*The text here is from a talk I gave as part of Elon University's Numen Lumen weekly storytelling event.
It’s November 2018, Thanksgiving, and I’m making my way to West Virginia, 14 miles past the Virginia border into to a place that no longer supports a store, post office, or gas station. No cellphone service. My pal from graduate school, now working as a librarian in Spartanburg, South Carolina, has agreed to come along for the ride. We prepare for three days with 24 degree weather and no running water.
We are making our way to the little turn in the road where my father was born, which has been all but abandoned for about thirty years now, save a few old houses that get dusted off and used during hunting season. Clover Lick, unincorporated, a sign reads, sits along the Greenbrier River, and declined around the same time that the train stopped coming. Today, Clover Lick is mostly in a state of neglect. My cousin maintains one of the houses, always dubbed “Cold Comfort Farm” in our family, and this is where we will stay.
As a kid, there were two houses in Clover Lick where family would hang out. Cold Comfort Farm is where the aunties would drink box after box of Franzia wine, and chain smoke cigarettes. I spent time at the other house, a big old farmhouse, which was always a mysterious wonderland of treasures - go karts in the barn that we’d swim out to the river and drive off the rock, knitting arranged in baskets to cover up bottles of whiskey. There were distinctly southern things that, as a child of the pacific northwest, baffled and intrigued me. A screened in porch where you could watch fireflies, a sitting room that nobody ever seemed allowed to sit in.
We’d climb in the windows of old buildings and liberate the things that were left behind - mouse-chewed books about anthropomorphized animals or old bottles left behind in the general store. The best find we located is a series of letters between my grandparents in the 1930s and 1940s, before she passed in 1947. He followed three years later when my father would have been about five years old. These letters were the only thing I had as witness to their lives, something that was a proxy to tell their story. I often credit Clover Lick as being my archivist root, the place that made me look for meaning in papers.
I visited Clover Lick for the last time at the age of 10, but with all of the relatives gone, we stopped making the trip. I graduated from high school, ran away to Portland, Oregon, where I lived a bit of a Portlandia existence: I worked in coffee shops and vintage clothing stores, got certified as a bicycle mechanic, got a bunch of tattoos, and came out as queer. In Portland, it occurred to me that I could actually work with old papers and get paid for it, so I decided to pursue a joint master’s degree of library studies and archival studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. After that, I moved to Arizona for an internship and ended up staying for real jobs. I worked for nearly seven years at the state archives of Arizona, and started and dropped out of a Ph.D. Program in history, where I was writing about tattoos as personal archives.
I’m not sure Clover Lick would have occurred much to me except my life took an unexpected turn in 2016. Somewhere in the middle of me doing a ton of bicycle advocacy, helping start a rock and roll camp for girls, and trying to rescue every cat, I was diagnosed with cancer. I knew something was wrong for awhile, but kept pushing through hoping someone would finally diagnose me. Three weeks after I accomplished a bucket list item of riding a century, 120 miles on my bike from Phoenix to Tucson, I sat on an examination table and listened as I was told that at age 35, I had colon cancer, the same thing that my grandfather hadn’t been able to survive just two years before i was born.
Waiting for a diagnosis is agony, but once you get diagnosed with the big C, everything begins to happen fast. I was diagnosed on Thursday by a gastroenterologist, she pulled some strings to get me into one of the top surgeons, and I was in his office on Tuesday learning about my treatment plan. It involved coordinating three different doctors: a radiation oncologist, a medical oncologist for the chemo, and a surgeon. Within a week, I had a port installed - a catheter that’s implanted under the skin in my chest and threaded with a tube that fed chemo into the big vein on the right side. I try to convince my mother that years of getting covered in tattoos had prepared me for the endless array of needles I’d be facing over the next year.
Two major things happened for me during cancer. First, when the cancer got cut out, my digestive system got rerouted. So this has been a process of learning to exist in a new body, and it’s still hard to talk about, so I don’t tend to do that in these spaces up here in front of people. The other thing that happened is that the radiation sent me into medically induced menopause, so dealing with hot flashes and night sweats also became part of the array of symptoms I had to contend with.
