Sunday, February 17

The Drive or The Lost Sea or If An Entirely Uneventful Day Were To Be Written As If An Exerpt From A Novel

I had already stashed my luggage in the trunk of the Intrepid, but I ran back outside to rescue my treasured Starbuck's travel mug, of the red metallic variety, with a rubber stopper at the base and a plastic carabiner on the handle, in case you find yourself needing a little pick-me-up while ascending a sheer mountain face, from underneath the front seat. I went upstairs to the empty and quiet kitchen and rinsed out the week old coffee from the container, along with what I think was a majority of the congealed residue left behind from who knows when, before filling it with a fresh, steaming hot cup of Guatemalan Antigua that Carol had purchased the day before, on my recommendation. She said she liked it, but I think she would have said that no matter what. She was leaving early. We hugged and said the usual good-byes. The kind where you know you are leaving the people and the place that seem more like home than any other place you have actually lived. Michael left a few minutes later, following the same customary procedures, with me following him down the slanted and curving driveway and out the quiet residential roads. They were headed downtown, to church, and I was headed to Texas. Bono was singing about a place where they could not afford street signs.

That early on a Sunday morning, the city was still sleeping, no one ventured out aside from the occasional driver looking at me as inquisitively as I was looking at them, wondering what business this single interloping vehicle had along the usually congested highway at this time of the day and week. Times like this were rare. The ten vacant lanes of I-40 were exhilarating to see in the early morning fog, like my own private superhighway. From the back seat and from inside the doors I could hear Ryan Adams singing about the city that he was from, and despite my best efforts, I couldn't figure out if he wanted to go back there, or if he wanted to get as far away as he could. It bothered me that I didn't know. I listened to the song again and again, but never came to a conclusion as to what he was indeed thinking, all the while the road narrowed. I didn't even notice the city growing smaller, being hemmed in by the mountains.

The deck of the highway rose and fell where its path had been blasted out of the hillside. It's gentle curves and grades betraying the true geography of the foothills. Jeff Tweedy confessed to me that he would gladly die if he could be reborn. My fuel gauge was resting a little bit too comfortably close to the "E", so I set my sights on the next small town that might support a somewhat reputable Shell station. I saw a sign for Lenoir City, promoting itself as the gateway to the Smokies, so I exited the freeway. I was entertaining thoughts of a full tank, a Dr. Pepper, and Chex Mix, hoping upon hope that this particular store stocked the Bold Party Blend, which everyone knows is the top shelf variety of the Mix. Score, I got the last one. The attendant at the counter was overly friendly, and she struck up a conversation about the broken door and offered me some complementary towels, which I gladly accepted. The ground cover clouds outside seemed to become more dense, making their presence all the more known. Before climbing back into the car, I snapped a picture of an abandoned mini golf course directly adjacent to the Lenoir City ISD bus barn. I thought that maybe that was a weird sight to see. I directed the Dodge up the aging on-ramp and rejoined the highway. I saw a sign advertising "The Lost Sea" just a few miles down the road. I was tempted to make a detour, but I reasoned that there was most likely nothing of real interest there for me, and I drove on. I again focused all of my energy into passing the time, and resumed the wavelike motion of the mountains, barely visible in the thickening fog and the darkening sky.

