Sunday, July 29, 2012

Running Away to Home

Five weeks ago I ran away from the home and the life I created for myself in North Carolina and returned to my roots. Two weeks were spent on the 4000 mile journey from that life to my new life. The first two weeks here are busy with building my nest and getting ready for my Seattle daughter’s wedding at this old/new home. This week is the beginning of figuring out “what now?”

The first thing I did when I arrived was get a library card. I didn’t have the proper credentials (like a driver’s license), but I know the person behind the desk. Perks. The first book that caught my eye on the new book shelf in my new-old Carnegie library (remodeled since I first loved it) was Running Away to Home, a memoir by Jennifer Wilson of a year spent with her family in Croatia, the land of her ancestors. It is what I have done; and I am struggling, as did she.

I purchased license plates this week (as well as a driver's license and auto insurance; and I registered to vote﹣learning from my mother that voting is all done by mail, no polling places). I must say, Washington has a terrific plate and I am glad through my happy and sad tears to put one on the back﹣and the front (I need to get bolts)﹣of my car. My North Carolina plate (or tag as they are called there, something I never got used to) was SWW (SouthWest Washington). My new plate is AIT. “What the heck?” I think when they are handed to me. What is that an acronym for? Ah, “Alien in Training.” Yep, that’s about right. I am feeling more than a bit of that right now. Everything is familiar here, except me in it.

They say you can’t go home again; but you can. Just don’t expect it to be the same as it was when you left. Even in small town America. The forever Fuller Market Basket became Shop ‘n Kart since the last time I was here, a year ago. Still a depressing place. A couple newish businesses are gone, too. An historic building on the main street through town burned this year. The El Rancho Tavern from my original years finally went the way of the Doghouse Tavern. No loss there. I wonder if it is an indicator of an improved populace; then my sister tells me that a group of citizens called Centralia One, buys taverns when they go up for sale. A condition of resale is that it cannot be a tavern again; that, in fact, alcohol cannot be served. Which means it really can’t be a restaurant either, which is too bad; but they are helping change the flavor of a town that was full of heavily used low-class drinkeries when I left here 42 years ago. A plethora of outlet stores at the interstate and of antique stores in town have cropped up in the intervening years. Centralia is trying to reinvent itself, and that is a good thing, if not the flavor I might have chosen.

The post office is still one of the golden oldie ones, and has that oak and ancient paper smell. I love it. The Shanghai Restaurant is apparently still going strong, next door to Hubbub, my sister’s six-year-old shop. I’m sure I don’t know why. It is exactly the same as it always was, at least on the outside. I don’t believe I have ever been inside the door, so I wouldn’t know if it has changed. Somehow I doubt it. An experimental rain garden is put in next to Hubbub’s sculpture garden since my arrival. The city was awarded a large grant to be more green and more beautiful, but it seems there are foot draggers, so they are testing and proving its worth. The sidewalk is porous, and pleasant to walk on; and rain water soaks in and returns to the garden alongside it rather than into the storm drain. How the heck can that be a bad thing?

I stop the other evening to take a picture of the Gibson House sign, and am informed by an inebriated young man on the sidewalk that, “Ma’am, that’s not the Gibson House anymore.” I just say, “I know that, [son].” What I don't tell him is that before the building was the Gibson House﹣that it’s not anymore, thank you﹣it was Proffitt’s Department Store where I bought my Girl Scout uniforms, and dresses for special occasions as opposed to daily clothing needs, which were purchased at JC Penney. And before it was the Gibson House restaurant, it was the Gibson House gift and book store, which used to be two blocks down the street and was my first place of employment when I was in high school. Bet you didn’t learn that in your history class, not that you would have been paying attention. Twerp.

The historic Fox Theater (1930), which I was not allowed to frequent every Friday night with my friends, is slowly being restored to its original appearance inside and out as funding allows, after years of vacant decay. The goal is to be a model of the art deco period and a state-of-the-art performing arts center. And the Olympic Club, a classy tavern formerly owned by the family of one of my classmates, is now a hotspot for gathering, eating, and living-room-style-seating movies; as well as an interesting hotel with shared bathrooms.