One thing about cancer is that time becomes warped. Sometimes it’s a flurry of appointments and lots of hurrying up and waiting. And other times you can sleep 10 hours away and it feels like a blink of an eye. And other times, you’re turning over in bed for hours and hoping the sweats subside so you can sleep. During this time, my mom would mail me fat envelopes of family archives every week.
I finish cancer treatment in December of 2016, and as soon as I feel like I can think clearly, I start to look for a place to start fresh. I’m tired of the sprawl of Phoenix, and besides, 120 degree days and hot flashes are no fun. Three months after finishing chemo, I fly to North Carolina and somehow, meandering my way out of the chemo fog, I convince them to give me the job.
After an epic road trip that involves me, my dad and sister, seven cats, and a tetanus shot in Little Rock, Arkansas, I arrive to Elon and am so happy to have the space to clear the noise of the previous year. I spend a lot of time at home, grow a garden, establish a safe bike route to work, and promise myself that I will not join a board for a year. I take road trips to the beach, to the mountains, and discover that Clover Lick is just 4.5 hours away, and my cousin in Charlottesville who I haven’t seen since I was ten, plots with me to drive out there and visit the farm. When we arrive, it’s already dark outside. The house has been shut up for months, and it smells exactly how I remember - sort of an old musty smell where the wood never fully dries out.
We explore some of the old buildings and places that have meant something to the family. In one house, I find school photographs of my sister and myself from grade school on a mantle. We find an old set of Lionel trains from the 1940s. What feels so shocking about Clover Lick is that it feels so utterly abandoned, and it reminds me of a favorite episode of This American Life that I’ve kept in the queue for many years now. The podcast is about a bunch of kids breaking into old houses in Freedom, New Hampshire, and how as adults they feel about looking back on climbing into a house that has been forgotten by time. They say, “The abandonment is melancholy. In a way, it's worse than throwing away, much worse. I can understand one family being obliged to flee or run or abandon, but that nobody else cared. That it was so overwhelmingly abandoned by everybody, that...nobody cared to pick it up and give it a proper burial.”
I stand on the porch of the store my grandparents ran when they were living. I can’t help but feel a little relief that circumstances led to my dad growing up in the suburbs of DC. I think about what it’s like to come back now to this place. I feel a tinge of guilt that I am benefiting from looking pretty straight. I think of how many of the people I’ve loved and love would feel really unsafe in this place, where there is such a cavalier mixing of alcohol and guns and trucks. We counted 15 confederate flags between here and Burlington, something I never saw in the West and which is still so jarring to see.
Sometimes, growing up, we hear that we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, if we don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all. And these prevailing beliefs sometimes mean that we don’t have the ability to think critically about our history. Therefore, we never talk about how public records tell us that my grandfather died of a heart attack at age 47 related to complications caused by chronic alcoholism. In fact, this was news to my dad when I shared the death certificates with him. My grandmother died from the same cause at age 33, her youngest child just under 2 years old. We don’t talk about how my dad’s relatives offered my mom homemade dandelion wine as she was clearly several months pregnant, and didn’t seem to understand why she turned it down.
In archives, we encounter a lot of contested family history, because people tell the story they want to believe about themselves. Maybe nobody talks about why my grandparents passed away because it’s a source of shame or a source of pain. It’s legitimate to not to want to relive pain by retelling the story. But what if, in an effort to avoid uncomfortable conversations or to tarnish any reputations, we hold all that grief in and don’t allow folks to process it?
Ironically, processing is the same term we use in archives to work through collections, arrange and describe them, and make them available to others. I’m currently a processing a collection of letters between my dad’s aunt and uncle who took him in after his parents passed - letters between Clover Lick and Charlottesville in 1932. I’m organizing them, rehousing them into acid free materials, and they’ll be making the trip to Charlottesville, where they’ll join the UVA Archives and Special Collections.
Clover Lick has been a complicated place to visit, and I’m still learning how my story fits into this place, how to reconcile some of the troubling history of my family, and how to take ownership of the problems in our family in an effort to address them more openly. I’m grateful to return to Clover Lick and demystify the place, fill in gaps in the history, and also honor what it’s meant to me. When the last of the relatives, Uncle Bo, passed away, he left my sister and I a sizable piece of land near Clover Lick. Never having been back to the land, we opted to sell it, and it’s what paid for my first car and my college education. And it occurs to me now that this strange place that was my archivist root is also the place that provided the opportunity to get there.