‘A Thousan’ Lives’

I 40 signThe flat lands of the delta rise to become the Ozark foothills and mountains as the Interstate 40 takes a turn north at Little Rock with its buildings shining in the distance. From the west side of the state to the east and back again, my car hurtled past factories and fields, zooming by Forrest City, Maumelle, Russellville until we return to Fort Smith. Mere hours, many scannings for radio stations brought me from the Mississippi River to the Arkansas River.

Americans, restless by nature and nurture, move. Interstates allow them to do so with relative ease. Yet, there is a loss there by such travel. We hurtle along and in our hurry forget to really see. William Least Heat-Moon wrote in Blue Highways, how the interstates hide away people. “Life doesn’t happen along the interstates. It’s against the law,” he wrote. It just moves life along. (Granted, if there’s an accident then life – and sometimes death – is happening on the interstates.) Slow downs, or God forbid highway shut downs, are met with sighs, curses and frustration. Though in those moments, we really see our fellow drivers and the farmers working fields and workers hurrying into factories.

In the fall, I spent many hours travelling Interstate 40 to write a story for the university where I work. I drove alongside long-haul truckers, cars with other solitary folks making their way like me, vehicles piled with the necessary of their life. Past Oklahoma City, I-40 straightens out and runs for the Texas Panhandle and Amarillo. I didn’t go that far, but I thought of others that had. Those who picked up their lives and journeyed west in search of greener pastures leaving the dust-eaten fields behind. I-40 would have eased their crossing. That cement river rolls on for more than 2,500 miles connecting Barstow, California to Wilmington, North Carolina. For about 1,000 miles it follows the route of the Beale Wagon Road from Arkansas to California. It also follows Route 66 from Barstow to Oklahoma City. As I drove past snaggle-toothed, rusting windmills in Oklahoma, my thoughts turned to the mythical Joads of Steinbeck’s creation. They loaded up all they owned and headed west, hoping for a better life after dust and drought destroyed theirs on the land. But they would always be tied to what they left behind because that is part of who they were, what formed them and drove them. “How can we live without our lives? How will we know its us without our past?” one character asks.

When we join that highway, any highway, and move we think we will shed our past. But who we are – the self created by family, friends and land – travels with us. Like a turtle, our past, our home, comes too. We hope for better down the road, a new life in a new place with a new us. The options for us seem wide and varied as the miles we drive. But as Ma Joad said, “Up ahead they’s a thousan’ lives we might live, but when it comes it’ll on’y be one.”