19 Miles

Issue 52 by Darryl Lauster

19 Miles

The novel 19 Miles takes place in Western NY in 1978, and centers around a group of rugged invisibles who have shunned society to live a semi-feral lawless existence in the foothills of the Allegheny mountains. There are six central characters, with the landscape acting as a seventh.

Chapter One

It was a tougher slog than on most days. The spring had come early, and the rain hadn't let up for three weeks. With every step, his boots sank an inch deep into the muck and released with a slurping sound. He was approaching a transition point in the woods, where the heavy canopy gave way to the wetlands that extended several miles to the abandoned northern train tracks. Some of the plant life was already flowering, several weeks earlier than it should have been.

The early spring had followed an unusually tepid winter. Despite frequent flurries and dustings, the valley had not seen a real snowpack in a year. The days began warming in late February, and by March the nights were mostly mild and calm. Like some in the area, he deduced that things were beginning to change in ways that seemed repetitive. Warm winters led to early springs, with full-blown summers following quickly. The population of insects was exploding, having few bitter spells to freeze them dead. The deer were everywhere. Even the bears were awake early, still with meat on their ribs after hibernating.

But whatever new pattern was setting in, its primary characteristic was unpredictability. Growing seasons were being disrupted due to late hoar frosts followed by sudden heat waves. Heavy rains were eroding soil. The old guard of the county, the ones who lived through the Great Depression, who still saved pieces of cardboard and rubber bands and bald tires so as to never want again, they spoke of the climate becoming crueler and less hospitable. But the answers to their problems came in the form of industry science, marketed by men wearing thin black ties and wire-rimmed glasses who sold them cheap fertilizers and pesticides to keep yields high. Late on Fridays, with plenty of whiskey and cigarettes around, the farmers would share amongst themselves their fear for the future. They’d talk about how things were changing. From them, the new economy demanded more and more while paying them less and less. There was no more time for fallowing, no more time for rotation. They saw their livelihoods coming to an end.

It was in 1975 that Dr. Ellis Cowling testified to the U.S. Congress about the need for coordinated federal research on the ecological effects of acid rain. Almost one hundred years after English chemist Robert Angus Smith connected fossil fuel emissions to elevated PH levels in air and water, the plea fell upon the deaf ears of the American government. The premise was simple. The earth was a closed system. Whatever you send up comes back down. The widespread use of sulfur dioxide fumigation for wheat and other cereal crops was a primary culprit. Burning coal was another. In D.C., no one had an appetite for regulation. In the valley, the agricultural heart of the state, the very premise was met with derision. The causes and effects were spread too far apart. More significantly, they challenged a man’s way of life. They challenged his paycheck. This was the problem of America; its problems were always greater than its ability to concede.

Still, in fits of irrational exuberance, early December blizzards would also shock the valley, falling without warning out of the grey sky opposite the shale mountain that abutted it to the south. And like the heat waves, when they came, they came harder and stronger. The storms lasted days and coated the ground with heavy wet snow that turned to ice overnight. Eventually, the thick blankets were pulverized to blackened slush under the wheels of the big trucks that managed the ascent of the only paved road in the area—a nineteen-mile stretch of county highway that connected the valley to a major interstate feeder.

There were days where he'd not see a single vehicle traverse the winding road. There were days where he’d not see another human being. This was an area of the world that saw little evidence of outside life. Less a town and more a cluster of twenty-some cabins built up along the base of the great shale expanse of rock thrusting upward from the lost glaciers of the Allegheny plateau. The pitted blacktop bisected the mountain cliff and the valley wetlands to its north, which spread out into an inhospitable maze of thickets and skunk cabbage. It was here he earned his living. This was his office.

