Overlook by Suzanne Stryk

I cruised east on Route 64, stopping at the Rockfish Gap Overlook, where a dozen cars pointed toward the panorama. Walking over to a silver Dodge Avenger, I asked the suntanned driver if I could collect bugs stuck to the grill of his car.

“Huh? You want to do what?” he winced.

“Collect dead insects.” I pointed.

“Uh… sure, I guess that’s okay.” He cleared his throat, scanning me head to toe — from gray streaks in my hair to clodhopper sandals — assuring himself that I was harmless.

Harmless, indeed. Little did he know he was looking at a wannabe revolutionary bent on liberating people from prejudice against insects. 

I pinched a fritillary wing and leggy crane fly off the metal. 

Cupping the creatures in my left hand, I lifted the hatch of my Subaru wagon with my right. Now where did I put the collection box? I’d been on a scavenger hunt for a week, first up in the Alleghenies, then at the Shenandoah Valley farm, so finding anything in this chaos would be a task. It occurred to me, as I surveyed boxes of collected specimens and stacked paintings, that my car was a moving cabinet of curiosities. A wonder room on wheels.

Deer antlers jutted from a milky plastic box labeled bones. Buried below was the tip of a huge bony blade, a cow scapula I’d found in a weedy pasture. Another box marked FRAGILE held smaller finds: a starling skull and a mummified bat veiled in bubble wrap (discovered in the ashes of the farmhouse chimney). OWL PELLETS / REGURGITATED RODENT BONES was scribbled on a small Riker specimen box.

I grinned. Wouldn’t it be funny if thieves broke into my car to steal the box marked fragile guessing it held valuables? Imagine their surprise: “Shee-it, we risked gettin’ busted for a dead bat and owl puke?”

On a cardboard box I’d scrawled HUMAN ARTIFACTS with a big red Sharpie. At the top, eyelets of a worn leather shoe peeked out. Under cases marked MAPS and FIELD GUIDES a makeshift Masonite plant press clamped delicate blue bellflowers and ferns. To its left, a row of blunt-headed cicadas hunched like linebackers within the insects box. My search was closing in.

At last I found INSECT FRAGMENTS, grabbed a hinged box divided into little cubicles (the kind sold for screws and bolts), and slammed the hatch. From grills of cars parked at the overlook, I collected tiger swallowtail wings and grasshopper legs adorned with zigzag designs. A mud-splattered Ford Explorer offered a buckeye butterfly, abdomen ripped, yet umber-eyed wings still beautifully intact.

Back at my own car, I took one more look at the brittle corpses. Maybe I’d sketch some that night — the fishing tackle box near the driver’s seat held art supplies. Maybe one day I’d use some fragments in a collage.

About to drive off, only then did I really take in the Rockfish Gap panorama. Layers of cobalt-blue mountains faded into the distance, reminding me of those Renaissance landscapes with mountains painted unbelievably blue to achieve the latest artistic breakthrough: aerial perspective.

I cruised along I-64 again, through the Blue Ridge Mountains’ lush crazy quilt of emerald fields and dark forests west of Charlottesville. This route was once a Native American trail. What did a squaw spy as she padded softly along this path? Back then, it would have taken days or weeks to cover ground I zoomed across in mere hours. While hurtling through space, I imagined what speed eclipsed: living, whirring grasshoppers, tiger swallowtails sailing in the wind, but also (let’s be honest) horseflies with their razor-sharp bite. I remembered my car-grill collection of scraps, pictured the silver moons of a living fritillary glinting in sunlight, fluttering out of reach.

Excerpted from Middle of Somewhere by Suzanne Stryk; published by Trinity University Press 2022.

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