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Red Water

This was the year that the boys died in Appalachian Ohio, where the water runs red. Orange red, down from the old mountain mines and out of the ground. Such a distinctive, vivid shade. Fire-blaze bright—so ubiquitous, elementary school children in my county don’t color the water on their pictures blue.

They color it red.

In 2014, two young men—boys, really—died in the water, weeks apart: one in the river, one in the overflow creek of Dow Lake, which feeds, thinly, into the river. The boy in the river was missing for over a month. The boy in the creek: missing not long at all.

The river, the Hocking, is often high. It is, as I write this in late, cold spring, flooded almost to the top of the girders that hold up the highway. Swollen with rain, mud, and trash, the river covers some graffiti I’m fond of: two light pink, unfinished hearts on the bridge (unfinished, I assume, because the artist got caught).

Now the hearts bob in a muddy darkness. Roads have been closed and some of the small country schools.

I remember the name of the boy in the river: Sam Wiater—almost the word for water. I remember his face: full with a sharp chin and wavy, light-brown hair at an angle to his collar. He was twenty-one. He worked at the pizza place, where I’m almost positive I saw him, hair under a gray ball cap and hairnet; I was in there almost every week.

Did he smile at my kid, or punch my frequent pizza card? Was he the boy, who, when he fastened the box lid on a steaming pie, told me that for Valentine’s Day he had made the same pizza for a girl he liked and was hoping to date? He had made the pizza heart-shaped.

 

At first I thought the creeks were red because the red-clay soil had seeped into them. But the history of water in Appalachia is a history of coal, which is a history of exploitation, poverty, and hope. It is a history of darkness, of black diamonds.

Many of the underground coal mines in Appalachian Ohio dried to dust. It became hard to get the coal out without blasting the top off mountains. Some miners took trains west. The tunnels were abandoned, entrances boarded or plugged.

But water got through, flooding the mines: rainwater, and, because mines were dug below sea level, floodwater. When a mine operates, a pump constantly bails out water. When mines shut down, pumps shut down. The water comes rushing back. Metal, and what’s called overburden—the rock and soil that cover a coal seam—oxidize in the water and air. They make acid.

The acid trickles down, out of the mine, and into the water supply. In times of low water, the creeks in my country look like finger-paint spills: greasy and glowing orange.

 

Sam Wiater was missing for almost six weeks, during which time his mother, Trina, started a Facebook page devoted to his return. She wrote many posts: ruminations on God, her son, the work she was doing to find him. She had been praised by the police, she wrote. She was setting up a fund to raise money to hire a private investigator, which the cops recommended she do.

It’s not clear if a private detective was eventually hired, but likely, he would have been from Columbus, the closest city— ninety miles and a lifetime away. He might not have known how the water in Appalachia keeps secrets. He might not have known how the river holds on.

 

The Hocking River is a tributary of the mighty Ohio. It runs parallel to several cities, its watershed stretching through seven whole counties. It’s a river named after a bottle, which is how its headways are shaped.

I found bricks in the river.

The small town of Nelsonville runs along the Hocking. Along with coal, the town made jobs from clay, which men extracted and pressed into bricks, including paving bricks with a star design.

Nelsonville Star Bricks tile the main square in town. Everybody wants an old one, but they’re hard to find. They’re also stunning. Even in the ground as pavers, dust beaten into them, they shiver with an oil-and-water gloss, almost purple, lovely as a bruise. Patterned on the long, wide sidewalks, they look like a pressed tin ceiling. It makes you feel like you’re walking upside down.

The brick companies, like many of the mines, closed. The mistakes they made—misspellings in the stamped names, misshapen forms, bricks with too light or too heavy or discolored glaze—they dumped in the river.

 

Sam had come to town to be a musician, a town of bluegrass, fiddle, and foot stomping. Also a town of punk: screaming, sweaty garages, illegal shows in crowded houses. Things were not going well, though. He was worried about money, his mom Trina said.

The night he disappeared, he had a troubling or intense—no one labeled it a fight—conversation with his girlfriend, whom he lived with, along with a male friend. He talked to his mom on the phone and told her, when she asked, to come. But it was a long drive for his parents. Alone, he went to the river.

 

The Hocking holds onto bricks like bones. On some banks there are piles of them, half-in, half-out of the water: shipwreck debris. Around some bends in the river, the bricks make the banks, beaches of dark orange, mucky, moss-covered bricks, mostly broken but some whole, half-buried in mud, or submerged.

I gave my best brick to my dad. A brick with a thick design of swirls sculpted on top, and a heavy, uneven, silver-purple glaze. I imagine it was dumped because of that glaze. The brick was otherwise perfect.

I liked the brick mistakes, the more erroneous the better. One of my prize possessions is a brick I found in the river. Stamped HOCKING, the N on the brick is backward. I keep it on my desk. It’s so heavy, it’s dented the wood.

