I am standing at a monument to General Braddock near Fort Necessity in Farmington, Pennsylvania. His face is etched into the panel. More than 250 years cannot erase the arrogance with which he tore a road through the wilderness from the Potomac River over the Alleghenies. I doubt that look was there when a force of French and Indians surprised his army near the banks of the Monongahela, turning them back on each other into mad confusion, just fifty miles from his goal: the forks of the Ohio River at present-day Pittsburgh.
They carried him here, 35 miles away, where Braddock died of his wounds and the only remaining officer, a 23-year-old George Washington, took over, hustled the soldiers about a mile further, and set up a fort to take on the pursuing French & Indians.
I remember the story. I wasn't even in school yet when my dad told it to me. We were walking in the woods at the time, exploring our new home near Amesville, Ohio. He told me how Indians hid in the trees, watched Braddock's army pass, and launched their attack. I pace around the monument. On my way back to the car, I pass this sign: "This is the spot where Major-General Edward Braddock was buried, July 14th 1755."
Washington had buried Braddock in the middle of the road they had built through the thick forest. Indians were known to dig up recent burials to claim scalps. Therefore, Washington's first order as commander was to bury the general and then direct every soldier and pack animal to tread the ground above him. It wasn't until sixty years later, that workers building the National Road (current US 40) unearthed the general's remains, reinterring them further up the hill, underneath the present monument.
These woods are haunted. I can tell that.
I follow the path. It ends at a creek, in woods so think and tangled, I think I can see Braddock's demise hiding in the shadows.
There is the trace of a path off to the right. I can see it. I have a sense for trails. I can see them when others can't, even in the dark of night. I have followed trails--and creeks, and sounds--since I was a boy.
I follow a trail. I see it winding through the ferns. I begin to run. I can't help it. I look down. I can't see my feet.
I see the feet of a boy. Blue Nike tennis shoes. Blue baseball cap. He's carrying a musket. He traded it for two baseball cards from Ross, a boy at school. Even though Mom has forbade toy weapons, he hides it in the woods; he carries it as he looks for trails to follow. He looks down. He doesn't see his feet either. He sees the moccasins of a scout--a scout for General Washington's army, a scout who knows the ways of the Indian, a scout who follows in their paths.
The boy runs a hundred more paces through the woods, and he comes to a huge, fallen tree (pictured). The tree is rotting, covered with moss, melting into the forest floor. The boy climbs onto the log, holds out his arms to walk four or five steps along the log, then he sits down to catch his breath.
This is where I find tears welling in my eyes and pouring down my cheeks. I am overcome with emotion. I feel like I've stepped through a portal, and I have returned. In those two hundred paces through the Allegheny woodland, I have embodied memories that are among my most precious--memories that seemed blotted out somehow, buried decades ago and trod over with the footsteps of experience.
These feelings overwhelm me. I haven't felt things so keenly since the day Jonah was born. Is it sadness? No, it's more like joy, but there is some sadness left there, too. Sadness for things past.
It's as if I AM ten years old, resting on "Jumbo," the landmark that was the center of my woodland adventures in Ohio. I can see the woods for all the wonder they contain. I imagine them filled with Indians--with enemy soldiers--who will flee at a single blast from my musket.
And yet I'm sitting in the same place--on the same moss-covered log--as this 40-year-old man. I don't recognize him. He has a scruffy beard, a bit of a belly. He isn't wearing a baseball hat, and he has sandals on his feet. He isn't anything like me.
I can't stop crying. I rise from the log and follow the trail. It peters out in a creek bottom. The 40-year-old man is walking with me--or in me--step for step. It seems like every other second, thirty years pass and then disappear. It is 1981 and this is Tick Ridge, Ohio; no, it is 2011, and this is Braddock's Haunted Grave, Pennsylvania.
A few steps further, and the boy suddenly leaves me. There is a snap about thirty feet in front of me, and a deer leaps off into the woods. It pauses to study the 40-year-old man now sixty feet away. It is a young buck, with fuzz still covering the nubs of its new antlers. It holds me in a stare, huge eyes wondering, 'Where did this creature come from?'
I whisper, "Hello there, young buck." Looking back, I wish I had said, "Goodbye."
I take out my cell phone to find my location on GPS. It is 2011 after all, I guess. I look back up at the buck. It turns and bounds away. I make my way back to the highway and walk along it to my car, still parked a stone's throw away from Braddock's Grave.
As I write this, hours later. The emotions are still raw. I have Kleenex next to me, and I hope I can get it together by the time my roommate gets back to our apartment. I still haven't figured out what it all means.
I do know this. Today I have experienced a memory that I will treasure and revisit for at least thirty years to come.