Hours after the snowstorm ended on Thursday night, I shoveled myself out and packed the dog and a few days’ worth of clothing in the car for a drive down a slush-covered I-95. I had appointments in Pennsylvania over the weekend, to help out my family. I wouldn’t be making social calls, wouldn’t be navigating the web of backroads that connected one house to another to another. Or so I thought. I found myself on those roads anyway, remembering the landmarks in the bends ahead. Here was the creepy tuxedo statue, nestled under a tree in somebody’s roadside yard, which I’d pass every day when I was a warehouse picker for a summer. My boyfriend in the passenger seat, my brother in the backseat when he too was hired at the warehouse, we would all point and shout “creepy statue!” and pretend to scream in fright at the white granite face and black painted buttons. Past that, there was the picnic grove where my cousins and I, taking a break from the hot dogs and grab bags at the family reunion, would try to fling each other off the metal playground carousel tucked at the edge of the woods. But after nearly a decade away from these roads, I need my GPS to get around. I can recall exactly how they feel, the shape of them, what happened as I once traveled them, but I don’t remember how they connect, how I got from one place to the other. I’m trained now for different paths.
I used to drive a bright blue Ford Contour along these roads, years ago. During the ten-minute drive to my aunt’s house off Mountain Road, my mom, sitting in the passenger seat as required by law, would admonish me to slow down, telling how a motorist had just died in the yellow- and black-arrowed bend around which we were presently traveling. Her speed warnings would repeat in my head for years after the words “learner’s permit” were removed from my laminated card and I could drive alone with just the sound of my music. I learned to add 5 to 10 to the number posted on the white signs, and 10 or 15 to the yellow signs, as long as I could do so without shifting in my seat. Every once in a while, there would be a name in the newspaper, or spilling from the mouth of my mom or brother or friends, that I could match to a photo in my high school yearbook.
When I lived in Philadelphia and returned home on weekends or during school breaks, I drove up the interstate, noting the crooked, uneven black lines of tar standing out against the faded blue-grey, illuminated only by headlight on the stretch between Quakertown and Allentown. The series of ramps near Lansdale were wider, and newer, smooth beige concrete lit by overhead casts of orange light. It was a different county. Off my exit and back on the rural roads, I would pump the Contour’s brakes when tackling the sharp turn off Best Station Road, the one where my boyfriend’s brother rolled his car and somehow managed to walk away from the wreck. The wreath of plastic flowers on the telephone pole wasn’t for him, nor was it for my brother’s friend whose Celica was totaled there a couple years later. Elsewhere, wreaths were hung on telephone poles on Mountain Road for recent high school graduates I didn’t know. Teddy bears were piled at the foot of trees along Rextown Road and Spring Valley Road, laminated photos of familiar faces tacked onto the bark.
By the time I drove a series of rental cars from Chicago – the Dodge Caliber and the ugly HHR that took us overnight across the Midwest – a close friend had pointed out how many young people die in the area, comparing it to Stephen King’s Derry. I thought it was the same in the neighboring school districts, in Palmerton and Northwestern and probably even in affluent Parkland. But in the twice-yearly visits back, I started noticing the roadside memorials, and the Facebook posts on the walls of those whose profile photos would never be changed, because they would never look any different. Posts that didn’t mention the gunshots or needles or ropes or violent illnesses that we spoke in low voices in living rooms. After the rental cars had been returned to their lot by the airport, and I was back in my south side apartment, I conceived ideas for short stories featuring a small town hiding ancient, malevolent forces sleeping in the quarries. Maybe there was something to it.
Around the time that the black Camry was driven down from Connecticut, fingers bare on the trip down but shiny new rings clacking against the steering wheel by the time we headed back east across the Delaware Water Gap, I found myself peering outside into the darkness behind my mom’s garage, marveling at the pitch-black and holding back the dog on her leash. Nearly 20 years of living near this darkness, and the handful of recent years spent among the sodium lights of the city had completely erased my ease. Once, I could walk by night to the riverside. Now I couldn’t venture beyond the anemic half-circle of blue by the old garage. This place didn’t belong to me any more, but Connecticut didn’t belong to me, either, and when my grandmother asked when I was coming home, the four walls of my latest apartment were conjured rather than the houses on drives, roads, routes, places that had once been rural roads cutting through farmland. I wrote about being an outsider among New England affluence. When I wrote about rural Pennsylvania, I consulted Wikipedia for names, dates, street names, quarry numbers, hoping to convey the area with facts that I had never learned in school. Facts of a place that I had always intended to leave, even before “nod out” and “Xanax” and “track marks” entered my vocabulary, and before I had returned to gather little folded pieces of paper with poems and dates under pixelated photos and the names of funeral homes on the back. When I drove there, I noticed the ancient cars piled alongside garages or laying next to bruised mailboxes, the rusted garbage piled next to back doors, the faded yellow-white “POSTED” signs stapled to trees, the eagle bumper stickers, the perpetually barking dogs, the shuttered wooden storefronts, the cracked paint, the dilapidated rabbit hutches and chicken coops in backyards, the ochre stalks of dead corn and wild grasses in cold, wet fields.