 

Sam’s girlfriend had gone to get him medicine at a drugstore after he had complained about not feeling well. There had been a birthday dinner a few days before. Sam had turned twenty-one. Trina had baked a chocolate cake.

That night, he said his stomach hurt. His girlfriend bought Tums. When she came back with the medicine, he brushed right past her, out of the apartment. He said he was going to the river. He said he wanted to die. He took the car, so she followed on foot with their dog. She found his Jeep, parked at a cutoff by the water, keys still in the ignition.

 

In the weeks after, the missing weeks, there were reported sightings in Columbus. There were flyers stapled to telephone poles. There would be flyers for a long time: his smiling, heart-shaped face yellowing, then flaking in the rain.

His mother’s Facebook posts increased and became increasingly haunted. The page she started, Bring Sam Wiater Home, has since been taken down and a memorial page added, but quotes from the original remain. They sound as if she is talking herself into something. “So what do we believe?” she wrote after one of the reported sightings.  “Obviously, he isn’t in the river.”

It was spring. People die in the spring.

 

I live in a floodplain. Every house in town has water in the basement, but I don’t live in town. And in the country, where my son and I live, roads can be closed because of water. Smaller villages, like Kilvert, can be cut off. Here, in the spring months, the floor mats of my CRV get coated with acid orange. When it dries, the mud flakes like pigment, a fine dust powder on the soles of my shoes.

I don’t trust people with clean cars. They haven’t cut the wheel to get around ruts, they haven’t seen mud slap up to the windows, they haven’t been pulled from a hole by a friend with a truck and chain. They haven’t been accidentally steered into a tree, which will make a dent on the truck, which will stay for life.

 

The river swirls and dashes against a jam, a bend in the river by White’s Mill. It’s the place where tires, trash, and offal end up. It was there that the fishermen found him, in the shadows under the bridge. It’s the place we all knew he would be but were afraid to go down to ourselves.

 

This is the story of a boy who jumped. But it’s also the story of a boy who fell. Just a few weeks before Sam’s body was discovered, police found another body. There was some talk initially, there was some concern. . . . But this body, this young man, this boy found in an overflow creek across from Dow Lake, was a stranger, an out-of-towner, a traveler, the police were quick to say.

The boy in the creek had a lot in common with Sam, the boy in the river. Their ages: Sam was twenty-one, the boy in the creek was twenty-two. Their race: both white. The way the boys looked: the boy in the creek had long, floppy, dark hair cut at an angle, as Sam did. They both had sharp chins. They both had alcohol and marijuana in their blood at the time of their deaths, though police did not believe this contributed to their deaths. They both played music.

Even their names were almost the same. The boy in the creek was named Sammie. Sammie Steven Donato.

 

I learned the names of the creeks. Some are named after days of the week: Sunday Creek, Monday Creek. Others, named after people: Margaret Creek.

In the water, I found a brachiopod fossil. I found a hunk of flint. I found a crayfish. Small, translucent, hidden in the ear of a shell. I threw it back. Once, kayaking in Marietta, a little south of my county, I drifted into the trees and into a web of invisible strings, hanging from the limbs like spider moss. They were fishing lines.

I found, when I pulled one of them up: a lead weight, silver and slippery with muck, clumsy in my hand as an egg yolk. Attached to the lines were handwritten notes, wrapped in plastic sandwich bags. These lines belong to . . . and a name I’ve forgotten. The handwriting was spidery, like grandfather cursive. No fish were on the lines.

Of course the lead of the weights gets into the water. Fertilizer runoff gets into the water. Acid mine damage gets into the water.

The river was safe, I was told the first time I kayaked the Hocking. Safe to touch. But if the water gets into your mouth, spit it out. It’s not fit to swallow.

 

Sammie Steven Donato was on a journey. He was walking alone. He had left his home in Mt. Orab, Ohio, a small town about two hours south of where he was found, and was headed for the East Coast. He had no particular time frame or destination in mind, but he had done it before, police said: a long, solo hike with no trouble. This time he found trouble.

Hikers found his backpack and other items on the path by the creek, which led police to search the water. It was spring. People die in the spring.

 

Dow Lake is part of a state park. There are a couple of ways to access the lake. The most popular entrance has parking lots, hiking trails, a beach, a shack that sells ice cream and rents boats. Sammie was found near the Dow Lake Dam. This is the back door to the lake: one rutted parking lot, one picnic table of splintered gray wood, and a rough hike up to a grassy bank, flat on top: the dam.

There is a rotted dock, sagging in the water like a shrug, but I’ve never seen anyone try to swim off it. The bank of the dam is high above the water, and long: a runway to the dark trees, where there are more hiking trails.

