The date for our trip was Friday, May 22, 1992. Mrs. Falkner said we shouldn’t go on the weekend leading into Memorial Day—then asked us why. (She almost always did that, asked us why about things.) I raised my hand. She smiled, nodded in my direction.
“Because it might be more crowded?” I said.
Mrs. Falkner looked at the other students. “What do you think, class? Could that be a reason?” (She often did that, too—made us think about what someone else in the class had just said.)
Everyone seemed to agree. And Mrs. Falkner said, “Yes, that was my thinking, too. We’d like to be on Middle Island mostly with things that are not people.”
And went on with our planning.
We learned a lot of interesting things about Middle Island—and about the community of St. Mary’s, West Virginia, that sits right on the shore of the river nearby.
White farmers arrived in the 1790s and routinely buried their dead there in a little cemetery. But as time passed, people neglected the cemetery, forgot about it. Eventually it was plowed over. Now, only plants and wildlife life on the island—everything from ducks to blue herons to bald eagles. There are small mammals, too, like rabbits, deer, raccoons, and red foxes.
The town of St. Mary’s, now the county seat of Pleasants County, was laid out in 1849 and then—as now—it followed the Ohio River. A man had supposedly seen a vision of the Virgin Mary on the site. A steamboat landing lay at the western end of town. For years, the only way across the river was by ferryboat. Now there’s a nearby bridge, and train tracks run right through the center of town, CSX locomotives and trains sharing the street with cars and pedestrians.[i]
The weather was perfect that day of our trip—almost as if Mrs. Falkner had ordered it from a catalogue. Low 80s. No chance of rain. Hardly any wind at all.[ii] Brown-bag lunches in hand, we all filed onto the bus,; several parents were going along, too, including Mrs. Eastbrook. She smiled when she came on the bus and saw Harriet and me sitting together. She couldn’t have been surprised. But I always liked her smile. It had become more rare in the months and years after Dr. Eastbrook had disappeared.
The trip didn’t take very long, only about a half-hour or so from our school to the Refugee Headquarters. We crossed the river near Marietta into Williamstown, West Virginia, then followed Waverly Road. As soon as we pulled into the lot of the Headquarters, Mrs. Falkner told us to wait a minute. She went inside. We waited. We waited. (We were not good at waiting—not patiently, anyway.)
A hundred years later, she came out and walked briskly to the bus. “Okay,” she told us, “they’re ready for us. We’ll go in—quietly—and one of the rangers will talk with us about the islands and about what we can expect to see today. Be sure to have your questions ready!”
Right outside—just before we entered—I noticed a sparrow had built its nest in the framework of the roof overhanging the entryway. The sidewalk was splattered with bird droppings, so I watched my step, then looked up at the mother bird, who was looking right back at me, her bright right eye gleaming blackly. I had an odd sensation—that she was trying to tell me something. A feeling I dismissed as silly. Impossible.
Inside were several rooms, but in the main one the ranger’s information desk near the door and at the back was a large window overlooking the Ohio River. The ranger, a cheerful, knowledgeable woman, talked awhile about the islands—about the Refuge—and about Middle Island, which lay about sixteen miles upriver from the Headquarters. She reminded us that no one now lived on the island—except plants and wildlife—and that there were only a couple of buildings.
In another large room we looked at some of the displays about the island, about the wildlife (they had living fish and turtles there), then boarded the bus again and headed east on a narrow country road that passed farmers’ fields full of hay baled in large rolls, some mobile home parks. A rail line ran between us and the river. We passed an old cemetery, and as I looked at the stones gliding by, it seemed to me that some of them were glowing. Faint, pastel colors softly illuminating the ground. Dream-like …
We passed some chemical plants, too. And, not far from our destination, a power plant whose large cooling towers made it look like a nuclear plant. But it wasn’t. It was coal.
Mrs. Falkner had told us something terrible that had happened at the plant. On Thursday, April 27, 1978, they were pouring concrete for an additional tower that had reached the height of 166 feet, but the scaffolding gave way, and the entire structure collapsed into a mangled pile of concrete and steel. And human bodies. Fifty-one workers fell to their deaths that day. One family from nearby St. Mary’s lost eleven of its members.
As we drove past the plant, we could see the towers, very close to the road, and all of us were very, very quiet, thinking of that day, the day that so much happiness and hope had ended in a moment.
St. Mary’s, right on the Ohio River, is a small, attractive town. Old-fashioned looking. The way towns used to look before malls and expressways and national franchises changed the look of everything—made places all over the country look just like any other place.
A little ways into town, we turned left on George Street, and there, just a couple of blocks in the distance, we could see a rough bridge connecting St. Mary’s to the island. Opened in 1928 and called the Short Route Bridge, it had originally crossed the entire river, with only a ramp descending to Middle Island. But—worried about its safety—they closed the Short Ridge in 1969 and had only ferry service until they dedicated a new bridge in 1977. They destroyed most of the old Short Route Bridge. Only the portion leading down to the island remained. We looked at the sign as we slowly approached the bridge: Middle Island, it said. Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
A whump! of bus tires and we were on the bridge. Slowly we moved forward, and we could see, just ahead, a sharp right turn that would carry us down to the island, down to a narrow road that ran alongside the river at the island’s northern shore.
As we crept along the road, the bus would sometimes stop at one of the Refuge signs, and Mrs. Falkner would ask one of us seated on that side of the bus to read it aloud for the rest of us. But at one place we got off and took a look for ourselves. It was a marker that told us that some graves had once been there—some graves that had been destroyed by earlier farming activity on the island. These were the ones we had learned about in class. I looked at the names and dates. The earliest was born in 1776, the same year as the Declaration of Independence. And even the most recent one was a long, long time ago, a person born in 1815. I also noticed that one person had died in 1818. The year that Frankenstein was first published.
We saw that the dirt around the stone had recently been raked. As if someone were somehow caring for it.
Middle Island is about two miles long (and 240 acres), and about halfway along the road are the two maintenance buildings. There, we parked the bus and began our walk along the nature trail, a loop of about a mile that took us, at first, through high grass, then into the woods. And just as we were entering the woods, things began to happen.
I had noticed as we were crossing the bridge on the bus that the sky to the west was starting to look … different. A gray line of clouds seemed to be approaching—not dark storm clouds but the sort you see when the day is going to change from sunny to cloudy. Nothing to worry about. But by the time we reached the trail, the clouds were on us, and visibility was already diminishing. I could hear Mrs. Falkner, just ahead of us, call back and say: “Stay close to your partner, everyone. It may get a little foggy.”
Harriet and I took that as our cue to hold hands. And the moment we entered the woods, the very moment, the fog settled in on us, and I could not see anything.
Harriet did not seem at all worried. In fact, she seemed positively excited about not being able to see anything in front of us. “It should be pretty easy to stay on the trail,” I said hopefully. “The grass is cut low and as long as we don’t bump into any bushes or trees,” I added, “we should know that we’re still on the trail.”
Harriet’s “Hmmm, yes” was her only reply.
We inched along, the scrape and tread of our feet on the ground—and our breathing—the only sounds. Then Harriet did something that changed everything. She dropped my hand and cried, “I’m going to run ahead and scare some of the others!” And before I could stop her, before I could say anything, she had disappeared into the mist. And I was alone.