the landscape of a life that would never exist. Perhaps this is true. For all the times I made the trip to see him that summer, he was never able to come to my home, to see the countryside along the way as I did. But even as our lives and the landscape in between changed over the years, there was always something hopeful about that journey.

Last week on a bright winter day, I made the turn, and followed the road to Churchtown, needing to prove to myself, once and for all, whether or not the place I had imagined existed. There was no indication of how far down the road it actually was, and my estimation of ‘just over the hill’ turned out to be false. I went over that hill, and then another, and then another. Finally the road came to a T, and I was at the center of Churchtown, facing a single white church on a hill, and just beyond, a cluster of houses. I cast my eyes over the true landscape. Though they are a feature of most church yards, I had never envisioned all those graves.

Cars rolled up behind me at the stop sign and were becoming impatient, so I took a right and drove on. And I kept driving, thinking maybe it was the next town that I had imagined, or the next one. I kept driving, looping around places both familiar and strange, until the sun was low in the sky and I meandered home, leaving exploring yet to do another day. I still believe it might be the next town, next time.

Posted by Natalie

Editors note: When York Staters came into existence, I envisioned that we would get a number of submissions of personal essays. We tend to focus on historical facts and issues that currently challenge out upstate communities, but the landscape, character and experiences of upstate also have profound effects on our personal and emotional lives that should not be overlooked and are entirely with the scope of York Staters. Thanks to Joe and Alia who have submitted material of this nature, and as a friendly reminder, we are always accepting submissions. ~ Natalie


Noah said...

A beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing.

Josef Danielvan said...

This is a hot post Natalie. This is similar to how I used to feel when I'd drive from broome county to Ithaca or Cortland by the backroads and drive through the smallest middle of nowhere curiosities.