Sometimes it takes a push to get us out of our rut, the habits that would have us waste the precious days of our lives. And when we fail to see the love and support of those around us for what they are, well, it’s time to hit the road, to clear our senses and minds of their accumulated crud. Stephen Banks, in the following passage from A Place of Belonging, had to clear the air in just this fashion.
At one in the morning, they stopped for coffee and gas on the Gainesville connector. Then the roadway lighting and the green overhead signs led them to Atlanta and onto the northern leg of its beltway. This perimeter road, once a rural road, is now a haphazard fabric of too-wide urban laneage passing through business high-rise developments and random, sprawling subdivisions. Workers were patching and overlaying the eastbound lane at this hour, while traffic was at its least dense. The asphalt arc ahead of Banks and Ginger hosted a scattering of red taillights, eighteen-wheelers, and automobiles as they droned to the west.
Ginger sat, legs doubled, her head resting on the cab’s seat back and cushioned by her right arm. Warwoman lay silent and unmoving on the cab’s floor. Banks occasionally eyed the incandescent high rises until they gave way to the more muted lighting of homes buried in the tree cover of suburban neighborhoods. Then more high rises before he crossed the Chattahoochee River and Interstate 75. He swung southward toward Interstate 20, the way west. Again, he crossed the ‘Hooch, as the river is called by the locals, its waters tumbling silently southward.
He stole a glance at his watch. A quarter until three. The signs and lights and buildings dimmed and then shrunk to the horizon at his rear. The highway before him transformed – dropping lanes, darkening, becoming once more a quiet, thin passage as it snaked through rolling, grassy hills. He shifted in his seat, right arm over the seat back, his left hand guiding the truck through the road’s gentle curvature. He held his speedometer to sixty-five, assumed an easy place within the flow of westbound traffic. Now oncoming lights became an unbroken stream as rush hour loomed. Soon random starlight gave way to the luminous gray dome of morning.
He stopped at a rest area just across the Alabama line. Ginger woke, fumbled with the door handle, and finally shoved it open. Warwoman jumped and began to nose the ground.
“Not time to eat yet, girl,” said Banks. The dog circled him, yapping. He bent to a nearby water fountain and stuck his thumb into its stream, guided a line of water into the grass. Warwoman lapped at the dampness.
“I’m hungry, too,” said Ginger. She blinked and yawned, arms crossed, hands squeezing her shoulders in the coolness of morning.
Banks smiled. “All right, I know when I’m outvoted.”
A small cinderblock grill stood at the end of the closest intersecting walkway. Banks opened the camper and dragged the cooler to the tailgate. Together, he and Ginger carried it to the grill, their feet spinning up white walkway pebbles as they lurched under the cooler’s weight.
Ginger climbed into the pickup’s rear while Banks probed the cooler’s contents. She returned with the Coleman stove and a plastic grocery bag. She drew out a box of instant oatmeal and a tin of coffee. Banks went to the truck, returned with a gallon jug of water, a cooking kit and a small, battered aluminum camp percolator. He poured one of the cooking pots full of water and measured coffee and water into the percolator. Then he mixed shreds of luncheon meat with stale bread and milk into a metal bowl and set the dish on the ground. Warwoman pushed the bowl across the grass as she ate. Banks watched her for a while, and then he killed the Coleman stove’s flames.
Ginger had set two steaming bowls of instant oatmeal side by side on the picnic table, a plastic spoon before each. They ate their fill, huddled together against the chill. Banks poured coffee. They sipped and watched the crown of the sun transform from a red hillock to an enlarging orange sphere.
Ginger rose and scrambled across the park grounds. Minutes later, she emerged from the restroom building, her hair pulled into a ponytail. Her cheeks were flushed from the cold water, and she had buttoned her denim jacket, hands tucked into her armpits for warmth.
She and Banks sat side by side once more, facing the swelling fire on the eastern horizon. Truck doors slammed below them as drivers awoke and stumbled stiffly to the restrooms. The morning began a slow warming, the Interstate’s atonal hum growing louder.
“We should go soon,” said Banks.
Ginger snuggled closer. “I remember traveling on roads like this,” she said.
Banks turned. “You remember this highway?”
“No. Not really.”
Her brow knotted. “I remember people I met. Some of them were mean to me. They said I was a tramp. But a lot of them were nice.” She shook her head. “A lot of them were like me. They didn’t have homes like you and Mattie do.”
Banks looked away. “Yeah.”
“Most of them were like us,” said Ginger. “They were looking for something. They didn’t know what, or where, but they were looking.”
Neither spoke. Then Banks said, “We really need to go. We have a lot of country to cross before nightfall.”
He finished his coffee and poured the pot’s remainder into his cup. He helped Ginger clean, dry, and reassemble the cooking gear. By the time they boarded the pickup and nosed back onto the Interstate, it was almost seven o’clock.
