Just as it can be exhilarating and slightly disappointing to finally master a guitar lick you’d revered as a kid or to meet someone you’ve admired from afar, visiting places that once seemed vaguely distant is eye-opening in the most mundane way possible. This is especially true when you travel by car and take backroads, where the signs announcing state lines are small and often hidden by overgrown trees, where you sneak up on city limits amidst forest or farm land, when you’re not sure exactly when you ceased being in Greater Pittsburgh and entered Greater Cleveland. The birds and squirrels and trees don’t know, either, though suddenly you might notice a jet black squirrel dart across a manicured farm lawn flanked by pine trees and fire-colored oaks and realize that you’re in a new ecological region.
Avoiding the interstates leads to a more complete sense of place. You realize that all roads lead to all others, that there is a very strange balance of proximity and distance in this country, that snippets can be caught that allow you to paint an imprecise and incomplete picture of a place, that people are fundamentally the same and that towns are more than just unimaginable names for dots faraway. And traveling alone, you are afforded the strange luxury of invisibility. You might bang your shin on a coffee table in broad daylight because you’ve stayed in so many different places that your mind can no longer create an accurate blueprint of the one you’re currently in. And you also might be rendered more inconspicuous than a fly on the wall and overhear the most fascinating and mundane things.
There is the couple at the Indian restaurant in Branson.
“Honey, I hate to even ask you this, but I really need you to do me a favor,” the man says in an utterly passionless tone.
“Of course, baby,” she replies with pained semi-sincerity.
“When we get home, can you massage my shoulders? They are really bothering me. I’ll massage yours, too.”
“Of course, anything for you.” My mind unravels and falls into my spiceless saag paneer. The restaurant may be capable of authenticity, but its clientele couldn’t handle it.
Then there is the curated hipster barista in Nashville whose center cannot possibly hold. I purchased an acai bowl at a smoothie shop right when I pulled into town, a freshness overload after so many nights in rural Arkansas and Missouri, sweet nectar and relief to my wounded vegetarian soul. I had a few bites left as I arrived at the café and sat on the furthest outdoor bench possible from the shop’s doors as I ate the last few bites in blissful solitude. The city felt large and foreign to me after nights spent alone and days holding trout and talking only to myself after angling successes and failures.
“Hey there, can I bring you a menu or get a drink started?” the man asked in the most passive aggressive way.
“Oh, I’m fixing to come inside. I’ve just got two more bites and then I’ll be hanging out for a while.”
“Ok, not a problem. It’s just that health code prohibits us from allowing outside food or drink here. Not that I care, I just have to inform you of that.”
He was much kinder to me after I waxed poetic with him about washed versus natural process and spent nearly twenty dollars on two coffees and a donut, which only added insult to injury. But I digress.
There are AirBnB hosts who go above and beyond and offer restaurant recommendations that transform your understanding of a city and those who don’t respond to any of your attempts at contact until you call the customer service line before they send lazy messages that read “hey whats up.” The packing process of acrobatically Tetris-ing belongings and bicycle into and out of a tiny car repeatedly, the mental energy required to ask a stranger if they’d like to break bread and the emotional energy required to stay stable while writing to a word count and a deadline for a company that cares more about search engines than syntax.
There are soaring highs and roads so fun you turn around and drive them again and lows so crushing that you stay up late repeatedly and take Zzzquil just so you won’t have another painful, thoughtful, sleepless night. It all looks so beautiful in photos, and it will all sound so wonderful in pristine, nostalgic hindsight months and years later. But sometimes even three cups of coffee isn’t enough. You feel like Elvis without the talent. The scene of the bike wreck replays itself in nauseating detail in the lonely disorienting mornings, when another new campground or couch or gracious accommodation surprises you into alertness in the first morning light.
The FM radio gives you as good a sense of place as the smell of the surrounding scenery with the windows down. The crackling reception that fades in as you crest mountains and turns to static all the way around the dial and back again as you dip into valleys. The promise that “Coming up in three minutes, we’ve got fifteen minutes of uninterrupted music, including Garth Brooks and George Strait!” You hope it’s your song and cling to those three minutes, praying that you’ll maintain reception. It gets a little bit crunchy then fades out completely right when the first snare drum strikes. Tension and release.
You notice a rare golden rainbow trout betray its position in the river, then you zero in on it. They rarely last in the wild because they are not as camouflaged as their non-golden brethren. This one is cagey, though. I throw every fly I have at him and he never so much as turns his head to follow. In the process, I catch a hard-fighting mid-sized ‘bow and a surprising little smallmouth bass that reminds me how wild the freestone rivers of West Virginia are. A fisherman approaches me to do the typical talk. I nod towards the white-gold trout and tell him at this point I’m a man on a mission.
His faded camo hat and grey-flecked goatee are more congruous with the region than the top of the line fly fishing gear he’s holding.
“You rarely catch the fish you’re goin’ after,” he reckons between drags from his cigarette.
Words take on a certain significance in the silence of the wilderness, especially in the metaphor-laden context of fishing.
You rarely catch the fish you’re goin’ after. It sounds almost Biblical.
“Let’s go get some coffee,” he says as he disappears into the fog.
I never did catch that golden rainbow.
An older woman and a hip young man named Najada discuss speakeasies and cabarets in the lethargically resurgent downtown Cleveland.
“Yeah, it definitely has a bit of that burlesque feel to it,” he says.
On a couch in Charlotte, you somehow get sucked into watching the pilot episode of an HBO show you’d never otherwise come across. The female protagonist casually discusses infidelity with one of her girl friends on the train.
Her friend notes, “They’re never as good as they seem at first. You’re probably better off sticking with Ray. He’s a good man.”
A good man is hard to find.
Between Blue Ridge and Atlanta, I drove quite near Flannery O’Connor’s farm where she quietly lived out her life and endured lupus with her peacocks. And in Nashville, an old favorite band emerged from hiatus to play songs new and old, including a refrain that sends me a million places at once.
The dim-lit peacocks in the trees
They’re hiding their eyes and their beauty from me
If you avoid the interstates, you realize that every road leads to another one. And if you listen to the radio for long enough, you’ll hear the song you wanted to hear. And all the ones you forgot about until they come on and you know every single word.