by James Cochran

We are pilgrims of pain, assembled in Williamson, West Virginia…
Mingo County: epicenter of dual epidemics, the most obese county
in the most obese state in the country, also one of the hardest hit
by the opioid crisis.

For 24 hours on a November weekend we will make our hajj,
perambulating endlessly a path not around Kaaba’s black box
but between Tug River, 25-foot-tall gray cement floodwall,
and train tracks of the Norfolk Southern Railway.

We run and run and run into the darkness following contours
of the wall lit by half moon and stars, till we are almost lost
in a labyrinth of gathering pain, as if our footsteps can sate
the hunger that caused too many bellies to swell,
movement as antidote.

There is ever present rumble of coal trains, freight trains, trains
full of shipping containers graffitied and labeled in foreign alphabet
returning home emptied of their consumer goods…if we begin
to nod off the trains jolt us back into motion with otherworldly
shriek and grind like a thousand domestic disputes mingled with
the cries of children and wailing of metallic menagerie
telling us to keep moving even when our muscles stiffen and feet
swell and blister, as if our footsteps could solve some piece
of the world’s problems, the problems of this little mountain town,
or even our own.

We are on the brink, on the cusp, now crossing the pain threshold,
liminal, umbral as the shadows of the mimosa trees rattling their
dry seed pods. We are silently contradicting Big Pharma who redefined
pain as the 5th vital sign and promised to eliminate it with Oxycontin
unleashing a deadly storm of addiction. My friend tells me all pain is
emotional pain, even when we call it physical, and my Spanish brain
tells me Pain=Dolor=Sorrow and finds it true, but we must all own
our own pain, learn how to hold it, when to listen, and when to ignore.

In moonlight I glimpse the strange forms of parasitic painbodies
carried by each striding initiate, gnawing and suckling on past
hurts and fears of the future but atrophying in the light of present
moment, these painbodies passenger on our bodies in pain wither
as the red light of dawn overtops the floodwall, illuminating box elders
that cast their strings of samaras like so many cheap rosaries,
orange bittersweet twined in the riverbank tree trunk.
It dawns on me that we were lied to about the pain.
It is bittersweet.

Everything is transformed. In the quiet school parking lot where
yellow buses sleep the gravel becomes a boulder field to tired feet,
the potholes become lakes to be slowly skirted. I have aged myself
3 decades in 70 miles of locomotion. When I return home I must
take the front stairs one at a time, gripping the rail tightly.
Eating and sleeping become higher priorities and unnecessary
movements are curtailed. Swelling comes up, then goes down.
I talk with my mother on the phone about having to sit
to put my pants on…she and my father do that too.
The pain is constant as my breath.

As I embarked on the pilgrimage I stated my goal was
“to see if I can simultaneously outrun myself
and catch up to myself” and as I lie aching
in my bed the answer comes: You can try and try
and run and run, and cause yourself much pain
in the process, but the only way to achieve
that twinned goal is to become
absolutely still.

© 2022 James Cochran  All rights reserved.

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