In the heart of the heart of the country

“Before the Dawn to Come.” | West Virginia outback | february2023 | photo

Words & photographs by Douglas John Imbrogno

I was up early at 5 a.m. I stood, barefoot, just outside the doorframe to the house where I was staying, deep in the West Virginia hills. No traffic noise since this was the heart of the heart of the country. A rural road curved around the house. Only a handful of cars or pickups per hour traverse it, even by daylight. So, then, silence. Or, rather, the insect and birdcall quiet of the country before it bursts into dawn’s countless songs. I used my phone’s camera flash to reveal the grain of the wood and the frame of the nearby shed against the roiling, pre-dawn clouds. As the mottled light-and-darkness resumed overhead, I heard a single tree frog. Then, another. And another. Soon, a chorus of them sang in staggered rhythms. It was as if they had all awoken at the same time.

“Dogged Mindfulness.” | West Virginia outback | february2023 | photo

I have lived with cats my entire adult life. I like cats. I love cats. They are little personalities covered in soft fur. Aloof one moment, in search of admiration the next. But I appreciate the sheer doggedness of a good, sweet-mannered country dog. This one, Raven, is a black Lab, who — if you approach her house unbeknownst or commit an unexpected, midst of-the-night sound — might bark with such ferocity you may think: ‘I must flee since this is a black mastiff from Hell and my hamstrings are about to become severed ….’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Raven is a dog-shaped creampuff. Her now-owner spotted her last year, emaciated, bruised by sores. Trying to score a meal from garbage cans or bird feeder droppings up and down the rural road she haunted. “Ya’ can’t get near that dog!” a neighbor avowed. My friend reeled her in with treats and kindness. They are now inseparable. She loves to take a walk. To pursue her yellow ball. To nose your hand wetly under the kitchen table, jonesing for a treat. She romps up and down in her yard in excitement, as if she had pistons for legs. Her coat is now sleek. Raven is home.

Life traveling the backroads of West Virginia means that at some point you will encounter a big animal in the road that will slow you way down.

“Cow Town.” | West Virginia outback | february2023 | photo

Once, while working my first job as a cub reporter in Huntington, W.Va., in the early 1980s, I lived way the heck out in Wayne County on Porter’s Fork Road. ‘Out Wayne,’ as they say out there, in the very rural county of Wayne. It was late, past midnight. The road was curvy, maybe misted with fog. It is possible I may have had an intoxicant or two in my corpus. I rounded a corner along a creek bottom, passing a house with a barn on the right. There, in the middle of the road, more apparition than reality, it seemed, stood a white horse. It was like something out of “Lord of the Rings.” Maybe here was an offspring of Gandalf’s prized steed, Shadowfax. I gingerly, slowly, nosed my Mazda past this post-midnight horse. S/he seemed unfazed. So it is. Life traveling the backroads of West Virginia means that at some point you will encounter a big animal in the road that will slow you way down. The black cow with a white face-splash whom I met this week up on a crest somewhere in the central West Virginia outback was not quite as stirring as the White Horse Past Midnight. But it was a moment, nonetheless.

‘Trees in Tandem.’ | West Virginia outback | february2023 | photo

Me and trees go way back. And I will admit it. I hug trees, especially the gnarly, old wise ones, who have weathered a century of existence, if not more. Sometimes, when life, the world, the daily news get to be all too much (‘Dammit, will rising proto-autocrat DeSantis succeed where the Orange Desecration failed …’), I seek out an Ancient One. Resting my forehead against its scrubby bark, I breathe a few breaths. I imagine the tree, humming, bearing some of that day’s — that moment’s — burdens. Draining them off into its pith, into the deep soil anchoring that tree. Releasing my arms or hands from its trunk, I come away relieved. I did not get up close or personal with this rural tree (the tall one on the right of the road), encountered early this week in a curve of Outback, W.Va. I just appreciated the way it held up the last of the day’s sunlight for inspection. It looks to me, upon further inspection of this photo, that maybe the big tree has been schooling the little one on the other side of the road in how to be a good, if not, a great tree. Or setting an example.

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