Ginger switched on the radio, and they listened to a wavering drivetime talk show until it collapsed into static. The land seemed to have awakened as the sun rose, cattle grazing on undulating, fenced-in plots of land. After a while, Banks slowed and pointed to people emerging from their homes – blurred, animated figurines beginning to make their peace with the morning.
An hour later, a roadway sign announced they were nearing Anniston, Alabama.
Ginger bent, turned the radio dial from station to station. She settled on a rollicking country song:
I love the road, baby can’t you see me flying
I love the road, it’s no lie
It’s all about going over yonder
Just to see what’s up around the bend
Banks grinned, wriggled into a more comfortable position on the bench seat. Though he yet failed to recognize it, some dormant thing within him was slipping its moorings, making him antsy, eager. For the moment, danger lay to their rear, over the horizon to the east, an ill dream to be dealt with later. This day promised adventure – a new world beckoning, as complex, as unknown as the roads they were traveling, effusive as life itself. This was what he needed – a constantly regenerating feeling of vitality, everything new and enthralling.
“I think I’ll get off here,” he said.
“Why?” asked Ginger.
He chuckled. “Like that song said, just to see what’s around the bend.”
He took the off ramp and turned north. Soon, Anniston lay before them on Highway 431, a highway sliced through solemn forests lining the western side of the Talladega Mountains, leading to the Coosa and Tennessee Rivers.
Anniston is an old Alabama town grown to a small, new city. Banks guided the pickup off the Interstate and through its quiet streets, past its economic lifeblood, Fort McClellan. There, the pathway branched, and they took the road toward Gadsden, to the northwest.
Deep in the north Alabama hills, the countryside changed from quiet, pastoral beauty to the silent decay of poverty. They passed small, rusted mobile homes behind large, unkempt autos and trucks guarded by lethargic dogs that occasionally lifted their legs on the vehicles’ tires and yapped dispassionately at passersby.
Near Gadsden the road widened to four lanes, separated into pairs by a swale and a swath of grass. They crossed the Coosa River. Gadsden blurred as they passed. They stopped at a service station on the north side of town for a bathroom break. Then they drove on, through a gauntlet of shops. They passed the outlet malls of Boaz, slipped through Albertville, and on down a mountainside.
Banks’ truck flounced onto a long bridge over Lake Guntersville, a dammed segment of the Tennessee River, clouds of mist suspended over the lake’s still waters. Deep in the mist, they could make out small, clustered islands.
He held the pickup to the road’s curves and swells, the truck’s large, six-cylinder engine churning easily up the gentle mountain slopes toward Huntsville.
The road twisted into a maze of turns as they climbed. Banks and Ginger oohed and pointed, the heights allowing them for the moment to own the panorama rising above the western leg of the Tennessee River. Clean, fragrant air swept past them. They rolled down the windows, breathed it in. They listened to birds hallooing from fences and telephone wires paralleling the road. Warwoman rose, her hind legs planted between Ginger’s legs, her head out the window. She turned to Ginger and barked as wind and birdsongs streamed past them.
Huntsville, originally named Twickenham in honor of English poet Alexander Pope’s home, emerged just ahead, a town chiseled into mountaintop rock, as if it were meant to be a jumping-off place to the stars. They drove the crest of Huntsville’s backbone, passed the Redstone Arsenal and the Air, Space, and Rocket Center, where German technicians had once gathered to labor over the birth of space travel. Those German scientists, Banks thought, they must have felt at home here in this clean, kept town.
They stopped in a roadside park north of town, made sandwiches from the cooler, and sat for a while beneath the pencil-straight pines. The afternoon had grown warm at the road’s edge, heat rising from the roadway and preventing cooler air from escaping the evergreens. Ginger took Warwoman for a walk through the trees. Banks opened one door of the pickup, stretched the length of the seat, and slept.
He woke nearly two hours later, face moist with sweat. His nose itched. He slapped at the itch. Finally, he opened his eyes. Ginger hovered inches above him, grinning. She drew back the feather she’d held to his nose and then arced it toward him again.
“Don’t,” he said.
She giggled, touched the feather to his nose. He grabbed at it, missed.
Then he rubbed his eyes and looked to his watch. Three-thirty. He wriggled from the truck, stood, scratched, removed the hunting jacket, stuffed it behind the seat.
“We went down the mountainside, Banks,” said Ginger. “We saw a raccoon and a hawk, didn’t we, girl?”
Warwoman barked her agreement.
Banks peered past them to the precipitous slope and its tangle of underbrush.
“It was fun,” said Ginger, “but I had to pick ticks off Warwoman.”
She smiled and turned shyly away as he scrutinized her. She now wore about her neck a garland of weeds and mountain flowers. Banks inspected it. It had been woven carefully and precisely. She looked up, hands clasped primly at her waist. Her dark eyes gleamed. She seemed different somehow; more like a Native American, he thought. Her hair hung loose, cascading over her shoulders. She’d tucked a feather into her hair along the crown of her head. She’d removed her denim jacket, had tied it about her hips, the white of her tee shirt a stark contrast to the bronze of her arms and face.
