Nor ‘It is blest,’ but only ‘It is here.’ -Stephen Vincent Benét
I know a road called Park Mills. It’s an American blacktop, a two-lane strip of tar buried in the Maryland Piedmont. As a teen, I used to spend my spare evenings driving it. I would roll down the windows and listen to crickets, locusts, and frogs. I would watch the sun go down and forget who I was. Back then I didn’t see the signs, posted on the edge of corn and soy fields, advertising genetically modified seeds.
I call Park Mills a ‘river road’ because it starts a stone’s throw from the Potomac. You don’t need to be from Maryland to recognize the name Potomac since it is the river running through Washington, D.C. Back in the day, it formed a border between North and South during a great Civil War. A man named Lincoln lived in the White House then; we often hear about him now since that house’s current occupant often compares himself favorably to honest Abe.
I like to think about the Potomac. It starts high up in the Appalachian Mountains; it trickles out of a sedimentary seam of Ordovician rock; it flows southeast and is unnavigable for most of its 405 miles. I recall how the river tastes like wet stone before becoming brackish just below Washington. I see myself canoeing its entire span, passing between hump shouldered mountains and then navigating Category 5 rapids at Great Falls. I then celebrate my feat by dozing on my back as the river floats me through its glozing wide mouth, dumping me into the Chesapeake Bay at a place called Point Lookout.
But never mind that.
As far as driving Park Mills is concerned, the road starts out pretty ho hum. For about two miles it runs in a straight line and I can almost navigate without the use of my hands. But then its gradient shifts and the road begins an elliptical scoop, down into a valley of clay, a flood prone plain carved out by two watercourses, Bennet Creek and the Monocacy River. Of these two streams, only a local would know about Bennett, while a history buff might recognize Monocacy since it lends its name to another battle won by a Confederate General.
No matter how many times I drive this specific stretch, I grow disoriented by the valley. The land goes from being flat as a pan to suddenly swelling up like a loaf of bread. In spring, when the air is humid and dense with pollen, the combined effect of this atmosphere on my eyes and skin leaves me giddy. The soil is heated by the sun and countless insects burst from the ground until the land throbs with scuttling and noise.
Spring is a violent, dramatic time along Park Mills. Frogs in the tens of thousands hatch, filling the trees and rainwater ponds, often covering the road like a flash mob. If you have a conscience, or feel accountable to your mother, it is impossible to drive because to drive is to slaughter these amphibian hordes. I avoid the road at frog maturing time, parking at a nearby spot to watch them hop away from the Great Blue Herons that swoop down to swallow them.
Park Mills is an important place for me because it is fey. With the spring and its thaw and those sudden bursts of warm southern air, I feel myself enter the bowels of Earth. The land is explosive in April and May; it sprouts antennae, beaks, creepers, and stingers. The sky becomes a swirl of seeds and downpours, pelting you with hail and pebbles picked up from blacktops and quarries. I have stuck my hands into the dirt only to be stung, but also to pull up bones, roots, and grubs. What lies beneath the ground is Maryland’s last frontier, the only remaining vanguard for someone like me whose bailiwick is neither the microscopic nor the subatomic.
After a day out on the road, I drive back into the suburbs and feel like I have been sprung from mud. I like my own stink, how things now crawl through my hair. I slither like a vine or a worm, insinuating myself into subdivisions I assumed were closed to me. When I clap my hands to dust them off, I sound like a carp breaching the river’s surface.
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A short distance upriver from Park Mills is the spot where John Brown conducted his guerrilla raid in 1859. Given his way, Brown would have saved our national soul once and for all. He failed and lost two sons in the bargain. This happened at a place called Harper’s Ferry on the Potomac. Later, the U.S. government hung Brown at a nearby spot called Charles Town, also on the river. In winter, when I look at the Potomac and listen for the crows, I hear guns and think of Brown. The blasts come from orange vested hunters, some of them with Stars and Bars decals on their pickup bumpers.
There is a state of body that allows me to take non-human teachers. I stare at the grass, becoming a green or brown man depending on the season. When I need water, I concentrate on the river until I am water and have no thirst. The presence of crows turns my fingers into feathers and I practically croak when I speak. A white tailed deer passes by, bounding east or west and the way its hooves negotiate the landscape helps me forget the country’s direction.
Once in the spring, when I was 17, I spent nearly an entire day out on Park Mills. I don’t think I spoke a word for more than five hours. On my drive back, the steering column turned into the handle of a hoe and when I reached home, I went into the yard and planted tiny flowers. They were Alyssum, minuscule coronas of pink and purple, impossibly fragrant. My fingernails were caked in soil with bits of plastic embedded beneath my cuticles from the garden center planters.
Finishing my work, I went into the kitchen to wash my hands. My mother entered a moment later, passing right beside me. She left the room and then returned, surprised at my presence. She looked at me a moment and said that when she came in, she only noticed how strong the kitchen smelled. Searching for the source of that scent she didn’t see me.