I have made this run up 75 North so many times I should be able to do it in my sleep, but this is the first time in ten years I finally did it without taking a printed map. I’m directionally challenged in many ways and so I often don’t trust myself. But in the age of bossy female GPS directors inside of phones, I figured if I needed it I could always turn to it in the end.
My preference is night travel although I’m not sure why. Maybe the lack of traffic, or simply the cocoon feel of flying along in the dark with nothing but the music seems to make time go by more quickly. Normally I take the straight through right downtown Atlanta, but I wasn’t feeling like racing along with Saturday night revelers, so I hopped on the bypass this time. But there was more. We lived in and around Atlanta for many years, and the passing road signs are reminders of past times. And so while I traveled alone, there were enough memory ghosts to keep me company.
Road signs reminded me of the first solo trip I made up to Atlanta to see my late husband in his new digs required by a new job. Until I was in my 40’s, I lived within 75 miles of the place I was born, and big cities as such just aren’t in the landscape. And while I traveled off and on during my life, most of the time I wasn’t driving. Arriving in Atlanta was a big deal for me and I was a nervous wreck. But I made it, and learned the delights of the International Market on Sundays, the beauty of Piedmont Park in the fall with piles and piles of autumn leaves, the culinary joy of a Varsity hamburger with the works, fresh challah bread on Fridays in Druid Hills, and the eclectic excitement of Little Five Points. All of those memories crowded into the remaining cracks and crevices in my tightly packed car and hummed along with me as I sped through the night. There were also memories of a weekend road trip with my oldest girl when I was so broke that we paid for our food with a bag of change, carefully counting out enough nickels, dimes and quarters for a shared meal at Burger King near a little place called Eden, GA. There were other trips she rode by my side as well, back to the house after my husband’s death, and bringing her back home after a hurricane on the Outer Banks had displaced her and her housemates. Memories of trips with my youngest and my first grandchild snoozing in the back seat blissfully as she tried to figure out what and where she wanted to be and sorted through the challenges of being a young single Mom.
As the miles slipped away under the tires, places further north brought back other memories of trips to hike Amicalola Falls, wintry visits to the Etowah River with three girls all used to Florida heat and for whom ice crystal patterns in water frozen by rocks was a new thing.
But there were also signs that reminded me of trips in my new normal of aloneness. Red Top Mountain near Altoona Lake, where I started my first solo camping trip ever, in the rain, with a brand-new tent I’d only practiced putting up once. These memories define who I am now and stand alongside the memories of who I have been. They are often very disparate, as I covered the terrain of newly married wife, young mother with more toddlers than hands, to mom of teenagers and to now as a widow. From a girl so scared in the woods that to this day it remains a family joke among my ex-in-laws, to the one who tromped through woods alone with only my camera, and slept beneath a full equinox moon to the choir of coyotes under a light blanket of frost waking to a fire built with my own hands.
Sometimes I am not sure how I really got from there to here – if that person was dormant inside just waiting for the right time to manifest her different strengths; new things found inside of her. I only know that every time I crest the rise past Chattanooga my heart comes alive and a smile inhabits my face, even if it is 2 a.m. and my coffee saturated bladder is screaming for me to finally stop and stretch my legs.
This trip isn’t for fun, although I’m trying to cram an adventure in here in spite of it all. I’ll be camping in below freezing weather, because I want to. Simply because I want the experience, to know how to deal with something like that while it is a choice. Everyone thinks I am nuts. I’ve done it once before under about six inches of snow, but it has been a few years. Yeah, it is cold. But it is also achingly beautiful as you exit the warm cocoon of the sleeping bag and step onto untouched snow, watch the blue haze of dawn spread and see the millions of crystals flare with sunlight that both heightens their beauty and also brings their demise.
I’ve wrestled with the dread of confronting a recent widow, of having to try to pry into finances and private places to determine the future of the property. It has caused a lot of things that I keep inside locked away tightly to bubble to the surface – the helpless, disoriented feeling that comes with the death of a spouse, the long, sleepless nights staring at the ceiling through tears wondering what in the world I was going to do with this new life thrust upon me without notice, the panic and inability to think coherently at times, the aching feeling of knowing there is now no one who knows you so well, who loves you for exactly who you are, and no face that lights up with joy and a crooked smile when you walk through the door. Most of all, there is no one who understands your fears, follies and strengths to hold you when things are tough. My children and my mother have asked me why I think I am alone still. I’ve come to the conclusion that outside of the obvious lack of interaction due to working hours and my naturally introverted personality style, it is simply that once you have been loved for who you actually are, it makes things tough. It is difficult to meet new people and explore the depths of personalities and how they intermingle, if someone can handle and embrace a strong-minded, often impulsive, goofy and opinionated woman who has lived over a half-century and has enough baggage and memories to fill a couple of small cars. A good friend of mine recently stated that once I am in my little house in the woods and my hands are in the dirt again with the passing seasons reflected in the foliage, someone is going to ride up on his horse and never leave. I don’t know anyone that rides a horse, so it must be someone I haven’t met yet 🙂 I don’t know what the future holds in that regard, and I can’t spend my time wondering. I simply have to go live my life. So that is what I am doing.
I also don’t know what lies in front of me during this visit at all. At least I have a family that is willing to rent the house for a year if she has to leave. That’s one less burden I’m carrying as I complete the last leg of the trip. I’m watching the weather closely, as driving in ice and snow isn’t one of the skills I’ve yet mastered and it makes me a little skittish. But hey, what is life for but learning new things, hopefully without sliding a just repaired car into a ditch 🙂
So on this beautifully chilly fall morning, I wish everyone a day filled with something you love and value. A sunrise, an owl crossing your path, a deer within the sights, a toasty fire with a good meal and good companionship and a life worth living.
It is life, let’s do it! And a song for the road…