I don’t know what has compelled me to drive to Big Meadow tonight. Shenandoah National Park is an hour away from where I’m staying in Chancellorsville this weekend, and Big Meadow is a half an hour beyond that, south along Skyline Drive.
I’m sure it has something to do with my former girlfriend, whose ghost has been sitting in my chest for the past five weeks as if on a throne. Big Meadow is a sacred space to her. She particularly liked this time of day: the crepuscular hour. It’s a word that came into her vocabulary from a ranger talk she once attended here. The naturalist talked about the time of transition from late afternoon into evening, “the crepuscular hour.”
My former girlfriend brought me here to share this space shortly after we started dating, and we returned many times after. This is my first time returning alone.
Maybe I have come here to exorcise that ghost or maybe make peace with it. Or maybe just share a quiet moment of joy. Something. I don’t know.
We came here on our first adventure together. We stayed at a nearby campground and almost made love for the first time. Instead, with the roof of the tent wide open and the stars shining above us, we laid there in each other’s arms and looked up and felt as big as the future.
The next morning, instead of an early start, we had a lazy breakfast of whole grain baguette and brie cheese and grapes that we plucked, one by one, from their stems and fed to each other. Eventually we made our way down to the Hawksbill Gap for a hike. We ended the day with one last stop at Big Meadow, one last connection with the touchstone before we dropped back down into the lowlands, where sticky temperatures were nearly twenty-five degrees higher.
On one evening visit, we saw the full moon rise and heard the howl of coyotes. We walked the old CCC camp on the northern end of the field, walking the footprints of their buildings mowed into the grass. For two years, men lived here and made a living for themselves while they made a park for the rest of us. My girlfriend had been doing some research that summer on the CCC. She referred to them as “my fellas.”
That was the fifth of July. On the way home, we stopped at an overlook on the west side of the road and sat on a stone wall and watched fireworks far down in the valley below. The sky exploded in color beneath us. We had so much reason to celebrate.
Tonight, the colors come not from fireworks but watercolors, cast across the sky by the setting sun. As I drive around the final bend and crest the hill, the creamsicle sky catches me off guard, and the joy of the moment triggers unsuspected tears.
When I finally walk out into the meadow itself, it looks bleached of all color save brown. Wind tousled clumps of shaggy grass. Milkpods, expended, hung like tattered flags. The game path I randomly choose to follow leads me past a few lingering miniature daisies. The wind shakes them so that they look like they’re shivering. I also pass something that might be purple coneflower, but I’m not even sure if that grows around here. In the dusk, the flower at least reminds me of purple coneflower, so that’s good enough—but in the dusk, I’m reminded up here of a lot. That ghost walks the trail with me, but every time I turn to see her, the wind has disappeared her.
I meander my way across the meadow. In the broad daylight, it’s easy to see how the path moves through miniature biomes as the topography changes: some places are heavier with woody shrubs and berry bushes, others have more ferns trying to live in secret under the tall field grass. Some places have more moss on the ground that others. Because of the rise and fall of the land, I suddenly find myself among some thorny, whiplike stems that grab at my coat as I try to slip through.
I make my way toward a tree on the far side of the clearing. As I get closer, I see that it’s an oak. All its dead leaves, brittle in the wind, still cling to the branches. This makes it look more dead than if it had defoliated.
I feel like I am supposed to see this whole field as being dead. It’s more autumn than not, closer to winter than summer. Now that the gloom has thickened and the tangerine color of the sky has bruised to purple, everything looks more desolate.
Yet it’s here by the oak tree that I finally see my first deer of the evening. My former girlfriend and I have walked within ten or twelve feet of deer up here, which populate the meadow by the hundreds once the crepuscular hour sets in. I’d been surprised not to see any during my crossing. Here, I get within a hundred feet before it flashes its tail in flight, which is what tipped me off to its presence in the first place.
There is life here after all, I think. Of course there is. It’s all around me, even I can’t see it. I’m just not attuned to it. It doesn’t help, either, that I came here expecting to see the field one way even as it insisted I see it another.
My vision changes as I wander back across the meadow. With my brighter vision, I soon see more deer, and one lets me pass within twenty feet. Her ears are up, swiveling like radar antenna, but once she realizes I’m not going to charge her, she goes back to grazing. Every few bites, she’ll look up and watch me watch her.
I soon pass through a wide patch of Queen Anne’s lace, which stand out like powder puffs against the dark. The path takes me into another low part of the meadow where I come upon a four-trunked birch tree. Each white trunk rises from the same base, and while the trunks have grown out and away from each other over time, they all lean away from the wind, too. The wind has not yet denuded the leaves, which quiver but do not abandon their posts in the dark.
I get to a patch of odd grass that could just as easily be short clumps of marsh grass or mop-top haircuts. They’re the kinds of plants that look like they should be growing underwater, their long fronds swaying in the back-and-forth in the tide instead of being vibrated by the wind. I listen. In the breeze, the grass rustles like the quiet hiss of rainsticks.
It’s nearly full dark by now. I don’t know the way out of the meadow, but I know I’m heading in the right direction. I can see the back porch light of the visitor center off in the distance. I don’t know how I’ll get there, exactly, but I decide to just trust the path. It’ll get me through the darkness, across unfamiliar terrain, if I just trust it to get me there.
That’s why I’ve come here tonight, I realize: to trust the path. The ghost can even walk it with me if she wants.
I find out later that my former girlfriend had flown over this same meadow earlier in the day as she went from New Hampshire to Los Angeles for a conference. “I had the joy of seeing this from the air,” she texted me after I sent her a photo of the sunset. The ghost had made me do it.
“I know you would want to be here in this place, at this time, during this crepuscular hour,” I’d written, “so pretend this isn’t from me and just enjoy the unexpected gift your sacred space is trying to give you.”
“Thanks for sharing,” she replied with a smiley.
The hundreds of leaf peepers who’d cluttered the road on my way up have all disappeared by the time I leave. I weave along Skyline Drive like a lonely snake, my high beams leading the way. No fireworks explode in the valley; no moonrise throws the forest into sharp relief.
The crepuscular hour is over. It’s time for night. But only for a little while.
Things will change again. They always do.