America opened her eyes. With every mileage-to-go sign, the landscape grew more familiar. With every benchmark, she felt the pull of a place, which remained unexplored. This was the place of her ancestors, Powhatan and Puritan, cultivated and colonized with sweat and blood. This was the place where her father, Eugene, had instilled in her a love for poetry and nature, where they had spent hours sitting on the porch reciting Frost and Whitman and discussing Emerson and Thoreau. This was the place where her mother, Willa, had put forward her best efforts to teach her of the rewards of the domestic life, where she had tried to share the joy of kneading dough and baking bread and the knowledge of how to kindle and stoke a fire. But for all their attempts to keep her grounded in the land, her parents’ traditions could not compete with her restless spirit.
She had tried, right before leaving their Roanoke homestead, to hold her mother’s face in her hands and wipe away the tears from her eyes with her thumbs, had tried, as they stood in the driveway, to explain how her father’s sudden death had made her realize that there were so many things she had yet to discover—adventures to be had while she was still young. She winced as her mother pushed her hands away.
“But you’re only eighteen! What do you know about the world out there?”
America knew that her mother’s concern was not unkind, that Willa—the name she had begun to address her by since Eugene’s fatal heart attack a month prior—was simply afraid for her: afraid of the unknown. At that moment, America thought of Willa’s favorite pastime: the easy smile as she gently rocked the porch swing and hummed some melodic tune of her own making. This activity of Willa’s was the one thing America could never resist because it was the one thing that always put her at ease. But even as a billion pinpoints of light began to shine and move across the inkblot sky on a fixed course, America could not help but long for a glimpse of the occasional shooting star. She remembered how her mother would laugh when she caught sight of one and quickly perked up with eyes like big bright lights in the night.
America’s intent had brought her back to the moment.
“That’s exactly why I have to go!”
When the unspoken resignation came and America gave her mother, who had composed herself in stoic form, one last hug, it seemed clear to her then that she was as different from her mother as the fixed lights are to those that move along their own path—or so she had thought at that time.
America had waved good bye that day as she drove over the hill, but Willa never waved back. A mile into town, she pulled over and was about to turn around when a Jeep sped by. She watched it head down the road and turn onto the interstate onramp and everything came into sharp focus. For America, this was the road less traveled by and it would make all the difference.
At the pawn shop, America handed her camera over to the obese broker with grease-slicked hair who smelled like sour milk. He bit his lower lip and made eyes at her as he calculated the loan. She was not beautiful by the standards on billboards or glossies, but she had an appeal that came from a combination of an earthiness and a natural charm, not to mention a feistiness that often caught people off guard. She got the feeling though that this guy stared like this at anything female. He finished calculating, filled an envelope with some cash, had her sign a form, and slid the money across the counter with a lecherous grin saying, “Anything else I can…do for you?
“Yeah,” she answered snatching up the thinly stuffed envelope. “Take a shower.”
She headed across the street to the Greyhound station and bought a one-way ticket for the Blue Ridge Mountains of her childhood and, as America picked an empty row of ragged cushions to sprawl upon, she smiled at all the familiar faces: the Mexican men—migrant workers—heading back down to the border towns bearing gifts for their wives and children and the college boys and girls seeking reunions with lovers not far from school, things she had all forsaken for the open road. There was the token Southerner who would strike up conversations with anyone he sat next to and rave about things like Mississippi pecans. Everyone had somewhere specific to go it seemed, but America’s destination lay somewhere just outside the boundaries of home as her fellow passengers knew it.
It seemed to America as if eons had passed since she left Roanoke. Her father, Eugene, had exposed her early on to travel stories and infected her with romantic notions of meaning in movement, inspired by characters like Dean Moriarty who seemed more real to her as she ended her own journey just as Dean must have seemed to himself at the end of his. She had left her mother and the domestic life, poised to sing her own song of the open road, setting out in Eugene’s beat-up ’67 Chevy pickup with nothing but a leather-bound journal, an undersized suitcase of clothes, a brand new camera, and the hundred grand he had saved from his time as Professor of American Literature at George Mason, that he had left America for her higher education. She had been accepted to the University of Virginia, had dreamed of becoming a university professor herself, but her father’s death had set her on a different course. She was determined to discover the country of her namesake, the one that lived quietly yet vibrantly within the fabric of the idea of the nation. She had set out to capture the undiscovered country and had blazed a meteoric trail across the land.