Somewhere around the further most outskirts of the city of Birmingham, the rain began. Through the poorly maintained Infinity sound system came the voice of a man reading the story of another man, who had donated all of his money to charity and hitchhiked across the continent for two years until braving the wilds of Alaska, which ultimately cost him his life, starving to death in the harsh Alaskan interior. As the rain picked up, I reduced my speed and listened to the details of Chris' adventures and untimely demise. The author portrayed him as a tragic hero. He likened him to the transcendentalists, a modern day idealist. The rain was really coming down now, and the amount of traffic had increased dramatically, so I slowed again, to what felt like a crawl, but I was fully encompassed in this man's story. The more I heard, the more I began to envy his life. I knew it was a ridiculous sentiment, I could never do the things he had done. Leaving home, traveling anywhere he felt, with no attachments to any place or person, wandering into deserts and forests, living off of the land. But then again, maybe I could. What was great about this guy anyway? Again I was left trying to figure out whether this Chris, or Alex, was a fool, or, what seemed to me to be more likely, a person trying to figure out the answers as best he could. The center of the storm was now directly overhead, temporarily blinding travelers with each consecutive flash, followed by an ear shattering crack, and slow rumble. Most people slowed, but some did not. Far up the road, an Expedition that had not seemed concerned with the hazardous conditions as he buzzed past me earlier, was over zealous. The SUV lost traction, and began to spin, what looked to me like two complete revolutions, and then another 180 degrees, coming to rest against the concrete divider that separated the east and west bound lanes, facing oncoming traffic. Not a single driver, a witness or any other, stopped to help, myself included. I glanced in my rear view mirror as I continued driving. Not one.

Once the storm system had passed, the clouds rolled back to reveal the most beautiful day I had seen in a long time. Breathtakingly beautiful. Driving with the windows down, I had to fight the urge to climb out on top of my moving vehicle, to stand on the hood while speeding past farms and other drivers still trapped behind their oppressive steering wheel. I briefly enjoyed the metaphorical implications of this event, wondering if I could explain its significance to anyone without being considered a complete nut case. Just a while earlier, Miss Emmylou had sung a tragic tune about a girl who lived "just a little southeast of Meridian." Meanwhile, I was hungry, so when I saw the sign, I took the first exit into Meridian, Mississippi, and pulled into the Drive-Thru at a Mickey D's. Sitting in an empty parking lot, enjoying the last few french fries at the bottom of the bag, I couldn't help but think that something wasn't quite right. Something was off, awry. These roads had become familiar to me now. There was no longer any sense of challenge or adventure, just a commute, granted an exceptionally long one, but nothing more than driving from Point A to Point B. I thought back to the Lost Sea, and wondered if I had missed out. The mountains were behind me, already fading from my memory. I have never been good at remembering things like this. I retain almost all of the knowledge I collect from factual sources, like classes, media, game shows, and others. But when it comes to experiences, events, and feelings, it seems as though they begin to steal away before the thing itself is even completed. This lack of retention sometimes makes me feel incomplete. Unreal. As if reality was measured by my recollection of it, my interpretation of life transpired. I realized this might be why I am drawn to art, photography in particular, because it might serve not just as communication of concepts and feeling, but with history, and reality. Reluctantly, I got ready to get on the road again, grimacing as I turned onto the road already well traveled. "Halfway there," I told myself.

The Mississippi flowed fast and wide. Looking down from the towering bridge, I could see river barges and tugboats fighting the current and making slow progress upriver. Beyond the river's west bank, the highway settles upon the vast floodplain that seems to stretch forever in every direction. The Flatlands. At some point, my mind took a break from its endless wanderings and worryings, and I emerged from autopilot. I looked left and right, struggling and failing to find a point of interest. "Highway Blindness," they told us in Driver's Ed, "is caused by focusing on the same point on the road ahead of you for an extended period of time, and could cause you to make mistakes you normally wouldn't." I did not want to die. And I definitely did not want to go out this way, here of all places, because of some stupid mistake, but there was nothing to look at! The blindness seemed inevitable. I happened to look up, and gasped. Some thousands of feet above me was a vast glacier of clouds. Some atmospheric phenomenon that I had never witnessed was now unfolding before me. The glacier was suspended by an incomprehensible ocean of air, and I was traveling along the sea floor, by some miracle still able to breathe. I saw vibrant blues that receded into deep purples. The underbelly was riddled with fissures and fjords, as if some Scandinavian landscape was removed from its original position and turned upside down, hovering above the earth. Through the cracks I could see that the ice was burning uncontrollably, the low evening sun having set it ablaze. Golden yellow and red-orange light filtered down into valleys and burned at the edges of the massive ice pack. A man with a funny name and a soft voice sang a song about wanting to sacrifice everything, but not being able to. As I drove on, the ice filled with smoke from the fire burning above it, the sky turned gray, and I saw it collapse to the ground behind me as I drove on, chasing the spot on the horizon where the sun had last shown itself moments before.

