Helga's Heartlines: A Journal
Saturday, September 20, 1997
Inevitably, this time of year, my thoughts turn Southward. Many Canadians are fortunate to become "Snowbirds" when they retire, to escape our winters. I wish I could join their ranks this very November - I'm talking early retirement here, not hurry up and be a senior citizen. Only, it isn't the sun-drenched Florida beaches I hanker after, it's the Old South. You know - the South steeped in history, tradition, atmosphere - Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana and the like.
It's not like I've had much real exposure to what I'm feeling for. Until this last time, last spring, the most I'd seen of it was Florida's Gulf Coast via return flights with Air Canada. My travel partner and I arranged to meet down there and take a few extra days to drive home the long way - Appalachia, by way of Charleston and the Coast. Albeit, the impressions I am left with are those I took in from the environs of the Interstates, (I-95 and I-77), I can honestly say I have a great sense of place. I have a passion for the landscape and all it entails, seen through the lens of its natural history and man-made heritage. They're not just rocks and trees to me. They're not just old, crumbling edifices. They speak to me, metaphorically. It's a level of consciousness thing. How to describe? Akin to the way the Native American Indian interprets the natural world or a tourist experiences the ancient streets and art treasures of a city like Florence, Italy. Life is intrinsic in it; the past is not dead.
Of course, I loved the Lowcountry. I had no idea such enormous, magnificent pines existed in those climes. I still can recall with nostalgia how their refreshing powerful fragrance left me breathless and mildly intoxicated. Birds, unfamiliar, I'm not sure what species, flew among the treetops, adorned their branches and serenaded us from their great heights. It was the first time I saw giant cypress, majestic live oak, and real Spanish moss. More indelible impressions: mile after mile of coastal waterways; marsh grasses; reeds and rushes laid out like carpet runners; heron lifting off the water; blue water melding into blue sky; ghostly ruins among tangled overgrowth; beautiful black children gazing at me with soulful eyes.
We had been late leaving Florida, and stopped longer than planned in St. Augustine - surprise, surprise - so it was already dusk by the time we reached the vicinity of Beaufort, South Carolina. Much as I wished it, there had been no time to visit Savannah, so it, too, was bypassed, regretfully, for the time being. The Baby Boomer blockbuster, The Big Chill, was filmed on location in Beaufort and I wanted to see the place, being a leading edge Boomer, myself. We took what we thought was the right road, drove and drove, turned around, tried another, went on into pitch darkness, and somehow never did find the town. You know, I think that episode finally convinced me that you can't go sightseeing in the dark, to places you've never been. That visit, too, will be for another time....
Crammed in, next day, were the few fascinating hours we spent in Charleston, just enough to whet my appetite. I can't say I was impressed with the approach - Why does modern have to mean ugly as often as not? The vista from entry ramps and bridges includes tenement buildings, factories, warehouses, et cetera. I know - that's progress. Well, it's too bad, since the setting is potentially breathtaking.
Anyway, Old Charleston is a jewel, as everyone knows. A few hours - What a cheat! I could spend a few days exploring the nooks and crannies of that priceless preserve of American history, with its network of cobblestone streets, alleyways opening into glorious piazzas, and plethora of boutiques deceptively tucked in behind narrow storefronts. Along with obvious sites - Water Front Park, the Battery, Charleston Harbor, Fort Sumter, the Old Slave Market, numerous historic mansions and a wealth of intricate period architecture for visual stimulation - Old Charleston provides grist to the mill for this sightseeing aficionado and spiritual wanderer. I'll be back as soon as I can. In the meantime I took a piece of it home with me, in a manner of speaking. I purchased a charming needlework pattern, Rainbow Row, which, since, I attentively embroidered. It became an engaging creative project to assuage the winter doldrums and today hangs prominently in my main floor foyer.
From the perspective of recall, there is nothing to mention of the drive to the Appalachians. You do not really see the terrain or towns from the highway.
