Crimson nail, index finger, road map. An unlikely trinity, but I have been hunched over them muttering for so long, I feel I’m on the verge of something prayerful. My finger traces and retraces Route 11 where it snakes along the page as if the patterns on the atlas in my lap were Braille. I am well aware that even if each little black dot marking a town was raised slightly, worrying the bumps with the fleshy pads of my fingers wouldn’t make us any less lost.
None-the-less, I repeat the gesture over and over. Tracing down and across, circling back, retracing, coming out right where we’re supposed to be, but where we obviously are not. Some days my tendency toward obsessive repetition makes me slightly crazed, but today, the inability to do anything more constructive from the back seat of the car where I’m scrunched in between some luggage and the back of the driver’s seat makes the sliding movement of my hand almost soothing.
We have been driving for over an hour and still haven’t passed through New Prospect, South Carolina. According to the atlas, it should have been the seventh little black dot on Route 11 and we should have come to it long ago. There are four of us in the car headed for “The Beach”. My friend Dara, who spent her college years going to the ocean, says that when people in Iowa City talked about the beach, and she found out they meant the small square of imported sand that was the Iowa Reservoir, she was bewildered and disappointed. Having lived always in the Midwest myself, postage stamp beaches are all I’ve ever known. I have never seen an ocean or a full-blown, God-placed beach like Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina, which is where we’re headed.
The car is making me hot, irritable and impatient. My muscles are stiff, my finger still tracing a road, we are obviously not on. And while we are whisking through other little towns, none of them, no matter how far my finger traces along the black line, are on this road. Faulty maps aside, I know we’ve taken a wrong turn. It’s an opinion I expressed miles back, and miles back before that, but no one else seemed to be too concerned, so I stare at the bird droppings on the window which look a lot like a prancing carousel stallion and watch as the towns appear and disappear one after another—Sunset, Salem, Tennessee.
I’m taking this vacation against my better judgement. It’s an attempt to take a break and slow down. The past year has been the nexus in a fevered dance of teaching, studying for Ph.D. comps, and working four part-time jobs. My hair is falling out in clumps, I have an ongoing prescription for Tagamet to stop what ym physician calls hyper-acidic stomach pains, and my family no longer expects to hear from me. Trying to settle into the soothing rhythm of the car, hoping I won’t need the Dramamine I sometimes take for motion sickness, and which is packed away in the suitcase under my feet, I close my eyes and take long, slow breaths. I’m beginning to wish I had taken a break by spending a day on the Mississippi River.
More than new scenery, what I needed was a day to myself. Even on Mother’s Day or Thanksgiving. Even when I’ve promised faithfully to meet friends after work because I’ve missed the last three get-togethers. No matter how deeply in love I am. There comes a time when I have to be alone, and nothing else will do. A friend of mine gave me a sign once, for my wall: “Whenever I’m alone, I have to decide if it’s by choice or by popular demand.”
She meant it as a jab, but I took it to heart. I love time by myself. I take walks, empty-handed; I window shop; I read trashy romance novels; I spoon almond chocolate chip ice cream directly out of the gallon container. In retrospect, trying to slow the pace of my life by setting off on a three-day cross-country trek to the ocean seems an ironic oxymoron.
Finally the car skims past a sign for Seneca, South Carolina. The name, written in large, bold type, jumps out at me from the left side of the map—the wrong side. We have traveled almost two hours in the wrong direction. Twenty minutes into our trip, we came to Highway 11 South ad turned right. We all just assumed we were headed south. North Carolina, South Carolina, the ocean—all of it south of Iowa. But highway markings can be fickle, especially on a road labeled north and south, which is actually heading east and west. I go back to the start and see our mistake immediately. We should have turned left onto 11 North. I fold up the map, paranoid, and double check my purse and my suitcase, and settle back as we set out again, gamely trying to keep our spirits up.
Gradually I give myself up to the situation. “Enjoy the trip, not just the destination,” my mother would admonish. So, I turn my attention to the landscape. We are going through oddly familiar small towns. North Carolina, Iowa, it makes little difference. They all have a handful of houses, a gas station or two, a church, a restaurant named “Chuck’s,” or “Sip and Sup,” or “The Koffee Kup,” an ill-defined warehouse where men in over-alls stand next to semis and tractor, talking to one another, and then everything unravels into farm land again—in the Midwest, corn tassels and soybeans, in the South, dusty tobacco plants and miniature peach trees. I do my best to melt into the situation.
My mind drifts into neutral. Past dark and still lost, we pull into town and up to a pay phone in a piggly Wiggly grocery store parking lot to call our friend, who is waiting for us to pick her up. She lives in the country and we get directions only a native could appreciation. “Go past the Baptist church to the little brown grocery store and turn left. Down a mile or so, there’s a driveway. Take the left fork and that’s us.” We miss the turn the first time and double back. The little brown grocery store is a cinder block building. “it’s what we’ve always called it,” our friend shrugs.
Part 2 continues next at the Norfleets, a family we visited in an earlier blog.