In my head the layout of our three-week trip to the States seemed clear-cut. Warm Florida weather and a closet to clean out in northwest Indiana were the cornerstones; everything else would revolve are them. A road-trip seemed inevitable (We would have to get from point A warmth and sun to point B cold and work somehow and a road-trip is what Americans do, isn’t it?) and enticing (Road-trips make great memories). So when Patrick asked, “Do you want to fly from Tampa to Chicago?” I was surprised.
“Why would we fly?” I said.
He looked at me with head cocked, eyebrows forming the tops of two question marks.
“I mean, we could fly, but then,” Pause. “We can’t have much luggage. And besides it would cost more,” I said, knowing cost gets him every time.
“Yeah, but do you really want to drive that whole way with Alida?” he asked.
“We did it a couple of years ago with two even younger kids. She’ll be fine,” I said, although now that he mentioned it, huh, it is sort of a long time to keep a four-year-old entertained. The seed of doubt had been planted.
A few weeks later a remark from my father watered that little seed.
“Man, do you really want to spend all that time in the car? I mean, you’re only here for a short time and then you’re going to spend two days of it just traveling.”
“Oh, it’ll be fun,” I said, hoping no one would notice I was no longer feeling as convinced about my decision to road-trip. Dad made a good point to go along with Patrick’s: not only would I be stuck entertaining my little girl for hours on end, we would lose extra days possibly spent on the beach or in a closet. The seed named “doubt” began to sprout. It’s silly to drive all that way, even if my sister is on the way to Indiana. I could just drive down later to visit her and a friend. But what about our luggage? I guess mom and dad could just bring it with them in the truck. It does cost more money to fly, but Mom and Dad could stay longer in Florida like they would like. On and on flowed the thoughts of doubt, but still the notion of this road-trip nagged at me. It was something I wanted to do, even if the voices around me – inside and out – warned otherwise.
We drove. 6:00 a.m. (for future referral it was actually two minutes before the appointed time) my parents, Alida and I were settled in the truck. The first part of our adventure – sand, beach, sun and that salty Florida smell – had sadly come to an end. But the second part looked promising – spending time with my siblings and their families, rummaging through memories in the form of old letters and notes, meeting and cuddling my friend’s babies – and we were starting it with a road-trip.
After I made the decision to drive to Indiana, I concluded there was no room for doubt. I did my best to whack that growing plant back and succeeded, as much as weeds like that allow it. Of course I still wondered how I would keep the little girl beside me entertained for so long and knew this trip wouldn’t be perfect, but I felt drawn to the road in a way that had become unfamiliar to me. I dreaded the sore back from sitting too long and the hours wasted. At some point I would be annoyed with everyone in the car and just want out, I was sure of it, but still the road that lay before seemed to promise more.
A little over an hour later I woke first from our required nap. I told Alida when we first left the entertainment part of this trip wouldn’t begin for at least another two hours, so she may as well go back to sleep. When I woke I remained quiet, not wanting to disturb the peace of that moment. I considered getting out my journal, – what a great time to write! – but thought instead, just enjoy. I wondered if I should start that new book I brought along, but no, keep quiet. Outside the day was still in its infancy, just beginning to make room for the sun’s warmth. The grazing cows made no notice of their pastures, unimpressed by the live oaks’ invitation to climb their sprawling branches. The Spanish moss hung off these branches, adding mystery and years of wisdom to the trees. Palms poked their spiky fronds towards the sun, unafraid of being baked like the underbrush had been where it hugged the sandy ground. I could almost hear the crunch it made when the cows walked over it. It was a picture of Florida, this state I had come to love and I thought:
This is it – this is what I have come to see.
By now hours passed like the landscape outside our windows; if we didn’t make the effort to notice, they became blurs. Alida discovered the joys of Grandma’s IPad and couldn’t get enough of the games she didn’t yet grasp. I ploughed my way through my book, determined to finish, although it was horrible. (I don’t put down books I’ve begun, no matter how bad.) Road signs announced “Sweet Georgia Peaches – exit now!”, “Welcome! We’re Glad Georgia’s On Your Mind!” and “Adcock Pecans – next exit! We exited, not to buy peaches or pecans, but to fill up on gas. As any road-tripper knows, gas-filling is always associated with potty breaks, so I dug Alida out of the comfortable hole of pillows she had made for herself and ran with her through the pouring rain to the bathroom.
Inside, trying to touch as little as possible, I explained to Alida that we were no longer in Florida, but in a state named Georgia. She pressed her eyebrows together. “Huh?”
“This country is divided into different parts called states. Where we were with Grandma and Grandpa, with the beaches and sunshine, was Florida. We’ll visit Aunt Rona in the state where she lives, called Kentucky and then drive to Indiana where Grandma and Grandpa’s house is. And right now, we’re in-between in a state called Georgia.”
Alida looked at me with big eyes, “Georg-gee-ya!” And grinned.
This is it – this is what I have come to experience.
Later I awoke disorientated. We were pulling off again, apparently time for another round of gas. I wondered what state we were in – still Georgia or had we reached Tennessee? – but then remembered before I fell asleep I had reached the stage of being annoyed with everyone in the car. I refused to ask any question I had, wanting to hang on to my frustration. Again I dug Alida out and headed for the bathroom. The ache in my back prompted me to first walk a couple laps around the building. As we walked I searched for clues as to what state we might be in. I found nothing.
On our little walk we met a mom trying to coax her screaming boy into the car. I smiled, hopefully in a sympathetic way. I knew what that was like. The second time around the building, the boy had calmed enough to shoot us a curious look. I could hear him thinking what are these people doing?! I smiled again, hopefully in a mischievous way. Maybe I could get him to forget his worry, if only for a moment.
Inside we did the bathroom thing and then I went to the register to pay for the gas station cappuccino I used to love. (This too belonged to road-trips, and I needed to see if I still loved them. I don’t.) I paid, and the woman behind the counter smiled at me and said, “Ya’ll have a good day now.”
I realized it didn’t matter where we were or that these were perfect strangers. I felt connected to them, although oblivious to their stories and they to mine. They didn’t know (or care) that I felt a stranger in our country. What connected us was this brief rest from the road we were on.
This is it – this is what I have come to hear.