On a bridge spanning yet another river, I looked out at the colorful glass buildings and the large and gaudy riverboats that only weeks ago had unexpectedly provided themselves to be the epicenter of an earthquake that rattled me to the core, and then some. I hated those boats, but I was thankful for them as well. The specter of their silhouettes and reflections in the muddy water instantly brought thoughts of loss and embarrassment, yet of hope, rebirth. Strange things for casinos to inspire in a person. I decided then that I would never go back there, it was a lonely city before, and now it seemed ominous in the night sky, looming over the highway, inviting in travelers like a sideshow barker. This place was evil, and I knew it. It was during this that Patty Griffin sang a song about rain.

The lanes on the road decreased by even numbers, 6, then 4, then finally down to 2. The forest tightened its grip around the asphalt thoroughfare choking out everything except the road itself. Across the state line, the speed limit increased, as did the height of the trees. As I approached the end of my drive, I recapped all that I had accomplished. There is nothing else to do on such a long trip, all by your lonesome, than to do a good deal of thinking. I had originally hoped to use the opportunity to reach definite conclusions about life in general, but of course, after that amount of time by yourself, you will undoubtedly emerge with more questions than answers, as answers are more and more difficult to come by these days. Inexplicably, I have a smile on my face. Arriving in town that night, I was surprised to find almost the exact same conditions that I had left it in, before sunrise almost 5 days earlier. The air was crisp and cool as I drove in silence with the windows down. Few cars were on the road, everything was quiet. The city was exactly as it was when I had left it not so long ago, which is exactly what I was afraid of. Now I knew, I was positive, of the incredible things that were awaiting me at the Lost Sea, and how casually I passed it by, forever driving to a destination, indifferent to the journey itself, and the endless lost seas behind and ahead of me.

Now I am home, in less than an hour I will head to class and work, to explain my now prolonged absence. All the while, memories will be evaporating, burning off in the light of menial tasks and jobs, overbearing obligations, and the small minded concerns of a daily routine.

I really should have taken more pictures.

10 comments:

Rustin said...

I haven't read it yet but it is long! That's all for now!

Rustin said...

I might have to break this up over the course of a couple of days. I'll probably get to paragraph three and make camp for the night.

the photoSmith said...

wow, long-o...i left off were you're leaving the gas station(that's more for my mental note for when i come back to finish later)...

aA said...

the previous readers were ninnies, apparently. I read the WHOLE THING AT ONCE! and was positively enthralled.

i don't know much, but i do know that this is really good, descriptive, insightful writing.

write more and i will read it.

the photoSmith said...

great writing as always. loved the musical references throughout. i should be in a nac in a few weeks and we need to kick it...

Rustin said...

Very well done. I am impressed and inspired. Bang up job as usual. You're so artsy, Paul. And that's why I love you. I love you...

Sorry I can't ever take anything seriously. I hate people like that. And my wife doesn't always appreciate it either.

But it was great and I am very inspired.

Elaine said...

yeah, thanks for saying bye to me. Good thing you won't have to miss me when I'm gone for a whole year.

Teysha Faith said...

yes, you should have gone to the lost sea.

jenn said...

I enjoyed the story.. however, slightly upset you barely mentioned my city. oh well, it was good to see you!

P.S. I read the whole thing at once too while at work and laughed out loud..my coworkers thought I was crazy...

Anonymous said...

i couldn't put it down. this is my favorite part (i dont get it, of course, but isn't that what art's all about?)::::


...ocean of air, and I was traveling along the sea floor, by some miracle still able to breathe. I saw vibrant blues that receded into deep purples. The underbelly was riddled with fissures and fjords, as if some Scandinavian landscape was removed from its original position and turned upside down, hovering above the earth. Through the cracks I could see that the ice was burning uncontrollably, the low evening sun having ...to. As I drove on, the ice filled with smoke from the fire burning above it, the sky turned gray, and I saw it collapse...




-allison jourdain