The Williams River

I woke up and felt a breeze on my face.  The strains of a mandolin and sunshine floated into the tent. 

My back hurt and I was cold, but I was happy.  At one with the universe.

We were celebrating Donnie’s life while she was still with us to enjoy her own wake.  Camping on the Williams River with the Bing Brothers – what we called a Bing Thing.  Always a good time. 

The rock falls on the Williams River.

This one was bittersweet.  It was the 4th of July weekend in the early ‘90s – I had 4 days off or something like that.  It was enough time to relax and get into the timeless groove of good music, good food, and good company in good surroundings.  The Williams River campsite in Pocahontas County was rustic and pristine.  It was cool – sometimes cold – a nice escape from the insufferable heat of the Ohio Valley.  These people had been camping there for years – loved it, honored it, took care of it.  There were a big bunch of us, yet it was still private and intimate.  A contradiction in many ways, but enjoyable in them all.

Donnie was dying of metastatic breast cancer.  We were all resigned to it or at least as resigned as one can be.  She lived a remarkable life in that everyone thought she was *their* best friend. 

She was my best friend – the second I was going to lose.  There would be a third that I would meet shortly after Donnie’s death, but of course I didn’t know that then.  When Sheri died in 1980-something, I was distraught.  I was in my early 20s and it was much to early to lose a contemporary.  But she died living the adventure that was her life – a motorcycle accident.  Donnie was dying a slow miserable death – one that she fought and fought – but ultimately lost.  It wasn’t a fair.  She was leaving a 4-year-old daughter – the reason she fought so hard enduring the chemo and the bone marrow transplant and all the indignities of a serious illness.  It was horrific to watch.  But oh, how she fought.  In 2016, I would lose Susan, but I didn’t know that yet.  I didn’t even know Susan yet.  My third best friend gone too soon.

The Bings at the time were a group composed of three brothers and a few others.  They played old-time mountain music which is not to be confused with bluegrass.  I like both types of music, but they are decidedly different.  Mountain music is more melodious, carefree yet haunting.  It got into my soul.

I woke that morning to Mike Bing standing before a portable cookstove on a picnic table.  He had his mandolin and was strumming between sips of tomato juice from a mason jar and stirring the sausage gravy he was making.  I will never forget that image – it was so quintessentially Bing.

Later that same day, Donnie’s daughter would be standing on the bench of that same picnic table washing dishes in a plastic tub – her four-year-old hips switching to the music the Bings were near the fire playing.  It escapes me now what Amanda’s favorite song was, but she had one and they were playing it. 

Later Kirk Judd would take us for a short drive to show us the area – I remember standing on a mountain looking at the scene below while Kirk recited poetry.  I was one with the universe.  I have never been so happy and content.  It was a powerful moment – another I will always remember.

The next day we woke to rain.  Pouring rain.  Mike’s wife, Monica, passed out ponchos and we carried on – the kids all running around like heathens having the time of their life.  As were we all. 

It cleared up and we took the kids down river to some rock falls with a bar of soap.  The water was turn-you-blue cold.  Really.  I watched my son slide down the rocks into the water, wade out, run up the side of the river to do it all again, his lips blue and his skinny little body shivering.  But he had a smile on his face as wide as mine.  As wide as the Allegheny plateau.  I wonder if he remembers.

The whole weekend was food, music, and fellowship amidst the glory that is the Monongahela Forest.  Amidst the bittersweetness of a dying friendship.  Amidst haunting lyrics.  Amidst fine people.

That weekend changed my life.

I’ve only camped on the Williams one other time since then and it was a disappointment due to a failure to plan.  Long story.  The river wasn’t a disappointment – it couldn’t be.  But we couldn’t get a campsite, etc. etc.

But oh, I long to go again.  To hear the music and the laughter and shouts.  To remember a good friend, my best friend, who died too soon.  And to remember the others I’ve lost amidst the healing of the Williams River.

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