The mountains, now that's another story. How do I convey my feelings about them? There is no piece of geography I love more, specifically, old mountains. Not for me, especially - the Himalayas, the Alps, the snow-capped barren Rockies - still young, geologically. It's the Blue Ridge, the Smokies, the Green Mountains, and ranges of that ilk that mean so much to me.
They team with plant and animal life. They are beyond beautiful, and you can walk in them and on them. They are not fearsome, dangerous, or even life threatening in the way the other kind can be. There are people that live among and look at them every day. I've always said it is a dream of mine to some day step out of my front door or onto my back verandah (is it possible, both?) and have such a view. Fortunate, indeed, are those that do. I believe that had I been one of those early pioneers, never mind the call to go West to the wide open frontier, I would have stopped and put down roots right there. The settlers that stayed, however, for the most part, had a very hard life....
Which leads me to another thought. The most beautiful part of the entire country, and (still?) (among?) the poorest - Appalachia? Is it so, even now? I remember a feature in Life magazine over thirty years ago - I was a teenager in the Sixties - examining the plight of people in the region. Have their prospects improved yet? Have they capitalized on the region's natural beauty, their folk art, folkways, and authentic slice of Americana? Alvin Toffler, when is the world going to catch up with you and your Third Wave? An interesting aside: apparently, the television comedy, The Beverly Hillbillies, is one of the most popular TV series ever. That must say something about the country's state of consciousness....
Where was I? Ah, yes. The trip home.... As I remember, there is a section of road in the vicinity where I-77 connects with I-81 that absolutely took my breath away. The experience was truly spine tingling. I get goose bumps just thinking about it. The road climbed steeply. We seemed to hang suspended in air on the outward curve of the highway in the midst of an incredible panorama. There were warning signs posted to watch out for sudden wind gusts - what we would have done about it, had there been any, heaven only knows.
All at once, the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen. There were mountains all around - I can't be sure which ones were which - but these were high, relatively, and their silhouettes muted rainbow shades of all my favorite colors - blue, purple, pink, mauve, dove-gray. We did not travel in that direction, but away. Part of my heart went that way with them. I believe I will have to go back there, at some point, to retrieve it.
We continued on our way due north on I-77 into West Virginia, with an overnight, unscheduled stop in Wytheville, Virginia. We hadn't bothered with reservations for the return trip - It's much more adventuresome and spontaneous that way. One is never sure exactly where one will wind up and is as often pleasantly as unpleasantly surprised.
Wytheville is memorable to me for two reasons. First, my companion and driver, with typical machismo, refused to ask for directions for the longest time. Realize that this was night time in the remote mountains. You could hardly see your hand in front of your face. I finally got my way; reason prevailed. Thank goodness or we'd have had to sleep somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the car.
The second reason: we loved to drive with the windows, including sunroof, open. Forget air-conditioning. I was so windblown from that road trip the reservation clerk at my preferred Best Western looked at me askance and informed me, quite unceremoniously, that the motel was completely booked. I could hardly blame her. I caught sight of my image in the lobby mirror; I looked pretty wild and woolly, even to me - a disheveled, bushy-haired creature. The next place we tried didn't seem to care so much or could it be because I stayed in the car when we registered?
Driving through West Virginia was like sitting at the tail end of a roller coaster - totally exhilarating. It beats anything the amusement park has to offer - all downhill, simultaneously curving, winding, descending. I timed it. At some point I checked my watch. We'd been on this "magic carpet ride" for almost fifty minutes. The wide open highway, before and below; the breathtaking rugged scenery; the wind whipping through the open windows; Van Morrison's "Hymns to the Silence" playing - I was on a real high - and no, I don't do drugs - in my experience reality has always managed to confound my imagination.
My friend teased me about my enraptured response although I know, secretly, he enjoyed it. "Traveling with you is like taking your kid to the zoo." So be it. We've done more than one road trip together. I've no doubt this one will not be the last....
~ Helga Marion Ross ~