I am driving five hundred miles south. I’m going home. But my trip gets off to a rough start because the woman inside my GPS is a Godless heathen who refuses to talk to me.
I’m driving blind through South Carolina—eating crackers and pimento cheese.
The cheese was a gift from a woman at a country church I visited this morning. I sat in the back row in a room of mostly white-hairs.
After service, Miss Nelle sent me on my way with pimento cheese, a jar of homemade peanut butter, and a SOLO cup of banana pudding. Leftovers from the church refrigerator.
I have never met Miss Nelle before today.
So I’m rolling through the Carolinas and the scenery takes my breath away. Tall trees, swallowed in green. Sprawling farmland, framed with sky.
And suddenly, I realize that I’m lost without the help of the devil-woman in my GPS.
I stop at a filling station outside Ridge Spring. I’m here to buy a map. The clerk has tattoos and a bushy beard.
“Sorry, dude,” he says. “We don’t sell maps, but I can get you to Georgia, easy.”
He guides me to Augusta using the ancient, but widely practiced art of hand gestures.
Augusta—I’m in a bookstore. I ask the cashier to show me the atlases. She hands me a Rand McNally paper map. The kind of maps I was raised on.
This was the same kind of map Chad Williams’ daddy taught us how to read in Boy Scouts, when he took us white water rafting in Tennessee. It was the same camping trip that Elliot Stevens got so constipated he had to go to the emergency room.
The bookstore woman has greenish hair. She is pregnant with twins. She also tells me she is an amateur poet. I ask her to recite a poem.
She doesn’t even pause. She rattles off a magnificent verse about twins.
Heaven didn’t make me a poet, but sometimes, I wish it would have. I wish I could use four-syllable words to describe life, and people.
Sadly, the best four-syllable word I know is “munificence.” My late father taught me the word when I was nine. He called it a “five-dollar word.” But, since I can never find a good place to use this word, I don’t.
I outline a route home on the map using a red pencil. I’ve finished my pimento cheese. The banana pudding is my next victim.
Now, I’m eating, and driving, and listening to Bob Wills on my radio.
My old friend and longtime mentor, Stuart, introduced me to Bob Wills. I’ll never forget when he gave me the record, a lifetime ago.
Today, Stew is nearly eighty-eight years old. He is a guitarist who taught me everything I know about life.
But then, my heroes have always been old men, just like him. My mother used to take me to the nursing home to visit my grandfather and I would find myself lost in a circle of wheelchairs. I’d be listening to men tell stories about fishing, picking tobacco, hunting turkey, the Civil War, and which nurses at the home were “real lookers.”
I wanted to be one of them—the old men, not the nurses. I still want to be one of them. I can’t wait until my hair turns white and my skin looks like aged paper. My highest ambition in life is to be elderly.
Now, I’m watching Georgia go by. The peanut fields. The alfalfa. The kudzu problem gets worse every summer.
And now Alabama. I have had a lifelong love affair with this state.
There’s a tractor holding up traffic. A line of angry cars tries to speed around him. But not me, I like tractors.
Now Florida. My home. My map is taking me through Graceville, Jacob City, Glass, Cottondale. They don’t get too worked up in Cottondale.
Finally, I’m at my place. The sun has set, and my wife is beside me on my tailgate, listening to the summer frogs. My bloodhound is on my lap.
If I were a poet, I’d use words that could describe how short, but beautiful life is. And how lucky I am to still have one. And about how grateful I am to meet pregnant cashiers, and gas-station clerks who give good directions.
Life is a gift. No, it’s more than that.
It’s pure munificence.
Thank you for the food, Miss Nelle.