The Devil's Backbone-memoirish

In a dingy state park near my hometown there is a path up a hill known as The Devil’s Backbone. This particular path on this hill was mythical to me as a child. On our annual campout there the possibility of mounting The Devil’s Backbone was a terrifying and tantalizing challenge. This is because I half-believed that the twisty, knotty path was the actual devil’s spine, fixed for all eternity into place by some odd decree of the modern world, the same way I believed that he still lived in hell and that it was an effective means of showing my love for God to sit on the playground and flip ol' satan the bird through the asphalt, sometimes for the entire recess.

I was still at the age where the law of non-contradiction has not yet taken hold, so it was entirely possible for the devil’s backbone to be fixed into a gnarled path up a steep hill crowded with trees branches and roots and for him to be roaming the world tempting mortals with all manners of tricks while also ruling over the hellfires. For a few years I was much more concerned with the devil than I was with God or Jesus or anything else besides the nightly kneeling prayer of “Now I lay me down to sleep”—this latter because I knew that it might be the last thing I said before I saw the devil—or God, hence the prayer, but you never could tell – and anyway, God –or the devil, but you never could tell-- had a penchant for stealing children from my family in the middle of the night. I was forewarned.

But my devil curiosity was equalled by the rugged physical challenge of The Devil’s Backbone – sure, at any moment, the devil himself might make his spine dance in an effort to throw children down the hill, but it was just as likely that my brother and his friends would tackle me and throw me down the hill anyway. The supernatural only mattered at night, around the campfire crowded with drunk friends of my dad’s, when The Devil’s Backbone was entirely off limits to us kids. As soon as we could rouse the adults, we were off, trying to climb it. I’m sure it wasn’t always muddy, but I remember it as slippery; it was everything that a spine should be, except supine. In fact, it was almost vertical, or so it seemed to me with my fear of heights and a malicious brother to worry about. I would cling on to roots thicker than my bony arms and trip over others wider than my whole body, a wild little calculating lass making nice with the devil at one turn only to stomp on his vertebra the next chance I got. My mother seems to be in the center of the memory somehow—standing nearby but behind me as I shout out in spastic, breathy gales, “We’re almost to the top!! We’re gonna make it to the top!! This old devil won’t throw me off!! We’re almost to the top of The Devil’s Backbone!!”.

I don’t remember the top. The summit means nothing to me as I think back– no sense of jubilation or triumph. Perhaps I was already aware that one doesn’t gloat over the devil, even if emboldened by certain arrogant country and western songs on the radio. There is no coming down, perhaps because there was no arriving at the top. There is only, in memory, a perpetual ascent interwoven with a late-night hoot-owl sighting that would draw my eyes upwards inadvertenty before I could cast them back down again. There was only the outside and thus wild equivalent of prayerful kneeling with eyes traveling from the sky (or as close as my bedroom ceiling permitted) to my hands held in their perfect palm-facing posture. The myth and the magic of the backbone isn’t that it might or might not be the devil in person upon whose back I trod– my mind had no desire for truth claims such as that – but rather than in succeeding to climb it, I showed myself in some odd way to be kith and kin of the devil. Was I in unknowing cahoots with the devil? Were all my pious nights kneeling at the edge of my big canopy bed just a sham for the few wild nights I imagined while camping out in the shadow of The Devil’s Backbone? Was I a tiny but precocious erstwhile bacchante, clinging to the back of any myth that would have me? I don’t think it’s an accident that my strongest memory of The Devil’s Backbone seems to be the last one. There is a finality to it, as if a chapter closed and a new roman numeral appeared suddenly on the horizon.

The next memory—willy-nilly pressed up against this one—is my sudden revulsion for the gaze of God. I would take my cat Boo-Boo and hide in my bedroom closet with the light off, just a mere two feet from the place of prayer, and sit there, rejoicing in the fact that God could not—for a few moments at least—see me. It offended what must have been a sense of free will to think that he would always be watching -- that, and a rebellion against parental watchfulness--but why wouldn't God trust me, I wondered? Ironically, I was perhaps a better servant of God when I was running amock with the devil in the state of nature than I ever was in my angel-ready prayerfulness. I was certainly more alive, since the angel girl had one foot in the grave, always anxiously resigned to have her soul taken with each new "now I lay me down." These were surely my first steps towards atheism: those grasping, twisting, reckless but painstaking maneuvers I clumsily executed to make it up The Devil's Backbone without falling.