I stopped to get gas just past Jackson, like I had many times before, in a place called Parker’s Crossroads. It’s a famous Civil War battleground, which I will always remember because a gentleman re-enactor once spoke of it to my fifth-grade class, back in Jackson. I chose to stop here because the service station is clean and right off the interstate, so I don’t have to waste much time.
Getting off the interstate in the American South has always given me the impression that there is nowhere else to go. I know that there are places filled with people down the two-lane highways that stretch along rows of trees, but I simply have no desire to see them. They might be beautiful towns, and I might quite like to see them, but something in me is glad I never have. As long as I don’t know what lies beyond the trees, there is mystery left in the world.
There is, however, no mystery in an interstate. In true American fashion, an ironclad linearity is applied to every inch. You will get to where you are going so long as you drive in a straight line for a very long time. The side towns and the past are tangential, and the future is this road that is also the present. It might as well have been here first, before the forests and forgettable towns.
This rest stop combines gas station, convenience store, and fast-food joint all in one, and it’s unclear where one business ends and the other begins. There’s a service station quite like this on the M4 between Bristol and London, where a Costa Coffee has been unceremoniously jammed into the corner of the same room as the till for petrol. This is just one example of how my adopted home — the U.K. — seems to have a knack for importing only the worst imaginable aspects of American life. If there had to be a trade, I would very much like to give my birth country Piers Morgan in return.
I would’ve liked to see him interact with the man passing time in this convenience store, wearing sunglasses indoors on a dreary day and muttering at the coffee machine as it spat out another cup. He was standing in no-mans-land, far enough away from the counter for me to know he wasn’t waiting, but close enough for me to wonder why he was there. The first things he said to the attendant were loud enough to command attention, but not remarkable enough to leave an imprint on my memory. By means of directing such a comment at me, he then asked where I was from.
“Memphis,” I said. It was the first place that came to mind.
“You don’t dress like you’re from Memphis,” he replied.
I didn’t know what that meant.
He asked if I was in college, and I replied that I’d just graduated from a liberal arts school down there. I told him the name of it.
“Never heard of it. Not going to make much money then, huh?” he scoffed.
“I guess not,” I replied.
“I went to school for aerospace engineering. Didn’t use that degree.” He didn’t seem to want to let this one go.
There was a malfunction with the register, and I had to get cash from my car. I came back inside and he was still standing there, looking at nothing, going nowhere.
I was driving to Nashville, another place I could’ve said I was from. I had roots there but, really, it had just been another place that I couldn’t wait to leave one day. In fact, I felt that way the next morning, even after my first night back. Thanks to jet lag, I woke up earlier than the friend who was hosting me. I considered driving myself to breakfast, but only sat in my rental car and called my mother in the U.K. I told her the story of the previous night, one full of as much dissonance as I had ever felt.
It began with a bit of bad luck, after I unknowingly agreed to join my host and his friends for dinner at a burger place that had no vegetarian options – but I couldn’t complain about that. I used to love eating there a few years ago, before my change in diet. Cutting my losses there, I later went to meet an old college roommate for a drink in the same neighborhood. We went to a craft beer taproom whose only business philosophy seemed to be “suffocate them with choice.” I picked one at random, overpaid for it, and sat across from someone I knew best from seeing around a fraternity house. He lived here now; I had lived here, once. He got a corporate job after college, a real job — I left the country to be a writer. Neither of us knew anything more about where, why, or who we were than we had a year ago, but our conversation was kept afloat by a mutual, desperate hope that the other had found some answers.
We left and ended up in another establishment, this one nominally modeled after a traditional British pub, although it overdid its influences to the point they were unrecognizable. Pubs were supposed to be cozy, intimate — this place was brightly lit and sterile. I managed to take solace in the great selection of British music playing over the speakers, at least until “Panic” by the Smiths came on. If you don’t know the song, it’s about the singer’s disillusionment with the music that plays on the radio and in the clubs “these days.” Morrissey sings that such songs say “nothing to me about my life.” The disconnection he feels with the popular elements of his world leads him to panic. Needless to say, I identify.
The song had become a favorite of mine in the weeks leading up to my trip back to Tennessee, and I couldn’t help but attach significance to its random playback. The next morning on the phone, panic is exactly what I felt. None of these places spoke to me anymore, or if they did, it was in a language I no longer understood. I found myself already looking to leave again.
A few hours later, I was with familiar faces, laughing in familiar ways. Slowly, I began to understand that home could be a place full of mystery, too. Just because I had run over this ground before, I assumed that I knew it, and that I had control over it. If anything, my panic wasn’t panic at all — it was a feeling of being humbled.
They say you can’t go home again, but I don’t think that’s true. You can always go home again; you just can’t take it for granted. I usually travel to feel humbled, and to find comfort in my individual insignificance in what I have discovered is still a very large world, when I get out into it. In those situations, I expect and embrace the disorientation with my surroundings as a chance for growth: I respect the fact that I’m ignorant of these new places. Perhaps, I wasn’t respecting home and, in return, it wasn’t respecting me.
Human beings want to be able to point to where things begin and end — there I was before I went, and here I am now, since I’ve come back. The highs of travel are sweeter because of the lows, but what does that say of home? Are our lives there monotonous and unremarkable in comparison? Surely not.
We have to respect our individual homes, and as much of a connection we might feel with a place, accept that that place is not defined solely by our relationship with it. Whether we leave or whether we stay, life goes on at home, just as it does in all the other places we’ve passed through ephemerally. The entire world is only ours for the series of brief moments that we are alive in it, and though there are places on it that are like no other, home is a place like every other.
We must remember that. I know I will.