Saturday, November 3, 2012

Country Roads (Take Me Home)

My Rand McNally Atlas, after four years of consistent use
I bought my first atlas May 8th, 2009 at a gas station in Dike, Iowa--a town with a teal water tower and just over a thousand residents.

I was on my way up north for the summer--an hour and a half into the eleven and a half hour drive from Ames, Iowa to Engadine, Michigan: the place where I planned to spend the summer, reading and writing in my parents' cabin.

I’d wanted to buy an atlas since attending the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Chicago in February of that year.  I'd spent the five hour drive from Illinois back to Iowa in the backseat of my friend Marissa’s car, looking through her boyfriend’s atlas. I placed my finger on places I’d been: I found the square shape of Iowa where I went to school, near the atlas’s center fold.  I measured distances with my thumb—five inches to Omaha, seven to Minneapolis, four to Kansas. I calculated miles and travel times.  I traced road trips I hoped to someday take.

My 2009 Rand McNally atlas has hot air balloons floating across the cover and features all fifty states plus the Canadian Provinces.  The woman behind the counter thumbed through its pages as I rummaged through my purse to find my debit card.  That's a nice one, she said.  I nodded.

I pressed the glass door open and walked outside. I rolled down my window to let the warm air filter through my car.  I placed my new atlas beside my water bottle and stack of CDs with black permanent writing marking them “Misc. Podcasts,” “Driving 1,” “Driving 2,” “Michigan mix.”
In graduate school, my housemate Anna called my car, my "noble steed."  She saw my orange Honda as a character in my story: an accomplice on my adventures.  But when I bought my atlas I'd owned my car less than a year.  I had no way of knowing that I'd spend the summer of 2009 living out of my Honda, driving between Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas, crashing in the 19th century Coast Guard building at Whitefish Point, sleeping in the apartment above the movie theater at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, driving Lake Michigan's northern beaches and Lake Superior's southern shores, running and hiking Pictured Rocks' limestone cliffs.

Packing to go West, summer 2012
I didn't know that I'd drive that same car across the country to my first post graduate school job at an environmental education center near Tacoma in 2011 or that in 2012 I would drive from Michigan to the Cascade Mountains where I'd leave my car parked in a lot while I worked in a village only accessible by boat.

Every pocket of my car is full of maps--not just my Rand McNally Atlas but State Park maps and National Park maps: Olympic and Glacier, The North Cascades and Mount Rainier--a bicycle map of the Kitsap Peninsula, a crinkled copy of Washington State's scenic byways, and a road map of Montana given to me by a friend who motorcycled across the state.  The names of hostels and grocery stores litter the pages of my maps.  I dog-eared the corners of Michigan and Iowa in my atlas.  I recorded the phone number of a girl who interned at Our Lady of the Rock monastery on Shaw island in my state byways catalog   I scrawled directions to the Amazing Grains co-op in Grand Forks, North Dakota in the corner of my U.S highway map.
Before I left Michigan to drive to the Cascades I changed my oil, installed new windshield wipers, rotated my tires, and bought a new air filter in my car.  But the first time I left Holden Village, after two months of disuse, I found my car with a dead battery and a flat tire.  The interior of my car smelled like the slip-on canvas shoes I left on the backseat and I had to unlock and lock all the doors manually.  My first three trips out of the village I had no time to jump the battery or to remove my front tire.  So I abandoned the car till I could fix it.  I drove to Pullman, Washington in my friend Kari's car.  I borrowed the Holden Village van to transport the cross country team.  I let my car sit, slumping on its front tire, and worried about it every time I passed it in the parking lot.

My last trip out of the village, I talked to a woman who worked on the ferry about my tire and battery.  She told me she knew people who lived nearby who could fix my car.  I'll talk to Jim or Tom, she said. I hugged her.  Twice.  The next time I left Holden, a man named Jim with a jump box met me beside my vehicle.  Within fifteen minutes he jumped my car and inflated my tires.  I drove to town with my windows rolled down.  It was the first time in months I'd felt at home outside Holden Village, driving a familiar road, in a car which had accompanied me across the country twice.

Today, when I drove down to the state cross country meet in Pasco, I drove solo, tailing Chelan's head cross country coach.  I listened to mixed CDs my brother made me for Christmas and my birthday.  I talked to friends and family on my cell phone.  I watched the western Washington desert sprawl out in every direction: the Columbia River basin, red rock, tumbleweed, and sage.  
Jeanne, the head elementary teacher at the Holden Village School, ends most school days with music.  The kids have chosen "Country Roads (Take Me Home)" as one of their final song several times this week.  Jeanne plays her guitar and the kids follow along in their songbooks.  Holden's students know the chorus better than the verses, and every time they come back to the lines, Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong their voices gather strength.  By the end of the song, when the chorus keeps repeating, they're belting the lines--in soprano voices so clear they make me want to cry: West Virginia, Mountain Mama, take me home, country roads.

In a phone conversation tonight, I told my brother that I thought I'd know what I was doing with my life by the age of twenty-six.  He paused.  Rachael, he said.  You are doing something with your life.  You're living it.  And I thought about the journey I'm on and the ways that journey has become home to me.

Tomorrow, I'll drive from Pasco to Boise to spend my fall break with a close friend who just moved to Idaho.  I'll drive rolling hills and high desert in a car that's taken me through National Parks and scenic byways, a car that's driven me to half a dozen different places I've considered home over the years.  I'll roll out my sleeping bag on my friend's floor and spend half a night talking to her about the hundreds of ways we've both changed since I last saw her last April.  We'll fall asleep side-by-side on the floor of her yet-to-be-furnished apartment: a pair of twenty-six year old vagabonds who have learned to sleep in sleeping bags and  live out of backpacks, a pair of people who are trying make the road our home until we can lay claim to someplace more permanent.

1 comment:

  1. "Your people" in Michigan miss you and look forward to your visit in December. Beautifully written, made me cry. xoxo