DOGS, HOGS, AND SIGNS
By Bill Vernon
The motorcyclist turning onto Bakers Road ahead of us had the 1960s Hell’s Angels’ look, but that impression didn’t occur to me then anymore than did the fact I’d never seen a motorcycle on the hill before. I was too caught up in memories. This was a homecoming of sorts after a dozen years’ absence.
We were at the foot of the hill on which my father’s family had lived. Before coming, I’d studied a satellite image that lost the contours of the hill and Bakers Road. It didn’t show that the bricks on the road surface were planted sideways so a long rectangular edge of each jutted out to improve traction for the engines that clawed uphill on its back. Climb the road on foot, and you had to lean so far forward into the hill that your hands touched the bricks ahead like a knuckle-walking ape. In my days there, folks willingly bowed to the hill’s demands, and as I turned off onto it, Bakers Road seemed unchanged.
But this now was decades later from my childhood. Within a few yards off the state route at the base, I lost sight of New Straitsville and entered the wild countryside. “This is as close to a wilderness as you’ll find in Ohio, the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains,” I told my wife and younger brother. He was wallowing with me in nostalgia, remembering. At once, he and I saw that this wasn’t the same as our memories. The WWI veteran’s house on the right was gone, replaced by a house trailer. I imagined the owner I’d known, a gassing victim who coughed a lot and wiped his mouth and nose with a splotched handkerchief. Above that site the pit on the right was so grown up with trees and brush we couldn’t see its bottom, which I knew was over 100 feet straight down. Another trailer replaced the house that had been higher up on the left.
Around the sharp curve and seemingly straight up from there, we eagerly looked to our right and encountered a shock: a bulldozed yard. Our father’s parents’ house was erased, along with the iron stanchions and the wrist-thick grapevines that had lined a sidewalk. Also gone was the three-hole outhouse in back. The retaining wall was gone. So was the well for drinking water and the fruit cellar. Both had been scooped out of the hillside and lined with bricks. The garage was gone too.
Amazed, I stopped in the street and stared. Shocked! Part of my past was missing. Part of myself obliterated.
On the second tier of leveled ground, above where the house and retaining wall had been, Aunt Bette’s big trailer was still there, squatting on concrete blocks, but its rusty, dirt-laden carcass suggested her demise—she’d been dead at least eleven years already. God knew who lived there now.
No one, I told myself, noticing the knee-high grass hiding the path that led from the road to the wood steps before the trailer door. The trailer’s abandonment and continued survival, however, reminded me of the sentimental hand’s-off-the-homestead practice of my father’s family. For four decades they’d not touched the house itself after my grandmother’s passing and so let time have its way with the structure. Every year it stood it leaned farther and farther downhill, slumping with gravity toward the pit. I noticed the ongoing process of decay whenever I passed this way, which was seldom.
Seldom because my family was distant from my father’s people. He had chosen to move us away from them. I didn’t even know some of his brothers and sisters. They all of course knew why he’d moved us. They understood the area’s poverty and lack of opportunity to provide for his growing family. He had not only his wife and himself but also four children to feed. His side of the family knew that he couldn’t find a profitable enough job in the hills. But Grandma Vernon, nee Dishon, misspelled from Dushong when her folks immigrated into the US from Canada, she wanted her boys home, in her house, where they belonged.
So my father’s family resented our moving away, and my mother resented their attitude because my father took his boys to see Grandma and the others every holiday despite the three-hour road trip between their place and our home. Attitudes and assumptions built a wall between us and the Vernons.
Facing the emptiness of the place where a lot of my past had occurred, I wondered what remained here for my brother and me? Uphill from the trailer and everywhere we looked, there were trees. The Wayne National Forest. It was older now, full grown, almost a climax forest, not the way it had been when we, as children, visited the place 5 to 10 weekends a year. While visiting Grandma, my brother and I thoroughly searched the woods uphill, downhill, and sideways. We had the freedom to roam. Climbed into and out of the craters, that is the sinkholes that pockmark the hill, by grasping the honeysuckle vines cloaking the earth. When I received a .20-guage Mossberg, 3-shot, bolt action shotgun on my 12th birthday, I spent my next two winter visits there, tromping around, hunting rabbits. Then my father died and our visits ceased. The emotional warfare between my mother and Dad’s mother separated us boys from Grandma and the others. She died when I was with the military in the Far East, unable to attend her funeral.
John said, “Let’s keep going and see the rest of it.”
