Pilgrim Passes By
By Lawrence Lawler
One Mississippi, two Mississippi, one Mississippi, two Mississippi... I stare out of the window, robotically counting rotations of wind turbines that scatter the Kansas horizon. I have been traveling, on a road straight enough to drive blindfolded, for the past six hours. My only companions are my mother in the driver’s seat and the stagnant, white giants that watched and waved us onward as we passed them by. Cars droning by, fields of corn, and groves of sunflowers that retreat over the horizon is all these giants, these massive hordes of wind turbines, will ever know. They are stationary from birth, monotonously working until their undetermined retirement. But we drive on.
The odometer in our silver Acura ticks endlessly as we make our pilgrimage toward Colorado from Tennessee. Mile after mile we keep driving, the distance between myself and all I’ve ever known of home growing larger and larger. Periodically I reach towards the lemon-lime Gatorade in the cup holder at the center console, the bottle resistant to my pull - because a spilled Diet Coke. Mom knocked it over. She hasn’t stopped berating me with apologies for what seems like eons, most likely feeling the need to cover any extra ground before she must say goodbye. The Diet Coke was knocked over in Indiana; Indiana feels ancient and forgotten now. Rest stop by rest stop, and fill up by fill up I am beginning to obtain the actual scope of distance that I am placing between myself and the town where I grew up. Tennessee feels far away and fuzzy; no matter how much I rub my eyes it’s not getting any clearer.
One after another I pop Corn Nuts, a terribly impulsive gas station purchase, asking my mom, “How you feelin’?” as I chew. I don’t know if I have ever seen her as quiet as she is right now. At five-foot-one, she is an energized, charismatic, Sicilian spitfire who only loves her own mother and a fresh lasagna as much as her own children, and now she must say goodbye to her youngest. As she takes off the Maui Jim sunglasses that have been hugging her face for the whole car ride, it’s easy to see the light reflecting off the water in her eyes.
“Good, I am just beginning to miss you already,” she responds quietly, wielding illogical statements that only a mother can cause to make sense.
Normally I would respond by telling her that “I’m still right here,” but I let the remark fade back inside me. She can say anything she likes; she is the one who must drop her son off at a college 1700 miles away the next day.
“And part of me feels sad that you had to say goodbye to Bailey and Alex and Kevin and all of your closest friends. And I’m still so sad and frustrated that Susie broke up with you, out of the blue, the week before you left!”
The breakup is still fresh. My only serious relationship up until this point had ended, seemingly moments before I left Knoxville. Susie was fearful of what a long-distance relationship implied. Only days after she had assured me she loved me and was ready for anything, she decided to end things abruptly one night as we were hanging out. My heart still aches to some degree. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about Susie during this whole car ride. The subtle, shared characteristics she has in common with my mom, their speech laced with passion, their proclivity for smiling, and even their short statures, keep her in my memory. But I wasn’t turning back, not even for her. I knew that the interstate signs with a “W” following the number were the ones I wanted to follow.
Every slow crest of each hill in front of us is new territory for me. I peek my head up hoping to catch glimpses of mountains, knowing they we are nowhere near. Instead, I only see the continual collections of spinning giants, taunting us as we pass. We pass a billboard with the word “EAT” painted on it in stale, white letters. Accepting its invitation, we near the sign, its peeling white paint flaking off at the slightest gust of wind. Following the sign’s white, fragmented dandruff to a McDonald’s that looks as if it has been closed for years, we hesitantly step out of the car and towards the door. We almost slip on the freshly mopped floor as we approach the register and overhanging menus. After mulling over how soon we each want high cholesterol, we both order Quarter Pounders from the cashier. With bright red hair to match her lipstick and a mole on her right cheek, my mom and I speculate if Ronald McDonald himself had just taken our order. We chuckle to ourselves and find a seat.
Sitting down in the scoliosis-inducing booth my mom is quick to reflect on her college experience. “I remember trekking to college with my parents was really exciting! It was like a new chapter of my life was being written in the moment.”
“Yeah but Mom, you only moved three hours away to Auburn. We’re driving twenty hours just to get to the state that I’m living in.”
“I know, I know. I just remember it being so great, all of the friends I made that I still talk with to this day. I even hung out with Charles Barkley!” she exclaimed.
I had heard of her friendship with the NBA superstar a million times, and she knew that. Laced in her conversation are attempts at comforting her son, who is making the biggest decision of his life up to this point. I know that her small talk is an expression of her love for me, but comfort isn’t a commodity that I have a surplus of right now.
I can’t help but wonder if I am going the right direction as I bite into a burger composed of questionable meat content and cartoonish looking sesame buns. It was only weeks before the college deadline in May that I had decided to negate going to Vanderbilt on scholarship and had clicked the “enroll” button on Colorado University’s website, more or less on a whim. I know no one out here, I’m not familiar with Colorado in the slightest, and I am choosing to venture out here blindly. At the core of it, maybe that’s what I want. I have been raised in the same gray-trimmed, tin roof home barricaded by rosemary bushes my whole life. I have driven the same roads lined with Sequoia trees and Chick-fil-As, and been friends with the same PFG-wearing “good ole’ boys” since I could walk. Maybe I am trying to escape. Maybe Tennessee isn’t enough. This burger is terrible. We’re going to keep driving.
The brown, cartoonish “Colorado” sign flies by us on our right while being groped by millennials that are no more than tourists. With one hand casually on the wheel I glance over at one of the women standing in front of the sign, noticeably more beautiful than the others. Her deep brown hair flashes at us and I hope to get another glance at her through my rearview mirror as we pass by, but all I see is my high school athletic bag and a milk crate filled to the brim with books pressing against the back of my seat. All I plan to take to Colorado is in the car with me. But what have I left behind? Haven’t I left a room full of belongings in Tennessee, packed to the brim with trinkets and cairns that have marked my path thus far? Haven’t I left behind a family and a community that waved me off with tears of sadness? I have left behind church on Sunday, football on Saturday, and the promise of warm cornbread wrapped in cloth before mealtime. I have left behind waking up to my father’s hugs, watery eyes from standing too close to a campfire, and the smell of rain bleeding through asphalt after a midday storm. I have left behind my consistency, my comfort, my certainty, and belonging. I am leaving behind Tennessee; I am leaving Home.
The calling I feel westward still isn’t making much sense as I shift positions, now in the passenger seat, feeling the inward rumblings of my long gone Quarter Pounder. Everything of Tennessee seems good, worth staying for. But as I sail further from it, I feel the loosening grip of something that seems to have defined me and hemmed me in for much too long. We finally crest over a hill past Limon, Colorado and for the first time I can see the tips of the westward mountains bathed in golden sun, beckoning with wordless invitation. Although I am shrouded in hesitancy and perturbation, I know I desire to accept their mysterious call, an inaudible song too alluring to turn from now.
Sitting upright, I look toward the driver’s seat. “Will you pull over, Mom? I want to drive.”