It was the setting of the sun that finally let
me know that we were lost. We were as
lost as the armies of the Civil War that had
found themselves twice in major battles in
this wilderness of Virginia. The second growth
trees were thick and high, but one could still see
the setting of the sun point west, and so we knew
that we had to get out before it got dark or we
might be trapped in these woods forever like the
poor souls who had been part of those armies
that had clashed here, and left their bodies
behind to decompose in the impenetrable
darkness where they fell on those days in May
1863 and 1864. And so after a bit more
wandering as we tried to escape the Wilderness
we saw a US highway give us a choice: to go
west to Lynchburg, and a way over the mountains
to home, or east to Richmond, and then along
a smoother road through our nation’s capital. We
paused for a second and west east, on to Richmond
like the armies of that uncivil war.
This poem has a very clear reference. Like a great many of my poems , this one is based on my own personal experiences and not my fertile imagination. Specifically, this poem springs from a very disconcerting experience I had as a child. During my youth, I served as the navigator for both of my parents, since my interests in maps and my general sense of direction was considered by both of them to be superior to their own, although they agreed on little else during those days shortly after their contentious divorce. So it was that I frequently found myself looking at maps of dubious quality in places where I did not know my way around and often where there was no one to ask because the places were so remote. So it was when my father, younger brother, and I were looking to visit some battlefields in Virginia, specifically Chancellorsville and the Wilderness, only we kept on driving in circles over and over again. This, needless to say, was very distressing as the hours went on and we kept on seeing the forest grow darker and darker as daylight faded.
Events happened more or less as I described them in my poem. The setting of the sun through the thick second-growth forest that gives the wilderness its name and its generally spooky aspect clued us in on which direction we were pointed at, and we found a way out of the forest, even if it was heading south, which was not the direction we were hoping to go. At any rate, after sunset we came to a sign that pointed us, as I remember at least, to both Richmond and Lynchburg. Although I cannot remember the number of the highway, I think it was US 460, since it was a US highway and since there are so few major highways in that part of the state. At any rate, we were soon off to Richmond like so many attempts of the Army of the Potomac, and before the end of the night we would drive through both Richmond and Washington DC late enough to avoid traffic, and the next day we would arrive at my Father’s dairy farm in Western Pennsylvania.
I am not sure why the Wilderness story remains stuck in my head. My father, brother, and I made quite a few trips north and south along the I-95 corridor traveling between Central Florida and Western Pennsylvania, and I was the navigator for those trips in general, which allowed me to visit quite a few battlefields and fortresses along the way. One of the pleasures of being a navigator means getting to choose the route, and so that meant walking through the trees at Moore’s Creek Bridge on a Sabbath before going to church in Wilmington and then touring Fort Fisher afterward. Another time we traveled to Fort Pulaski outside of Savannah, and to Charleston to view Fort Sumter, and to Fredericksburg and Antietam and Gettysburg and various other sites. Yet there is something that remains lodged in my mind about the eerie quality of the Wilderness far more than most battlefields I have visited.
I suppose there are a few qualities about the Wilderness that make it so suitable for someone as prone to dark musings such as myself. For one, the Wilderness is a second growth forest that came back with a vengeance after the initial trees were cut down in attempts to establish plantations as well as a charcoal industry in Catherine’s Furnace. For another, the area retains the haunted feeling it likely had for the soldiers who fought and died there. It is easy to get lost there–as I know from experience–and hard to see where you are and where you are going. One feels as if one is trapped within the woods. Many battlefields are suburbs now, or have the air of pleasant rural parks on the outskirts of cities, but the Wilderness remains an untamed place that has the power to haunt those who visit it. Being the sort of person who is perhaps not too difficult to haunt made it fairly easy, I suppose, for the place to leave its mark on me even if I was only there for a few hours.
 See, for example: