People tell me it’s perverse to enjoy being lonely, but I suspect most of these people have never driven many miles on Interstate 301. The old highway’s become a shadow, the fading traces of a once-proud route from here to there, and it’s both sad and triumphant in the same way I imagine the ruins of Athens must be to the current residents of that sprawling city. I-95 pretty much shunted everyone off the side roads and the peripheral routes back in the early seventies, and the aftermath has been the rusting of an entire legion of optimistic, opportunistic landscapes.
Heading south on 301, you find motel after motel returning to the sandy soil, their exuberant sheetmetal and neon signs turning from bright red and luminous green and searing blue and the other space-age shades into the warm rusty reds and browns of long abandonment. Giant delta-boomerangs, stylized lightbulb-encrusted arrows pointing ”here, here, here.” and atomic fiberglass globes with once-bright stars orbiting on oxidized aluminum spars still stand in surprising numbers, no longer the jutting, boastful soldiers of trade they once were, but they continue to make a decent account of themselves until the day that a sudden storm or a spot of rust at the precise point of suspension brings them down, and they crash into the weed-choked semi-circular drives and the debris-filled kidney-shaped tiled swimming pools they once hailed.
As I drove the empty route, and it is indeed an empty route, with long stretches of time with no one in front of me and no one behind me, I could help but feel something strong and compelling about the ruination of these places, a combination of loss and companionship that should be a reason to avoid such routes, but isn’t. You can point to the excesses of the halcyon era that raised these strange monuments, but there was an almost insane optimism to that zeitgeist—a sense that the world was just beginning and had nowhere to go but up.
As I passed a fading gas station with a surprisingly intact zig-zag aluminum roof, angled plate-glass windows, and a cluster of orange spherical streetlights hanging languidly on elegantly arched poles, I felt the pangs of hopeless desire, wishing I’d come through here in the glory days, comfortable in the back seat of a Rambler wagon and seeing the merchandizing spectacle in its best light. The last orange globes disappeared into the treeline and I felt a knot in my stomach, a visceral reaction to the sense of having to soon return to my own time, to the land of lifeless, square, internally-lit plexiglas signs, every one the same, everywhere the same, just more monotonous high points in a sea of bland mediocrity.
Everywhere you go on 301, you find the ruins of things, the modest U-shaped motels still clinging to the shores of vanished pools, the restaurants with signs promising delights unheard-of back where you came from, the gas stations and tourist traps and scenic overlooks that now overlook the highway that killed it all, the overlooks that let you look down on the herds of I-95 loyalists who fly by at racetrack speeds and in tight formation, radiating a single telepathic message into the ether, ”gotta make good time, gotta make good time, gotta make good time” over and over and over in a grim post-postmodern mantra while their children sit in dumbfounded contemplation of DVDs playing out on the tiny drive-in movie screens that flip down from the ceilings of most family barges these days, completely and perfectly indifferent the the world outside.
It occurred to me that I should be thankful, at least, that the kinder climate down south has protected this thousand- mile avenue of leviathans, kept them standing long enough for people like myself to stop and stare and dream of long-gone days for a little while longer before it all disappears forever, disintegrating into ever-smaller bits of steel and aluminum merging with oxygen in the romance of chemistry, drifting off into memory and then into nothing, the last gasp of the time when the future was a real place, or maybe just a showcase for what seemed like endless possibilities.
If I ever get my finances and time together, one of these days I want to make a tour of these United States in their entirety to test my theory that every Renault Dauphine ever sold in America eventually ended up on a pole or on the roof of a auto garage somewhere. I’ve saw a fair number of pole-mounted Dauphines on my way to Georgia, advertising garages and towing companies and welding companies and canoe rental companies and even the office of a fortune-teller/notary public in South Carolina, pointing out the interesting southern habit of curious recycling.
Former motels are the primary material for business-minded reappropriation, with places like the ”New York Motor Lodge and Restaurant” reincarnated into the ”New York Apartments,” or the ”Cozy Stop Motel” rising, phoenix-like, as the ”Cozy Stop Deer Processing Center (and Notary Public).” Huge areas adjoining Route 301 appear to be wallowing in ubiquitous, if not abject, poverty, but the entrepreneurial spirit remains strong, if often somewhat unimaginative. Every town seems to have a motel converted into some sort of ”mini-mall,” which invariably appears at least half deserted, with shattered doors hanging off the hinges of once-utilitarian rooms, while the remaining rooms shelter microscopic video rental shops, lawnmower blade sharpening firms, and the occasional ”XMAS STORE.”
There’s a horrendous amount of duplication, though, which probably explains why so many of these places seem to be shuttered—it’s hard enough to imagine how a town with a population in the low hundreds, situated on a nearly- deserted no-longer-major highway, can support a 25-shop flea market, but it stretches the bounds of believability that said town can support five such business. Had I not escaped the bounds of snotty yankee prejudice about the south, it’d be the perfect starting point for some sort of rude tirade about dumb rednecks, but I drive through these realms of business disasters with a growing respect for the value of the attempt, whether or not it succeeds. It’s easy to ridicule when you live in places like where I live, where there are well-funded school systems, government pork out the gazoo, and an abundance of jobs and opportunities, but it’s much harder to be so unkind when you’ve spent time immersed in the reality of some of these back road worlds.
In fact, by the time I reach the near-legendary South of the Border, I’m having a hard time maintaining my campy smugness, deciding to leave that to the next generation of young gay men who’ve managed to escape from Ohio, Indiana, or Upstate New York and are roaming the south in rented Tauruses with disposable cameras and the idea that they’re the first people in the world to really get the myriad ironies of southern living. I’ve had my fun in that mode, and there are still many, many absurd sights below the Mason-Dixon, many head-spinningly bizarre landscapes, but it’s coming through to me differently now, maybe because I’m traveling alone, or maybe because I’m looking at the world through older eyes, or maybe because I’ve learned a pretty detailed lesson about how it feels to do your best and still strike out.
So the Dauphines stare down at me from the roofs and poles everywhere, smiling their beatific sheetmetal smiles as they turn to warm shades of red and orange under a Dixie sun, turning the color of coals fading in the fireplace, on their way out but still warm, and the endless juxtaposition of things makes me feel perfectly at home in my own uncertainty, steering my way southward, heading for the home of half of my DNA, and thinking about everything in the world all at once.
Sometimes I wonder what it must be like to belong to a very small family or a family with no geneological instincts, particularly after I spend any amount of time with the southern wing of the family. Navigating the tangled network of who’s whose kin, who’s whose cousin, and how on earth you negotiate all that ”2nd cousin, twice removed” sort of headache-causing complexity can be an issue, particularly in a family like mine, where family names stay pretty consistent and you have to ask questions like ”is Henry William Fluker Harris descended from William Henry Fluker Harris or William Henry Harris?”
I’ve mastered my own Georgia lineage, up to a point: I’m the son of Cleveland Jones Wall, the grandson of Cleveland Jones Wall Sr (I’m skipping his lineage because it just gets too tricky) and Lyle Porter Wall, who’s the daughter of Sophia Porter, who’s the daughter of Joseph Belknap Smith and Jane Septima (!) Shank Smith, who are pretty much at the top of the family food chain, as even the most devoted family historians start to pull their hair out beyond that point.
I can follow the roots back relatively far with some assistance, but after tracing my way back through Flukers and Harrises and Porters and Walls and Smiths and so on and so on and so on, I can’t help but wish sometimes that people used birth control back in the ”olden days” so the family tree would be a bit more compact and bijou. I’m kidding, of course, but still I go to the various family reunions in a haze, only able to count on the fact that everyone there is either related to me or someone who married someone related to me. When the various folks of my grandmother’s generation were still with us, it was a simple task to ask for guidance from people who seemed to have family trees imprinted at some deep level in the brain, but the gift seems to be fading, as it’s getting more and more vague as to who’s what to whom.
Chromosomal chaos notwithstanding, though, it’s always fascinating to see some of the evolutionary differences in our various branches. Some of the family lines down there seem to be extraordinarily devout Baptists (and the church service on Sunday included lengthy quotations from that moral exemplar John Ashcroft, of all people), while other wings are Roman Catholic and a number of other shades of spirituality, while education ranges from high school to PHDs, and people work in a number of trades, most of which bear no resemblance to the work of our ancestors.
I’ve been lucky to live a double family life, with a manageable set of extra-nuclear family members (my parents each had one brother, so I have two pairs of aunts & uncles and a compact set of five first cousins, of which two were out of circulation) in my ”immediate” orbit, with this immense sea of mysteriously-connected kin a bit further out, always there when one is ready for a swim in the gene pool, and it just keeps getting more confusing and more entertaining with every passing year. Every time I head south, I find myself changing as those invisible latitude lines pass under my wheels, reverting more and more to my reunion self, ready to listen and learn and tell my own stories (in a voice that sheds more of its Marylandisms as I enter the old stomping grounds almost by subconscious imperative).
I don’t know many people who drive six hundred and fifty miles to visit their family, but I’m half Georgia lemming, destined to make that home trek once a year to renew the old links and spend a hours in wondrous exploration, wandering the back roads of memory again to keep the map fresh in my mind, so I’ll always know where I am and where I’m from, which pretty much makes where I’m going a question not worth worrying over.
Visiting my father’s hometown has been a complex emotional trip for me, particularly after the mid-1980s, when we ”rescued” my grandmother, moving her first into a grim cinderblock apartment cluster, and then up here, to Maryland, to a curiously-lifeless ”senior housing” complex. There are all sorts of reasons as to why those moves were probably justified, but for myself, I’d rather live a shorter life in a home that has a heart than the longest of lives in a drywall and industrial carpeting nightmare, and the loss of the house, that house, the house I dreamed myself into for many years of my youth, was a source of anguish for some time afterward.
Even looking at it now, as a presumably more mature and wiser person, I feel a pang and a hopeless pining for that place, and when we stopped there to take some pictures a few years back and were accosted by one of the current occupants, a lumpen, wretched slattern in curlers and a ragged housedress, it made me want to shriek ”Get out of my grandmother’s house, you horrid, horrid woman!” and bodily remove her from the premises in the most cartoonish fashion imaginable.
Buddhism makes the point that the only certainty is change, and my practice often breaks down on that very point, because there’s change I can accept and change I can’t, and though I know I’m getting better at accepting change I couldn’t cope with even a few years earlier, the best I can do with certain changes is to be an oyster, smoothing over the worst losses with layers of shining memory, coating the particles of painful desire until they turn into something cool and beautiful.
There was always a lot of my father there, even though he’d been away for decades, from the collage of overgrown outbuildings to the memorabilia of his hyperkinetic youth to the pit under the house found by the renovators when the house was being restored and converted into apartments after my grandmother’s departure, a refuge my father carefully dug out there unbeknownst to all but a trusted cousin or two. Everywhere you scratched the surface, you could find the artifacts of a life we’d only barely heard about, and every unsupervised moment was a chance to root through those curious histories.
In my day, the place had a care-worn majesty that I’ve rarely found since, something in the musty smell of fading wood, books, and old rugs, or maybe in the derelict second-story, which my grandmother abandoned completely once the last boarder left, offering it to me as an apparent proof of my theory that I was her favorite. Everything looked old, felt old, from the way the faded paint and worn high points on every corner looked and felt to the indescribable sense that you were treading floorboards that had been underfoot for ages, and staying there was like staying in an archaeological site where the turn of the century was coming under the scrutiny of the microscope.
I’d bathe in the immense clawfoot tub, which was so large I could float there like I was in a sensory deprivation tank, touching nothing, and dream my anachronistic dreams of the Tom Swift life I always figured I’d be living one day, or I’d root through the ”back bedroom,” a archive of old books and endless boxed treasures that was the juvenile equivalent of discovering that the library at Alexandria hadn’t been burnt at all, and was still there, perfectly preserved under the strata of the ages.
I have to admit that the place looks nice these days, having been dragged back a few miles on the road to ruin, and will probably last a lot longer than it might have otherwise, and yet, I rue the loss of its grandeur in decline, and the density of history that’s evaporating from it’s neatly scrubbed siding and the tidy garden plots that no longer hint at the era of metastasizing azaleas and the jungle in the back that once seemed as deep and mysterious as the Amazon basin.
I can do only what I’m doing, bearing up to the loss, reminding myself that most people never had anything remotely so wondrous, even for a while, and that I should be happy to have had it, even if only for what seemed like a single instant, frozen forever like a tiny grain of sand.
I can only be an oyster, standing on the sidewalk in Thomson, Georgia, looking back for just a moment, just taking a fleeting respite in the iridescence of a daydream before resuming my Tom Swift existence some hundreds of miles north and a million years away.
There’s something I left out, which is a fragment of a notion I’ve been rolling around in my meditations for years, a notion I can’t quite pin down yet because it’s so uncertain and complicated that it just sort of appears and disappears like the little glimmers of yellow that surface and sink again when you’re panning for gold.