Centralia was founded in 1875 by George Washington, the son of a black slave, and a jack-of-all trades who journeyed across the country to the Pacific Northwest to create a new life. When George was a baby, his father was sold and his mother left him with a white couple who raised him. Because the Oregon Territory barred settlement by Blacks, his "adoptive" parents filed a claim for 640 acres, unofficially on his behalf. When the area became part of the new Washington Territory, which did not have such a ban, the Cochrans deeded him the land, from which George and his wife founded the town of Centerville, later renamed Centralia.

Nicknamed the Hub City, Centralia was a railroad hub, equidistant between Seattle and Portland, the mountains and the ocean. I grew up on the wrong side of the active tracks. That is, the wrong side to get anywhere else in a hurry. My dad and I, waiting at one crossing or another, counted cars and looked for the "blt" date, to identify the oldest car on the trains. I have done research. There are currently five Amtrak trains a day in each direction. And the Seattle to Portland corridor hosts an average of 50 freight trains each day; all passing, of course, the three remaining open crossings between town and my house; sometimes rattling straight through, sometimes stopping and backing up and blocking the tracks for long minutes. There are two viaducts, but figuring out when to bail and when to be patient is tricky. I have put a book in my car.

So there is the town's history lesson. Not much has changed at my childhood home on the hill. The gardens are more beautiful than ever. But my mother is disappointed with them. As always. I am living differently here. My quarters consist of a bedroom (the one that was mine when I left for college in 1970), a good-sized living room with the biggest closet I have ever had, and a three-quarter bathroom, neither of which were finished rooms when I left home. I have a table, a small refrigerator, and a microwave at one end of the living room. I call that a kitchen; more like a kitchy. I cook for my mother and myself in her kitchen; with her cookware and utensils, and food; on her counters. They are not the things I am accustomed to using or cooking, and nothing is organized in the way I would want it to be. But it is not my space, so I must learn to make do. Outside my living room, in the garden my sister created, I am getting reacquainted with the slugs.

Cultivating a new garden, or restoring an old one, is hard work. It was hard at my 609 Edmund Street garden; and this one is no easier. At least I knew the tools there: shovel, saw, hoe, loppers, trowel. I haven't yet figured out what I need for this one. In that garden I decided what I wanted to plant﹣and was solely responsible for what grew and what died. Now others have suggestions for what gets planted and instructions for care. And I feel guilty if I choose differently. Perhaps the community garden (like this one on a steep hill in Seattle) is, in the end, the best. Built of cooperation and a co-mingling of ideas and personalities. I just have to make sure I do not fail to contribute my ideas; and then learn to let go of the outcome, or at least bend. Not easy. (Of course, I am not talking about simple vegetation and dirt gardens here; gardens of life are much trickier.)

I am trying to find my own patch of soil, in a garden established by others who might prefer that I just water what they planted. I left my North Carolina garden because maintaining is not my favorite part of gardening. My gardens in the past have not involved a schematic design. I envisioned as I went. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not so much. I think this garden will need a plan; one that involves finding a balance between nourishing what is here and planting what I need for abundant living. It won't happen quickly.

In her frustration in the attempt to discover a life in Croatia from the time she arrived there, Jennifer Wilson's (Running Away to Home) husband told her, “You’re trying to figure everything out before you actually enjoy this. I don’t think the point is to try to figure anything out.” I will try to let the plan unfold as it will. Meanwhile I hold onto the daily fact that the air here among the hills and mountains and fir trees, vibrates with energy; whereas it sucked the life out of me in the southeast. I will discover what to do with that energy; and keep breathing deep in the meantime.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Dancing in the Garden of Delight

I arrived early for the ceremony. Two weeks early. I got to help with the preparation for this most special of weddings. It was such a privilege to work side-by-side (though they mostly were 80 miles away) with these two remarkable women﹣one of whom is heart of my heart, born of my womb. Emma took the foundation her father and I gave her and is building a skyscraper. And Wynne, her building-a-life partner, has stretched my heart to bursting.

