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Laurel Hell

Photo credit: National Education Association


I lost my cell phone in the George Washington National Forest last November, on a Sunday, hiking with friends. Glenn Youngkin had just been elected governor of Virginia, the first Republican elected to statewide office since 2009, dousing our purplish-blue years with MAGA red. 

At home, I felt lost and abandoned myself, as though a piece of me were still in the woods, scared of the dark and lonely, worried in yet more ways about the state and this country—a feeling exacerbated by the fact that I managed to lock myself out of my Verizon account trying to sign in too many times with the wrong password.

That night I dreamt I was walking around the mall, which was weirdly blank and sparsely peopled—a surreal kind of hell.

The next morning I was at the Verizon store on Wards Road by 9:00 am, when the website said it opened, except the sign on the door said the store opened at 10:00 am. So I did what my dream self knew I would do: I went to the mall.

The mall was weirdly blank and sparsely peopled and surreal because, even though the mall doors had opened, all the stores were still closed. I walked laps with the elderly mall lap-walkers, from the Food Court-under-construction to Belk to JC Penny, past Sea Quest and Bounce About Inflatable Playground, and around again. 

Then I returned to the Verizon store—where the sales clerk couldn’t process my insurance claim or do anything other than tell me to go home and re-register at My Verizon, which asked me for my account PIN and offered a human-less customer service number, which asked me for my account PIN. To change my account PIN, I had to sign into my locked account with a password I couldn’t remember: a no-password-no-PIN hell with no exit. 

We’d been hiking in the woods that Sunday to witness rich stands of mature and old growth before those trees, mostly oak and pine, were gone. Before the U.S. Forest Service, in accordance with the George Washington Forest Pedlar River North Vegetation Plan, carried out logging 558 acres and doing prescribed burns on 4,432 acres of forestland. Many of these areas, such as the one we were in, had grown over a hundred years, achieving complexities of interrelations we humans are just beginning to understand, and, even in our hyper-connectedness, still lag behind.

After I realized my phone had dropped through the hole in my pants pocket, I turned back alone to retrace my steps and ended up thrashing through what’s known as a laurel hell. In a laurel hell, itself a kind of old growth, mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia—sometimes over 20 feet tall, more crooked evergreen tree than shrub—grows so thick and close the area is almost impassable. Horace Kephart, author of Our Southern Highlanders, wrote in 1913 that these hells were “impassable save where the bears have bored out trails.” On some maps of the Appalachians, these thickets have names like Huggins’ Hell and Jeffrey’s Hell, in memory of those swallowed by the laurels.

A different morass that swallows too many here is voter disenfranchisement. Virginia was, in 1830, the first state to ban felons from voting. It remains one of only three states in which all felons are permanently disenfranchised, unless granted particular individual dispensation by the governor. Which hits hardest the already disproportionately hard-hit. Youngkin, surprisingly, restored voting rights for almost 3,500 former felons this fall, but that number pales beside Terry McAuliffe’s 2016 executive order restoring the right to vote to more than 200,000 former felons or Ralph Northern’s 2021 order to re-enfranchise 69,000. Unsurprisingly, house Republicans in the General Assembly have blocked a constitutional amendment that would automatically and humanely restore voting rights upon time served.

I think of all the ways voting and even living have been and are hell for too many in this country. From Jim Crow and the historical catch-22s of redlining to the present jigsawed contortions of gerrymandering and the Supreme-Court sanctioned alienation of women and others from the autonomy of their own bodies. Climate change has been documented as a notoriously abstract issue for people to comprehend, even as it will inevitably touch each of us—our most befuddling conundrum.

On that Sunday last November, in that particular laurel hell, without my phone—in fact, well beyond reach of cell service even if I’d had a phone—I clutched branches and stooped and staggered through the dense weave of subcanopy in a claustrophobic and disoriented panic, as if I’d been transported to a previous century, a time and place I was technically and technologically ill-prepared for.

But, after a sweaty and scratched-up while, I breathed and relaxed into an awed joy in my tangled old-growth surroundings. Light trickled in, small critters rustled in leaf litter, a Carolina wren tea-kettle tea-kettle tea-kettled. The more I stilled, the more I saw, heard, and felt. A breeze carried in a murmur of far-off human voices. I zigzagged toward them, eventually finding my way back to my hiking pack. 

And I’m here to say, a laurel hell is heaven, truly. Seventh heaven compared to the maze I finally emerged from with Verizon, or the tangle of forestry decision-making that goes into planning which tree communities get logged on which acres and for what and whom. 

“Forest preservation is a climate solution,” as Carole King wrote in her recent NYT opinion piece, “It Costs Nothing to Leave Our Trees as They Are.” Negotiating how we live and how we vote should not be weirdly blank, sparsely peopled and treed, or surreal like a nightmare mall or some worse infernal circle of hell (as in Youngkin’s AG’s new Election Integrity Unit, dedicated to ensuring “legality and purity in elections,” which sounds just shy of a macabre purity ball).

Rather, we should be entangled in a labyrinth of community, rich and interwoven, giving and receiving. There’s the thread. Some would argue a labyrinth is not a puzzle or a maze. A maze must be branching, with many confusing paths and dead ends. But once you step onto the labyrinth’s sole path, you can’t lose your way. It winds you to the center, the inner vestibule, the convoluted heart, where all began and is beginning. Each politic being granted grace and dignity in breathing, dying, grieving, abiding. Complicated, sure. But an overarching healthy, thriving complexity, like a laurel hell.