There are times when memories that have settled down under the silt of new experience suddenly spring up in my mind. A few days ago I was sitting in a library on campus working on a research paper when for no particular reason, I suddenly recalled riding my bike down a particular stretch of road in South Carolina. The memory was vivid. The deep green of the grass, the warm humidity so thick it’s tangible, the smell of pollen in a Carolina springtime. All of it came back to me suddenly, overwhelmingly. If you’ve ever run on Magnolia Road above Boulder, CO then think of the large pastures that run along large sections of the road...except much greener and muggy. The street I am thinking of was near the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, maybe five miles or so from the pass that climbs up Caesar’s Head into North Carolina.
As I loved riding up that climb, I passed this spot a lot. It is a beautiful green clearing that suddenly opens up after riding through the long sections of woods north of Greenville on narrow country roads. As you head north, a small pond is on your left, old barns sit unused in a state of dystrophy and you have to pay attention because the local dogs might be out and come running to nip at your ankles. I could never fully appreciate this place at the time since I grew up among these rolling woods and pastures and took them for granted. Having trained on foot in those hills and similar countryside outside my hometown in North Carolina for over a decade, there was nothing particularly unusual about this place. It was just another small remnant of farmland, a marshy spot the new growth of trees was unable to reclaim after the end of cotton farming last century.
The memory represents moments that have gone by and which I can’t relive or return to. All my friends of the time have moved on. They’re married or finishing up graduate school or starting up companies or still wandering through their twenties. And this is not a bad thing. To try to buck the changes life brings is in my opinion missing the point… something that has been brought home to me in a very sharp way recently.
I always assumed I would get the hell out of the Carolinas the moment I finished up school. When I was younger, in middle school and being raised by sitcoms, I remember telling people I wanted to live in a penthouse apartment in Seattle… like Kelsey Grammer’s character in Fraiser. It wasn’t the opulent lifestyle that I wanted, I somewhat had that in the large affordable houses of the South that I lived and played in. Rather, it was the exotic nature of that TV Seattle. The boarding school accents, the coffee shop visits where cultured men sat sipping from small mugs and discussing theatre, the rain pouring but always behind a window or just outside the set. The cosmopolitan life where conversation and ideas mixed amidst a milieu of different looking people… who still managed to look exactly the same.
I planned it out as I finished up college. I would go to France for a year or two, learn the language and as I was applying to philosophy programs would meet an exotic Parisian girl who’d be charmed by my rustic red-state background and crooked smile. She’d get into some art program somewhere here and we’d be off to a town far away from the Southeast with its heat and intolerance and sprawling suburbs.
It didn’t quite happen that way, though I have ended up on the west coast… probably for a while. And near a town not dissimilar to Seattle. Yet, I’ve known for some time now that big cities make me feel claustrophobic. While the exchange of ideas is at it’s most intense and I know the wannabe intellectual in me should want to be in that mixed bag of people and voices, I can’t help but feel trapped in urban areas. I find myself looking up a lot, past the ugly apartment buildings trying to find open sky. That quote from Thomas Jefferson about cities being like tumors on the countryside will run through my head and my opinion of humanity will drop as I’m forced to deal with it en masse. You can call me provincial, and that’s fine. I probably am.
But the powerful sense of nostalgia still surprises me when memories like the one of my bike ride jump up at me. I thought I was over that part of the world… actually, I know I am. I have no desire to go back to where I grew up, but life doesn’t want you to forget where you came from. You’ll carry your redneck past or damnyankee parents or sense of mediocrity with you forever. And it will hit you like a freight train and send your mind sprawling… especially when you have a rough draft due the next morning.