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There's no such thing as a lemming.

There are lemmings, as it happens, perfectly genial little rodents of faraway places, but they're not the way we remember them, and they're not the minuscule monomaniacs racing for the sea in a carpet of heathery fur. Those critters were solely the product of a Disney documentary, confessed in a late-life admission from a filmmaker who, looking for a good angle, chased a flotilla of them over a cliff for that perfect shot.

Our memory is selective, the product of skillful editing and well-composed shots, and we remember what we want, or what we think is the most believable unbelievable narrative available to us. The instinctive headlong rush of rats running in a mass for a homeland drowned a million years ago fits the bill, and fits the way we remember our own home places, where we'd run and run and run over broken land into high water for another moment with those we loved, and who loved us best.

There is no such thing as a lemming, and yet I'm out on that old lonesome highway, tracing out the swiftly fading track of the old mainline connecting a border state to the real South. I clear the last of the suburban nightmare that's swiftly swamping the southern reaches of my state and cross the high bridge over the Potomac.

The day is bright and clear and glorious. I've the top down, cooler weather notwithstanding, and the broad expanse of the river is sparkling like something from a movie, the way everything that's true and wonderful and real anymore is always like a movie, as we forget to stray from our familiar haunts.

301 is the old road here, the Blue Star Highway, where I cast off my doubts and run.



I'm never sure I'm really elsewhere until I've stopped for lunch at Horne's, a little roadside diner where the food's nothing special and the atmosphere's a ramshackle attempt at nostalgic theme park craftsmanship, all aww-shucks reflections on the good ol' days we never had, done to the point of cloying, embarrassing saturation, but it's a good solid meal at a perfect stopping point. The shakes are spun up on mint green Hamilton stand mixers where the edges are worn down to dark metal from constant decades of use, and the banter is familial. Everyone's family, all pitching in.

I'm really elsewhere a few miles later, when I breeze into Frog Level, Virginia, a town so beautifully named that it's one of the few places that can compete with my own home town of Scaggsville for memorable monickers. One of these days, I'll look into why Frog Level is Frog Level, but I just entertain my pet theories somewhere in the quieter parts of my head and keep on. There are still miles to burn, and Virginia's not the high point of my trip.

The pine walls of Fort A.P. Hill rise up around me, along with the signs warning that you're not allowed to stop there for any reason that's not a dire, irreparable mechanical disaster, and I make that stretch without another car either ahead of or behind me, like it is almost every time, and like the whole world's finally packed up and headed for Disneyland, leaving the old road to me.

Some people find that sort of solitude terrifying, and do anything they can to drown it out in constant distraction, because the worst thing in the world is to be alone with your thoughts, but it clears my head. As the miles multiply between work and responsibility and one of the last houses where I can't remember that world, I turn up the music and sing along to Betty Hutton, letting my interior monologue conspire over possible escape routes.

The sun flickers through the trees along the road. There are people in the world who get seizures from that pulsing, jarring frequency, but it works my neurons in a simpler and altogether more worthwhile way. The miles roll on, and I start to forget my obligations.



South of the Border, that old stalwart of the late snake oil roadside tourist trap, has surrendered the roadsides of 301. In better days, you'd start to find the first of the signs just shy of Richmond, where they'd tease and taunt and torture any child in the car with day-glo visions of cheesy amazement and satisfying punmanship into a frenzy of parent-baiting desperation.

“SOUTH OF THE BORDER IS ONLY 173 MILES AWAY!” they scream, and eyes roll.

In the height of road trip vacations, South of the Border had stunt signs as far north as New York City, though it was hard to imagine that they'd really draw visitors from there. It was more of an innoculation, a little dart of the virus, of the will and the idea, something to prime the kids to be ready when the signs really rose up. They say the founder of the place lived in a secret apartment buried somewhere in the garish fiberglass menagerie of Mexican stereotypes, like a dime store Howard Hughes, overseeing his life's work like a plastic spider dangling from a vinyl web.

You'd think it's telling, somehow, that Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke worked there as a kid, polishing that web, but it's just another job when you're a kid in Dillon, South Carolina, and apropos of nothing.

But 301 is clear now. Even South of the Border has let it go. You can see a few of the northernmost signs, still, painted over, but showing through like the ghosts of a circus train crash. Here and there, a little bit of the surreal mascot, Peedro, peeks out, but the billboards are falling, crumbling like the walls of Jericho with the trumpeting of pervasive mass media.



A sign signals another diversion, and another diving run on the big highway, where the old twining serpentine dance of 301 and I95 finds resolution in the unsatisfying victory of the bigger, straighter, wider, and faster highway. My fantasies of making the trip on a Vespa one day start to fade away as I take a few side trips to explore the old roadbed, where 301 ran parallel to 95, separated only by a low fence of posts and braided steel rope, twenty miles of speed limit, and a world view.

The road's still there, tantalizingly there, but the signs are gone, and, in many places, the road dead-ends where highway administration bulldozers have built firewalls to make sure that you can't take the old path, unless you live here.

The Romans, victorious, salt the fields behind them.

I signal, merge back onto the big road, and am bored senseless for twenty miles. Every passing minivan full of kids has drop-down screens playing direct-to-video movies so banal that even the dullest of the watchers gets bored in time. Now and then, drifting in and out of my own history, a huge silver Suburban passes me by. Inside, my father is at the wheel, his handlebar mustache perfectly waxed into old fashioned loops. My mother looks back, hollering at all of us to stop squabbling, and I look out from my place in the very back, just a moment.

We make eye contact over the dotted line and the decades, him and I, and he holds up a handwritten sign with a malicious, gleeful smile he can't quite supress.

The silver Suburban disappears, lost in a rush of modern SUVs, and I get back to right now, to this moment.



The billboards scream.


There's a lot of that down here, where the subliminal threads that hide out in polite convention up North are bared for all to see, creating the falsehood that this sort of thing only happens in the South, where those people are just so...backwards.

It's in the media, in the popular conception of who we all really are, and whenever someone wants to play a dumbass, they drop right into a southern drawl, stretching out the words and mouthing lurid impersonations of the way Southerners manage to get two and three syllables out of the smallest words. It's just so easy, with how close things are to the surface here, but it's not accurate.

IF YOU DIED TODAY, WOULD YOU GO TO HEAVEN OR HELL?

The thing is, I think I might just end up here, out on the lonesome road, driving forever, never sure if that would be a punishment or a reward. I pass another ISLAM IS RISING billboard and I yell out of the car, as if anyone was listening.

“Yeah, it sure would suck of some weird middle-eastern religion took over this country and imposed their crazy religious laws on us! How weird would it be if that happened!?”

I laugh, partly out of bitter irony and partly because it's absurd to yell at billboards, but you wonder.



I pick up the scent not far from Emporia and the lower reaches of Virginia, the tendrils of the most distinctive perfume of Southern exploration, a smoky reminder that I spend my life somewhere with abundant urban resources, and it's rich as a well-aged wine, with overtones of pine needles crackling into cinders and bass notes of live oak leaves and grass. Everywhere, the little fires burn in neatly raked piles in the drainage ditches, trailing that gorgeous, intoxicating incense of somewhere else, and I plunge through the strata of blue-grey with a narcotic grin on my face.

I am here because of the call, the simmering pull buried somewhere in the genes and in one's history, because there is something golden there, at the end of the long, long road.

The road bears on, and the breeze pulls at my hair like wind crossing wheat fields.

There are hours to go, and small towns to slow me down, and somewhere to stop, once the moon comes up.

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joebelknapwall

January 2013

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