Good Life

Walt Mills: Driving alone in early darkness as the royal road of memory unwinds

As often happens when I make a long trip alone, I was again caught up in an intense reverie this past week as I drove south to visit my friend Tim on the lake in North Carolina and then on to Columbia, S.C. to spend a few days with my mother and younger sister.

For several hours in the early darkness as I drove through the valleys and ridges of central Pennsylvania, I was wrapped in vivid memories of times long gone by and wracked with emotions so intense that tears constantly formed beneath my eyelids.

I was falling into the deep well of dreaming where poetry is made.

As my thoughts coursed back and forth through time like a dog on a scent, I remembered Baton Rouge, La., where I had lived with my old friend Tim for a while in the early 1980s.

He worked at the television station and I worked on a novel and walked to writing classes at Louisiana State University. We were young and reckless, searching blindly for some purpose. Old emotions rose up and spilled over. Then I moved on.

A little bar on Clement Street in San Francisco. When I had finished the night shift at the hotel on Union Square, Deborah would pick me up in our little sports car, and we would drive with the top down through the early morning city streets.

Sometimes we would stop on our way home at this hole-in-the-wall bar whose name I don’t remember. It was a friendly place, and we were welcomed from the moment we first stepped through the door.

There were usually a few night-shift workers having drinks, but most of the patrons were drinking coffee and chatting before work. It was the kind of place where they celebrated birthdays and special events with free food laid out on a table opposite the windows.

I remembered the owners, an interesting husband and wife in late middle-age, who often made trips to the Orient to collect jade art that they would bring to the bar and tell us about.

I hadn’t thought of that little bar for decades, but for a few minutes I was there, 23 years old, and I could almost see our young, happy faces, and the bar and where the table stood and how the owners looked.

After two hours on the road and many more memories, I crossed on to I-81 at Chambersburg. It was just before 8 a.m. when I passed the sign for Gettysburg, where my younger daughter was just starting her day in the freshman dorm.

I had six more hours of driving ahead, but I was torn by a homesick desire to see her, even though she was not expecting me. I almost turned the car onto the Lincoln Highway, but it was just a crazy impulse, and besides I knew she would be home in a few days for the mid-term break. So, I drove on.

It took the sun brightening around me and the traffic and the radio news talkers to break the spell of memory and emotion.

Once it was gone I felt adrift in a different, flatter world, one with the emotion drained out. The road was just a concrete highway with trucks hemming me in on every side and not the royal road of memory unwinding in front and behind me.