When one of my sisters asked me if I felt like the mother of the bride, I had to ponder. Of course, I have never been the mother of the bride before, so I don't know what that feels like really. But not like this, I don't think. My other sister, who has been living near the garden through the many months of preparing for this day and has been the on-site mother figure since Emma moved to Washington some years ago, inhabits that traditional role more than I. My mother, who has worked the garden for five decades, has been involved from the beginning, while I was 2500 miles away. Wynne's mother, Carolyn, is the mother of the also-bride; and Emma has been her daughter, too. Emma's step-mother, Laura, has mothered and loved Emma for many years. No, I don't feel like the mother of the bride in the time-honored sense. What I feel right down through my core to my toes is family of the couple.

Wedding day in the garden at my mother's house﹣and now mine again for a while﹣is a spectacularly beautiful day sandwiched between two damp and chilly days. The benches and porta-potties are delivered; the signs that were created over weekends in Centralia on window panes and driftwood, chosen from my family's vast collection over the decades, are placed; round rocks chosen from Washington beaches and kept in crates and cans under the shed for 40 years are pulled out to designate seating reserved for family; tables are arranged under strings of light in the driveway, hung by Emma's dad and brothers, and adorned with candles and flowers cut from the garden or brought by friends from Seattle's Pike Place Market, all placed in cut off wine bottles; reception dinner food has been purchased, and preparation has been done by many of Wynne's and Emma's moms and aunts and a cousin or so. The box for the wine box ceremony, made by Emma's dad, is in its place of honor, waiting to receive the letters of encouragement from the guests, to be read when Wynne and Emma need such words.

The wedding party﹣six of the couple's friends from the stages of their lives; and six children, including my eldest grandson and five of the small people Emma and Wynne have cared for as nannies who, along with their parents, have joined their ever-expanding family﹣are gathered in front of 80 or so friends and family members who have come from all over the country, carrying flowers gathered from the garden and along the road. The minister﹣Emma's youth minister and dear friend ﹣gives lollypops to the six children. And that sets the tone. This is not your run-of-the mill celebration.

The ceremony is beautiful and inspirational, as weddings are. I shed tears as, in the words Katherine speaks as to why they chose this garden to speak their love to one another before witnesses and in their covenant statements to one another, they honor my mother and my father and the place of love they built for me and my sisters and their grandchildren. But above all, it is delightful. The wedding party, including the older children, share the reading of a children's book, beloved by Emma and Wynne; and, I suspect, read often on babysitting days and evenings. 

If I were asked what is different about the love of these two women, I would skip right over the obvious fact that there is no groom. Although the pride of Emma's 96-year-old Nana to welcome Wynne to the family; and the unconditional acceptance by Emma and Wynne's vast (and non-traditional) families and network of dear friends from all parts of their journeys to this place must be noted here. And what does it mean that it is unmissable that they love each other﹣every wedding features a love-obvious duo, hopefully. They clearly adore each other﹣and I love that word. But what strikes me most deeply, that I rarely have seen in other couples, is their delight in one another. The children's book says everything that needs to be said.

I like you
And I know why
I like you because
You are a good person
To like

I like you because
When I tell you something special
You know it’s special
And you remember it
A long long time

You say remember when you told me
Something special
And both of us remember

When I think something is important
You think it’s important too
We have good ideas

When I say something funny
You laugh
I think I’m funny and
You think I’m funny too

You know how to be silly
That’s why I like you
Boy are you ever silly
I never met anybody sillier than me till I met you

I like you because
You know when it’s time to stop being silly
Maybe day after tomorrow
Maybe never
Oops too late
It’s a quarter past silly

That’s because
You really like me
You really like me
Don’t you
And I really like you back
And you like me back
And I like you back
And that’s the way we keep on going
Every day

And I like you because
When I am feeling sad
You don’t always cheer me up right away
Sometimes it is better to be sad
You want to think about things
It takes time

If you find two four-leaf clovers
You give me one
If I find four
I give you two
If we only find three
We keep on looking
Sometimes we have good luck
And sometimes we don’t

I like you because
I don’t know why but
Everything that happens
Is nicer with you
I can’t remember when I didn’t like you
It must have been lonesome then

I like you for so many reasons

On the Fourth of July I like you because
It’s the Fourth of July
On the Fifth of July
I like you too

If you and I had some drums
And some horns and some horses
If we had some hats and some
Flags and some fire engines

We could be a HOLIDAY
We could be a CELEBRATION
We could be a WHOLE PARADE
See what I mean?

