A gray mist hung over the hotel when I left Salem in the Roanoke, Virginia valley that early fall morning. I was on my way to TN to spend a week camping with my sister and her husband at one of their favorite retreats, Center Hill Lake. As light rain drizzled onto my windshield, drivers on their way to work passed me as I merged onto the interstate. A few miles before Wytheville, Virginia the road rises. At the top, the off-ramp circles down to join I-77 South through North Carolina (NC). Approaching the hill, the rain stopped, clouds opened to reveal patches of sunlight and blue sky. A sudden burning sensation rushed up my nose. As tears ran down my cheeks, I remembered the many times I had traveled over these roads.
For over two decades this road led me to my mother’s home. Each trip came with its own feelings ranging from happy anticipation to anxiety, dread and sadness. At times I looked forward to the occasion: my infant son’s first family Christmas and visits that included seeing Aunt Mable, a favorite who plied me with syrup-sweet tea and pound cake, luxuries she could ill-afford. In the not so distant past, as both parent’s health deteriorated, the visits increased, each a jam-packed adventure filled with fix-its, taking care of business and playing taxi to visit doctors, hospitals, lawyers and such. It was spring the last time I traveled this way. I came to bury Dad near his church in NC.
Often when we hurry along a well-traveled road it’s easy to become blind. The seasons change, turning from the growing time filled with green, to the withering brown of fall and finally, the stark gray of winter. Over a lifetime, you can travel the same road over and over and not be aware of the changes occurring all around you, much less notice those taking place inside you.
On this trip, I listened to National Public Radio (NPR) and learned more about how to brew a better cup of coffee and the history of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture on the mall in Washington, D.C. Along for the ride were two invisible companions who entertained me with stories on books on tape. I laughed, pondered and cried over the wisdom of the benefit of pet companionship instead of repeated marriage and how tragic losses shape a family in various ways.
During my time in Tennessee, I was soothed and refreshed by the views and people I met. Early mornings brought mists floating over the lake; a heron with a fondness for posing on the floating deck visited often. In the evening, hummingbirds took their last dive-bombing runs to fight over my sister’s feeder while the sun set behind dark hills.
I connected with colorful campers, old-timers like Nancy and Charles who have come here for nearly 50 years. This, despite the fact that Nancy, a petite, gray-haired, free-spirited senior with a fondness for bold colors and a gift of sharing favorite recipes like Coconut pie, only goes camping because it’s one of her husband’s favorite things to do.
Turning soda cans into whirlies is one of Paulette’s favorite activities while camping. Also a beekeeper and winemaker, she makes candles and a “knock-your-socks-off-good” wine from home-grown grapes. When not busy with those, Paulette finds time to take charge as a nurse. She reminded me of Mrs. Capone, a whirling bundle of non-stop activity, my first Charge Nurse when I was fresh out of technical school and at my first military hospital assignment. Paulette’s kindness and talent for teaching came out when she passed on whirly-making skills to my sister and send me home with one of her own fluttering creations.
Too soon the week ended; time to go home. I planned an overnight diversion at Grandfather Mountain in NC but at the last minute, decided to head to Cherokee to visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.
Having spent more than my allotted time at the museum, entranced by the displays, when my GPS asked “Where to”, I entered “home”. Nearly 11, non-stop hours of driving later, I arrived tired but renewed in spirit.
As we travel, it pays to allow your inner GPS to “re-route” you. Leaving the well-traveled road can open doors that lead to new awakenings, ways of seeing things and ultimately, new riches.
Once upon a time the road to NC seemed to me endless and unvarying. For years I felt conflicted about some who waited there for me. Now, having made peace with the past, this part of my journey is behind me and new destinations await. I’m sure that, in future, when I travel between my home and that of my sister’s, as I crest that hill and pass the familiar turn-off to Interstate 77 South, a few ghosts will pop into my head and heart and briefly say “Hello. Where have you been?” When they do, I’ll invite them in — comforting companions — to come along for the ride to new and undiscovered places as I continue to make my way on this road called “my life.”