In gloomy silence I drove us on uphill and noticed that the road was somewhat changed as well. Tarred in big and small patches, it was still so narrow that cars approaching head on had to edge off road to pass. Within a hundred yards, a cleared place on the right hosted another trailer and a mean looking, growling dog chained to a stake between the trailer and road. The same thing within a hundred yards on the left. A bit farther, at the site of Binx’s old house—I mean a rotund, jovial, hard drinking, tobacco-spitting man in blue denim bib-overalls—the fenced yard, his baying hound, his house and garage, the pines that shaded his house were all missing. In their place? A clearing with the ubiquitous trailer, dog, motorcycle, and pickup.
These details finally sank in, along with a perception of yellow no-trespassing, red printed Beware-of-Dog signs at each trailer, and the encroaching forest otherwise pressing in against the road. I felt uneasy. We were really isolated. I recalled the motorcyclist who’d turned off ahead of us onto Bakers Road. Clearly, the people living in these trailers didn’t want intruders. I rehearsed what to say if questioned. I wondered what to do if threatened. My car held people I needed to protect. I shook my head: trailers, dogs, hogs, and signs.
I drove on because I wanted to see Uncle Buster’s old house at road’s end. Before his purchase of it, my mother’s sister Mary and her husband John, a native Straitsville resident, had owned it. By visiting them, my mother had met my father. There’d been a dance hall near the crossroads down at the center of town, where the younger crowd gathered every Friday and Saturday evening to shake a leg. Before television, this was, when the movie theater and dance hall were popular gathering sites. Aunt Mary and John brought my mother to the dances and passed my father’s house on the way. I’d heard the story many times, how they’d walked this road to reach the dance, talking, huffing and puffing there and back. My parents falling in love.
We crested the hilltop to find the house on the left totally collapsed. No surprise there. It had been falling in during my childhood. Ahead, though, Buster’s house, fields, and corral were totally gone. Another trailer stood in its place, attached to an open acre that looked as if it might have been mowed. A man, maybe the one I’d seen riding up Bakers Road earlier, a red bandanna on his head, was leaning with one hand on the motorcycle seat, shading his eyes with the other, watching us. Absurdly perhaps, I sensed hostility and suspicion in his stance. Therefore, instead of driving to the circular space at road’s end near the man, I reversed onto a gravel area by the collapsed house, turned back onto the road, and headed downhill toward safer ground.
Like an exclamation declaring a decisive end to our attempted return to the past, the bottom of the hill showcased a large new sign. Apparently an ATV campground existed on the backside of the hill. Surprised by it as well, I investigated. The place was not just roughly hewn out of the woods. It had modern cabins with air conditioning and an online presence. A modern business taking advantage of the federally mandated ATV trails for motorized traffic. The website for the campground says that accessible from it are “over 300 miles of trails with 75 designated for ATV/OHM’s.” It was a final intrusion that dispelled my outdated vision. It emphasized this unpleasant truth: times had indeed changed.
My brother and I were unhappy, and our rapid flight from the hill was ironically irritating. Those trailers and dogs we’d seen, the motorcycles and pickups stationed along Bakers Road had meant only one thing to me: drugs. Newspapers and television often reported Meth labs, opioid sales, and marijuana-growing operations in this area. The Piketon, Ohio massacre/execution of eight family members involved similar living arrangements just 78 miles away. I’d assumed that such activities were occurring on my hill. They were certainly occurring on other hills nearby. I’d abruptly turned around and fled the hill because of these suspicions.
I was also aware of being guilty of an outsider’s stereotyping despite this personal irony: the people living in those trailers on my hill could very well be relatives. Cousins. Descendants of my father’s family, who’d been a rather secretive group. The older generation I knew included moonshiners and bootleggers, an occupation similar to the drug trafficking I suspected now. The site of my father’s still was an abandoned coalmining tunnel whose entrance was hidden in brush east of Binx’s house more than halfway up Bakers Road. That was where the revenuers caught my father and took him to jail. These considerations made me feel guilty.
I bowed to the truth of Mr. Wolfe, you can’t go home again. And Mr. Heraclitus, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” My hill would never be the way it once was, nor would I. Nothing could ever restore the land beneath the Wayne National Forest to its primeval state nor bring back my youth.
I wondered, however, if I might restore my common sense and cautious trust of strangers. What if, instead of fleeing, I’d driven on up to road’s end and greeted the man at the motorcycle? We might have introduced ourselves and shaken hands. I might have found out that he was one of Uncle Buster’s adopted sons. Good possibilities. Establishing contact with the people living on the hill might be worth another visit.
But not as a wide-eyed innocent. Not on another spur-of-the-moment drive up my hill. I was already planning, applying logic. Someone had told me an aunt was still living in town or nearby, my father’s youngest sister. I’d met her only once, 25 years ago at a funeral, though I’d never met her husband or children. If I could find and meet her again, maybe she could tell me about the residents on Baker’s Hill. She might even become my Sacagawea driving up Bakers Road to meet them. My interpreter and guide through the unknown present.
About the Author:
Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN, and his poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies.