Interstate 40 runs the long way across the United States. It bisects Tennessee from west to east, from Memphis on one end to Knoxville on the other. The distance from one city to the other is roughly 380 miles. Nashville sits between, the Vanderbilt radius to the Volunteer diameter.
Unlike Arkansas, where most of the billboards are either blank or an advertisement selling the billboard itself, Tennessee has plenty to sell you. There are many signs as you enter the state, imploring you to try Memphis barbecue or visit Graceland.
Tennessee could use one of those signs to warn drivers that the highways are not lit, and that modern infrastructure does not extend into the hills and valleys. This is not the case. Instead, you discover this the wrong way: at 8:00 PM on a winter night when the sun has been down for hours.
I made this drive during a new moon, and the hills and trees choked out any hope of ambient light. I thought my Ford Focus would be sufficient to carry us 4,000 miles in a week. Now the headlamps seemed weak, projecting a mere 20 or 30 feet before getting swallowed up by the relentless dark. If I were a settler, or a trucker, or had grown up with woodscraft this sort of thing would have occurred to me. But I was not, and I did not, and it did not.
It was Saturday so other travelers were scarce. Sometimes a car would appear behind us, but only follow for a while before turning off. More rarely, we would see a pair of lights ahead, level with us or hanging in the sky. The lamps dappled and sparked as their glow subdivided through a thousand branches.
Usually, though, we were alone.
We floated in a black sea, surrounded by nothing, tempered only by what gleamed and reflected in the glow of the dashboard. I felt weightless, adrift in deep water. I felt as if the car were not moving at all and instead the earth spun under our wheels. It was like driving in space. Somehow the cloying absence of light even muted the sounds of road.
Diana is ever the faithful navigator and understands that I am a nervous driver, born without a sense of direction. She spun up things for us to listen to on my iPod to distract me from my cloistered paranoia. This served to keep the bats and creatures in both our imaginations at bay. Where the GPS system showed only a blue strip of highway extending forever forward and forever back with nothing on either side, Diana made the radio play songs we could sing. Those songs filled up the darkness with comfort.
It seems like a silly thing for a modern grown-ass man to be afraid of the dark, but the utter isolation was frightening. I can change a tire but if something more severe happened we would have been in serious trouble. Or, at least, marooned in a tree-choked valley for hours until daylight. I had a satellite navigation system and a BlackBerry with a strong signal. I had the internet, if I needed it. But the GPS will not give you turn-by-turn directions to “Get Me Out Of Here.” Google cannot provide instant rescue from the middle of nowhere. Technology does nothing to make being far away from help and in need of it any less likely. It only increases the probability of — and decreases the waiting time — for rescue.
The irony? My ancestors come from those lands. Even though I can not use a compass in a meaningful way or make fire from two sticks, I seem to know things about nature I should not. Like how moss grows on the shady side of the tree and not the north. In that innate knowledge, maybe I also inherited a healthy dose of Indian wisdom, the kind that sometimes reads like paranoia but to me always seems pragmatic. An old Sioux proverb, endlessly misappropriated by and wrongfully contributed to writers and social commentators: Call on the Great Spirit, but row away from the rocks.
* * * * *
Several days later, having made it out of the land of Smoky Mountains and Dolly Partons without incident, we returned to my mother’s house on Sleepy Hollow Lane in Weatherford to collect our dogs and rest before heading home. I told her about my experience in the Tennessee Valley and she told me about chasing her own headlights on Hungry Mother Mountain when she and my father had taken a trip to Tazewell, Virginia to see my Aunt Opal. They thought it was a shortcut.
“And it was,” she said ruefully, “but while it was only ten miles from Wytheville to Tazewell on the map, they don’t show you the 40 miles of roads winding up and down the mountain with no guardrail.”
After the conversation had moved on for a bit, my mother returned to it.
“Do you remember going to Virginia when you and your brother were kids?” she asked.
I told her I did.
She said, “On that same stretch of road where you felt like you were all alone, your father and I had the same experience on that trip until we weren’t alone at all. We were in that big black Suburban we had — do you remember it?” (I did) ” — and we were driving on a Sunday night, just like you were, and it was very dark. We passed a big black van at about midnight. It jumped the median behind us and chased us for an hour.”
My mother started telling this story as she lit a cigarette. I watched her do this thousands of times. As her last word hung frozen in the air, her head kept nodding like it always did when she paused in the middle of a tale to fire up. I waited, feeling the hairs on my skin prick up.
“We drove and drove and they didn’t leave us alone, honking the horn and flashing the lights and trying to come up beside us and run us off the road. That van was the only other car we saw until your dad tried to lose them. That’s why we ended up staying in Bucksnort at three in the morning. I had your father’s gun out in case they wrecked us and we didn’t sleep that night. We stayed awake, looking at the door of the motel room.”
“What the hell?” I said. “Why didn’t anyone tell us about this before we left?”
“What good would it do?” she said. “You have to drive that road sometime. I didn’t want to say anything before you left. I thought about it when you said you got scared driving through there.”
So maybe my fear was not nameless after all. Maybe some part of me remembered my mother looking terrified when we pulled into the TRAVELER’S INN in Bucksnort, Tennessee. I always thought she just prefered not to slum it in dirty motels.
I thought sanitation was why we did not sleep under the covers and instead laid blankets and pillows on top of the still-made beds. Diana and I did not encounter a black van with a big V-8 block, ballbusting up the road behind to put us in the ditch, but 15 years previous I had, even though I did not properly know it.
The worst part about that fear you get when you are isolated and wandering somewhere unfamiliar in America is not being alone. It is not being lost.
The worst part is knowing that evil exists. Real wickedness is out there, the kind that sometimes — rarely, but definitely sometimes — results in a family beginning the day on a happy adventure and ending the day in a shallow grave, lost forever in a forgotten wood where moss grows in the shade.