Being now in my early 40s, and having spent a chunk of my life working and traveling abroad, I’ve walked a lot of paths. Some I’ve come to know well, and have long since given up the need for a map. In Bangkok it is the route from Khao San Road to the food court at Siam Paragon, and beyond that the way to Bumrungrad Hospital, where I once got a crown at the dental center, and back surgery at the orthopedic center. In Istanbul it is the hour-long hike from the Byzantine and Ottoman landmarks of Sultanahmet to the bars and Starbucks of Taksim. In Cairo, where I worked for a year, it is the walk from my apartment in Agouza to the office across the Nile in Zamalek.
Closer to home there is a path that for me is almost a sort of pilgrimage. It goes from a car pull-off on Unaka Springs Road near Erwin, Tennessee to the abandoned mountain community of Lost Cove, just across the state line in Yancey County, North Carolina. It is here on a wooded hilltop in southern Appalachia that you’ll find the grave of Bonnie Miller (1922-1938).
Much of the walk follows a railroad track that parallels the Nolichucky River. With the river to your left and to the faint smell of creosote (the stuff with which they impregnate wooden railroad ties to prevent rot), you follow the track two or three miles upstream and into a small gorge. Then you take a trail uphill for about a mile.
The precise date of Lost Cove’s establishment isn’t clear, but it was around the time of the U.S. Civil War. Agriculture, logging, the railroad, and moonshine sustained the community, but by the 1950s the location’s remoteness, coupled with the depletion of nearby timber and changes in the wider culture (e.g., the decline of railroads), led the last residents to leave Lost Cove. Not much remains today — a set of church steps, a rotting home, the graveyard, the rusted shell of what I’m told is a 1938 Chevrolet truck.
It is the graveyard, specifically the hand-carved headstone of Bonnie Miller, that I am most drawn to. Kneeling to read the inscription, one learns that Bonnie was the daughter of John Miller (why is there no mother’s name, I always wonder?), and at the bottom of the headstone, written in a different script, is a line from the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”
I’m drawn to Bonnie Miller’s grave. I like the journey there. My body, with its capacity of maybe 100 years, meandering through mountains already millions of years old and with millions more likely to go. And though I enjoy the culture and vibrancy of the centers of the world, I’m also drawn to its margins, not least to quiet hilltops in the woods where, in solitude and silence, I can let my mind ponder people and a place that preceded my own entrance into the world.
I don’t know how Bonnie died, nor what kind of hole her untimely passing left in this community. But when I come here I know that travel is more than cruises and holidays, and that our days are finite. I know that this headstone bears the marks of a father’s love, as imperfect as it may have been. And I know that holding too tightly to most things is a fool’s errand, for we are all just passing through.
Rising up from the grave, I turn back to the trail and hike down the mountain to the railroad tracks. And then I follow the flow of the river.