Even if it was the twenty first of July
Even if it was the nine hundred and ninety-ninth of July
Even if it was August
Even if it was way down at the bottom of November
Even if it was no place particular in January

I would go on choosing you
And you would go on choosing me
Over and over again
That’s how it would happen every time
Because I like you

(Excerpted from I Like You, a children's book by Sandol Stoddard Warburg)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

In Search of My Mother's Garden*

Changing gardens is hard. It's not the new flora and fauna﹣not even the fauna that eat the flora (later that might annoy me). In fact, it's not what is new at all; it's letting go of what is missing to make room for the new. The coffee shop doesn't open early enough and they don't make decaf drip coffee and I don't like the cups and it's not warm enough to sit outside and may never be in the morning. And I miss Brian and Kevin at Cafe Carolina, who knew my name. They knew my order, too; I don't even know my order at Santa Lucia. But it is a sweet place. I will give it until my gift card is used up and then assess.

My mother's garden is a bit wild and a lot beautiful. She is not satisfied with it; I don't know why, but I do know her dissatisfaction with so many things is something I am going to struggle with. It is part of her personal garden. I fell in love with the unfamiliar-to-me St. John's Wort and crocrosmia lucifer last summer when I was here. (Perhaps before summer's end I will learn to photograph the crocrosmia. I have discovered that true red flowers are difficult to get a good picture of.) And I am glad that my mother seems to have finally made peace with the tiny but invasive forget-me-nots, and given them a bit more space. It is one of those "weeds" that would take over the garden and the lawn if allowed, but kept in bounds are beautiful.

My childhood home is on the side of a hill in the woods. The ferns and fir trees frame the gardens. The deer live in the framework and like to come into the picture at will. In this first week, I have seen not a single squirrel; and, other than hummingbirds, only one bird. My mother doesn't feed the birds﹣they make a mess and, like the mourning doves in my North Carolina garden, the jays are greedy, so she opts out. I am getting seed soon. I am overjoyed to be able to sleep in the summer with the window open; and I miss being awakened by bird song.

I spend the week since my arrival building my nest. Part of my personal garden is the need for change. Changing jobs, changing homes, rearranging furniture, putting new plants in the garden. So I enjoy arranging my familiar possessions into my new space. As I install my yard art into my new garden, the one my sister created when she lived here a few years ago, I am disappointed that there isn't more to do in the garden. I was told it needed TLC, but my mother's garden helper "did pull the weeds." I like to pull weeds﹣at least the first ones of the season. The cleaning out cleans me out. Emptying and making space. It is creating that space that gets my creative juices and my imagination flowing.

Under the carport with the plastic bags and wooden crates and Maxwell House coffee cans filled with driftwood, beach stones, and shells collected by me and my sisters and parents decades ago, I discover the old iron kettle I used to make sandbox stew in. I put it in the garden. (I have replaced Mary's watering can with it in the sidebar of this blog.) I look forward to reconnecting with my childhood while I am here. Besides the beach stones and sandbox pot, I see in the sweet peas and daisies the wildflower bouquets I used to present to my mother. The ones she put on the dining table like they were the finest hothouse floral arrangements. What better place and time to return to writing memoir, which this blog interrupted.

Now that my nest is nearly finished, I feel anxiety creeping in. The next step is new relationships. I am not so good at that. Soon I will stop feeling like this is a vacation from which I will return to my life. I am already keenly missing my friends, who are now very far away. Friends are the true flowers in the garden. I know some of my sister's friends, and have met some more this week. That helps, but eventually I will need to grow my own. I loved Mary's flowers that came up in my North Carolina garden; but the garden wasn't mine until I added my own to the mix. I brought seeds from my poppies with me. I don't know if they will grow here, but I will scatter them in my new garden and see what comes up. And I have to figure out my mother's personal garden, too, and how I can be a companion to her and not lose my self. Change is good. Adjustment to change is hard﹣that time in the hallway between the familiar and the new, before the new becomes the familiar.

