Back in June I took the family to the fair city of Denver, Colorado, where my ancestors were the first Italian arrivals, for the wedding of a dear cousin and a variety of visits with friends and family. While there, an old friend — indeed my oldest friend — and I conceived a plan to meet somewhere on the Blue Ridge for a weekend of camping, camaraderie, argumentation and of course, golf. He, a radiologist in his residency, was scheduled to spend a month in Washington, DC, for physician-related business. The northern parts of the Blue Ridge rise, gently but magnificently, at a distance of about five or six hours (driving time) from both DC and Atlanta; and that range being perhaps the most beautiful land in all this wide country, the trip was set. Colin had not seen the Southern mountains, and I felt a certain obligation to disabuse him of that haughty Colorado disdain for these eastern hills (a disdain I once, to my shame, exhibited in abundance).
Colin, though brilliant and generous, is not a man given to great forethought in things such as this: it became clear very quickly that the major burden of planning would fall on me. Fair enough, as I am the Colorado-born Southerner. I chose for our site, based on some research into tent-camping in Virginia, a secluded and highly-recommended campground in the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, a park about 25 miles across the North Carolina border. The campground overlooked Cripple Creek, its waters relieving the awful drought that plagues the Southeast this summer (indeed, driving through the Carolinas along Interstates 85 and 77 reminded me of nothing so much as the arid West, for nearly all the grass is dead or dying).
Wake Forest University, my alma mater, is only a little over an hour away, and indeed our tee-time was set the next morning in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, which abuts Pilot Mountain, a favorite haunt of Wake students. My old stomping grounds, as they say.
I knew ahead of time that I would arrive before Colin (who also brought along a buddy from medical school). They had classes or seminars or at any rate some obligation until mid-afternoon, followed by the infamous DC traffic snarl to escape, while I was free to leave in the late morning, thus passing through the last big urban stretch of my route — Charlotte — well before rush hour. I departed the interstate for back roads around 5 pm, providentially having called Colin on the cellphone at the last rest stop (though I neglected to call my wife: more on that in a moment) to urge him to buy ice, before cellphone service failed. I found this latter development strangely reassuring. That blasted little machine would not bother us all weekend. Once in the mountains, the savage August heat and humidity diminished a bit to a comfortable warmth. I rolled down the windows and rolled along those blue hills to the chords of “Sugar Magnolia” (a song that will ever remind me of my wife, whom I met on the magnolia bedecked campus of Wake Forest) and “Visions of Johanna,” and even The Who’s celebrated cover of “Summertime Blues.” A marvelous, leisurely drive.
Once at the campground, found with relative ease with the assistance of a Google map studied beforehand, the order of business was to find a suitable campsite. My tent-camping in Virginia book had recommended sites 18-20, but site 11 caught my eye for the liberality with which a previous camper had vacated it: a nice stack of firewood, left there for the taking. So I parked the car, shut off the jarring music — my affection for which our own Steve Burton rightly calls a weakness — and set out to study the grounds.
And I still have the scrapes and scratches to show for it. I had looked carefully for poison ivy and, seeing none, plunged into the forest to shortcut the little switchback road that led down to the creek. Bad idea. Thorns and brambles greeted the attempt, and decisively deterred any further attempts. I returned briefly to the campsite to lick my wounds over a cold beer. Rarely has the cheap stuff tasted so good.
It soon dawned on me that I owed my wife a call announcing my safe arrival. Without cellphone service, this would require a considerable drive north toward Wytheville, Virginia. But this did not bother me, for the pleasure of driving those backwoods roads would only multiply as the late afternoon sunlight failed. Some of these roads are not for the feint of heart: one-lane bridges, obscured by draping foliage, long stretches of single-lane road, poorly-marked intersections, and the like. But for five miles or so the road traces the winding path of Cripple Creek, and beside you spans a lush little valley, a bit hazy in the muggy air, but blue as any ridge imaginable.
I arrived at a gas station and proceeded to throw away $1.50 on a useless payphone. I worried that perhaps I would have to drive all the way to Wytheville; but, having no other option (the restaurant across the street would not let me call long distance) I took to the road again. Not a half-mile later, I spotted another payphone, checked the mirrors, made a sharp but exhilarating U-turn, called home, talked to my lovely wife, and took the windy road back to the campground.
By now it was probably 7pm. I had chicken breasts and bratwursts, and a little tabletop grill; but I wanted to wait for Colin, so I sat down with another beer and a copy of Chesterton’s epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse, to read it aloud — as it ought to be read.
Yet Alfred is no fairy tale;
His days as our days ran,
He also looked forth for an hour
On peopled plains and skies that lower,
From those few windows in the tower
That is the head of a man.
But who shall look from Alfred's hood
Or breathe his breath alive?
His century like a small dark cloud
Drifts far; it is an eyeless crowd,
Where the tortured trumpets scream aloud
And the dense arrows drive.
Lady, by one light only
We look from Alfred's eyes,
We know he saw athwart the wreck
The sign that hangs about your neck,
Where One more than Melchizedek
Is dead and never dies.
Therefore I bring these rhymes to you
Who brought the cross to me,
Since on you flaming without flaw
I saw the sign that Guthrum saw
When he let break his ships of awe,
And laid peace on the sea.
Some time later, as twilight approached, it came time for a longer walk. Stuffing two more beers in my pockets, I wandered off toward the hiking trail on the far side of the little picnic area. On the way I encountered several deer, including a doe and fawn, and later a young buck that frightened me as he bolted.
