On the first morning of our camping trip, your intrepid trio — foursome counting Ace — decided to take an impromptu hike, just a slow and casual one, following the Davidson River upstream for a ways to see where it took us.
Our first stop was at a fishing/swimming hole, where a few campers were trying their luck, including a woman who had just learned to fly fish. She hadn’t had much luck that morning, but before that she’d caught some, and she whipped out her cellphone to prove it, clicking her way to the correct photo, then holding it up for us to see, as one might hold up a just-caught fish.
In it, she said, there appeared the ghostly image of a little girl that wasn’t there when the photo was taken.
Not having my glasses, I really couldn’t distinguish anything. But as my two friends seemed amazed, I pretended I was, too, nodding my head and saying “wow.”
We walked on a bit, Ace being more than up to the task. This is his favorite part of camping — blazing a new, to him, trail.
At one point he clambered up a three-foot tall tree stump. At another he darted in and out of the water, then jumped atop a four foot wall. He showed absolutely no sign of his back bothering him. Despite his fear of the campfire, and the noises it produced, the night before, he was, after two long months, starting to act like himself again. Perhaps the camping trip — as camping trips can do — was curing what the drugs couldn’t.
He ran. He played. The stiffness that seemed to have been bothering him was gone. And when he shook, it was all out, with gusto — not that fearful and tentative headshake he has been doing of late.
When we came to a fork in the trail, we let Ace pick the direction, and he chose left — up a mountain, instead of following alongside the river. Not a rigorous climb, by any stretch, but I still felt it necessary to inform my two doctor friends that I had imaginary peripheral artery disease (IPAD).
Understand that once a disorder/disease/infirmity gets advertised on TV, I become convinced I have it — not enough to talk to my doctor about whatever drug the ad is for, not enough to submit to the numerous side effects the drug ads list, but enough to fret. That’s why I also have imaginary mesothelioma, though, according to advertisements, you want to talk to your lawyer about that, as opposed to your doctor. The cure for that, apparently, is a lawsuit.
(Disclaimer: These diseases are no laughing matter, even though the advertisements, in which drug companies and law firms feign great concern for your well-being, are.)
“Yes,” I explained to Dr. John, “that peripheral artery thing, I’m pretty sure I have it. My legs get tired when I walk uphill.”
I expected him to say, “Don’t walk uphill,” But instead he told me I should be taking an aspirin every day — and not one of those baby ones, a real grown up one.
This low grade climb didn’t seem to bother me, though. Perhaps Ace’s return to normal was putting a little more spring in my step. I’m convinced our dogs reflect us, and us them — both when it comes to personality and how we’re behaving at a moment in time. What’s harder to figure out, often, is who is doing the projecting and who is doing the reflecting. Am I, for instance, behaving lethargically/bufoonishly/fearfully because Ace is, or vice versa?
Am I low key because he’s low key, or is he low key because I’m low key, and are we both feeding off each other’s low keyedness and becoming more low keyed yet, and, if so, how low can we go before we’re both asleep?
We were both wide awake on this walk — me due to five or so cups of hearty campground coffee, Ace, I think, because of the newness and the nature. When we came to a weathered wooden sign that said “old cemetery,” we followed where it pointed.
After a couple of switchbacks we came to a hill from which a dozen or so gravestones protruded from the ferns. If the stones had names on them, few of them were legible anymore — except for the one pictured at the top of this post.
Buried beneath it was Avo Sentell, who had just turned five when she died — the same day in 1916 as her mother, Susan, who is buried next to her.
We paused, and grew more sober. Amid towering trees — some thriving, some rotting, some dead — we speculated on what it could have been that killed both mother and daughter on the same day.
I told myself I should stop joking about deadly diseases — even though that is how I cope with my own mortality. Call it a survival skill.
Back home after my camping trip with college buddies, I Googled Avo Sentell — Googling being a generally safe activity, whose only side effects are eye strain, carpal tunnel syndrome, viruses and terminal frustration over all the garbage, pop-up and otherwise, that litters the Internet.
Through one of those grave-finding websites, I learned that Avo and her mother were killed in a landslide in Pisgah National Forest during the Great Flood of 1916.
Both were buried at the site of their deaths. I found a group photo that contained Avo — she’s the third from the left in the second row in this picture of the entire student body of English Chapel School. Seeing how tiny she was wrenched my heart a little more.
That mystery resolved, another remained.
It was not whether Avo was the image in the fisherwoman’s photo. We’re not, much, prone to believing in the supernatural, and I doubt Avo’s ghost is haunting the mossy, fern-studded hills — even though we were in Transylvania County.
What I was left wondering about was the tiny pink mitten that was draped over her tombstone. On the mitten are the words “Always Trouble.”
I doubt it was left there as a commentary on her — for the mitten was too modern, and who is left to remember a girl who died 95 years ago? Besides, Avo appears to have been too small to have caused a significant amount of trouble in her life, much less “always.”
Maybe it was dropped by a hiker. Maybe someone else picked it and placed it there so someone might find it. Maybe it was left there as a gift, or commentary on life, by a stranger, or a descendant of the Sentell family.
A bouquet of yellow flowers was at the base of Avo’s headstone, which is clearly an upgrade — it’s too clean and clear and modern to have been the one that was originally there.
To me, it was also a reminder. Life is fleeting, and sometimes unfair, and there is always — somewhere — trouble. We work. We laugh. We play. We cope. We die.
Sometimes, before the journey’s over, we tackle those troubles. Sometimes we ignore them. Sometimes we joke about them. Sometimes we’re too rushed to pay them any mind at all. Sometimes we let them weigh us down to an unhealthy degree.
At times like those, friends come in handy.
At times like those, a walk in the woods — with your dog — is good.