My Fresh Market scone clone﹣the one I made yesterday in my mother's kitchen using the beloved and familiar green crockery mixing bowl I helped mix chocolate chip cookie dough in as a child﹣is probably better than the FM one that has accompanied my blog writing and before that my journaling time for more than a decade. But it isn't quite right for me. It is a recipe I experimented with a few years ago when FM decided theirs weren't quite right and changed them, with poor results (something they were experimenting with again just before I left NC). But I haven't made it for a while. The recipe is right, but the patting out and baking need an adjustment.

This recipe for my life is right. I am home. Home in the green. Home in the mountains. Home where the air is fresh, not sticky. Home with family. The patting out and baking will take some more time. As I search for my place in my mother's garden, I will enjoy her flowers and her gardens for now. Maybe I will find my own flowers to add to hers﹣at least in my little plot within hers. Or maybe that will wait until I have my own garden again someday. I will have to decide, too, if I put my inner garden on hold and just live in hers; or if I stay steady in creating my own plot inside her circle. Creating a garden takes time.

*I know, the title has been used before. But I'm just borrowing it for a minute. Apologies to Alice Walker.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Olly Olly in Free

"Olly Olly in Free." A phrase, or a variant of the words known to children playing hide-and-seek. While the seeker counts, the runners hide. As the seeker seeks, the runners either stay hidden-hoping their hiding place is a good one-or take the risky move of slipping out of hiding and sneaking to home base without being caught. Upon arrival, they call out "Olly olly in free!" to announce having pulled one over on the seeker. Or at least that's how I played it.

I slipped home yesterday, after traveling 3,985 miles across 12 states over 15 days in my 1998 Honda CRV (CuRVy)-which now boasts over 210,000 miles on the odometer-and with my 12-year-old diabetic cat, Smudge. We were helped along the way by Phoebe, our GPS navigator-and by friends and family in five states who gave me a bed and more; and by those who walked with us in spirit via FaceBook and text messages. Olly olly in free!

When Phoebe Goodell Judson, my ancestor introduced to readers in a previous blog post, traveled by covered wagon from Ohio to nearly the same spot I am occupying today, she faced outrageous perils: not enough food, illness and even death, broken wagon wheels, Indian attacks, wild animals, bad roads over mountain passes and through the North American desert (was there a "road"?) with no navigation system. The risks really boggle the mind. Smudge and I faced car trouble (with unneeded AAA back-up), full hotels, brush fires, wrong turns or missed ones (with Phoebe for help), unavailable cell phone signal here and there, dead computer, hotel cat-hiding places, a fall. Adventure is perilous; there is no doubt about it; but, for me, the risk is worth it.

I made a home (several of them) in three states in the southeast, but I never completely lost the feeling of being misplaced. Thirty-six years later I have returned to my soul home in the Pacific Northwest. Phoebe, following her parents and siblings from Ohio; my parents, who treked from Michigan and Tennessee; one sister, who returned home after a lengthy stay in Maryland; my niece and nephew from Virginia; my daughter from North Carolina; and now wagon, automobile, and jetliner we have all made the pilgrimage to the state in the corner in search of home.

Traveling across this amazing country by car, off-interstate as much as I had time for-and given the restrictions of a traveling cat and an elderly car-has provided me with a snapshot of America. I was blessed by gift cards for gas, that couldn't be swiped at the pump, in addition to a credit card with swiping issues. Both resulted in the need to meet the locals working in gas stations. Reactions to my magnetic-strip-impaired card ranged from "I'm not supposed to punch in the number"; to having to guess at how much I needed, which they temporarily charged to my card; to "You have to leave me the card and your ID while you pump the gas"; to "Do you mind leaving the card while you pump?". Regardless of their rules and regs, I met friendly people everywhere from fancy city stations to truck stops in the tiny bergs in no-where America. Just because I can't imagine making home there, doesn't mean they haven't.

I found gardens everywhere. In the beauty of the stark white windmills rising in singles and random groupings on the hills above wind-swept deserts, their blades languidly turning around and around. In the big sky across the prairies, dotted with puffy clouds. In the sweeping grandeur of mountain passes in Wyoming, and the boxed-in-lushness of those in Colorado and Washington. In the gap-toothed smiles of the nations' working poor. In the skeletons of dead cottonwood trees flanking dry river beds and the hollow shell of a windowless farmhouse where even the low-tech windmill is stilled. In the public art of laughable grafitti-painted Cadillacs in a dusty Texas field to sober empty copper chairs by a reflecting pool in Oklahoma City.

