For the majority of the trips, I was alone–well, alone with whatever music I was currently listening to, which over the years evolved from pop to country to alternative and jazz. On later trips I discovered audio books. Always addicted to story, I found narrative could eat up the miles faster than music . I don’t mean to say the view outside the windshield slipped by unnoticed, I still drank in the landscape unrolling outside my windows. Travel writers often decry the Interstates and choose the “blue highways” as William Least Heat Moon coined them. I too like the small roads but much of the Interstates I drove on during these trips circled the cities and let me wander over the land.
Starting out in Iowa on Hwy 34 east, I was surrounded by grain fields and the occasional A-frame hog houses. Yes, each hog could have its own A-frame house. (I laughed hysterically when I first moved to Iowa and learned what those triangular structures were, enjoying the irony of the high-end sty.) Only an hour from the Mississippi, I hit the river at Burlington, Iowa and crossed over into Illinois. The river is unprepossessing this far north, brown and not even especially wide, still the river has its own presence that reminds the driver she is crossing the bridge between the two halves of the nation.
I marked the stages of my journey by the rivers I crossed. Occasionally, I even imagined what it would be like to make the trip by water from Iowa to NC (and I believe one could). This fantasy reminded me of the wonderful Cheever story “The Swimmer,” when a man makes his way home via swimming pool after swimming pool. Of course, he was deranged, so maybe I shouldn’t carry this fantasy too far!
Once across the Great River, Illinois feels similar to Iowa at first, green fields on a billowing plain, but differences crop up–more trees for one. Some hours later, I would be crossing Indiana with little change to the landscape, though now perhaps less flat. When I first made this trip, the Interstates hadn’t yet circled cities like Indianapolis. I had the misfortune once of hitting the city limits just as the Indianapolis 500 race was finishing, and the crowds had begun to leave the speedway. It took me over two hours to cross the city. Today, a driver can just whip around the sprawl and roll on.
The land really begins to change once I drop south to Cincinnati and cross the river into Kentucky. On the earlier trips, I usually drove past Louisville to Lexington where I spent the night with a favorite aunt and uncle, both gone now. The landscape around Lexington is striking–lush green fields with stark black barns and endless black or white fencing enclosing gorgeous horses. The horses never seemed to be still as I drove past. They whirled and streaked across the field, seemingly for the pure joy of movement.
South of Lexington, the landscape changes even more drastically with jutting walls of rock enclosing the Interstate. Steep hills create deep valleys. In this part of the country, the names of towns are familiar from my childhood. In Kentucky, I drive past Barbourville where my grandparents had a small farm on Stony Fork Creek, and my grandfather farmed and mined coal. Next comes Corbin, Kentucky where another aunt and uncle lived when I was a small child. For me today, Corbin is home to the cemetery where family are buried, first my grandparents, then my sister, and finally the aunt and uncle from Lexington. I stop by sometimes to say hello though their spirits are long gone.
Heading south into Tennessee, Jellico is another town connected to family. My aunt Ida, mother of 13 children had lived there. I visited her on her chicken farm when I was very young. I was afraid of this small, strong-minded woman (who wouldn’t need to be strong-minded with thirteen children?). Another town with family connections is Clairfield, where my father was born in 1911. The major town with family connection in east Tennessee, though, is Knoxville. I was born in Knoxville and we lived there for three years before we moved to NC. I always said hello to my infant self as I drove through.
Turning east at Knoxville, one drives for about an hour before the first sight of the mountains is visible. I breathe a sigh of relief when those blue smoky peaks rise up sharply from the flat plain east of Knoxville. The Smokies spell home to me, but at this point, I still had to cross them. The road immediately begins to climb. As the road rises, the French Broad River follows on the right and accompanies my drive most of the rest of the way home. The Smoky Mountains are deeply forested and the river, when it wanders slightly away from the road, glints through the trees.
Once across the mountains, I was home. My family lived in the western edge of two valleys that join to form the basin where Asheville sits, ringed by mountains. We lived in a community about ten miles west of Asheville, so as soon as I was over the mountains, I would take one of the first exits and follow familiar roads through the rural community of Candler. When I made the turn onto Justice Ridge Road, across the valley from Mt. Pisgah, I was home. The return road trip, short days away, would make my leaving home once again less painful.
Image: Courtesy of Mandi Bradshaw