I'm From Peebles

I'm from a small town called Peebles, Ohio. Peebles is one of the weirdest, most charming places I've ever been. Most people will never go to my hometown. Read this blog and you won't have to.

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The Peebles Lookout

There used to be an old man that parked his car at the bottom of Jack Town Hill, overlooking Highway 41.  Every day I would see this man at 8 AM and 6 PM, keeping watch over the cars passing into my hometown.  I called him the Peebles Lookout.

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Nothing could deter this sentry from his watch.  Seven days a week, during all daylight hours, this man kept a vigil over the southern border of Peebles.  Had we been at war with a neighboring town, our stern watchman could have spotted columns of an advancing Manchester Army.  Unfortunately we lived in peacetime, and he only saw cars going to and from Wal-Mart.  Still, no minivan, Ford or Chevy, escaped his eye.

This is the sound he heard all day.  You may want to play this video as you finish this blog:

One day I pointed him out to my friend Melinda and she said, “That’s my uncle Jim.”

I was astounded to hear that the Peebles Lookout had a name, let alone a family.  I pressed Melinda for details about this man’s life.  Who was he?  Did he live alone?  Where’s his family?  Most of all, why-why-why did he sit by the road all day?

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She didn’t have any answers.  He was one of those distant uncles, the kind your mother points out to you at the grocery store.  Even though he was family, Jim the Peebles Lookout remained a mystery to us all.

A few days later I decided to satisfy my curiosity.  I parked my car beside Jim’s.  It was time to ask this old man what was so important about this stretch of highway.  Today he would roll down his window and give the world some answers.

This was my first close look at him.  He was nothing extraordinary to look at—just a man sitting behind glass, keeping an eye on the road ahead.  He didn’t acknowledge me.  Suddenly it felt wrong to disturb a man so shut off from the world.  I circled around, intending to drive away.

Then I stopped.  My car was parallel to Jim’s, facing the road.  I killed the engine, and watched through the windshield.

A car wound around the distant curve, crossed the bridge over Brush Creek, then whipped past me up Jack Town hill.  A small line of cars and trucks followed.

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A semi truck came down the hill and disappeared over the bridge.  My windshield muffled the roar of its engine.

Who were these people, where were they going?  Perhaps to Wal-Mart for some need, real or imagined.  To the courthouse, or a baseball game.  Meeting a new friend, or confronting an old lover.  It was their business, not mine.

There was a thin glass armor protecting my world, as I saw all things stressful and pleasant roll up the hill, down the hill, there and back again.

Every person had a reason to travel, some task to keep them on the road between elsewhere and home.

Not me.  I was nowhere.  Watching all of those cars reminded me that none of their errands were mine.  I wasn’t expected anywhere.

As long as I watched those cars, I had the gift of isolation.  I was perfect, still, and alone.

I’m not sure how long it lasted.  Maybe a few minutes, then it was time to start my engine and join the ranks of the moving forward.

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On Being Joseph

Joseph of Nazareth is the first role I ever played on stage, and I can say without ego that my portrayal was brilliant.  I was four years old, starring in the Conaway Chapel children’s nativity pageant.  The pews were packed on that magical night, when a frightened boy with a towel on his head became Saint Joseph, stepfather to the Christ.

No photos exist of that evening, but below is an artistic recreation:

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Mary and I beamed smiles at the baby Jesus.  I added no flair to the role, giving all focus to the doll portraying Jesus Christ.  I understood that I was a small part of something greater than myself.  Let the sheep baa and the angels sing, let the three kings kneel till their knees are scabbed—but not me.  I am Joseph.

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I am four years old, scared to death, and my mother told me to stand here and stare at this doll.  So that is what I will do.  I will stare at this doll.  You see, I was the perfect actor to play Joseph, a dutiful man who was probably terrified out of his mind.

Joseph doesn’t have a large role in the Nativity story.  He takes his magically impregnated wife to Bethlehem, where he’s bullied by an innkeeper and forced to sleep in a barn.

I googled "no vacancy" and this is what I found.

I googled “no vacancy” and this is what I found.

I bet he stepped in that manger and thought, “Okay, this’ll do.  We have a roof over our head, the animals are well behaved, and—and oh no, is she going into labor? Now?  Right now?  The closest hospital is three mules from here. Who’s gonna deliver this kid?”

Despite the lack of a midwife, the delivery went fine.  At least we presume it went fine, because the gospels mercifully skip the butcherly details of the virgin birth.

