Your Continental Divide

By Tom Poland

Something trendy comes along that’s annoying and you resist. Some manager at work decides to implement a new work procedure. You don’t like it. “C’mon now, just go with the flow.” It takes courage to resist others. In going with the flow people make minor decisions that lead to major consequences. They can’t know that the decision, say, to move to a certain place will lead to situations never imagined. “That’s what happened to you in (fill in where you live)? How’d you end up there?” 

Yes, how.

I think about my life a lot, where I ended up. These thoughts came to me on a chilly, foggy morning in Jones Gap State Park near Marietta, South Carolina. I was there to photograph the magical Middle Saluda River, a fairy tale of whitewater running over green moss-covered rocks through alleyways of green laurel and rhododendron. Before I got to the river and all that majesty, however, I found myself staring at a granite face cloaked in fog, but no ordinary granite face, mind you. 

The vertical slab comprises part of the Eastern Continental Divide, which decides where the waters of our streams, creeks, and rivers end up—the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico. We humans navigating the river of life face a great divide too, but all too often we’re unaware of it. So do me a favor. Stop and think about the decisions you’ve made. Which among them decided where you ended up? Which decision towers over all others as the one that changed your life forever? That would be your continental divide.

I stood beneath that great wall watching mists swirl, watching the brilliant green of spring’s freshly minted leaves play hide and seek with a writer from the flatlands. I imagined bursts of summer rain cascading down that face of granite. Waters on one side heading to Apalachicola and its famed oysters, waters on the other heading to Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge and sea turtles and baby pelicans. 

I watched the mists render hardwoods and conifers into impressionistic art, and then I thought about a book that charted a writer’s river of life. In his memoir, Burning The Days, James Salter wrote of a life-changing moment. His work as a writer and his friendship with Robert Redford and Roman Polanski, among others, had taken him into the heady world of writing screenplays for Hollywood movies. Too many screenplays he wrote seemed to crash and burn. Spoiled actors, insufficient budgets, and other things killed one promising film after another. Projects with potential slipped into unmarked graves in this place where Salter ended up. It got to be too much. He decided not to go with the flow.

And so he came face to face with his Continental Divide. “There was another final script, which in fact ascended before crashing as the result of a director’s unreasonable demands, and I suppose there might have been another and another, but at a certain point one stands on the isthmus and sees clearly the Atlantic and Pacific of life. There is the destiny of going one way or the other, and you must choose. And so the phantom, which in truth I was, passed from sight.”

Waters in the Southeast have no choice in deciding where they go. There destiny is the Gulf or Atlantic—easy enough, just go with the flow. You and I, however, had a choice as to where we ended up. That person you met, that job you took, that death in the family, that crazy night you … that job you turned down—there stood your wall of granite and perchance you took the easy way out. You went with the flow. You had no idea you were about to cross your personal continental divide. For some it was good, for some it was not. Either way, your river of life headed for an altogether new destination. 

Author: Stephan Drew

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