In the first year of her travels alone, America met so many people that defied the typical impressions of Americans in the media at home and abroad. One of her earliest encounters with such an individual happened while shopping for a canteen at an Army surplus store in Asheville, North Carolina. She befriended the storeowner, a relic from another era. He was sitting behind the counter in his tawny cardigan smoking a pipe, filling the room with an aromatic milky smoke while reading a book the cover of which was impressed in ornate gold-flake. She asked him what it was, being cautious not to seem too distant or too open. Waving away the smoke, he smiled and said, “It’s the Qu’ran…” He placed his thumb over the pipe’s hole to snuff it out. “…in Arabic,” he added.
America was perplexed, but she could see that the old-timer understood that to her an old white man reading the Qu’ran in Arabic in an Army surplus store must seem quite strange.
“I learned Arabic from the Tunisians while fighting Rommel and his Panzers in the final North African Campaign.”
America was surprised. She had entered the store with some anxiety, expecting to find some neo-Nazi or other white supremacist gun enthusiast. Instead, she found a hero from a time the world of post-9/11 had forgotten. America had read about Rommel and his squadrons of killer tanks. She had also read about the battle-hardened allies who fought him in the desert, so she was impressed to discover a man who had taken the time to expand his consciousness while, in her opinion, saving the world.
A tall well-built man with salt and pepper hair arrived. He wore blue jeans and a brown corduroy blazer.
“How you doin’ my boy,” said the old white-haired vet.
“I hope Old Stan’s not borin’ you with his war stories,” said the younger man.
“Some people actually find this stuff interesting,” said the old man to America with a wink.
“This is my son, Harold. He’s a Marxist. He crusades for justice from his ivory tower at UNC while my comrades protect his right to do so freely.”
America realized this was all in good humor when the man walked around the counter and leaned down to give his father a hug.
“I didn’t get your name yet, dear,” said the old man from over his son’s shoulder.
America had never thought of her name as unusual until the old man’s son perked up and looked at his father before they both looked back at her, surprised.
“Now, that’s a name for the ages,” said the old man.
America sat and talked with Stan and Harold for hours, about more than just war and peace and justice. It was well into the evening before she left, but not without setting up her camera to take a picture of herself with her two new friends who would be the first of many true individuals she would meet on the road.
Then again, by the end of that same first year, she had already had many encounters with all kinds of bigots, like the time she stopped at Shakey’s down in Gulfport, Mississippi. An overweight man in overalls with a bright pink face approached her at the salad bar to comment on her smooth olive skin and dark black hair.
“You ain’t from round here, are ya? You some kind of A-rab? Why don’t you go back to where you came from?”
America was shocked, but ignored the man, who proceeded to speak in a calm southern drawl, informing her that he was gonna go put down his mac ‘n’ cheese and, if she wasn’t gone by the time he did so, he’d have to go out to his truck, grab his shotgun, and put her down like the wild animal she was. She had thought about testing this man’s resolve with an offhand comment about inbreeding. She looked around to gauge her audience, but quickly realized she had better get out of there fast when she noticed that even the restaurant manager was glaring at her. She was gone before the fat man could return to his table.
She stayed in a rundown motel that night—the kind where you might find a chalk outline and yellow caution tape—and used the phone to call her mother.
“Hello, Willa? I’m in Gulfport, Mississippi and you’ll never believe what just happened.”
America could tell that her calls used to worry her mother. She could tell that her mother used to feign support while trying to suppress the serious fear she felt for her, but, over time, her request for details sounded like they came from a place of genuine interest. By the third year, America learned that she had become a sort of folk hero in their neck of the Roanoke woods, that her mother would talk about her adventures everywhere she went: at the market while picking up eggs, while passing by the neighbors on evening walks, even at the post office. Willa had actually told her once that she saw some old lady buying milk at the market one day and used the excuse of getting some herself just to say, “You know my daughter once worked on an organic dairy farm for a week just to see what it was like.”