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Now Joseph is thinking, “Thank goodness that’s over.  Maybe now things will get back to normal.”  That’s when shepherds, angels, and Oriental kings began parading into the barn, giving presents to his placenta-slathered ward.

See, look how freaked out Joseph is:

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To say Joseph was having a weird night is an understatement.  I’m sure all he could do was look at the baby Jesus and smile—just like me.

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I recently attended the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.  The climax of the show is a large nativity with live animals and a choir of angels.  Joseph stood with the baby Jesus on a high platform, sweeping his arms to encompass the largest proscenium stage in the world.

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This was such a tawdry portrayal of Joseph.  Joseph wasn’t a leader that night.  He was a follower.

Joseph’s real heroism came after the nativity.  He helped his newborn son escape King Herod’s swords.  He led his family to safety in Egypt, and when they returned home he taught Jesus a trade.  Joseph was a good dad.

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I paid tribute to Joseph’s quiet nobility by waving to my proud parents in the front row, while resisting the temptation to pick my nose.

This guy.

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This is a Story About the Wrong Bus

Try to remember 3 o’clock.  Sitting in your school desk, knowing that the day is about to be over.  Gripping your backpack.  

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You’ve been trapped in a tight desk all day.  They wouldn’t even let you stand without permission.

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All this is about to change.  In a few seconds they don’t own you anymore.  The bell rings.

Six-hundred small children run for the door.  They fill the hallways, swarm the parking lot, and clamor against the yellow school buses like piglets hungry for a tit.

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 I was thrown into this bedlam when I was five years old.  No wonder I got on the wrong bus.

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This would never happen today.  The Kindergarteners of 2013 have to pass through a gauntlet of checkpoints before they can enter a bus.  They’re escorted from their desk to the door, where a sixth grader with a badge marches them to the Bus Marshall.  If the Bus Marshall shepherds someone onto the wrong bus, security droids detect the error and isolate the child with a Chinese Child Ball.

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But, this was 1985.  A pre 9-11 world.  Parents knew their kids would eventually wander home.  

I knew it was the wrong bus—the driver was different, the kids were different—but I didn’t get up and leave.  I stayed on the bus for three reasons: 

1.  I thought all the buses would take me home, not just one specific bus.  I trusted that the grownups would know which way to go.

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2.  This was an adventure.  We were traveling down roads I’ve never seen.  I was also getting lots of attention: I was the new kid on the bus—a cute little guy who could burp on command.  The older kids loved me.

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3.  It takes a lot of bravery to stand up and admit you made a mistake.  At five years old, I didn’t have that kind of courage.

The kid sitting beside me left.  I was alone now.  The bus never turned down my road.  Panic was setting in—that visceral childhood panic that no grownup can understand, when your chest feels hot and your stomach rolls because I’m just a small kid and all I understand is that the world is very big and I have no control over anything and now something has gone horribly wrong and the grownups have failed me, oh God what happens now?

Do I stay in the bus till school tomorrow?  What about my parents and brother and sister and Thanksgiving dinner?  What about Christmas?

SANTA WILL NEVER FIND ME ON THIS BUS!

The bus driver glared at me through the rear view mirror.  “Where do you live?”

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“Uncust Rove.”  I was so small I couldn’t pronounce my hometown of “Locust Grove.”

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 The driver didn’t know where Uncust Rove was. 

“Who’s your parents?”

I told him my parents’ names.  That’s all the information a Peebles bus driver needs.  A few minutes later, I was home.

Everything was fine.  Cheers to the bus driver.  Bus driver man.

 I’m remembering this story now, as I’m sitting on a New Jersey Transit bus.  I can find my way around New York City, but if I’m lost if I travel a few inches into New Jersey.

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About 20 Hispanic men just stepped off the bus.  The Meadowlands are nowhere in sight.  I’m starting to think this is the wrong bus.  I’m alone, my phone’s out of battery, and something tells me this bus driver won’t know where my parents live.

Peebles, I miss you tonight.

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We Were Visited

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Peebles has been visited.  Everyone knows it.  Human beings may bypass our town, but we receive visitors all the same.

Over the years we have recorded a series of occurrences. 

In 1996, campers observed a series of lights “dancing in the sky” at mach speeds “no human craft could achieve.”  Skeptics may claim that this was a redneck’s fish story about outer space NASCAR, but they’re wrong.  We were visited.