I’ve let my son run the top of the dam, run all the way to the woods, hoping he would burn off some energy, but it’s steep. It’s called an earth fill embankment. There is the lake on one side of the dam and down the other: weeds, sharp grass, a ditch. There is a drain at the deep end of the lake. It spills out under the highway into a creek, the creek where Sammie was found.

He lost something he was carrying, police said. He bent over to retrieve his lost belonging and slipped. He was, the police said, overcome: by the current, by the cold, by the deep, dark water. Overcome by the felled, dead tree found above him. He was overcome.

 

Sam had a disagreement. Sam was worried. Sam went walking to the river, swollen with the spring thaws.

Sammie went walking. It’s not clear what he was walking to, or away from. He had lived with a friend’s family for a time. His own family was large, including a sister named Marina, who had also died young.

There are the usual pressures of being young: money, alcohol, drugs. And then there are the pressures of being young in Appalachia, which can age you. Not enough jobs. Not enough housing. Rent is too expensive. No grocery stores for miles. Nothing to do. Nowhere to go.

 

In western Pennsylvania, companies are extracting the mineral dregs of the acid creeks that feed into the Allegheny, drying the material and selling it. Some of it ends up as crayons. Burnt Sienna.

In Ohio, the damage is being studied. One idea is to seal mine openings with special grout so water can’t get in. Another is to fill up the mine with a solid, like clay, or to add something alkaline, like soda ash, to neutralize the acid.

Or—in possibly the most ambitious of the solutions—to move the streams. Engineers would re-route the tributary streams that the acid slips into, bending them out of the way of the old mines.

The water has been moved before. The river was shifted in 1969 when, tired of their campus being flooded by the Hocking every spring—Ohio University built high bridges linking dorm to dorm like a monorail; you can see the green marks of the last great flood on the buildings’ white wooden sides. The university asked the Army Corp of Engineers to reroute the Hocking. The army refused.

So, the university built brand new dorms, allegedly right in the path of the water. And the Army Corp of Engineers rerouted the river.

Engineers have been working on the Dow Lake Dam. It’s troublesome, I guess. It’s not up to code. If it fails, there would be “expected loss of life” and at least one residence destroyed. I guess they run these scenarios. The drain needs to be replaced. Called a toe drain, it leads to a pipe, which travels under the highway, which spills into a red-orange creek where a boy died.

 

There’s a video online of Sammie dancing. In grainy, dark footage, half blocked by a table in the front of the shot, a computer screen pulsing blue in the background, he dances. I’m struck with how thin he is: his arms, all angles like a calf, his road-flat stomach. He’s good, too, raising his arms above his head, spinning. He wears a black and striped shirt, his face completely hidden by a white plastic mask, so white it glows, like flint in the river.

A girl in a silver mask and a high, blond ponytail joins him. They dance side by side, apart but together, to anonymous house music. Something on the radio. A boy—maybe the one who’s filming—says: Sammie probably won’t remember this.

 

Across the highway, there’s a wire and wood fence by the overflow creek. Poverty grass grows prickly and thick there, a lighter orange than the water, like bleached, bitter wheat. It’s called poverty grass because it grows just about anywhere, in bad conditions: not enough light, not enough water or nourishment in the sandy soil—it doesn’t matter for poverty grass. It grows in struggle, grows tall.

There are things in Appalachia that don’t seem to fit. There are things that don’t seem right, things we ignore or don’t say anything about because they’ve always been there. But why are they there? Why have bricks been allowed to tile the river and the wells fill up with fracking waste? And the drinking fountains in the school flow with lead? And the creeks run red? Orange red, the color of ruddiness, the color of fall. Burnt Sienna.

 

Once when I was hiking down from Dow Lake Dam with my son, we passed a trio in their twenties, two girls and a boy, headed up. They smiled at us, smiled at my kid, said hi. One of the girls, I remember, was dressed oddly, a plush robe, despite the swampy heat, and hiking boots. The other girl held a camera. The boy was carrying a beautiful, golden-velvet armchair. He balanced it on his head. This was strange, but I didn’t say anything.

In my borrowed kayak, paddling over the shallows of the river, I remember passing over brick after brick in the silent water. It felt like I was gliding over a graveyard. It felt like, long ago, the river was paved.

I know to be attached to so much beauty there’s also death, ever-present, like the pale-bellied frogs—or the birds I would find, remnants of bone and feathers, pressed into paving bricks. I tried to move my gaze away, so my son wouldn’t see.

After Dow Lake, my son and I headed back to the CRV. When I had buckled him into his car seat, I looked back up at the dam. I didn’t see the second girl and boy then—but I saw the girl in the robe. She had shed her robe. They must been readying the chair for her, for pictures, maybe. She was naked, sitting on the dam.

The sun was setting. It was that perfect time when the light seems just right—right enough for everything it touches to be lovely, to be allowed to be young forever, to be allowed to stay.