Directions to a sacred place

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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Here are the directions: early morning, right turn off the railbed, onto the road that goes up the hill.

Careful with your feet — the old culverts have been crushed by flatback trucks hauling cordwood out of the backlands, spilling bogwater that freezes in stained and mounded sheets if it’s been cold at night.

The road has hunkered down under its own weight. Where it passes through the bog, it has now settled lower than the swell of the moss and scrub alder and blueberry.

The road’s a reddish gravel, and the tire tracks weave around the deeper potholes like a stagger made liquid.

These are directions again: curve left, and don’t be fooled by the ATV track that cuts right. It’s a dead end if you’re not wearing long boots, a bog trap hidden under thin ice and disguised with rills of snow. So left it is, and up the long steep straightaway with the new trenches clawed into both sides by a backhoe that only worked on days when you weren’t there.

Deep gashes in the clay, plenty of work on a road with no houses and, eventually, only a footpath to a cabin that sits alone at one end of a small hill-caught-and-bounded pond. There is a spot at the top of the grade — leg muscles stiff from the angle of the climb, breath beginning to catch — where nature wins, where a great knob of rock protrudes insistent through the roadway, a great bald face of bedrock that the road simply skitters over, with sprays of loose gravel over solid rock.

It’s not a boulder, it’s an unbroken piece of planet, and it doesn’t bow to roads, at least not without drills or dynamite.

Thirty-seven or 38 strides from there, and you can turn left again — careful now, because there is no trail, no path, no marked direction. This is navigating by sightlines only — the road continues after you leave it, and 50 yards or so further on, the alders edge in and it becomes a trail. But your left turn is marked by a rectangle of grey.

That’s where you’re going, a 15-foot-high sheer face of weathered granite at the top of the hill you’ve just climbed, a rock face that has looked out over the valley for long enough to grow a second skin of lichen.

Chickadees and juncos flit around, winging their short sharp trajectories between branches, tilting their heads as if to focus just one bright bead eye at you and sometimes throwing out cautionary sounds, soft squawks and peeps. Other than that, though, it’s quiet and still when you throw your legs out and sit down, looking down over the white and green of the treed valley and, off on the edge of the water, at the long thin line of houses marching up the coast, windows still lit against winter’s late light.

The cold of the rock works up through your clothing fast, so timing is important. Once you’re starting to shiver, the magic fades.

The valley is a sea of long-needle pines — pine-clad hills indeed, but not the majesty of perfect conifer triangles you might be seeing in your imagination right now. This is a harsh piece of coast; the pines live on despite that, but not unmarked by it. Broken tops — the result of ice, snow load and wind — are a regular feature, as are sheared-off branches and split trunks. Few are untouched. These are unbalanced, imperfect pines, the walking wounded and amputees — but all the tougher for it.

There’s a brook that travels down right along the deepest thread of the valley, but you can only see it in places — usually, you know from summertime, in the spots where beavers have dammed it and made flat ponds back into the trees — where you do see the water from up high on your rock seat, you often see a collar of grey standing deadwood as well.

But the quiet deep-green sweep of the valley is not why you’re here, even though the curve and bend of it offers a kind of sensory comfort, a spatial ease worth setting deep in the crinkled folds of memory. No, you’re here for the east.

Find your bearings on the thin, fine straight line between sea and sky: half of your horizon is open ocean, the other half, the northpointing finger tipped with Cape St. Francis. If you’re lucky, heavy grey cloud to the south off your right shoulder, snowflakes threading down around you while the horizon is still clear. The kind of impending snow that will bunker you in a warm house later, stacking itself against the outside and swallowing up all sound.

On the hill, the storm’s not here yet, even if it’s so close you can smell it, and you’ll leave tracks when you finally do come down. If you find this place or one like it, rejoice in it. Breathe it in and more — hold your breath, grip each inch in memory.

There are blessings spread out in front of you like stitches in a quilt — you can drive by, eyes straight on the road, head full of worry and miss it all. Look east at the peach and pink sky, and watch for — expect — the arrival of the winter sun.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

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