The enveloping dark of our homelands were more pronounced with Frankencar, the grizzled, short-lived, oil-thirsty Corolla. It worked fine on the semi-lit southern portion of Route 15 – called the Merritt by Connecticut natives who learned of the road from their parents, instead of from their new smartphone’s GPS as I did – and it managed its way up the landscaped driveway to our apartment when we moved to the suburbs. But in PA, its yellowed headlights could never illuminate the woods encircling the backroads where we tested its squishy brakes. I noticed that the yellow lines were dimmer here than in Connecticut, and the roads sun-bleached, and the combination would cause the lines to bleed at night, especially when there was rain or snow. My friend’s hypothesis about the increased death rate here could be explained, in part, by the utterly shitty roads. Once, these had been just roads to me: no modifiers, no adjectives. They were simply roads. Living in Chicago and then Connecticut, with overhead lights at regular intervals and regular maintenance and a website to report potholes, had changed my definition of normal roads. It had changed my definition of normal everything.
Trading in Frankencar for the much safer, slightly newer Prius barely improved our ability to drive the backroads. There are rural roads in Connecticut, sure, but they feel wider, safer. Normal. They match the color of the smoothly paved canal trail where I sometimes run. There are more houses along them, and vineyards and CSAs and private schools. In Pennsylvania, though, I mutter curses at those narrow roads between swaths of woods and tracts of farmland, wondering how anything could possibly fit between the chute afforded me by the paint. My tires cross the double yellow lines around the bends, and I swerve into slush to accommodate the F-350s rumbling toward me. After sunset, I can barely make out the faded lines. And I notice that other drivers notice my front plate, a blue and white state-issued number where in Pennsylvania there is only a bumper, or sometimes an airbrushed beach scene. The shape of my red hybrid stands out when I get gas at Turkey Hill.
Relatives will tell me that a place is on Schoenersville Road or Airport Road, or Tilghman where it crosses with Route 22, or is on 15th Street near the market, and I will stare blankly as they rattle off names and intersections. I’ve been to these places, once, or twice, or ten times, but my connections to them are severed. They are no longer mine, and I am no longer of this place anymore, if I ever was. My hair is different, my glasses and clothes are different. My car is different. My religion is different, my opinion of the city is different, my voter registration is different. My thoughts on home ownership and meat consumption and cable are different. Even my sweatpants are different. Sometimes I like to pull up to the gas pump with Tupac or Jeezy blaring as I step out of the Prius, just to prove a point.
This past weekend, I offered to drive my mom and aunt to a new brewing company / restaurant in Tannersville that they liked, nearly an hour away. As a kid I only went there a handful of times, never enough to memorize the roads, so I did what I always do and used my smartphone’s GPS. My mom kept mentioning a back road, and when she pointed ahead from the backseat and said “you’re going to take a left here” I quietly followed the straight blue lines on Google Maps. At the restaurant, drinking coffee to wake me up from the nachos and the single beer that I had consumed, I mentioned my friend’s idea about death in the area. My mom and aunt began counting them off: the car accidents, the motorcycle accidents, the overdoses and the suicides. Relatives and family friends, people I knew and people I didn’t. The day before, a man had been struck and killed on the two-mile stretch between the town and my mom’s house. I thought about how, if you didn’t live in the town, you had to drive to – and then drive from – every bar, restaurant, and state store. You had to drive to work, to play, to the grocery store, to church, to your grandmothers and aunts and in-laws on those crumbling backroads. I thought of how many people I’d seen, my parents’ age, waving off entreaties to stay in the pop-up camper, and driving home after a night of drinking. About the close, erratic lines on Kunkletown Road, Route 248, and those endless tributaries running through New Tripoli.
The beer had worn off by the time we were back in the Prius, but I gripped the steering wheel in nervousness as I followed some of my mom’s directions, wishing I had forced the GPS to take me to 209 instead of trying to navigate these bumpy, narrow, completely alien stretches of asphalt that were piled with slush and barely discernible even with my brights on. It was a struggle to make the numbers on my dashboard match the numbers on the white and black signs on the side of the road. When I hit a familiar stretch I was only partially relieved, knowing I was close to home but still unnerved by the curves and stop signs and headlights coming towards me as the last light of day disappeared and left us in darkness. The next day I would follow the GPS to the Wilmington suburb where I would pick up my husband, then I’d follow it to the highways that would take us back to Connecticut. I didn’t need the GPS to get through New York and to the Merritt. It’s a groove worn into my memory, as those backroads once were.