I followed bits of the historic Trail of Tears, the Oregon Trail, and Route 66; and the newly designated Purple Heart Trail, named for America's many victims of wars across the oceans. I crossed the 45th Parallel on the open prairie and the Continental Divide in a mountain tunnel.

Yesterday, on the last day of my journey before the first day of the next part, I wept many tears as my wheels rolled over the mountainous terrain of the Blue Mountains, across the Yakima Valley and climbed again into the Cascades. On we rolled, my cat-oddly alert for the first time in days-and I. Finally, it was all familiar. We no longer had need of Phoebe as we traveled scenic highway 12.

Through the mixed conifer forests of fir, spruce, larch, and cedar as the eastern pine became more and more scarce in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. White Pass, where I skied until an accident in junior high stilled my downhill aspirations. Mt. Rainier; my mountain. The small towns of Packwood, Morton, and Mossyrock; the blueberry farm, Jackson Prairie, Mary's Corner. The connecting road between the Twin Cities of Chehalis and Centralia. Seminary Hill Road; the three-family driveway. And then the "you" "are" "here" signs my family put Burma Shave style on the fence posts to welcome me. At last we rounded the final curve to their happy faces and open arms, waiting at the end of the driveway.

And now to the beginning. I will make my new home, for a time, on the side of the hill where I spent my childhood. As Annie Dillard said, "I [have] found home, family, and the dinner table once again" (An American Childhood). Olly olly in free.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Other Right Way

If I have learned one thing in this life that is mine, it is that there is more than one way to do it right. You make your plans and then you see where the road takes you.

Smudge the Cat and I left our familiar a week ago today to make a new home in Washington state. Me in the red CuRVy crate, she in her crate within my crate. We are two drifters off to see the world. And what a lot of world to see. As a traveling companion, I was pretty sure I was good company, but she was untested. My fears were unfounded. She doesn't read a map well, but she doesn't complain. Not once has she asked if we are almost there or how much farther or chastised me for missing the turn and ending up switch-backing up a mountain.

The first detour is known. After our first three-day stop in Asheville to see my old grandson and the brand new one, son Nicholas tells me my chosen route on the byway rather than the interstate, will take me to a dead-end at the French Broad River. Phoebe will most likely take me way beyond my route on the official detour, but to ignore her and the signs telling me the road is closed miles ahead and just keep going until I get to the bridgeless crossing. There will be a tiny road to the left for the locals, squeezed between the river and the railroad track, that eventually will take me to another bridge where I can pick up the route. Both the route and the detour are meandering  and beautiful.

I spend the night with my niece in Dickson, TN. Leaving before she gets up, I lock the door behind me, and then realize I have left my atlas inside. I find another under the seat in the car. It is small and 16 years old. It will have to do for now.

Somewhere in Tennessee, I first discover the shortcomings of the less-than-detailed atlas. I miss a turn that would have kept me on my Hwy 25/70 route. I am reminded once again that even the known path does not run in a straight line. It is easy to lose
the way. I switchback up a mountain, catching glimpses of the valley below. I long to stop, really drink it in, take a picture to freeze the beauty. But there are no scenic overlooks on this road. It is merely a route for the locals to get from point A to point B. I see a single sign informing me that this is the historic route of the Trail of Tears. At the top of the mountain, I pull Curvy off under a tree in the parking lot of the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church to eat my lunch.

As I finish my homemade bread and jam with peanut butter, I see an elderly man approaching in my rearview mirror. Should I not be here? I sigh, thinking a time detour is about to happen; I want to be on my way. He wonders if I am okay. Am I having car trouble? Then opines that it is a beautiful spot for  lunch. I am about to cut this conversation short, but then a voice in my head says, "Isn't this why you are not on I-40? To see the land? The places where people live, not just where they travel at 70 mph with windows rolled up and the radio bleating? To see and maybe even listen to the stories?" He is the caretaker for the church; the church that was built in 1896 to replace the log one that burned. And did I know it is the highest point between Nashville and Chattanooga? I tell him where I am headed, and why. He is impressed. He starts to tell me he has a war buddy who lives in Washington. He was in the Navy. That's it; time to press on.

