Monday afternoon, I took Exit 17 for the first time in nearly 12 years.
“This is happening,” I said to myself as I turned east onto U.S. 58 and traversed the route that killed my 1989 Toyota Camry.
My 2009 Nissan Altima survived.
That moment arrived thanks to a group text over Thanksgiving. We resolved to go to Mardi Gras, and I immediately put in for vacation. And then watched as everyone backed out.
I decided I wasn’t going to undo my days off, so I instead adjusted the dates slightly and decided to visit people I hadn’t seen in a while who lived out of state. I immediately thought of Falyn, who has been a friend since high school, but I vaguely remembered her saying weeks and weeks ago that she had plans that particular weekend. I then thought of Tim and Cathy, Falyn’s siblings-in-law, who I haven’t seen since fall 2013. I had hoped to say hello when Renée and I passed through in December 2014, but we just missed them.
So I climbed in my car and headed to Central Tennessee.
At some point Friday night, Falyn came up. She had recently said she wished some people would come visit her, mostly because it reached a point that we only saw each other on holidays in Hampton. She’s right — I seem to be the last of the road warriors. Other than my wedding, next to no one came to Charlottesville, so my place hasn’t been a road trip destination since I lived atop Chimborazo. Sure, we’re all getting older and have obligations, but it’s really horrible of all of us to stop visiting each other just because.
So we texted Falyn’s husband, Tim’s brother Isaac, to see what was going on. They did have plans —a Samedi Gras party — and we were more than welcome to come. We then told him not to tell Falyn.
The next day, we headed north to the outskirts of Indianapolis. The look on Falyn’s face was worth the trip.
There was so much to see and do and say. Next time can’t come soon enough. I mean that for all my friends.
The next day, I was wiped out, partially because of how late we all stayed up and how early we woke up. I intermittently fell asleep on the road back to Nashville and barely made it through the Super Bowl.
After getting more than enough sleep, I geared up for home. Originally, if Indiana wasn’t a part of the equation, I was going to spend Sunday in Charlottesville for a proper sendoff before landing in Richmond completely and use Monday and Tuesday for getting some things settled in the apartment that we never got around to. We are so close to it being more than decent enough to invite company over at the drop of a hat.
Instead, I was on the bleeding edge of a snowstorm Monday when I reached Exit 17.
The novel I’ve been working on for the past 10,000 years is based in that part of the state, and a chunk of the action takes place on U.S. 58 between the Interstate 81 and the town of Damascus. In 2004, before the novel existed, I drove around the area because I knew I was going to write something there. Back in high school, I created a city to the north of Bristol and made it the universe for nearly every piece of fiction I’ve written since. It was purely arbitrary, so I wanted to see if my mind’s eye matched up with reality.
On my way back in 2004, I decided I didn’t want to go home the way I arrived on 81. U.S. 58 runs along the entire bottom of Virginia, so I decided to let it lead me and my 15-year-old car home.
My car did not like traversing the mountains there.
The cooling system collapsed on U.S. 58. I got up to Whitetop on a wing and a prayer and coasted down to the town of Independence. I wound up staying there overnight and got a patch job done the next day in Galax, a city a few miles away from Independence. After that, it was a harrowing voyage of more than 300 miles back to my mom’s driveway.
Ever since, I promised myself a do-over. Since no one was with me, I took the exit.
As I headed up into the Grayson Highlands as light snow fell on the already snow-covered terrain, I wondered how I got through it the first time. It seemed a lot longer than I remembered. There was next to no cell service out there, so I couldn’t call anyone for help. Additionally, I was hours and hours away from friends and family. But, there were a few gas stations, so I don’t know what I was thinking when I pressed on deeper into Grayson County. I’m assuming I was searching for a garage.
I hopped back on the interstate after that. I’m saving the Lovers Leap overlook because I want to share the view.
But the main portion has been completed. Twice. I have conquered the stretch of U.S. 58 that has bothered me all these years.
Honestly, I’m a little disappointed that I don’t feel excited or accomplished by Monday’s feat. I guess it’s because it’s not a particularly grueling road. People drive on it every day with no problem. I just happened to be in a ticking time bomb in 2004. I’m more impressed that I made it the first time, that I got myself out of that jam and returned home.
That was when I truly conquered U.S. 58. All this time, I’ve been looking at a success as a failure. I wouldn’t have realized that without what turned into a trip to Indiana by way of Nashville.
Every now and then, you need a reminder of what you’re capable of.
And good friends who set you down that path.