By six o’clock, I had been driving for three hours and was feeling desperate for the sun to come up. I stopped somewhere as the mountains really start to rise in Virginia, and stepped out of my car into a darkness, which masked the outlines of the ridges surrounding this one gas station off I-77. Where I live in Chapel Hill, it is never totally dark. Outside the window by my bed the traffic lights above Hillsborough Street change all night. Sometimes the first light I see when I wake up is red. My instinct to such darkness is fear, and as I filled my car’s tank with gas, I closed my eyes. There, at least, some imprint of light. When the pump clicked, I opened my eyes, returned the nozzle to its place, and went into the gas station to buy a coffee. “You’re pretty brave to be wearing shorts when it’s this cold,” the attendant told me, as I handed over my two dollars. “Yeah,” I told her, “when I was a kid up here, I did it all the time.” I thanked her and walked out.
Beyond my car, beyond the BP sign, the sun was rising behind the ridge so that I could see every branch on every tree, every twig edged in their dark angles, and beyond that the most yellow light cresting up across the fields all around, frosted white and blue. A rush of ease came, I knew this shock of divinity in the light and the pleasure of waiting for its arrival. This is it, I thought, this is it, right now, the present, this empty gas station, here, this western wind, this tang of coffee on the tongue, I am watching the mountain.
Rather, this is what I want to think. Instead, I stood on my numb legs, vaguely embarrassed by the aloof correspondence and half-truth I shared with the attendant, following the bald branches of the trees with my eyes, wondering how I might write anything as cruelly vivid, as sensitive, as subconsciously southern as the scene I had in my mind. For the three hours before, I had been listening to an audio book– Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim On Tinker Creek, one of my favorites. At 28, Dillard wrote the work from journals she kept while living in southern Virginia, the part of the state I was now passing through. On the audio book, a woman with a young and effervescent voice spoke to me about the joy of scaring frogs along the bank of the creek, the wretchedness and mundanity of fecundity, the flamboyance of the natural world. Here is her gas station scene, the thought I want to be mine:
“This is it, I think, this is it, right now, the present, this empty gas station, here, this western wind, this tang of coffee on the tongue, and I am petting the puppy, I am watching the mountain. And the second I verbalize this awareness in my brain, I cease to see the mountain or feel the puppy. I am opaque, so much black asphalt…I sip my coffee. I look at the mountain, which is still doing its tricks, as you look at a still-beautiful face belonging to a person who was once your lover in another country years ago: with fond nostalgia, and recognition, but no real feeling save a secret astonishment that you are now strangers. Thanks. For the memories…I get in the car and drive home.”
Tinker Creek begins in the fall, and follows Dillard’s year by the creek, season by season. The audio book takes ten hours to listen to, and it takes ten hours to drive to Michigan. I am always looking for symmetry, a mystical equivalence. But Tinker Creek begins in the fall, and I set off from North Carolina in the bloom of spring. The dogwoods are already molting their florid magenta petals. She told me as I left North Carolina of the slickness of leaves, the crisp creep of new cold. How much finer, I thought, the creep of spring is. By the time I was past the gas station and climbing through West Virginia, I had traveled into winter again, and there was snow on every mountain around me. It dusted across my windshield and blew away. The book followed the season with me here, and as I left the mountains and crossed the wide loam on either side of the Ohio River, I expected spring to follow, as it would in the book. But the redbuds had not bloomed yet, and more snow followed. Eventually spring did come, somewhere in the middle of Ohio, but it disappeared again as I drove into Michigan, where it snowed and snowed. When I arrived though, I was hot. The book ends in the stickiness and haze of a summer with too much rain, the dissonance of these two seasons unsettling.
Southern Michigan in the snow truly resembles a white blanket. The simile had rarely made me sense to me until I saw the fields growing crops I did not recognize, stretch on and on, white and white and no other word. The prostration of this land was daunting. I looked for the petrified farm houses and barns to break up the bleached expanse before me. The flatness of the Midwest was a novelty that terrified me. I wished for darkness.
Before Michigan, I stopped in Columbus, Ohio and had lunch with family friends from so long ago we could not count. Twenty years maybe. They are friends from when my family lived in Chapel Hill, when they were our very best friends and before we moved to Boone, up in the mountains of North Carolina where I learned to wear shorts in the cold and not feel it. One of their family members is dead, and I could not talk about it with them in the way I wanted to. My mom is sending you a Japanese maple, I burst out. You can plant it in a big pot, or you can find somewhere shady in you yard. I can help you find a place for it before I leave, if you want. My leg shook under the table. You know what I miss about Chapel Hill, every thing down there?, she replied.The azaleas. I wish I could grow a big pink azalea, like around that fountain in Chapel Hill, but winter is too long here. I drove away through the snow and pointed my way north again, but I shook so hard that I had to pull over my car. Can you imagine nostalgia for an azalea? I cannot, so great is my acquaintance with them.
I think the landscapes we know as children carve out spaces inside us, build hollows in which our frights and familiarities rattle around when we are confronted with what we know and remember. My eyes upon the mountain, the thrill of sun, and the wash of bliss in being present as its witness rattle about memories of being young in the mountains, a place where you sometimes do not see the sun in full until eleven o’clock in the morning, so sharp are the angles of that place. I look at the mountain, which is still doing its tricks, as you look at a still-beautiful face belonging to a person who was once your lover in another country years ago: with fond nostalgia, and recognition, but no real feeling save a secret astonishment that you are now strangers, writes Dillard. What terrifies me is that I might think of my home in North Carolina one day as a still-beautiful face, as a person who was once my lover in another country years ago. Or that I might be able to even imagine a fond nostalgia for an azalea, a secret astonishment that I cannot now envision.
I drove back home through more snow and listened to the radio, Tinker Creek having finished up as I had driven around Ann Arbor during the weekend. In southern Ohio, I could only pick up four stations: three country, one church service. I settled on country and became familiar with the themes of these songs: trucks, driving, drinking, getting down on a Friday night, blue jeans, gentleness. Thankfully, I like and know all of these things and have an excellent sense of humor about excessive thematic repetition. There is a song I heard called “Fly Over States,” which is an ode, I’d say, to Midwestern states and their great flatness. “With a windshield sunset in your eyes / Like a water colored painted sky / You’ll think heaven’s doors have opened,” the singer says, describing what it is to drive through one of these states. I am telling you that I thought this song was bizarre and beautiful. But as the whiteness of Ohio and West Virginia faded into signs of home–the brilliance of the first redbuds thrilled me–I forgot it. You glide off the mountains and into the landscapes that are look like the face of a lover. Here they are, home to you.