Hanging Rock State Park
Western part of state, Graham County. Closest town: Robbinsville. From Robbinsville, take Route 143 west. In about twelve miles, turn right onto SR 1134 (Joyce Kilmer Road). Go two miles and turn left into the forest. It is well marked.
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If coming from Tellico Plains, Tennessee, take Route 165, which becomes Route 143 after you cross the North Carolina border. In a few more miles, you will see signs directing you to the forest. There is a forest service campground very close to the forest.
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My approach to the trailhead at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest felt like the final steps of a long pilgrimage. This was the first eastern old-growth forest I planned a special trip to visit. The idea for this blog had not even been born yet, but it was spring and I was being drawn toward the forest. I had had enough of the academic life, with its computers, blogs, and grading; I wanted towering trees and clear streams tumbling over cracked rocks. I wanted ferns and moss and trillium and maybe even bears. I longed to wander through the forest breathing, touching, listening. I wanted to sit, perhaps sleep, under the rare towering giants.
I loaded all my supplies into my little pickup truck. The forest, although a twelve-hour drive from my house, was less than two hours from my father’s house. I planned to visit with him for a few days before I spent time with the trees.
But my father was not well and my two-day visit with him turned into a week. My hiking boots went unworn, the mattress in my truck unused. The time scale of an old-growth forest is nothing like our own, I told myself. The Joyce Kilmer forest would have to wait.
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I didn’t get to the Joyce Kilmer forest that year, or the next year when I tried again. On my third visit to Dad’s, I didn’t even bother bringing my boots. I flew down and rented a car. Dad was in a hospital bed in his living room. He knew who I was, but I wasn’t sure he remembered my name and I didn’t want to ask him. I no longer had to worry about him forgetting his medications or burning down the house; he couldn’t get out of bed.
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At Dad’s funeral, my daughter took the opportunity to ask about my arrangements. I didn’t have a good answer for her. It’s not that I am trying to avoid the issue; it’s just that what I prefer used to be the easiest, oldest way of dealing with a body, but in this era, in this place, it has become the most difficult. I want to be buried in the ground, preferably healthy ground full of microorganisms. No embalming of the body, no vault, and, if possible, not even a casket. (How many trees are cut for those anyway?) Just wrap me in linen, or burlap, and put me in a hole in the ground where I will feed the soil organisms, and in time the trees, and eventually the birds (with nuts and berries from the trees). Perhaps a natural stone for a marker, no inscription necessary.
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As William Faulkner describes a woodland grave in his novel The Bear: not held fast in earth but free in earth and not in earth but of earth, myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part, leaf and twig and particle, air and sun and rain and dew and night, acorn oak and leaf and acorn again, dark and dawn and dark and dawn again in their immutable progression and, being myriad, one.
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But what a burden I would put on my daughter if I told her that.
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