Sumbitch Country lies 150 miles up the Potomac where the river threads its way in looping oxbows through a mountainous land of hardwood forests and one-eyed turkey hunters.
Sumbitch is one of the essential parts of speech thereabouts, a piece of vocabulary so versatile it can describe everything from men to turkeys to the rusted-up blade of a rotary lawnmower.
"Know anything about these mowers?" asked Raymond Higgins. "I can't get the sumbitch off."
I was only too happy to be invited to hold a monkey wrench on the morning I met Ray Higgins, who is one of the last people who still lives beside the C&O canal where he spent his boyhood. I'd turned off the towpath and ventured nervously onto his property, remembering the fellow in PJ's Coffee Shop in Paw Paw, W.Va., the day before who'd said: "Ray Higgins can tell you some things. 'Course the sumbitch might shoot you, too."
Ray Higgins was unarmed, napping on the porch of the house he was born in. He popped up, a trim 73-year-old man wearing two oxford shirts, black glasses and an engineer's cap. Thick freckled hands dangled at his side. He had a chronic bad back that forced him to walk with a bit of a stoop, as if he were burdened with an invisible backpack. (Our postures are remarkably similar.)
His place just past mile 148 on the towpath is a tidy collection of chicken coops, wood piles, rain barrels, spring-filled bathtubs and weathered frame buildings. It is a settlement unserved by telephones or electricity, a vivid rendition of the practical, self-reliant life.
Ed Kasecamp, who rents a hunting cabin on the property, likes to call the compound, "Higginsville, Population 1."
Other old people I met, Agnes and Pinkney Galliher, for instance, who live near Paw Paw, gladly reminisced about growing up as children in the waning years of the C&0 Canal. When they were newlyweds they moved into a lock house with Pinkney's father. They could recall when they were children and the grown-ups would come back with a bucket of beer. They heard the sound of bugles proclaiming the approach of barges, the cheerful whistle of the pay boat that brought each month's wages; they remembered how the water was drained each winter and filled the canal each spring, part of the seasonal rebirth in the valley.
Among many older people, the great floods of the Potomac, from the high waters of Hurricane Agnes in 1972 to the cataclysmic inundation in 1936, have not yet been exhausted as topics of conversation. If it had been last week, Agnes Galliher couldn't remember any better the green ribbon she made for Pinkney on St. Patrick's Day in 1936, as the floodwaters rose, the next day lifting her father-in-law's lock house off its foundation and carrying away the family's hogs.
Other than recounting the 100 barrels of corn lost in the '36 flood, Ray Higgins seemed happier discussing the future than the past. Perhaps anyone would who had been getting rabies shots for the past five weeks. Higgins had clubbed a possum on his porch with a 2 by 4. It revived and scratched his hand.
"I shoulda chopped the sumbitch in half," he said ruefully.
Except for three years in the Army, Ray Higgins has never left the home built by his father, a supervisor for the canal company. He never married either, but lived in the family house beside the canal with his mother until she died nine years ago at age 98. When his brother Paul died, he named a horse after him.
Ray Higgins gets to Cumberland occasionally, but years of isolation have piqued his curiosity about city life. "I should of stayed in the Army," he said. "I would have seen more of the world."
As we struggled to remove the blade on that sumbitch lawnmower, he told me he was thinking of relocating in Washington. He asked me where I lived, what my place was like. There was one other thing he wanted to know. He mentioned it matter-of-factly. "Your mother live with you?" he said.
At midday, Ed Kasecamp and his three buddies wheeled up, headed into Little Orleans for refreshment after a hard morning in search of turkeys. May is turkey-hunting season in Sumbitch Country.
The road that crosses the neck of land on which Higginsville is situated is called Kasecamp's Road; Ed's grandfather tended Lock 60 not far from where Ed, a cable television installer from Frostburg, Md., still tramps the hollows and combs the river, fishing and hunting with his buddies.
Offered a lift, I threw my pack into the bed of the pickup, and we were off, bouncing over the fireroads that slice through the oak and maple woods of Green Ridge State Forest. The truck stopped. Ed jumped out, baited a basket trap with a piece of calf liver and laid it in a stream, hoping to catch minnows for his bass hooks. The truck climbed past Chimney Hollow, cresting the ridge at Lookout Point. There the eye can gather the whole of the country: the long peakless mountains, the steep draws and creeks, and the river far below--the concentration of a vast watershed, turned to silver in the sunlight, its sweeping curves and coursing straightways conveying a sense of unity and might and magnificence.
There were five of us, Ed, Rick Broadbeck, who hasn't been able to find a job since getting out of the Army two years ago, John Beckman, a young collegian who seemed not to fit with the woods quite like the others though he clearly knew more about the biology of fish and game, and the buddy Ed jokingly called Bad-Eye.
In his camouflage hunting pants, Bad-Eye was somehow a menacing figure, combining the height of a basketball player with the midriff of a sumo wrestler. It was jocularly hinted that he owed his drooping, swollen eyelid to some venereal escapade. We exchanged words but once when the two of us were alone later that day. The conversation lasted about three seconds.
"How's the eye?" I said.
"F------ up," he growled, in such a way that I knew there was nothing further the two of us might pursue.
At Bill and Ethel Schoenadel's grocery in Little Orleans where worms are $1.35 a dozen and the walls are hung with whiskey jugs, guns and a woodcut of the C&0 Canal, the turkey hunters killed most of the afternoon thrashing out the world's problems with a couple of sumbitches at the bar. The highlight was a demonstration by a clever man from Hagerstown who had fashioned a turkey caller from a pill box and a condom.
On the way back, traveling with a case of Iron City beer, we stopped and fired shotguns at maple trees. The afternoon disappeared on the porch of Ed Kasecamp's hunting cabin with the horsehair plaster walls and the vignette of a buck frosted on the pane of the front door. Talk streamed forth, talk of war, women, shotguns, bait, deer, and of the woods. It continued when we took two skiffs and fishing poles up the river, dropped overboard the old mounting plates from the Western Maryland Railroad that served as anchors and held ourselves in check while the current of the black water riffled against the hulls. The talk was not eloquent, for it was being in the woods or out on the river that expressed what the good sumbitches were unable to say. Ray Higgins joined them later and all evening long the talk flowed from one subject to the next, returning always to the woods, the common ground. Tomorrow: Snakes and deer.