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On August 24, 2003, crop circles appeared near Serpent Mound, an ancient astronomical earthwork.  The crops inside the pattern showed an unusually high mineral content.  In the days to come crop circles appeared throughout the region, before ceasing abruptly. 

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Skeptics will claim that these crop circles were easily man-made, and only appeared on weekend mornings when school children would have had the free time to vandalize a neighbor’s crops—and these same skeptics may also claim that the final circle was shaped suspiciously like the buttons on a Play Station controller…but we know these skeptics are just afraid of the truth.  We were visited.

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We even captured the visitors on film.  A local man’s deer camera recorded a UFO on the grazing hills above his property.  Said Mrs. Marsha Franklin, English teacher: “We looked at the prints quickly on the way to a picnic, and at first were disappointed because there were no deer in sight. But then we realized that the shapes in the sky were not normal.”

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Proof: we were visited.

And oh yeah—in 2011 the government escorted a UFO down Main Street:

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These are just the incidents the media will actually report.  Everyone knows the GE testing facility is actually a covert Area 51 Base.  Why else would our entire area remain a strict no fly zone?  Because top secret engine testing happens there?  I don’t know, this looks pretty spacey to me Bill:

Our status as an intergalactic hub is important to us.  The world has gotten bigger, while we have remained small.  Life on Earth has become terrifying, what with spying, wars, and the planet melting.  That’s why we watch the stars with confidence. 

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It’s comforting to know that in the infinite universe, out of 400 billion galaxies and 400 billion stars in the Milky Way, out of 7 billion people living in about 4 million towns and cities, that the visitors have chosen us.  We’ve always known that there was a voice out in the wilderness searching for us, longing to visit our home and tell us what we’ve known all along:

We are special, we are counted, and we are loved.

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There’s Naked People Over There

“There’s naked people over there.”

“Where?”

“Down that road. There’s a nudist colony.”

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“There’s a nudist colony on Cow Run Road?”

“That’s what they say.”

“What do they do in there?”

“Walk around naked, I reckon.”

“Naked?”

“Naked.”

“Huh. Well Bill, sounds like devil worship to me.”

This is how we talk about the mysterious nudist retreat just outside of Peebles. This naked haven has long been clothed in secrecy. It exists behind high walls and a locked gate. It could be a cult community, or the compound of a James Bond super villain. We don’t know, because none of us go in there.

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Well, it’s time to stop speculating. I have learned all about this nudist retreat. Not because I’ve been there—I’ve just visited their website.

At last I have seen behind the high walls, and I know the secrets of our area’s premiere recreational facility for the unadorned. Look how beautiful this place is:

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Even the sight of this man could not mar the landscape:

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You can rent a cabin or park your RV—then hike, swim, ride horses, dance to live music, or enjoy free Internet. This is their calendar of events:

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Pancake breakfast, chili cook off, euchre tournament, Kentucky Derby, Bingo—seems pretty normal until you remember you’ll be doing it with this guy:

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Doesn’t he look fun?

If it weren’t for the stripping requirement, everyone in Peebles would feel right at home at Cedar Trails. From their newsletter, The Buffer: “Make new friends or just enjoy a quite get-a-way at Cedar Trails.”

Their motto: “Cedar Trails is the friendliest resort in the southeast Ohio.”

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From their FAQ: Nudists are “All shapes and sizes, all occupations, ethnic groups, religions etc. Nudist find it easy to accept others regardless of physical shape, size or body condition.”

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Also, you’ll enjoy this freeing social atmosphere with this man:

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Yes, nudists are among the friendliest, most accepting weirdos in the Ohio Valley.

Sorry, nudists. I didn’t mean to call you weirdos. You must find it ironic that the way you express your tolerance is not tolerated by the clad masses.

So let’s take a second look at the nudists—an awkward, eye-level look at who they really are. They’re friendly and courteous, happy to play a game of euchre and share their Cincinnati-style chili. They’re independent thinkers who welcome strangers to the table and enjoy watching the sunset over southern Ohio hills.

I don’t care if they’re wearing clothes or not. In Peebles, they fit right in.

Permalink Christmas time.  A thousand places to go.  Family deadlines.  
Suddenly I stop the car and turn off the radio.  Thick snow covering the pines.  No footprints.  Just me.
Covered dishes cooling in the backseat.  Family waiting at the end of this road.
I sit and enjoy the perfect stillness of home.
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On Death and Hayrides

Hayrides will always be fun.  We’re a generation raised on limitless entertainment.  We can play video games that let us steal cars, zip through space, and fight zombies in World War 2.  We can go to the movies, sit in plush leather seats while we suck sugar into our faces and watch cities explode. 

