This must be the place: ‘What a way to ride, oh what a way to go’
Three pickup trucks. One stretch of highway.
Since 2005, I’ve routinely traversed a never-ending stretch of Interstate 81 from north-central Pennsylvania into Eastern Tennessee. Some of the trips were for business, others for pleasure, with every single trek one of personal reflection amid a wide-spectrum of the beauty — physical and spiritual — that is singular to the identity of America.
June 2005: 20 years old. 1998 Isuzu Hombre. Origin: Jonas, Pennsylvania. Destination: Bonnaroo (Manchester, Tennessee). Leaving my former girlfriend’s house deep in the Pocono Mountains, I took off on my first real deal road trip by myself, en route to the musical mecca of my generation. Shoulder-length curly hair, tie-dye shirt. The endless farm fields of Pennsylvania eventually gave way to the Blue Ridge Mountains along the spine of western Virginia, onward to the muddy, humid chaos of 75,000 music freaks in rural Tennessee. It was reading a copy of Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel On The Road during that trip when I had the epiphany: “I want to be a writer.” Come hell or high water, which remains the motto, the way.
March 2010: 25 years old. 2005 Dodge Dakota. Origin: Saranac Lake, New York. Destination: Tybee Island, Georgia. Borrowing my dad’s Dakota, I picked up my former girlfriend and hit the road to see my folks for Spring Break. We decided to take I-81, the long way to Georgia, to see some old friends of mine from my days out west, who now resided in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I felt good about this girl. That whole drive down, I kept looking over at her, thinking of how I would propose to her that fall. And yet, it wasn’t much longer after I dropped her off at the Savannah airport after a great week on the beach, that she got to me before I could get to her. Over and out.
August 2012: 27 years old. 2001 GMC Sonoma. Origin: Plattsburgh, New York. Destination: Waynesville, North Carolina. After another breakup with yet again another girlfriend, I decided it was time to pull up the stakes and try my luck elsewhere. After accepting this gig at The Smoky Mountain News, whatever didn’t fit in my old truck didn’t make the cut. Rolling down the highway, I barely slept due to anxiousness and pure inertia in getting to the starting line of the next chapter. Rainstorms and fast-paced tractor-trailers most of the way.
October 2017: 32 years old. 2005 Dodge Dakota. Origin: Plattsburgh, New York. Destination: Waynesville, North Carolina. After my beloved, faithful Sonoma made its final trip into that truck heaven in the sky, it was a familiar haul from my parent’s house back to Waynesville. This time, I was able to acquire my dad’s longtime Dakota. Still smelled the same, with memories of Tybee lingering in the front passenger’s seat, but slowly dissipating with each mile closer back to Western North Carolina, back to my current girlfriend and the life we’re trying to create together.
So, there I was this past weekend, 12 years up and down that same stretch of road. The radio dial has never changed: NPR, Hannity, Limbaugh. Innumerable generic rock and country stations, probably all owned by the same people, anyhow. Fire and brimstone religious programs the more one pushes into the Bible Belt. If you’re lucky enough to tune into a great station — old country or string music — it usually becomes static the second you cross into a new state.
But, this time down ole I-81, it all felt different. The voices echoing from the stereo seemed more paranoid or angry, or perhaps hopeful that common ground among fellow man could be finally found. The bumper stickers are more aggressive and polarizing than in past memory. The faces I’d pass by seemed bleak or stern and direct, but mostly blank, as if life itself finally stole the last of their zest for tomorrow, the promise of today all too easily lost before they even walked out their front door.
I’d drive by huge signs signaling a Civil War battlefield or museum nearby, the radio voices talking about equality, history, statues, etc. Big banners hung high on barns talking about making this country great again, or stating what was (is) wrong with it, the radio voices emphatically agreeing or vehemently disagreeing with that assessment by John and Jane Q. Public. The entire spectrum of accents and skin colors encountered from New York to North Carolina — from all over the world — and yet all along this one corridor of asphalt and gasoline burned in haste — can’t be late, eh?
After 1,100 miles, seven states and 2.5 days, it felt good to finally sit down in my apartment come Monday evening. My body was at ease, but my mind wasn’t. I kept thinking about getting back in the Dakota and hitting that same stretch of road again, this time to shake hands with all those strangers, getting to know them, their fears and hopes, and truly making sense of what they see, for good or ill. Maybe so, maybe soon enough. Maybe they’ll even read this column. Who knows?
There’s probably one mile (or two) of road in this country for each citizen. I’ve been down hundreds of thousands of those miles, and met tens of thousands of those people, too. And I’m looking forward to the next hundred thousand miles, and also looking forward to crossing paths with you, too.
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.
1 The 34th annual Church Street Art & Craft Show will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, in downtown Waynesville.
2 The annual “Singing in the Smokies” fall festival will be held Oct. 12-14 at Inspiration Park in Bryson City.
3 Gallery 1 will host the opening of an art show featuring the work of Joseph Meigs and Tim Lewis from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 13, in Sylva.
4 Tunes on the Tuck (Bryson City) will host Ol’ Dirty Bathtub (Americana/bluegrass) at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14.
5 The annual Apple Harvest Festival will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21, on Main Street in downtown Waynesville.