This appreciation—so different than what she felt as a child—caused America to experience a subtle longing. Her mother never used guilt to entice her. It was her sincere interest in her daughter as a person beyond the context of where she came from that stirred up a desire within her to return home and explore the side of herself that she had never given a chance. She began to imagine herself as a kind of prodigal daughter, returning to her mother’s home and to the fullness of that parable’s end, but the road still called her. There were still things to see, pictures to capture with her camera, events to write about, memories to collect, so that when she finally did return she would have what she needed to put it all together.
America began to feel more uneasy about the pull of home, so she called her mom less. She was still rebelling against the idea when she got the voice mail from her cousin, Rex, that he had found Willa lying peacefully in her bed, holding a picture of herself and Eugene, each holding one of America’s tiny upstretched hands in front of their house.
America’s view was framed by a window. Having pawned her camera for the ticket back to Virginia, she imagined the landscapes passing through the glass as though seeing them through a wide lens. America always knew what her mother wanted for her: to learn, like George Harrison sang, to “arrive without traveling,” but she knew Willa would resign herself to the knowledge that her daughter had been cast into a different role, that, like Siddhartha of Hesse fame, the existential journey requires one to let everything go in order to embrace it again with completeness.
America had been searching for a maintenance man to take a look at her truck and tell her what the noise coming from under its hood—the one that sounded like a cat hacking up a hairball—was. She had been telling everyone she met that Eugene’s old ’67 Chevy—Rusty, as she affectionately called it—was barely running on the power of the Holy Spirit. Rusty’s condition had given America pause. She too had been feeling the wear of many miles. She found an abandoned gas station and looked around for some discarded tools, but all she found was an old flat-head screwdriver and an abandoned payphone. She picked up the phone, surprised to find it still had a connection. That is where she got the message her cousin Rex had left her on her voice mail.
“I’m sorry to have to contact you like this and even sorrier to have to tell you that…your mom’s gone. The doctor says she died peacefully of heart failure in her sleep. I found her. She looked so peaceful. She was holding a picture of y’all from when you were a kid. I’ll keep an eye on the homestead and check it out from time to time until you get back to me. I hope to hear from you soon. Take care.”
She would cry, unnoticed in silence, all the way to Los Angeles, but at that moment all America could do was clutch the phone to her chest and slink to the ground in shock. She just stared for hours at a vacant pumpkin patch, until a tour bus stopped. It was filled with mostly elderly sightseers who got out and began pitiful attempts to stretch. There were a dozen men and women the same age as her old friend Harold and even a few in their early twenties, like her. So, as the driver called them back in, she decided to make her move. She grabbed her suitcase and camera, unscrewed the license plates from her truck, said farewell to Rusty with a pat on the hood, and snuck around to the bus. As the tourists filed back in, she slipped in with them, fortunately unnoticed.
After four years of traveling, having crisscrossed the country several times from north to west to south to east and back up along the mighty Mississippi—Rusty finally having had it—looping back around the heartland on a tour bus—back to the west coast—weathered by every kind of storm and heat and rain along the way, America was not yet ready to lay claim to anything. Nevertheless, Los Angeles seemed like the edge of the world to her now, so she bought herself a ticket, placed her suitcase full of meditations and memories on the seat next to her, and braced herself for her next and last trip. The trip home.
As she traveled the expanse of Interstate 40 once again—through Texas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee—America wrestled with a heady guilt. She wished she had told her mother how much she loved her and that she had been there with Willa in the end. She thought of the day she left and how she had argued for her need to experience life before it was too late, but now it actually was too late, too late to experience the most important thing in the whole equation. She dozed in and out of fitful dreamlessness.
Ominous clouds gathered around somewhere in the desert outside of Albuquerque. At the edge of noon, copious red clouds blacked out the sun and the static atmosphere finally bore its menace. The phenomenon was so terrifying that the driver, a middle-aged Hispanic man named Jorge, whom America had gotten to know a little, whom she could tell had been performing his job with enjoyment up until then, pulled over, having become visibly frightened. Like Jorge and the rest of the passengers, America was scared. Just outside the bus, in sporadic bursts, Saint Elmo’s fire rocked an atmosphere choked with static, sending a ripple of dull cries throughout the cabin after each high-voltage electrical discharge.