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Yet, we still enjoy a hayride.

The bales of hay are hard, the wagon creeps at parade speed—but that makes it even more fun.  Kids love hayrides because you’re in the open air, you’re free with your friends, and best of all you see a familiar world through fresh eyes.

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 I remember my nephew’s first hayride.  He pointed to buildings he’d seen a hundred times from a car: “Look, it’s Mr. Reed’s house!  Oh, that’s grandma’s road!”  Passing by in a hay wagon was like flying over them in an airplane.  Then my nephew’s dog Kenya ran underneath the hay wagon, and was killed instantly.

There has always been a pet curse in my household.  The Arey family crest probably reads: “Another Day, Another Collar.”  A few of the furry casualties from my childhood:

  • Our cats, Ebony and Ivory.  A car hit Ebony.  She was lying in my parents’ room, waiting to die.  I peeked.  I remember half her fur being ripped away, exposing her naked red flesh.  Looking back, I think maybe she was just covered in blood.  Soon after, Ivory was eaten.  My brother found pieces of him behind our trailer.
  • A stray dog I took in and named Kipper.  I always had a big heart for stray dogs.  I was six years younger than my brother and sister.  When they had friends, over I was locked outside their bedroom doors.  I didn’t have many friends, so it was a blessing when one wandered into our yard and needed me to feed him.  Kipper lasted maybe a week, before Dad and I drove him out to the country and dropped him off.  I watched him chase after us until he disappeared into the dust of the gravel road
  •  A cat named Piawackett.  He was a stray, already fixed and missing his front claws.  One day he started choking.  He could barely breath.  He had been with us a year (an Arey record) so we took him to the vet.  We stored him in a cheap cardboard pet carrier.  He thrashed around in the box like a captured raccoon.  He kept thrusting his nose through one of the box’s small air hole.  He rammed his face into the hole, until his head finally burst free.  The look in his eyes was terrifying.  He looked insane, like our soft Piawackett was possessed by a demon cat. The vet discovered a mouse lodges in his throat.  There was some kind of internal bleeding, and Piawackett was put down.
  • Katie was our first puppy, a newborn collie.  She liked to chew my Grizzlor action figure, and when I came home from school she was unconditionally excited to see me.  One day my sister was crossing highway 41 to go to the general store.  Katie decided to follow, and was hit by a car.

There was nothing we could do for her.  The family gathered in the living room, and we took turns holding her until she died.  My sister was consumed with guilt.  She carved a tombstone for Katie, and we buried her in the garden.  I put Grizzlor on her grave.

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Pets teach kids how to take care of another life.  We invite animals into our homes, and they become our friends.  In some cases, they’re our only friends.  Pets also teach kids that everything will eventually go away.  No matter how much you love a pet or a person, someday they will leave you forever.

When you learn tomorrow isn’t promised to you, today is brighter.  Simple hayrides on familiar roads will fill you with constant, total amazement.

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NOTE: I owe a debt of gratitude to John Patrick Shanely.  The last sentence is paraphrased his wonderful film “Joe Versus the Volcano.”

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Peebles Solutions

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The tree was gone in a couple hours.

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The Case of The Peebles Detective

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If you drive through Peebles, you’re sure to pass by this house.  It sits right on Main Street.  If you had walked past it in the 1990s, you would have noticed these words on the door:  

WM. JUSTICE DETECTIVE AGENCY

When I was eleven years old, this sign inspired me.  I opened my own detective business.  After all, I had already solved numerous Encyclopedia Brown detective stories, and I was a lifelong student of Scooby Doo.  How hard could it be?  I made a sign from poster board: 

RY. AREY DETECTIVE AGENCY

…and waited in the garage for customers.  My fee was five cents.

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I only had one case: “The Mystery of Mom’s Missing Purse.”  The whodunit was solved in a few minutes, after I found mom’s purse under her bed.  My case file noted that she probably hid the purse for me to find.  She had watched me spend a nice summer day sitting the garage, waiting.  That must have been depressing.

Back to Mr. Justice.  Until recently*, I never asked anyone about the detective inside the house.  It was more fun to let my imagination run wild.  Was he a professional detective from the city, or a retired man chasing his dream?  I love the idea of a man looking at his front door and saying, “I can really do this.  No more slaving away at the lumber mill for me.  I’m gonna be a PI.” 