It was here, millions of years ago, that the Appalachian Revolution thrust up the great plates of sedimentary rock that defined the region. Rich with coal, the foothills were more like random stone fists that burst through the soil in defiance of the lower vale. This was the result of the glacial erosion that carved the softer soils deeply between masses of rock, leaving erratics randomly behind, which defined the spaces between the ubiquitous groundcover of maidenhair ferns. Maples, walnuts birches and oaks populated the wooded areas, living and dying their hundred-year lifespans without much interference. Ash trees were rarer, suffering from the boring beetles that took their name.

Before it was New York it was New Netherlands. And before that it was etinö’ëh​​yöëdzade’​, Mother Earth, the home of the Haudenosaunee. The French called them Iroquois, and their confederacy still populated the community. Collectively, they were the People who Built the Longhouse, the Keepers of the Western Door, the People of the Flint, until the British arrived and colonists slowly but surely annexed their land. To the east, Revolutionary battles were waged that defined a new American nation. The Hudson river was the lifeblood of the revolutionaries, and Washington punctuated it with more twenty-six different headquarters for the militia. To the north, the Eerie Canal was built to connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Midwest. In its verdant center, intensive farming supplied much of the state with apples, onions and corn.

Amongst the handful of intrepid crusty invisibles who made the several mile lawless stretch of development their home, there existed neighbors in the form of black bear, white-tailed deer and bobcats. Occasional stories of cougar sightings echoed over the hills, but like songs, they took no physical form. The bears were plentiful and had no trepidation about invading human dwellings. As such, many locals carried a gun in the springtime, when the beasts were active and hungry. Still, the various populations of the valley lived in peace beside each other, sharing a land that was more ancient than any mammal on the continent.

The speckled darkness of the oak canopy gradually gave way to darting sunlight. He left behind the sparse wet forest and entered the riparian zone, which spread out in front of him in the lowlands. Small kills snaked through the area, ripe with trout, intersecting here and there in undulating patterns. He crossed the water where it gurgled over its silt bed in a place about ten feet wide and six inches deep. It was the same spot he crossed weekly, owing to its greater depths to the east and west. The grasses and bull thistles were several inches high, easily wilting under his boots due to the soggy soils. He walked to the northern edge of the open field where it met with the next wedge of vegetation entering a tree line. Here he put down his backpack, grabbed a quick drink of water, and eyed the plants.

To the northeast edge of the tree line he could see the gridded twine he had staked several weeks prior, just after the first weeds were awakening. This was one of five twenty by twenty-foot divisions of land that he checked for the state's Invasive Species Research Initiative. The grids themselves were a painstaking process to create, requiring mathematical precision and the right balance of stability and noninterference. Each plot was staked off by steel rebar to which cotton rope was attached to create a square. He had dyed the rope orange for better contrast to its green backdrop. Within the square a grid of five-inch by five-inch squares was created, approximately one foot off the ground, with tight precision. He preferred the cotton to sisal because it shrank in the rain and stayed tight to its moorings. The result was a kind of neon chessboard floating above the ground. It was within this grid that he would monitor the spread of several invasive plants destabilizing the ecology of the valley. The grid created an X and Y coordinate that allowed scientists to calculate the speed of growth of specific plants he was tasked to scout. Each grid was dedicated to one species, although it was not uncommon to find two in one zone.

In 1970 Governor Rockefeller signed legislation creating the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The creation of the DEC followed the nation’s first Earth Day and was a manifestation of a nascent, yet growing, awareness of the human impact on the ecosystem. The state’s first conservation efforts were focused on the great lakes, where aquatic plants and creatures with exotic names such as alewife and quagga threatened native species. The Erie canal was presumed a culprit in the invasion, allowing various stowaways attached to the hulls of ships safe passage. Soon thereafter plants were scrutinized. Among the most worrisome were the purple loosestrife and watermilfoil, both denizens of shallow waterways. While most efforts were focused on Lake Ontario, small consortiums were formed to study the southern valleys and wetlands that occupied the center of the state and formed much of its fertile farmlands. The state university system was a leader in these more localized endeavors.

