Southern Highways

This trip through the South, for some reason, felt really raw.

All those miles tracked through anonymous interstates and bone-deeply familiar subdivisions. So much newness and so many dreams crumbling on the side of the road.

My sister in law serves painfully hip coffee out of a former Montgomery department store a block from where Rosa Parks took her stand. My sister carves out a living writing in her century-old home in a gentrifying neighborhood in Atlanta. My childhood friends remain in my hometown, in neighborhoods of starkly new houses. Even when I feel like an old-timer, mostly I don’t know the before, not really.

What does a new Target cost us when it comes to crouch in a formerly dear spot? Does my loss matter, compared against the gain for the ones I left behind, who now spend less time in traffic and more time with their families?

It is a luxury I mostly don’t have to consider unless I want to, back in Virginia. I’ve lived here three years, a blink, even to me, now that time has begun the inexorable acceleration of my thirties. I don’t know what this town was like before Walmart came, and I can have unmixed enthusiasm for the smartening up of downtown that will never feel too slick or gentrified for me, because I didn’t know it before.

I think there’s something about travel that emphasizes how we skim through life like dragonflies. Along the highways, J and I make lists, plans: let’s do the Virginia Creeper Trail someday; when we return to Charlotte, let’s stay in this neighborhood; let’s plan a trip with family to Sylva. But there’s never enough time.

And at each stop and in between, more than we’d like, I’m forced to pause and cuddle and nurse this baby growing long and brown, little bracelets of pale skin hidden in each roll. She is my third, and unaware of the deep and wild and perplexed joy I take in her, like all the babies who have passed through my arms.

The man walking bare-chested along a stretch of lonesome Alabama highway we pass one afternoon — my fading nana in her nursing home, who we visit in the rain, who called me my mother’s name — the strangers crowded in booths all around — we share this wild joy of loving and being loved, though the setting shifts relentlessly.

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