Ten Hours

Image Credited to Darren Murph

Image Credited to Darren Murph

This was a travel essay assignment I wrote back in college. Found it while trying to find “filler” for the website, since I’m knee-deep in some important writing projects. Kinda glad I found it.

Many a soul have traversed the path known commonly as Highway 80, and have each had their own memories of the wonders and horrors of that stretch of road. For long commuters it serves as a decisive short cut between the infertile lands below the Sierras and the prairie-like flatlands of Central California. I, too, use this stretch to trek my way home in a grey station wagon designed for soccer moms and families of five. My vehicle and I are an unlikely pair – one, a car built for many passengers, the other, a hapless college student returning home for the first time in over eight months. Home is where the heart is, they say. I’d rather prefer to think of it as the place where I left my soul.

Oregon has the strangest effect on people. Visitors come and take in the foliate scenery, mumble incoherently about the dreary climate, and complain further about the nativist population. Granted, Oregonians aren’t the most welcoming to outsiders. However, there is a silent understanding; you aren’t an outsider anymore if you’ve been there long enough. The northwestern state grows on you like a fungus, crawling deeply in the very roots of your subconscious, latching on to the part of the brain that produces waves of nostalgia. At the very least, that’s how I’ve come to see it.

Years have passed since I was welcomed as a migratory plague from California, infesting the landscape with my “smog-ified” presence. I didn’t care to be considered one of them anyway. The city of Portland, and all its peripheral towns, mattered little to me. The scenery was intoxicating though. Long walks and bike rides caused the coniferous environment to sink in like an intravenous surge. Urbanized teenagers rarely catch the bug to return to a Rousseau-like “state of nature”. But like many unsuspecting white flight transplants, I became a native. Maybe that was their plan all along, to haze newcomers before the natural infection of comfort sank it – the diseased word known as “home.”

This time around, though, I returned not as a native, but an outsider. I still used an Oregon license, insured my grey vehicular monstrosity in Oregon, but I hadn’t been there for long stretches of time in over three years. Nevada had done its best to weed out the Northwesterner in me. As the years passed, it had almost succeeded. I referred to it as a state rather than my state. Have you ever had the feeling that you don’t know which place to call home? Or whether or not you even have a home?

However, once I hit the road, flipped on factory stereo that belted out static rock, and set upon 80 to connect with I-5 North, that lost part of me rekindled – a spark that had refused to die. The journey from the Reno to Sacramento – via the Sierras – was beautiful, but only partially distracting. The flat expanse between Sacramento and Redding didn’t even shake me as the cruise control was activated. Looming ahead, the Siskiyou pass approached, winding roads that continued for at least an hour or two. I never kept track of it. Why should I? It was just another obstacle between the desired destination and I. Then the first positive marker arrived.

The Oregon border. Ashland would be coming up soon. My eyes began to weigh on me heavily. Little sleep due to anticipation, and post-academic lethargy threatened to hinder my progress. For a time, they succeeded in curbing my journey in the form of much-needed rest at an isolated rest stop. An hour’s worth of a power nap banished the need for any more delays. Roughly four more hours and Portland would be in view.

One interesting fact I’d forgotten to mention is how awe-inspiring a night drive can be. Typically, when returning home, I leave Reno in the late afternoon so as to skip past the rush hour blitzkrieg. By then, I-5 would have already cleared up on the way out of Sacramento, and the drive would be smooth sailing from there on in. Yes, the drive is boring if one is looking for outside distractions to keep them occupied while putting along, but the obsidian blanket of twilight also has its form of shrouded majesty – as if the world had been put on hold while you continued moving. In a poetic way, the journey goes smoother.

A tune chimes in on the radio that I know all too well on the road trip cassette I’d made – Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Willy Nelson crooning away about reincarnation in “The Highwayman”. How fitting, I think. A song talking about the eternal journey chiming in as I return to the place where I believe my spirit is at rest. That song has stayed with me since I was a child, and here it plays as I return to the one place where the child in me hasn’t died.

So what if I wasn’t much of a child when I first came to Oregon – a snot-nosed prepubescent 5th Grader with dreams of aliens still dancing in his geeky little mind. Although California encompassed the greater part of my elementary school years, most of the “growing up” took place in the rainy state I’d been forced to endure. Maybe this was because the adolescent travails had begun. I’m not too sure. One thing is certain, though, the coincidence is almost too convenient – the most prevalent of my memories are from a place I’d moved to, not a place I’d originated from.

Three hours pass and the signs informing me of Salem’s approach whisk by. I look at the time – three-thirty in the morning. I peer down at my numbing legs, still pressing the gas with shaky anticipation. The gas gauge blinks at me, relaying the dire need for fuel. Pulling over at a Chevron, I curb the grey Taurus next to a fuel stand, exit the driver’s side, and proceed to remove the pump.

“Sir, what’re you doing?” a vagabond-looking attendant says from behind me.

It takes me a moment to fully process what he’s asking. His beady eyes peer down at the pump then return to me. At that moment the realization clicks. Oh yeah, Oregon doesn’t have self-service gas. Shrugging, smiling weakly, I hand the pump back to him, beckon for regular unleaded, and stop into the mini-mart to sustain me with a Twinkie. Of all the little things to remind me of home, it was a bearded man with a lazy eye asking for a gas pump back. Yes, they say home is where the heart is. I disagree. It’s where your soul rests until you go to reclaim it.

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Monday, September 23rd, 2013 Prose

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