I know the Southeast.
I was born in Western North Carolina, and I currently live in and roam around Georgia. I’ve been all the way to Louisiana and back by road several times, and of course, I have traveled all throughout Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Tennessee using every means of conveyance you can imagine – even my own feet! Especially my own feet. The Southeastern corner of my home country I know. Even the entire Eastern Seaboard, I’m fairly familiar with. That said, crossing the Mississippi to head West is something I had only done once before.
So here we were, just myself, the woman of my dreams, and a little blue SUV packed for two weeks. We had traded off driving through the night, just to get out of the Southeast and across the Mississippi. She woke me just before Memphis, so that I could drive into Arkansas, and so that she could sleep. Leaving Memphis looked exactly as I expected – flat country coming into Arkansas; the Mississippi River Floodplain a patchwork of immense fields and tiny remnants of forest.
It was an eerily familiar place in the predawn half-light. I was reminded of south Georgia, but this felt even flatter still. I marveled at the surprising contrast this held with the hills of northern Alabama, which I had just seen on my last stint in the driver’s seat, coming out of Birmingham. Perhaps it was my surprise that the state known for the Ozarks would boast such an even, uninterrupted plane, with the visual impression of being at or below sea level, but I found myself gawking in silence. I could feel the vacuum of nothingness in the air all around the car, an oppressive, humid emptiness hanging just above ground level. There were no slopes here, and even the trees felt stunted. Glancing through roadside thickets at the fields stretching on into Never, I saw standing water so often that I worried I was actually driving through the marsh back in my home state, instead of seven hundred miles west, where I was supposed to be. Clearly the year’s heavy rains had hit Arkansas as hard as they had Georgia.
Just as the land stretched out flatter than glass, sprawling agricultural nothing in all directions, so too did the road itself seem to reach out indefinitely, in front and behind, showing no inclination whatsoever of changing elevation in the slightest.
Surely, it was a mere two hours between the banks of the mighty Mississippi and the outskirts of Little Rock, but as I blazed West through the impenetrable grey mist, time seemed to slow down for me. I felt as if an entire day had passed me by, filled only with dawn and dusk, omitting the sunshine entirely. Even the traffic of the road seemed to be only half-awake: truckers who had driven through the night, like we had done, or those who had just awoken from a nap to continue driving, like myself, specifically, and a few early risers in small cars who meant to get to work before anyone else. Compared to the feel of heavy congested traffic during daytime on a thoroughfare, this was like the reflection in a puddle of an afterthought, as if driving through a dream. Each time I passed an entrance ramp onto the interstate, its shoulders were clogged with trucks, their drivers snoozing in celebration of a night well spent making great time across the Southeast. Suddenly, I noticed a rock, or a hill, or something, and fairly shortly afterwards, the road widened, and curved to the left, two things it hadn’t even considered doing for the last couple hours. I was seeing signs for Little Rock now, and the interstate became downright creative in its form. Hills, bluffs, outcroppings of rock, and the height of the interstate off the dirt became the welcome signs into Little Rock, Arkansas. Suddenly, I was in a land that knew what hills were, and understood that the road should bend to the land, and not the other way around. Interstate Forty wound around large sections of the city as it did around those rocky hills. I started thinking that the name Little Rock might have been a misnomer. After all the flooded, wet, flat and humid farmland, suddenly I felt positively teleported to a different world. Comparatively imposing cliff faces loomed over the road as it skirted around them. I wondered to myself if perhaps this was the foothills of the Ozarks, or thereabouts. Then, the sun started to rise. Driving westward at speeds never dropping below sixty, I literally prolonged the coming of the sun. I knew the astronomy behind it, but still it felt surreal, as if I were on a completely different planet. Perhaps this world had days that just progressed slower – longer sunrise, lazier movement of that orb across the sphere, a procrastination of sunset. It felt like more than an hour of dodging the first rays of the sun, barely touching the tops of the trees or just peeking around a rocky outcrop, as I sped away from Little Rock. Of course, as my car was hit by those rays themselves, I saw my first Ozark. I am ashamed to report that until that moment, I actually had no knowledge of anything to do with the Ozark Mountains, except that they were mountains. I never knew that they were so long, wide, and spread out. I never realized that the distance between them sometimes made it feel like you were looking at the only mountain in existence. At other times, I could see two or three at once, but it took so long to reach one, and then again to leave it behind, that I became convinced that each must have had a magnetic iron core, but that they were all polarized so as to repel each other. My Appalachian homeland made these Ozarks look like each mountain here wanted nothing to do with any of the others. The curse of my westward trajectory lasted through the day. After what felt like never-ending solitary mountains, I noticed that Oklahoma was approaching. Now I became excited, because I had actually never set foot on any Indian Nation other than the Eastern Band of Cherokee. I was about to see many tribes, spread out over an entire state. Yes, it was all I could do to avoid thinking of why they all came to be such close neighbors, but for the moment, it was oddly convenient that I would get to drive through several all-but-sovereign nations, while never leaving the comfort of the interstate. I tried to ignore the side of me that disdained traveling on interstates to begin with.
My beautiful goddess and I traded places again, so that I might be able to close my eyes. That plan didn’t succeed. Something about being in a place I had never been near before, seeing trees, grass, and habitations I had never seen, kept my brain alert and awake. With each sign pointing toward Indian lands, or with each new placename in a language older than flags, I grew more and more enchanted with the land around us. I couldn’t sleep, it was impossible to shut my eyelids, my brain would not rest. I adhered to my Religion of Place by keeping my vigil in midmorning, sitting sentry for holy lay lines of light, cast from a newborn sun in an ancient land….
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