The road switch backs into the valley and across. Or not across. I'm not sure. And then it switch backs up again, and down. And then again. Is it the same mountain, or a series? Now I need a topo map. I can't get my bearings. But what does it matter, really. I'm on the road, I'm traveling more or less west. What else do I need to know?

I cross into Arkansas, not exactly where I had hoped to. I miss the road that crosses to another road that will cross the Mississippi River well north of Memphis. I don't like the cities. Apparently, though, I am about to experience this one. I manage it by reading the BIG green road signs more carefully than I had been reading the small, unobtrusive ones. The ones that don't really need to be there at all, because if you are on that road you should know where you are going.

I make it across Arkansas with just one small setback. Okay, a big setback. I go into a small grocery store in tiny Augusta to use the bathroom. I wish I had crossed the road to the Subway, gotten back in the car and continued on my way. But that wasn't to be my story. Coming out I slip on the curb cut and fall hard. I get up and into my car where it is clear I won't be driving soon. First I have to not feel like I will pass out. I lean onto the steering wheel, then over onto the other seat. There is no room in my packed car to slide the seat back. The three employees out for a smoke break who observe me come to see if I am okay. I don't know, I say. They ask if they can get me anything. Ice, I say. One gets ice, the other tells the first to hit it on the pavement and break it up. The third gets a plastic bag.

As I sit there willing myself not to pass out, hoping nothing is broken and that I didn't really just jam my shoulder into something that will require surgery which will require my getting that $1160 COBRA, they talk about how many people have fallen there, including a pregnant woman just recently, and the management won't do anything about it. And how they never get pay raises or vacation and make $7.30/hour. Clearly they are hoping I will sue the crap out of the store. A kind woman comes out and says I need to come in and file a report. Can I do that? I make it out of the car and sit down on the nearby bench. No, I can't make it inside. But now I can get my head between my knees. They bring water. I lie down. The kind woman brings a towel for my head and cool cloth for my forehead. She talks to me and gets me to talk to her. She says she is not a very good nurse. I say she is wonderful. The manager arrives and is also kind; and no doubt worried that I will sue. (He calls the next day to check on me and says he will check in again next week.)

Finally I am back on the road with a loaf of bread in an insulated lunch bag supporting my elbow (replaced by a pillow after my next stop) and ice on my shoulder. I arrive in Fort Smith for the night at rush hour. There is a brush fire along the road. I wish I had taken an earlier exit. Sitting in smoke on the beltline equivalent, aching. Traveling alone can be hard. Smudge is silent. The first two hotels are full. A convention in town. Who in God's name would have a convention at the end of June in Fort Smith, Arkansas? The third one had a cancellation. I'm in. I get food, take a shower, put on my pajamas, take more ibuprofen and get more ice.

The road on Thursday took me to the kindness of strangers in a town in a state I could not imagine living in. There are friendly people everywhere; even in places that in my provincial mind are godforsaken. I am sorry I was injured, but I am not distraught. It does not threaten the trip. Whatever is to happen is part of the journey.

I want to write so much more about this adventure. I'm not sure this is the place to do it. Perhaps I should have started a travel blog. I had not yet made a decision to do that when water spilled into my computer. I thought I would be traveling without it, but a couple days later discover that I can sort of make it work if I click the cancel button when it tries over and over to shut down and reboot. Maybe the sentences that have formed in my head as I drive, and scribble on a pad, will come out in later posts.

For now I will stick to one learning at a time. There is more than one way to get across the country. And to live a life. And there are gardens everywhere. In the river cane trail and rhododendrons of the Smoky mountains, of course, but also in the gap-toothed smiles of truck stop employees; in the majesty of the high-tech windmills; in the faces of my family; in the humor and sometimes irony of road signs; in the sorrow of abandoned farms and memorials to lives lost through unspeakable tragedy; even in the barrenness of America's interior, broken up by the Jesus Christ is Lord Travel Center we whiz by--tractor trailers proclaiming that "Jesus Christ is Lord, Not a Swear Word." I am keeping my eyes open wide.