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What kind of cases darkened his door in Peebles, Ohio?  Cheating husbands?  Murder?  Police corruption?  There’s not much crime in Peebles, so he probably dealt with lost pets, or stolen bikes.  My friend Lori’s Schwinn was stolen when we were kids.  She could have asked him for help.

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Did he butt heads with local police?   Our police mostly sit at intersections and wait for teenagers to gun their engines.  But Mr. Justice was a loose cannon who didn’t play by their rules.  He was out working the beat, digging up clues, building a rep as Peebles’ preeminent gumshoe.  When there’s a case at hand, the Law be damned.

At least that’s what I liked to imagine.

The sign isn’t there anymore.  For years I wondered if Mr. Justice moved away, died, or removed the embarrassing sign after never having any customers.  That’s what happened to my detective agency. 

No: that wouldn’t happen to William Justice, PI.  He’s out tracking  bicycle thieves around the world.  Even now he’s running through a bazaar in Cairo, hunting for Lori’s bright pink Schwinn.  Someday he’ll push that small bike back into town, ringing its little bell, ready for his next case.

*I solved the case of the William Justice Detective Agency earlier today, when I called my mom to ask who lived in that house.  The real story is much less dramatic, so I’ll leave the case file open for you.  If you have a moment today, invent an adventure for him.  Ignore gray reality, and live a little while in your dreams. 

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Our Serpent Mound

This is Serpent Mound.  A prehistoric marvel built 500 years before white men stepped foot in North America.  It winds for one-fourth of a mile.  Its every coil marks the movements of the moon and sun.  This earthen calendar was built without benefit of machines, by a people with no written language.  The mound is Peebles’s only world-famous resident.  It is studied by scientists around the world.  Travelers go hundreds of mile out of their way to look upon this majestic work. 

 

I grew up 4 miles from Serpent Mound, in a trailer park.  When I was a kid I thought it was built and designed for family cookouts.  If you’re from Peebles, you might have thought the same thing. 

Scientists visit the mound, but so do people seeking a spiritual connection.  Or, as my uncle Charlie calls them, “devil worshippers.”  I ran into him in the bait shop once and he ranted about it, “They can call it whatever they want, but when they go up there and bow down to that god damn snake, it’s devil worship.”  I would love to take Uncle Charlie to burning man and count his strokes.

 

Uncle Charlie was referring to an incident in 1986, when what seemed like a thousand hippies and gypsies and Indians came to Serpent Mound.  I was six years old.  The Channel 5 news van was there.  They let me sit on the snake and play the tambourine.  This was a big, big deal because you are never allowed to sit on the mound, unless you’re playing a tambourine.

Side note: my best friend grew up a few hundred yards from the mound.  Near his property there’s a tree growing where two or three fault lines converge.  Apparently, this tree is significant for people that like to bang drums and chant in the middle of the night.  A couple times a year the tree drummers would keep my friend’s family awake into the wee hours of the morning.  They are devout Christians, so I have no doubt they spent those extra waking hours praying the drummers would come to Christ, and do so quietly.

Anyways, Serpent Mound is currently enjoying a tourism renaissance.  A non-profit group called Friends of the Serpent holds events to commemorate the winter and summer solstices.  On the summer solstice (also the longest day of the year) the head of the serpent aligns perfectly with the setting sun. 

I went to the summer event a few years ago.  I was seeking some kind of new experience ,from a very familiar site.  It wasn’t at all what I expected.  Look:

 

Gone were the throngs of hippies and Bedouins I remembered form my childhood.  These were the same old boring white people, wearing Wal-Mart shorts and red baseball caps.  My high school gym teacher was there.

I expected the sunset to create a majestic moment.  The final rays of sunlight would burst outward in a ripple of color.  Sunbeams would practically spray out of the sky and shine directly into my chest.  I was hoping for some minor levitation.  Maybe just a couple of inches off the ground.

Instead, it wasn’t even that good of a sunset.  The sun drifted behind some trees and it got darker.  I felt nothing, not even disappointment.  This didn’t seem like celestial bodies were converging with the spirits of the Fort Ancient Indians; it felt like the end of just another day.

But then, I listened.  There was no announcement to be quiet, and yet…we weren’t saying a word.  No one needed to talk on their cell phones, make jokes, or use their ipods to give the moment a soundtrack.  They were all….just content, to stand among strangers and watch a mild June day roll over into night.  A moment of prehistoric silence.  That was enough.