The storm lasted for a couple of hours and America thought about energy. She thought about how it must be at the heart of everything so that energy and spirit are the same, so that her mother’s spirit and hers were not so distant after all. At that moment, she came to the conclusion that her mother’s death had finally provided Willa with the opportunity to expand her own consciousness. Having become pure energy, there was no more need to fear the world out there, for the world out there is the same as the world inside every soul.
After a while, America’s fear was replaced by a reverent appreciation for this natural spectacle. Although the threat of death literally loomed all around, she was so awestruck by the beauty and sublimity of it that she eventually took comfort in it. She realized that it could not harm her since all was energy anyhow. She decided she would tap into this energy. She would return home and, although it would not be in the prodigal manner in which she had fantasized, she would make a new life, sending down the roots of a vast experience into a particular soil to carry on the traditions of her parents and her ancestors with the benefit of having brought together all the best of everything that the country of her namesake had graced her with. She even dosed off into a deep sleep and had pleasant dreams of her parents, awaking a couple hours later to the sound of a recomposed Jorge announcing through the cabin speaker system,
“Next stop, Oklahoma City!”
America found herself gazing out the window into the black of a night sky occupied by a huge harvest moon hanging over a vast plain that stretched into an impenetrable darkness. She knew she was halfway there, that she was halfway home and was starting to wonder what it would really be like when Jorge turned his head. With his eyes still focused on the road he said,
“We’re just a few miles away from the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. What a terrible thing.”
America couldn’t tell if, by “terrible thing,” Jorge meant what had happened there in 1995, or that the site had been turned into a museum.
“A tragedy!” she exclaimed.
They drove on through the night and in the morning they stopped in Knoxville, Tennessee. At the base of the Great Smoky Mountains America felt as if she had become a giant magnet. The hidden lodestone drew her over the mountains. She thought she heard bluegrass music echoing through the trees as the bus wound its way through the magical Appalachian range towards Virginia, towards porch swings and hot chamomile tea.
America said goodbye to Jorge in Greensboro, North Carolina. The new driver got on Route 220, northbound for Roanoke, and, as she made her way back up the path which four years prior she had decided wanted wear, she felt a resurgence of the same anticipation she had felt as she pulled away from the side of the road and followed that green Jeep onto the open road.
It felt strange to her that, at twenty-two years of age, she was an orphan: young enough to wonder, from then on, about lost chances, but old enough to make her own way, to create a new history, to share it with the world.
The bus pulled into the Salem Avenue Greyhound station at 1:24 p.m., approximately sixty hours after departing downtown Los Angeles. Almost down to her last dollar, having called a cab, America stood outside the station gripping the handle of her suitcase so hard her knuckles turned white. She had set out to capture life moment by moment, but now it all seemed so fragmented. It was almost time to put it all back together.
When the cabbie drove up to the front porch on the pebble roundabout, she was awestruck. Even in the last light of early evening the immaculately preserved seventeenth century cottage stood as vibrant as ever. She stepped out of the cab and, with her gaze fixed on a panoramic view of the house, America reached into her pocket and in one fluid motion pulled out the last of her cash and handed it all to the driver.
She approached the porch as the cabbie drove away. Three short steps up and she stood on the weatherproofed deck. Not a creek in the wood. She placed her suitcase in front of the door and sat down on the porch swing. She pumped her feet from heel to toe. The porch swing, which hung from old hemp ropes, made a low rumbling noise, like the sound of a large ship rocking back and forth, and she began to hum a tune of her own making.
After rocking and humming for a few minutes, America crouched down to gently lift up the front door mat. As she peeled the damp, tightly woven mat from the wood porch, a couple of roly polies and pincher bugs scurried away and there it was: the large brass key from a time when people manufactured things with an aesthetic quality, even if they were only to serve a functional purpose. She picked it up, put it in the lock, and did the obligatory three turns. Removing the key, she slid it into her pocket, turned the door knob, and, with a slight nudge, it glided back into the entrance in a welcoming gesture.
Bret Kaufman is a College English Instructor, Writer, and Global Citizen. His short stories have appeared in The Northridge Review and The Fast-Forward Festival. He is currently involved in various literary and academic endeavors, some of which are highlighted on his website http://www.bretkaufman.com.