On a sunny Sunday in March, my roommate and I set foot in Graveyard Fields off the Blue Ridge Parkway. As usual, I sought inspiration from the world around me. I’d spent time staring at blank pages recently, but I thought a breath of fresh air in the mountains would reawaken the dormant poems inside my mind.
We began our hike out in the bright sunlight, high up on the ridge where only rocks, sand, and scraggly bushes lived. Our feet trampled through trenches dug in the ground and we climbed, reaching for that upper height, that sight of a pale blue peak.
Soon, we entered the shadows of the gray curvy tree trunks and rhododendron. My roommate told me it looked like a haunted forest in Transylvania. I had to disagree—it didn’t feel scary to me. Even though I grew up in the city, I always found ways to feel close to nature. Never afraid, I worried more about the human impact on the planet than any perils posed by the environment. Home alone on a Saturday in seventh grade, I went out in my backyard just after it had rained. I took off my shoes and jumped around in puddles and felt the wet grass between my toes. Then I pulled out my science composition book and wrote a poem.
I wanted that feeling again: for inspiration to roll right out of the earth and into my mind, for the leaves to blow words into my head with the breeze, for whispers of wind to transform into lines, stanzas, ripples of letters on a page. But today, I couldn’t think of anything that felt original.
My roommate and I stopped in a grassy clearing for a break before traveling along another trail. After only twenty minutes, however, the entire path turned to water. Reflections of the white clouds above danced in the curving stream. We turned around, following the signs back to the woods. My shoes squished along the rocky trail, my feet hopping between stones that flickered under golden sunbeams. At the fork in the path, we went left.
The mud sloshed around, splashing dirt up onto my ankles and legs. Slim branches jutted out above us: a constellation of infinite crisscrosses. The air grew chillier. I slipped on my sweatshirt. “We’ve been walking for too long,” I said. “I think… we went the wrong way.”
My skin felt clammy and my heart began to hammer. We didn’t know where we were.
“Just keep going,” said my roommate.
The sun sank lower in the sky. My phone’s battery dropped to forty percent. Everything looked the same. I stopped noticing the way my feet felt when they hit the ground; I stopped noticing the way the wind sounded. I stopped noticing the water seeping into my shoes. I stopped noticing the smell of soil, the smell of cool mountain air, the smell of soft mosses and lichens. The world rushed by around me. I despised the earth and its twisting turns and the danger of its coming night.
This is not what I wanted, I thought, this is not what I intended to write about. I had planned on beautiful descriptions of shimmering waters and the scent of blooming spring flowers—not shadowy woods or icy winds.
Eventually, we arrived back in the same clearing we’d been in an hour before. We realized our mistake: we’d turned left instead of right. We’d gone in a giant circle. And now, we had to walk the entire loop again. We made it back to the parking lot just as the sun descended. The horizon turned pink and purple and orange, lighting up the mountain silhouettes. The stars appeared beside a pale crescent moon. The path had brought us to see a sacred ritual the planet undergoes every evening, at the peak of wind and sound.
In the red incandescence of the lowering sun, I had my idea. In the moment my toes felt cold and wet from soaked feet, when my hands turned ghostly from the decreasing air temperatures, the words arrived.
Poetry comes with the unexpected; poetry is the surprise in that last line, the way your eyes stroll through a forest of alphabetical arrangements, wondering what’s going to happen next. I couldn’t plan the poem ahead of time. I had to let the lines flow toward me like the path that turned to water.
In Graveyard Fields, I didn’t find the words until I got lost.