Doda’s grid identified the Black Swallow-wort, also known as Cynanchum louiseae, a stringy vine that crowds out shrubs and saplings, eventually covering them entirely. Like many invasives, it is highly competitive and fecund, reproducing by wind. With thin, glossy, deep green leaves and minute clusters of star-shaped purple flowers, it was easy to recognize, although it had the habit of completely encasing a vast area of foliage, turning the landscape into a flattened homogenous curtain. The vine was particular trouble, as it could grow in both the sun and shade and had no issues with growing in poor soils. Here, favoring the wet bedrock of the wetland valley, it was a fixture in open fields. He had noticed this patch two years ago and following its advance he had documented its movement northward, which was the greatest fear of the state's ecologists—that these killers would reach the Mohawk river and eventually destroy much of the biodiversity therein.

Early as it was, it was still an emergent climate, and the vines had yet to fully develop. They seemed to like the heat and spread quickly in July and August. He took out his Pentax S3 and began photographing the grid diligently, sometimes inserting a measurement card into the picture for scale. The documentation was not easy. Requiring working in the field grass either prone or in a crouch, Doda’s jeans would be soaked at the knees frequently. The gnats were often unbearable, especially when stillness was required. At one point his shutter startled a hawk into flight above him. He could see it was a young red tail. After thirty minutes of recording, he jotted copious notes in his spiral pad and then his bag before slinging it over his shoulders. He would be back in a week. In the dead of summer, he would return every five days, particularly when flowers arrived. But for now, the patch seemed relatively quiet. He noticed some moss on a large piece of granite beneath a mature black walnut. It would be choked out for sure. So would the delicate fronds of the Feverfew that were attempting to establish themselves in the sun. But he was not there to interfere, only to observe.

With his pack over his shoulder he retraced his steps through the kill and into the wetlands, continuing to slosh deeply into the muck with each step. His red-laced Bass hiking boots were only two years old, but sturdy as they were, they were beginning to show wear from constant water contact. The sound of his footsteps produced an odd cadence—a high squish at the moment his heel sank, and a baritone slurp upon retrieving his foot. Success was not plunging ankle deep into the wet. The smell of the air was pungent, and even though he was careful to avoid the omnipresent skunk cabbages, they perfumed the moist air by their sheer numbers. Many locals referred to them as stink plants, wanting nothing to do with their stench, but they were friends to the bees and beetles, which were now flitting about the groundcover.

The plant itself was a curiosity. Having contractile roots, it actually grew downward. It thrived in the muddy waterlogged soil and was among the very first to emerge in the early spring. Owing to its ability to generate its own heat, evening frosts were of no consequence to its growth. While its smell attracted various animals of the valley, bear and elk were the only omnivores who found its acidic ruffage palatable. Eating the raw plant was toxic to humans, but its leaves could be dried, ground into flour and used to thicken stews. Early Americans also used a tea boiled from its young leaf stalks for the treatment of asthma and breathing ailments. Its foliage ranged widely in color, similar to its less common boggy companion the Jack in the Pulpit or bog onion, which too is toxic when raw but edible when cooked. Despite his foraging of wild plants for food, Doda forsook both of these plants regularly.

Along with the copious amounts of ferns, the softscape was lush and beautiful, replete with various shades of deep green and vivid purple, and Doda was one of the very few to explore its palette on a regular basis. The wetland was protected from hunting and fishing by the state, and even in this unregulated area of wilderness, most people kept to its code if only due to their distaste for its smell, its ubiquitous sop and its strenuous demands. The valley’s splendor was challenging.

The truth was too, that hunting had become more or less synonymous with sitting and waiting in the modern era. The idea of stalking prey had been replaced by drinking in tree stands, waiting for an animal to pass within your scope sight. This was evidenced by the decrepit remnants of a slapdash hunting cabin a quarter mile to his north, now a skeleton of aged cedar boards. A small hole in its wall, just enough for the barrel of a rifle to push through, was still clear on one of its lichen-covered walls. It was impractical even in its best days, erected more than a three-mile walk to the highway. This wetland was unpopulated largely due to its inhospitable nature. And that was fine with him.

