Madison Monday: the view from Scenic Drive

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Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them. . .a place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.

Inspired by this quote from Joan Didion sent to me by a friend, I’ve set out to write more intentionally about Madison as a scenic place. I’ve covered our windows, streets, the stacks, the valley and the view in winter so far. How did I not think to write about Scenic Drive, which is, obviously, pretty scenic?

Scenic Drive

My drawing of Scenic Drive

For those of you not familiar with Scenic Drive, I’ve included my own artistic rendering of this road that leads into the Hanover College campus. I may have taken some liberties in my interpretation. Scenic reminds me of one of the roads I often traveled growing up just up the river from Madison in Northern Kentucky. Mile Hill is a portion of State Highway 20 that descends into the Ohio River Valley past the Cincinnati airport (do not be confused here–the Cincinnati airport is actually in Kentucky). It’s one of those roads that feels like driving a roller coaster and was famous for the number of tractor-trailers that would fall over one particular curve.

Having grown up driving roads like this, Scenic Drive is nothing very out of the ordinary for me. It’s slightly more dangerous because there are also many college students driving it, and you can imagine how that goes sometimes. Though it probably takes longer and sometimes puts my life at risk, I still take Scenic Drive almost every morning when I drive into work because it truly lives up to its name.

In every season, Scenic Drive provides views of the southern Indiana forest and the steep canyons that make up the local terrain. As in Clifty Falls State Park just down the road, there are large rock outcroppings that jut out of the ground. On Scenic Drive, they loom across the road, looking as if they appeared only moments before you came around the last curve. These geographic features are convincing reminders of the fact that the landscape around us is dynamic and changeable.

One of the things I love about driving down Scenic is the opportunity it provides to observe the seasons, especially when you travel it on a daily basis. In winter with the trees bare, the Ohio River becomes visible as a bright space of light in the distance. You can often see the creek flowing in the steep canyon below, and even perhaps Horseshoe Falls.

Scenic Drive HanoverIn the spring, the tiny sliver of space along the side of the road is planted with daffodils, which begin to poke their heads up early and then break into bloom. They compete for your attention with the all the wild flowers coming up in the woods. As I drive down Scenic every morning early in the spring, I study the trees closely for the first sign that the buds will be coming soon. And then I get to watch as the woods go from bare gray, to a fuzzy yellow-green, and then the full, deep green of summer. In fall, the trees put on a whole new performance, made all the more beautiful by the view of the trees along the valley in the distance, sometimes looking as if the sun were a spotlight being shone upon them.

In all seasons, there are squirrels, whom I work very hard to avoid harming. One summer, I found a litter of kittens along the side of Scenic Drive, and quite luckily managed to give them all away at a 4th of July party. I’ve seen groundhogs, deer, raccoons and opossum. And of course, Hanover College students running and walking and generally just wandering around (I refuse to speculate any further as to what other activities students engage in on Scenic Drive).

I love Scenic for all these reasons, but also for the special meaning it has for me. I cannot turn down Scenic Drive without thinking of Daryl Karns, a biology professor at the college who passed away two years ago. The Natural History Trails at Hanover are named for Daryl. These trails run from the Point on Hanover’s campus all the way to the Horseshoe Falls that are sometimes visible from the road. The trail runs along the valley floor below and can be entered from the campus end of Scenic Drive. It was while sitting on a committee with Daryl that I first became aware of the extensive trail system on the campus.

Scenic Drive HanoverPerhaps this explains why the physical space of Scenic Drive is so linked to the memory of Daryl for me. Our brains are spatially-oriented; ancient memorization techniques capitalize on this design feature of our minds. A memory palace is a way to remember vast amounts of often meaningless information by re-creating physical spaces in your brain and mentally associating numbers or names or dates with those physical spaces. Literally, our memory works best when we make it into a place–a place with which we are intimately familiar.

It makes sense then that certain places in the real world would also become memory holders. Scenic Drive makes me think of Daryl, and by a kind of association, also a former student who died in the same general time period. So every day during the semester, I turn down Scenic Drive and enjoy the beautiful views of nature there. But I also think of death and the people who have been lost to it.

I certainly think of the gap in the universe that the loss of these people created. But I also think of how they might tell me to go through my day if we could still talk across that divide. I know they would want me to teach as well as I possibly can. I know they would want me to try and suck up every moment I possibly could, because their number is not infinite. I know they would want me to be kind, and then be kinder, and then keep on being kind. I know they would want me to enjoy the view, and so I do.

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