Journeys from The Writer’s Center

By David Goodrich

Originally published in the Winter/Spring issue of The Writer’s Center Magazine

My friends know that I ride my bicycle quite a bit. Some years back, I started a job in Geneva, Switzerland, and for the first few weeks I was living in a hotel with only my bike for wheels. In my spare time, I would explore nearby France in ever widening loops, in the general direction of the Jura Mountains, which have roughly the same dimensions as the Blue Ridge. On one of my widest orbits, I came to the foot of the Jura. In my pidgin French, I asked for directions to the Route Forestière (Forestry Road), which would take me over the mountains, according to the map. The gentleman pointed me to the entrance, and then said, “Bon courage.” I remember thinking, “I wonder what he means by that.” The road quickly turned to rough gravel and the grade to serious vertical. I didn’t last long.

The Writer’s Center has been like that for me. Before coming to The Writer’s Center, I’d done some long rides, including out to Oregon, and had been blogging along the way. I knew that I wanted to write something but had no idea how to publish, or more importantly, how to write. I started doing my little concentric circles virtually, out of The Writer’s Center, and had my share of “bon courage” moments. I took workshops from Ellen Herbert, Sara Taber, John Morris, David Taylor, and Desirée Magney.

Probably the most important workshop, though, was by Lynn Stearns. In her sessions, she worked through my draft story about riding across Kansas. That was what it took. The first piece appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Potomac Review. After a few more pieces in journals, I had enough of a portfolio to approach an agent, then an editor. My third book, about riding the Underground Railroad, comes out in February.

A big part of the writing process for me has involved my writing group, which was formed after a workshop in 2015. We’re friends now, and we’ve gotten accustomed to each other’s strengths and foibles. Probably because of that friendship, we can dish out rougher criticism than one might expect from strangers.

Sometimes the journeys start almost literally from Bethesda. When my first book about riding across the US came out, I did a reading at The Writer’s Center. A cycle gang was in attendance, the Babes on Bikes group, who rode over from Virginia. One of them, Lynn Salvo, hung around after, and it turned out that we were both riding across some piece of Canada that summer. The mantra came to be Meet Me in Moose Jaw (Saskatchewan). After a whole lot of prairie, we did. She also rode with me following Harriet Tubman’s route from the Maryland Eastern Shore to Ontario, the setting for the first half of the new book, On Freedom Road. The following excerpt comes from the book:

One stop along the way was Troy, New York, north of Albany, the site of one of Harriet Tubman’s most famous rescues. Charles Nalle had escaped from his enslavers in the Virginia Piedmont and settled in Troy. Two years later, slave hunters sent from Virginia kidnapped him off the street and were preparing to send him back south. Tubman, who happened to be in town, dressed as an old woman and slipped into the US Commissioner’s Office, where Nalle was being held. Grabbing him and yelling to the crowd outside, she incited a riot outside that shortly led to Nalle’s escape.

I was still obsessed by Nalle’s saga three years after the original ride through Troy. As I read more into his story, I realized that he had been enslaved not so far from where I lived. So it came to pass that Lynn and I rode near Culpeper, Virginia, in the middle of a 70-mile day, looking to find the place where Blucher Hansbrough held his half-brother Charles Nalle in bondage. On a prominent ridge east of town, we parked the bikes on a gate marked “No Trespassing” by the American Battlefield Trust. The Trust had given us permission to enter this now overgrown hillside. For Hansbrough’s Ridge, site of the plantation, has its own history. In the winter of 1863-64, it was the winter camp of the Army of the Potomac and its newly appointed commander, Ulysses Grant.

I walked up the Ridge with Lynn and with my wife Concetta, who had been driving support for us. The trail hadn’t been easy to find. The first road to the Ridge shown on Google Maps turned out to be a soybean field. In the thick midday heat, we made false turn after false turn on rutted, gravel roads. Finally, just off the main road, I caught sight of the Trust’s sign. We made our way past the gate up a path through second-growth forest. Nothing remains of the plantation. We walked to a place where we could look out on the Virginia Piedmont laid out below us. Off in the distance, the great blue shoulders of what is now Shenandoah National Park filled the horizon.

In 1864, Hansbrough’s Ridge was a canvas city, part of the 120,000-soldier winter encampment of Grant’s army. Its presence was well-documented. In photographs of the time, one can almost smell the smoke rising from campfires and hear the neighing of horses. There’s a certain camaraderie and warmth to the image of cold camp life in the Army’s hilltop fortress. Two and a half years into the war, the young men must have carried a quiet dread of the coming spring and the campaign from which many of them would not return.

Today the woods have reclaimed the encampment, but faint trench lines still run through the forest. Hansbrough’s Ridge is sometimes known as the Union’s Valley Forge. In May of 1864, the Union Army broke camp there to deliver the final blows that would finish the Confederacy: the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor, Petersburg.
The winter before, the gray eyes of Ulysses Grant looked out from where Charles Nalle had been enslaved to the sites of the battles to come.

So, my capsule advice to those taking on a writing project is this: Start slow, and don’t take on the Jura right away. Recognize that writing is a craft, and take advantage of the resources that The Writer’s Center offers.

In an event at the Center several years ago, author Richard Russo passed on the following:

You see a cello, and you immediately notice that it looks like a thing that will take years to master. Writing doesn’t announce itself as difficult, but it is. After all, we’ve been telling stories since we were eighteen months old. But writing is much harder than it looks. So cut yourself some slack.

Image: Members of the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment pose in their camp, with horse saddles and newly built
winter huts, in February 1864 on Hansbrough’s Ridge. Civil War photographs, 1861-1865, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

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