I think about places that are gone now, or rather gone to me, as a house sold out of family hands is as gone in that sense as if it had burned to the ground, all those old doorways transformed from permeable borders into some- thing cold and impenetrable, something forbidden.
Of all the lost houses that haunt my memories, the most profoundly missed one is the house I grew up in, the old log house in Scaggsville where so many of my quirks and fixations were hammered into shape, to the point that, some years later, I still can’t sleep at night if I start thinking about it—I just lie there with my heart pounding in some sort of unspecified panic, remembering those horrible dreams that beset me in my youth, where I was being pursued by the Muppets (the pre-Muppet Show Muppets, back from the era when the residual LSD in Jim Henson’s bloodstream hadn’t fully dissipated).
In my worst pre-pubescent nightmares, the Muppets had power tools and they were coming to get me, a fact that I somehow knew even though they never actually appeared in my dreams (existing more as a sensation of impending homicidal puppets, if that makes any sense). I’d dream of myself running around the house, from door to door, window to window, finding myself locked out, running to the shed and to the chicken house, finding no shelter anywhere, no safe harbor, and I’d wake up screaming as I pounded on the back door of my dreamland house over the sound of circular saws and drills revving in the distance.
The funny thing, though, is that just remembering that dream, that damned recurring dream that plagued me in tacky suburban technicolor for what seemed like forever, is just as scary as it was then, even at the hoary old age of thirty-five, the simultaneous terror and indignity of being cast out of one’s quotidien paradise—a sort of concurrent sense of loss and terrible, pining jealousy.
It all reminds me of a curious reaction I used to have whenever I’d hear about my grandmother (particularly my mother’s mother) getting together with my cousins independently of my family (or worse, the thought of my grand- mother doting on her second husband’s grandchildren). I wouldn’t have articulated it this way at the time, but looking at photographs of my grandmother vacationing at the beach with my cousins one xmas, I felt a burning envy that made me look at my grandmother through narrowed eyes, thinking the juvenile equivalent of ”how could you, you…you…whore!” I couldn’t find a copy of my exclusive contract for her grandmothering services anywhere in my files, but it sure felt like I should have had the sole concession.
Putting it in print makes it all seem so ridiculous, and it certainly is ridiculous, but I’ve often felt the same things about my family’s home, or the rambling southern palace where my great aunt lived in Sylvania, Georgia, or my grandmother’s house on Jackson Street—and I see these places now and it makes me mad to think that strange people are in there, living their stupid, pointless lives in houses they can’t begin to understand, at least not in the way that we did. It’s a very ugly way to feel, perfectly childlike in its cruel selfishness, but I’d rather acknowledge my atrocities than pretend they don’t exist.
What started to become clear as I was writing about the house were the sparks of that amorphous notion I’ve been tending, the gradual realization that those places I’ve loved never really existed to start with, at least not in any sort of objective, empirical way. The house on Jackson Street of my youth is not the house my brother experienced, or the one my sister spent time exploring, or what my mother found on her first trip south, or the apartment house that it is today, and yet it is all these places, all at once, a sheaf of history and possibilities and our experiences all loosely bound together by the lifeless wood and metal and stones of the physical place.
Some time back, I wrote about seeing a tree backlit in the fog on a nearby street, where the light coming through the branches made a pincushion of shafts that changed its shape as I walked by, the shafts of light shifting like the arms of a sea anemone. My realization then was that my passing eye was just collecting these various perspectives, just taking in an infinitely-small slice of an infinite stack of possible views, that the photons leaving the streetlight were all going their own way at once, and the tree I saw was just one card drawn from an endless deck, and it’s as true of those lost places as it was of that tree and just as mind-bendingly complex—my house on Jackson Street was always mine and only mine, secured against the passage of time and tears for as long as I live and remember, and yet, it belongs to everyone else who’s been there, too, and is as uniquely theirs as it is mine.
It makes me feel some shame to have such a hard time letting go of that tedious childhood impulse, that keening cry of ”mine, mine, mine,” but as I sit with the thought of beloved places as being something other than dead things locked permanently into the fabric of an unchanging world, I have the uncanny sensation of watching them blooming, opening up metaphorically and metaphysically like flowers, gently unfurling in layer upon layer of perspectives and perceptions, curling around me like the sinuous loops and threads of smoke dissipating in still air, and I guess I feel a bit sheepish for wanting it all for myself.
© 2003 Joe Belknap Wall