Back to camp. More beer. More Chesterton, now by the light of campfire and flashlight.
Before the gods that made the gods
Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass.
Before the gods that made the gods
Had drunk at dawn their fill,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was hoary on the hill.
Age beyond age on British land,
Aeons on aeons gone,
Was peace and war in western hills,
And the White Horse looked on.
For the White Horse knew England
When there was none to know;
He saw the first oar break or bend,
He saw heaven fall and the world end,
O God, how long ago.
For the end of the world was long ago,
And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth,
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgment day.
For the end of the world was long ago,
When the ends of the world waxed free,
When Rome was sunk in a waste of slaves,
And the sun drowned in the sea.
When Caesar's sun fell out of the sky
And whoso hearkened right
Could only hear the plunging
Of the nations in the night.
It is a magnificent poem, full of Chesterton’s characteristic verbal felicities and lightly-worn erudition; his little Englander patriotism; his rich sense of history and myth; his easy jocularity contrasted with his very serious insight; his great “metaphysical intuition of being,” in the singular phrase of Hugh Kenner; and above all his splendid faith in God.
And there was death on the Emperor
And night upon the Pope:
And Alfred, hiding in deep grass,
Hardened his heart with hope.
A sea-folk blinder than the sea
Broke all about his land,
But Alfred up against them bare
And gripped the ground and grasped the air,
Staggered, and strove to stand.
He bent them back with spear and spade,
With desperate dyke and wall,
With foemen leaning on his shield
And roaring on him when he reeled;
And no help came at all.
He broke them with a broken sword
A little towards the sea,
And for one hour of panting peace,
Ringed with a roar that would not cease,
With golden crown and girded fleece
Made laws under a tree.
The Northmen came about our land
A Christless chivalry:
Who knew not of the arch or pen,
Great, beautiful half-witted men
From the sunrise and the sea.
Misshapen ships stood on the deep
Full of strange gold and fire,
And hairy men, as huge as sin
With horned heads, came wading in
Through the long, low sea-mire.
Our towns were shaken of tall kings
With scarlet beards like blood:
The world turned empty where they trod,
They took the kindly cross of God
And cut it up for wood.
Their souls were drifting as the sea,
And all good towns and lands
They only saw with heavy eyes,
And broke with heavy hands,
Their gods were sadder than the sea,
Gods of a wandering will,
Who cried for blood like beasts at night,
Sadly, from hill to hill.
9:30pm and still no sign of my friends. I was eager to read the poem aloud for them, but now a more dreary thought occurred to me; for there were many possible reasons why their trip might have had to be aborted, ranging for the mundane to the catastrophic. Worse still, they had the tent — a fact which presented me with the deflating possibility of having to sleep in the car or on the dirt. More than that, I was damned hungry. I resolved to begin cooking at 10, with or without them.
So 10 o’clock came and went, and I mournfully started the charcoal in little grill. As it happens, the telltale crunch of tires on a gravel road reached my ears just as the meat was nearly cooked. I could see headlights down on the switchback below, and must confess that I jumped for joy at the sight. I was offered profuse apologies and explanations of wrong turns on dark country roads; but these were quite unnecessary. My relief was complete.
I never did get to read from Chesterton, for a variety of reasons. (1) They brought more beer, and an eagerness to drink it — understandable enough after an hour or two of dark, winding, poorly-marked roads — and I began to wonder whether I had the capacity to really do the verse justice. (2) Bratwursts and beer next to the campfire has a somewhat lethargic, not to say narcotic, effect. (3) I was waylaid by inquiries about my forthcoming book on the Jihad, which sent me off on my now-familiar polemic against tolerance for Islamic sedition, and my equally-familiar responses to various objections. It is difficult to say how effective my presentation was, for by now it was very late and we were many beers deep. In the past, as I mentioned here, my heart has thrilled with hope to discover that even Liberal acquaintances with which I would disagree on most everything, are open to my calls for a firm proscription of the doctrine of Jihad.
Morning came early, as it always does after a night like that. But grogginess (and some embarrassment on my part) was quickly outweighed by the prospect of a morning drive down off the Blue Ridge to play golf in rural North Carolina. Arriving at the golf course, the first thing the struck us was the heat, which was going to be considerable, but which had the beneficial effect of deterring the locals from the course. We only saw a couple other groups of golfers the entire time, one of which, in true Carolina-redneck fashion, included a man golfing shirtless in blue jeans. The course was in decent shape — horribly dry and hard fairways balanced by generally well-maintained greens — and featured a lot of appealing short par 4s, requiring more strategy and imagination than distance off the tee. I played well despite several disastrous holes, and ended up carding a number far below what I expected. By mid-afternoon, near the end of the round, the place felt like a sauna. The lady in the clubhouse told me the temperature had reached 105 the day before.
After a lunch of sub sandwiches, which never tasted so good, we went our separate ways, sorrowfully, and vowing to do it again sometime. I hope we do. Next time I’ll make sure to read them some of Chesterton’s marvelous Ballad.
"The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gold,
Men may uproot where worlds begin,
Or read the name of the nameless sin;
But if he fail or if he win
To no good man is told.
"The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.
"The men of the East may search the scrolls
For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God
Go singing to their shame.
"The wise men know what wicked things
Are written on the sky,
They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings,
Hearing the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten seraph kings
Still plot how God shall die.
"The wise men know all evil things
Under the twisted trees,
Where the perverse in pleasure pine
And men are weary of green wine
And sick of crimson seas.
"But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.”