It wasn’t the larger creatures of the area one had to worry much about. Most people knew well enough to stay away from the bears and coyotes. Boar and moose were extremely rare. Elk had long since disappeared from the state. And despite local lore echoing stories of bigfoot sightings, one could pretty much feel assured of being the top carnivore in the valley. No, it was the little demons that would tear one up. The valley was ripe with blood-sucking ticks and leeches. Adding to that were the black widows, the yellow jackets, the hornets, and the ubiquitous beefy black mosquitos and petulant horseflies. On some days it would seem like every other plant in the valley had a thorn waiting to pierce skin, and poison ivy lay in waiting everywhere. As beautiful as it was, the valley took its piece of flesh.

Years before, he would take out his compass to locate the direction of the next grid, but in the time since he had memorized his trail. At a fallen rotted pine, he jogged east and held a straight course over a stone plateau to an area of young saplings springing from the ground in straight lines approaching forty feet. The older growth of the stretch had been blown over by a rare tornadic storm a decade prior, and now the new trees were beginning to rise from the decay. The ground itself was difficult to walk, with the extant remains of trunks making for an uneven and hazardous surface through which to venture. This swath of the forest was about one and half acres square but only its northeast end was of his interest. After carefully navigating the rough damp field he spied the next bright orange grid fifty yards before him. The gnats were suddenly terrible, darting around his forehead in their most annoying way. He had worked up a heavy sweat, which always seemed to attract them more, but it was unavoidable having to trudge through the bog. Every step required extra effort to dislodge one's feet from the gummy mire. It was similar to walking with weights on, and the resistance always made for sore hamstrings the following days.

The grid he approached was marked to document a stand of China Sumac, the tree of heaven, which was heavily taking root in the quadrant. The invader was a prolific seeder and drought tolerant, growing quickly in full or partial sun. The pine and maple saplings had a head start on it, but it would catch up soon. Thankfully the sumac in the northeast grew tall but thin, and the likelihood of these plants out-competing the indigenous trees was small, but nonetheless, they would grow to become a permanent part of the mix of deciduous residents of the wetlands. He had to admit that it was an attractive plant, as so many invasives are. It was also one that, after identifying it, he could see practically everywhere, from backyards to the sides of highways. And it was never alone. It grew in waves of creamy green and bronze foliage from a stately and graceful single stem. Here, at the grid he followed two clusters of about seven or eight purple brown sprouting’s. At this stage they appeared similar to small palm trees, with a single set of bilateral compound leaflets adorning the apex of the plant. Removing his camera from the bag, he photographed each plant from above and at the ground level. He noted the individual axis they occupied and wrote several notes in his pad that he would share with his supervisors. As he bent low to the ground, he could smell the pernicious kerosene aroma common to the plant, which was one of the more unique vapors of the fetid wetlands. His entire body was wet now, and he kept care to keep his camera lens dry, even as it would occasionally fog over in the humidity. After a quick height measurement, he took a moment to swallow another few gulps of water from his canteen, rose and turned southwest towards his last location for the day. He had already logged several miles on the hike.

The afternoon sun was largely in front of him now, and although it rarely hit him squarely, he could feel its heat. Rather than dry things out, it reinforced the moisture. It was modulated by a cooler breeze that had kicked up, and with it he could smell a coming rain in the air. At a clearing, he confirmed this with a quick glance at the dark clouds miles to his north, gusting in from a Canadian front. As he did not have his hat with him, he chose to quicken his pace to the final stop.

