When I last looked it up a few years ago, 117,000-some-odd miles of road wound their way across the state of Georgia, including county and state roads, city streets, and interstate highways. I imagine the number remains about the same today, give or take a few miles for the roads that are paved each year for increase of use and those that are let go to seed for the lack.
As an in-home therapist, I spend a great deal of my time driving, often on a particular stretch of U.S. 27 from Chickamauga to Trion, Summerville, and Menlo. Chickamauga lies south of Chattanooga, giving its name to a Civil War battlefield and park. Trion, Summerville, and Menlo are further south still, and are primarily groupings of carpet and textile mills. The road is couched between ridges and valleys for the better part of its length and has only a few curves to speak of, leaving a driver’s mind and wheels to wander. Pines and cedars populate the medians and shoulders, along with much of the visible land on either side of the highway. Sometimes, I take the alternate route from Ringgold to Summerville down State Highway 151, a two-lane road which nearly parallels U.S. 27 but passes exponentially more cattle.
Roads themselves are ugly, for the most part. Trees, fields, and the very curves of the land itself fall prey to the need for a more expedited way from here to there. In addition, the cars that travel them create a stress in me that hearkens back to my childhood, when we would merely wait for an integral car part to fail us on some abandoned strip of asphalt impossibly far from any aid. As I drive daily for my job in this season of life, it feels as though I return to those days, playing roulette with the timing belt, tires, and a myriad of other moving parts. Each trip is a spin of the wheel in a hideous asphalt casino.
One particular December day, I was miserably driving down a lonely stretch of Georgia highway; leaves were on the ground and the trees were bare. The pall of winter had caught up with autumn’s last dregs. It would be fair to call the feel of it desolate. I sat in my car, missing my family, hurtling toward Trion at sixty-five miles per hour with a mood to match the season.
As I drew toward the completion of graduate school and training in the previous months, my wife and I had prayed for a job—any job. Emily and I hoped for work that was steady, moving me toward licensure and further open doors. We had initially rejoiced at my full time position, thanking God for providing what we needed. That thanksgiving soon gave way to looking on for the next thing—wanting to be free of the mundane driving and paperwork that often characterize community mental health.
As I traveled that morning, the sun shone in a wonderful illusion of warmth. The previous days of December had soared into the seventies, teasing forsythia and quince into bloom, but now it was cold and crisp. I sat in my warm steel cocoon, daydreaming, when I began to notice the road passing beneath me. As I watched it roll by, I realized that it gave off the most wonderful sparkle, yard after yard. The road shone like it was paved with diamonds—endless tiny diamonds. In my rearview mirror I could not see any spark, any flash; nor as I looked out beyond my window—only up close as the sun hit the pavement just right. There, in the middle of this mundane drive was something beautiful. Only there, only then—only in the present. I was mesmerized by the effect.
I found myself wrenched out of my observation as a tractor trailer roared by, filled with what the paneling described as “Enriching Proteins.” I can only hope he was headed for the carpet mill and not the dairy.
This flash of brilliance is the very thing I have missed in my life lately. I have become so used to skipping across the surface like a stone that I fail to sink into the water where beauty and pain reside, preferring rather to dwell in the past or in the future. It has been a coping skill in the past few years to live my life on the surface of experience. When parents die, jobs disintegrate, relationships change, and new lives come to be, the sheer pain of remaining present is simply too much to bear. The lesser risk of simply existing and being comfortable is by far an easier choice.
I was reminded recently of the same truth with my children. They are small, precocious, and impossibly needy much of the time. I tire of bathroom trips, brushing teeth, messes after meals, and the whirlwind of activity that carries us through our hours. It feels like the weekends are pleasant but exhausting stations we pass through as passengers on a bullet train to middle age. Weekdays are simply a blur of work, dinner, and baths. I catch myself longing for an age of independence, in which my progeny are able to bathe and feed themselves.
As a counselor, I am trained to encourage people to live in the present. Anxiety and depression are often symptoms of living in the future and the past. Here I am, though, reaching for the future as if it isn’t hurtling toward me anyway. Similarly, I gnaw on the past like a bone. Soon, there will be no more little feet in my house, no budding vocabularies, no innocent questions, and no absurd gifts like worms, dandelions, sticks, or rocks. Yet here I sit, wishing it away for the sake of my ease.
The men and women that paved U.S. 27 did not create it as a study in curve and grace. It follows the curve and grace of a land that has been abused to fit a roadbed complete with drainage, signs, access roads. No one tamped the earth or used a steamroller or painted the lane markers to warm my heart on a December morning. The road builders sought function and efficiency. They wanted asphalt, and they gave asphalt. But, unknowing, they also gave a glimmer of hope and a reminder that the present contains beauty for those willing to sink into it.