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The day I left Colorado Springs for a 3,000-mile road trip, May 26, the radio announcer said there were some 30 million Americans on the road this Memorial Day weekend. Few of them, it seemed, shared the highway with me across the dusty, wind-swept plains of eastern Colorado and western Kansas, and no wonder. Ninety-five degree heat, and sustained 30-mile per hour winds had whitened the sky and blotted out the horizon. Eighteen wheelers’ trailers shimmied and strayed across the center line and gusts at the crests of hills made those of us in mere cars wonder if we’d be able to hold onto the road.
My destination, via Kansas City, was Memphis, more than a thousand miles away. My 40th high school reunion was the official reason, but the truth was I longed for a road trip. All those empty miles to think and not think, to listen to music and sing aloud, to look out the window and discover what was there, seemed the proper antidote to extreme emotional fatigue. The last five years had delivered my family more than its share of loss and grief, and I was ready, if not for a change, at least for a transition.
Kansas City was green and prosperous, its boxwoods manicured like poodles. I rested and regrouped after the first harrowing 600 miles on the road at the home of a dear friend. A master gardener and intrepid do-it-yourselfer, she could have been an honors graduate of the Martha Stewart Academy of Decorating a Small House with Good Taste and Distinction. More than once she voiced her concerns about me making this trip solo, saying she would be too afraid to do it. Strange roads, the possibility of a flat tire, backwoods places and people – I assured her I would be safe, wondering if the shock of the last few years had somehow numbed me to fear of the unknown.
My new road atlas, inexplicably dated 2013, showed a straight state highway across Missouri marked with green dots to indicate a scenic route.
Did I see three cars or four over 150 miles of winding two-lane highway? I saw cows huddled flank to flank beneath a tree in a puddle of shade; a woman in a cotton house-dress angled sideways on a massive riding mower in the ditch bordering the road. She waved.
I saw cemeteries decorated with festive bundles of artificial flowers. I saw hopeful fields of young green corn in fertile river bottoms, bouncing heads of Queen Anne’s Lace.
Families and communities had adopted stretches of Highway 14 in memory of those who’d died on these curves, their names embellished on small signs. Gravel roads to the left and right were bordered by crooked plywood signs, arrows pointing to unseen Baptist churches.
Forty miles or so and I realized I was smiling through a plaintive Neil Young dirge. My body felt loose and my heart warm and open. Out here in the middle distance, I breathed the sweet air of familiarity. Any one of the side roads off this highway could have led to my grandparents’ farm, to my aunt’s brick house with its bulging deep freezer in the shiny cement garage, two states over in a decade passed fifty years ago.
It wasn’t all reverent idyll. I did a double-take at the Adopt-a-Highway sign that announced two incongruous sponsors: Faith-4-Ever and Guns-4-Us. Every few miles, a field sprouted rusted farm equipment and abandoned cars.
I crossed into Arkansas at Mammoth Spring, a wide ribbon of clear, silver river bordering the road then disappearing into the glossy, thick woods. The land flattened into flooded rice fields and massive, crowded swatches of sugar cane, and as the odometer clicked 1040 miles, I saw the first highway sign for Memphis.
The Mississippi River crawled beneath the bridge, low and muddy. Memphis’s streets and sidewalks belied harder times than Kansas City’s, a grittier grandeur.
This morning, on a walk through midtown near another old friend’s house where I’m staying, I ran into a woman about my age, taking her morning walk and collecting cans. Living out west for 20 years, I’d forgotten how folks in the South just come up and start talking to you like they’ve known you forever.
I told her I was visiting and she held up a finger and slowly swept it in a circle all around, her eyes alert to the cracks between buildings, the alleys and parking lots.
“Watch your aroundness,” she said. “Be sure to watch your aroundness.”
The she smiled and wished me a good day.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.