It wasn't a long journey. In about fifteen minutes he arrived at the last grid for the day, set up on the edge of another part of the same small stream he had crossed before. This area was clearer of brush than the first and received a fair amount of direct sunlight considering the number of trees elsewhere in the landscape. The stream itself was wider and deeper too, making good habitat for trout. There was a small patch of wild blackcaps that he would pick from later in the summer. Because of the wet weather, he could eye raccoon prints at the water's edge, along with some random Cockleburs that would certainly become more plentiful as the year wore on. The square lattice he had set up to the north of the stream abutted a deep green hedge, already bursting with heartshaped leaves with notes of red near the nodes.

Before him was the most notorious of the plants he tracked, the dreaded Fallopia japonica, or Japanese Knotweed. Earlier in the decade, federal statue urged states to begin policing their own backyards. The Niagara and Hudson rivers were floating chemical pools, the undeserving victims of industrial recklessness. As efforts were undertaken to clean them up, the worries of this highly competitive perennial overtaking the state, particularly as indigenous flora was stressed from pollution, was very concerning to the state department of agriculture. It was introduced in America in the nineteenth century as an effective aid for erosion control, and correspondingly was planted in loamy soils. It spread by seed and rhizome both, and its roots were known to grow twenty feet deep and could extend sixty feet in any direction. Eradication was nearly impossible, as it could sprout from any piece of its rhizome not completely extracted from the soil. The use of goats had been studied for its prevention, as it is not only edible, but also apparently quite delicious to many animals. But such efforts only controlled its spread, never eliminating it. In his several years of documenting it he saw stems grow sometimes eight inches in a single day. It was a monstrous creature and saw fit to overtake the world if allowed. This thicket alone had tripled in size in just one year of study.

He noted that the thicket's spread had already begun; with new shoots now appearing in squares seven, eight, eleven and twelve. He estimated this grid would be completely obscured by mid-June and would require an expanded new marker for continued detection. With audible thunder rolling in the distance, he recorded the new shoots with his SLR and measured their height diligently. He spent about twenty minutes on his task. After assuring that all the information was recorded in his notebook, he proceeded to the eastern side of the brush, outside the range of his grid, and sliced ten or so six-inch young stems from the ground with the ten-inch fixed blade Buck survival knife he always carried. He wrapped these in a plastic bag and tossed them in his backpack along with his camera. Later that night, they would be boiled to make tea. He would burn the scraps.

In several years of working for the university, Doda had come to learn that he was one of twelve persons documenting knotweed throughout the state. This was the most observed species of the entire invasive project. By comparison there were four persons scouting Kudzu in the Catskill area and three documenting swallow-wort. He and another were the only two persons tasked with identifying hogweed. Outside of his responsibilities, which from time to time included documenting any sightings of the Princess Tree or Glossy Buckthorn, there were reports being made on other worrisome plants from the Adirondacks to Manhattan. New York’s ecological health was being cataloged by a ragtag regiment of wildmen.

With this chore completed, pack over shoulder, he ambled back through the wetlands on the trek home. The thunder seemed to dissipate in the background, the storm having fallen apart for the time. It was late afternoon. He had some energy left but did not want to risk being caught in a sudden downpour. He would survey his other two grids tomorrow morning. A day’s difference would not matter. He charted a course that hugged the eastern side of the valley. It was somewhat drier and had a greater canopy should he be forced to dodge the rain. As he walked, he felt the air noticeably cooling, even though the breeze had died down. A gaggle of Canada geese had taken residence in a small pond in front of him, and they eyed him with caution as he passed. Doda thought momentarily of making dinner out of one but decided against it. Hand-to-beak combat seemed ridiculous. He trudged on, and with every step onward he felt the pull of mud beneath him.

About the Author

Darryl Lauster


A 2010 recipient of the Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant for Painters and Sculptors, Darryl Lauster is an Intermedia artist, writer, and an Associate Chair of the Art and Art History Department at the University of Texas Arlington. His writing has been published by Gulf Coast Magazine, Art Lies Magazine, The Esthetic Apostle, Crack the Spine, The Conversation, Glasstire, The Athenaeum Review, the CAA Art Journal and his first novel, Rites of Passage, was published by Creators Publishing in 2017.