Published, Skirt!, June 2002
My mother is from Indiana and loves her drive home: the flat openness of the Indiana countryside. Somewhere along State Road 3, she rolls down her window, takes in a deep breath and smiles. “See that?” she points to the sunset in the flat distance. “You can’t see anything like that in mountains.” The intense, dying colors of light bleed into one another as clouds expand across the open sky. It is beautiful, I admit, but it isn’t wonderful. To me, the flat is too flat; the land lacks dimension, lacks character. My mother smiles with her whole being. Her mouth stretches wide, her eyes light up and her whole body relaxes. “You can see for miles.” Miles of flat nothing. I prefer the comfort of mountains. My mother feels claustrophobic in them. By mountains, I mean the Appalachians, not the dramatic, Here-I-Am! youngsters, the Rockies. I mean the old, rambling Appalachians who are comfortable enough with themselves that they see no need to announce their presence. Instead, they sneak up on you and embrace you like a grandmother, leaving their bright red lipstick on your cheek.
My road home is five hours across my mother’s beloved countryside. Five hours of flat, straight road that finally yield to lush, green, rolling hills. I have hit the Ohio River Valley and a calm settles over me. Until this point, the flat road has taken me out of Chicago, through Illinois and Indiana, and now swerves into Ohio before entering Kentucky.
When my car rides over the bridge, which extends over the Ohio River and enters Kentucky, I hear a sigh escape my lips. Unconsciously, I have been holding my breath for five hours. Kentucky is gorgeous. In winter, icicles cascade down rock cuts and in the spring those cascades melt to a trickle–underground springs defying the human decision that nature should yield for a road. Despite the sharp cuts in these hills, they are warm and inviting. They curve and flow into one another, continuing for miles. The road, trying to direct nature must, instead, undulate and zigzag to follow the hills. These are my last two hours on the road and I spend them with a dopey grin on my face. My hands grip the steering wheel and my foot presses the pedal. My car rises and swells with the road, with the hills.
I am not from Kentucky. I merely lived there. To be from Kentucky you must have been born there, have parents who were born there, grandparents who were born there, great-grand parents who were born and died there. The more twigs on your family tree who were born and died on the same spot on the map the better. I am a transplant.
I chose my Wisconsin college with care. I wanted someplace small; someplace close to a big city; someplace comfortable; someplace that would expand me. But most of all, I wanted it to be far away from home. Not just far from my family but also from Kentucky, the place where I had spent most of my life. As a child, I completely bought into the idea that the backwards redneck was the symbol of my state and I wanted nothing to do with that image. I was a transplant.
My first trip home from college was by plane. I spent the entire flight with my face plastered to the window, waiting for that first glimpse of home: a building I have only ever known as the Blue Building. Planted downtown, the Blue Building’s neon trimmed roof acted as a lighthouse, signaling the arrival at my home port/announcing my arrival at/to my home port. I’ve watched for this beacon ever since I was a child. Coming home from visiting my Hoosier grandparents, I would stare out the the car window, scanning the horizon for my first glimpse of the blue neon glow. That glow meant I was a mere half hour from my own bed, from my friends, from my home.
It now strikes me as odd that, during my first trip home, I was looking for a building to herald my homecoming, when what I missed the most was the land. I didn’t realize, at first, what a powerful of hold the land had on me. I felt something lacking in the south Wisconsin area where I attended college, but I couldn’t identify it. I saw the flatness around me and cracked jokes about Wisconsinites thinking that speed bumps were hills but I had no idea that the flat was taking its toll on me. During my freshman year spring break, my aunt took me to upstate New York and down, into The City. I have flashbulb memories of all the tourist things we did, but the core of my memories are the upstate roads. The trees hugged and loomed over the roads, blocking the late winter sun that was straining through the trees. The roads curved and flowed with the mountains. My heart sank. I felt at home and, knowing that I wasn’t, was homesick.