IN PRAISE OF A FOUR-LETTER WORD: H-O-M-E
There are countless towns between Barnegat, NJ and Memphis, TN if you go this way: 554W to 72W to 70W to 364W to 81S to 40W to the exit for Sam Cooper Blvd. (These are more or less good directions, though I may have forgotten a road or two.)
Most of these places, from the vantage point of my 1991 Chevy Cavalier speeding West and South, were towns without an attached travel memory. Some memories, conversely, cant be traced to specific towns, blurred in distinction by the never-ending sameness of the road.
A scant few of the things that I saw on this journey, with the confluence of a memory trigger and a sight that was strong enough to adhere to my brain, can be placed in both place and memory.
There are a lot of flat pictures taken in along the way during an 18-hour car ride--or maybe the brain cant process an overwhelming intake of information and pontificate on each point all at the same time.
At least, I cant hear it when its happening in my head.
At any rate, the shapes and contours of the country as you transport your being from a starting point to a final destination, are one of the things that create the meaning of the place to which you are headed. Memphis.
While coming home on a Saturday there was:
a house on fire on a hillside in the heart of Virginia; 5 bottles of soy-based formula fed to the unfortunately trapped baby traveler (unfortunate in his opinion at least) in the back seat; a horrendous toothache in the mouth of George, my traveling companion; a frightening gas station off of I-81 offering a buffalo burger platter for a mere $4.95, complete with the sight of a mullet savvy man who leered at me as I made a break for the bathroom; a gas station in Maryland where a superhero grinned way too enthusiastically as he dug into a sub sandwich, donning a red cape and spandex on a billboard; a blue car with personalized license plates reading the date of my birthday that almost ran us off of the road during a brilliantly planned double-merge onto the highway after I-440; a cell-phone trucker attempting to kill everyone in sight through sheer inattention; an endless song about the Tallahatchie Bridge; a road-worn woman on a highway ramp trying to find a ride to Abington; a lotto ticket from Virginia (my favorite state) with the number 666 enclosed in a box; reminders that Jesus saves, or that the end is near, or to look busy, or, every now and then, to rejoice; haphazard races with an 18-wheeler named Digby; the roadside attraction Dinosaurland, with its 10-foot rat that fastidiously feeding upon the last D in the name; Loretta Lynns Dude Ranch; Dollywood; the home of Woodrow Wilson (which I previously mentioned in regard to my nature run-in the week before); salt water taffy, Coke, coffee, turkey and cheese sandwiches, pretzels, Tastycakes, orange sodas, and root beers; oh, and McDonalds, which I am trying to forget; the woman who blew me a kiss as we made our way across the border and into Tennessee; diapers strewn across six states; the radio always the same, and thus never turned on until the final descent into Memphis after Bucksnort, where I insist on stopping every time I drive past; the Motel 6 at exit 66 on I-40; police cars of all sizes, shapes, and colors; SUV motorcades at 90 MPH; junkyards, Flying Js, rivers, hills, plateaus, rainstorms, sunshine, trees, trees, trees, buildings and shacks and garages; gas prices of all shapes and sizes as well; memories of the road behind us; memories forging anticipation of our approaching reunion with home; the sinking realization that after 17 hours the sign for Collierville does not increase feelings of hopefulness and that Memphis still seems terribly far away, emotionally as well as physically; and my pillow in the backseat awaiting its return to its rightful bed; my driveway; my front door; my apartment!
Beautiful Memphis, to be tread by foot, and not car. Those luscious first steps across the parking lot, where nothing moved at 70 miles per hour. The messages on my answering machine, and the note from my boyfriend. The exhausting achievement of finally making it home.
That suddenly simple word, home, was one that caused me much confusion, or deliberation at least, when I was back in the place where I was born. But when displayed in the light of all of the things that we saw along the way, all the images and sensations of a long, long road trip, it became the most beautiful four-letter word in the world.
It was subsequently followed by the most wonderful five-letter word, which was sleep. And so I said hello to Memphis, with a smile on my face, and then I said goodnight.