Since he’d met her, she’d displayed moments of anxiety, even fear, alternated with a child-like playfulness and contentment. During her quiet moments, she’d often seemed preoccupied, brooding, perhaps over lost memory. Now, whatever had been hovering about her appeared to have dissipated. She smiled, as much a part of the quiet stateliness of the place as the pines and mountains and underbrush.
“Come on,” said Banks. He climbed into the cab and started the engine.
“Can’t we have a snack first?”
“We’re going to stop for the day soon,” said Banks. “Get in.”
Ginger and Warwoman climbed into the truck, the dog in Ginger’s lap. Warwoman shoved her way to Ginger’s window, tongue hanging, wind ruffling her fur. They crossed the Tennessee line, and less than an hour later neared Fayetteville. They stopped at a vacant roadside saloon and took turns urinating behind the building.
A faucet topped a piece of pipe next to the long, clapboard-clad building. Banks turned it on. Brown water sputtered from it. Then the coffee-colored fluid paled to a clear stream. Light caught its surge, jeweled droplets spewing into the gravel. He took off his boots and shirt and washed. Then he filled a rusty bucket he’d found nearby and carried it to the building’s rear for Ginger. While he and Warwoman played in the parking lot, Ginger stripped and bathed.
He set the Coleman stove on the truck’s tailgate, opened a can of collard greens and another of pinto beans, and warmed them. Then he fried three large slabs of ham in a skillet. Ginger spooned the vegetables and meat onto two steel plates and added slices of wheat bread from the loaf she’d stowed in the cooler. Banks cut up the remaining piece of ham and kneaded it into a mixture of beans and bread for Warwoman.
By the time they’d finished eating, the sun had slouched its way to the western horizon. Ginger sat on the hood of the truck and clapped as the sun’s red and yellow arc dimmed and then swooned into dusk. Banks leaned against the pickup hood, peered to the west, and waved his goodbyes to the day.
Caught up in the sunset, they failed to notice an approaching car until it had stopped and the driver had slammed the door. Banks seized Ginger’s hand, turned. A police car – FAYETTEVILLE POLICE stenciled on its front door.
The policeman eyed Ginger, then Banks. “You folks planning to spend the night here?”
“Hadn’t given it much thought yet,” said Banks. “Might want to, though.”
“Where you from?”
“North Georgia. From the mountains. We’re on vacation, camping out.”
“Your mountains as pretty as these?” The policeman waved a hand toward the dimming horizon.
“Yep,” said Banks.
“I love it,” the policeman said. “Wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
“I can see why,” said Banks.
“Y’all pull off to the other side of the building, into the trees, and you’ll be out of sight. Nobody’ll bother you there.”
Banks nodded a thank you, and the police car crept onto the road toward town.
Ginger let out a cry and hugged Banks to her.
“No need to be scared, Gin. We haven’t done anything wrong.” He stroked her hair.
“But he’s a cop.”
“Yep. Just like me.”
She gave him a tentative smile. They climbed back into the cab, and Banks pulled into the trees on the far side of the building.
The temperature dropped quickly as the sky darkened. For a while, they sat on the still-warm truck hood, listening to the crickets, their chirping fluttering back and forth through the pines and poplars. Then Banks made a nest for Warwoman under the pickup, and he and Ginger climbed into the camper and sprawled across the air mattress.
“I’m happy now,” said Ginger. She moved closer and touched Banks.
Her hand moved across this chest, then down his abdomen to his legs.
He didn’t move.
“You’re thinking about Mattie, aren’t you?”
She moved a leg over him and kissed his ear. “She’s okay, Banks. I can feel it.”
He didn’t answer.
“Everything’s perfect,” she said. “For me, and for you. It may not seem like it, but things are perfect for Mattie, too.”
He rolled over in the cramped space. Moonlight had filled her eyes, doorways to something placid and enduring within her.
“How can you say that, Gin? Everything is –” he waved a hand in the cramped space, “– in such chaos. This trip is going to upset my whole life.”
She stroked his thick hair. “We don’t know what’s going to happen next, but that’s the fun of it, Banks, don’t you see? We don’t know, but it feels right. Isn’t that enough?”
Her finger touched his lips. “Shh,” she whispered. “Sleep.”
He turned, settled into the quilted mattress. Then her arm again crept across the bulk of his chest. She sighed. Her breaths lengthened, and she began her soft snoring.
Banks tried to keep Mattie from his thoughts, but he couldn’t. What was he doing? A day ago, happily ensconced in Georgia, today running, to some undetermined place, from a danger as yet without a face or purpose. He had abandoned Mattie. For Ginger. He lay, eyes closed, gently rubbing Ginger’s arm. She burrowed deeper into his warmth.
As he lay there, he could still feel the truck’s gentle sway; he could see the mountains, the towns and countryside they’d driven through, as they streamed past him once more. Mattie’s voice came, harsh at first, then dimming to a whisper. Finally, he surrendered to sleep.