Caught by the River

The Mountains' Unkempt Beards

3rd August 2014

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A brief treatment of the crossing of the Allegheny front from Baltimore to Detroit

Words and images by Charles Swain

The Appalachian Range. Its wooly white head rests in the New Hampshire and smoke is blown languidly towards its booted feet in Georgia and Tennessee. You traverse its midsection when driving from Baltimore to Detroit, crossing the width of its hips like a beetle crawling on a narrow leather belt. Its hollows and valleys form bowls of briar pipes, charged and re-charged by season with leafy, timber shag.

You start to sense them coming into Fredrick, Maryland on Interstate 70. A soon as you see them, like lilting blue eyebrows on the near horizon, they have encircled you. Their vector seems to be at odds with the map and the ridge lines run in all directions. You climb slowly across South Mountain and, at its peak, slip under the Appalachian trail that crosses above the road in a pedestrian overpass encased in iron mesh. You slip into low gear as you’re propelled into the next valley, heading towards Hagerstown.


Unseen fires on the hills illuminate the occasional fleece of cloud a ruddy peach against an indigo expanse. Your cigarette slips from your fingers and your head nods forwards as scraps of villages and lone farmhouses dot the valley floor. The glow of flat screens spill from wooden framed windows as the mountains unkempt beards sweep down from square malevolent shoulders, unfurling their full length only in the gloaming. You feel that if you got out of your car and stood in the center of one of the patches of concrete driveway, you would be pushed down on your face in reverence or elevated to a height of sixty feet by the blind gaze of that multi planed visage set amongst those shoulders. Perhaps not.

A man has been following you in a truck. He tows a small trailer laden with small brightly coloured motorbikes. You meet him from time to time as your speeds fluctuate.

Breezewood passes by- gateway to the mountains, a shimmering neon mass poured into a crevice on a foothill. Rising above it, you level out and tree strewn pastures buffer you on both sides. Beyond them, the dark ranges track your progress, noting the light of evening and adorning their flanks with its multi hued fabrics. A man trying on a variety of woollen jumpers but never finding one that quite suits.

Heading towards the Allegheny tunnel now. Two tubes inserted under farther mountain. The old tunnel, now abandoned, looks down from upon high. You can stop your car at a lay by and walk up to its entrance. I never have.

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Out through the tunnel drivers passing you on the right and the left, first in front and then behind, like a hard fought battle of Scalextric. Peaks break out from the ridge lines here and there with slender masts perched on their tips. The billowing foam of the sky reflects a tinge of iridescent green above the antennas. I wonder if they are manned occasionally like lighthouses used to be. The keepers stone croft built amongst the substations and control equipment at the base. Evenings spent with a glass of Scotch resting on the wooden sill as he looks through a telescope at the distant shipping lanes of the i70 corridor.

The Mountains start to wind down as you enter get into Ohio. The verges at the side of the road finally becoming the highest thing on the horizon. Passing Columbus and Akron and finally Toledo-inbound on unwavering conduit to the heart of the D.