I drove all night to come home. My estimated time of arrival was 3am – not a reasonable hour to invade a friend’s home but my temp job didn’t let me off until 5pm and the traffic around Washington DC is like a big snarled ball of yarn and I inched through it for hours. There were no mobile phones in those days and it was expensive to make long distance calls so all you could do is drive like hell and hope to make it in time.
As I finally escaped the urban sprawl and suburban traffic, I rolled down the windows in the car and in oozed the Carolina spring that had not yet penetrated above the Mason-Dixon line. The smell of pine tree pollen, kudzu creeping through warm soil, and sweet humidity made me drive faster – singing along to the classic rock on the radio, stopping only for gas and for caffeine. As it got warmer, my musical taste became more Southern - Lynyrd Skynyrd turned into swamp rock and evolved into what we used to call “college rock”.
Six years before, I rode with a stranger in the opposite direction up through the Carolinas to meet my lover in the North. Driving through the dark listening to REM and Tom Waits – my first exposure to the grown up music that my teen years had denied me. My desire to see my beloved mixed with the thrill of taking my first road trip… “Radio Free Europe” and lust mixed with the exhilaration of getting in a car and just going where I wanted. “Just Drive She Said” was the name of my mix tape.
Now I was driving in the opposite direction – driven by homesickness and a desire for warmth and spring and adventure. Driving to visit an old lover and eat shrimp and soak up the southern spring.
I had never felt like a Southerner. I arrived in the South when I was 8 and had been tortured by the fact I never fit in. I had a British accent, my mother braided my hair, I didn’t know to say ma’am and sir, and I said hello not hey. I was labeled conceited and weird and spent my youth plotting my escape from the South. Yet here I was, anxious to return. Craving the smell of plough mud and swamps and the taste of salty air and brackish water. Yearning for the friendliness that radiates from Southern people and the slower pace of life. My heart raced from the Mountain Dew and desire as I turned off I-95 and headed to the upcountry of South Carolina.
Driving through old back roads, passing lonely country churches, and listening now to Poi Dog Pondering -“Elizabeth would you come down? With your wood guitar now”. Feeling the connection inside me to the odd quirky nature of Southern college music and the artist-writers I had left behind in South Carolina to join the world leaders of Washington DC. Letting my creative energy start to surge and letting the striving ambitious policy wonk sleep. Putting on my bangles, tying ribbons in my hair, taking off my shoes… the y’all crept back into my speech. I flirted with the gas station attendant who smiled indulgently at me. It was the first smile I had gotten from a stranger since I left home six months before.
I turned off the rural route towards his house. There was a light burning in the upstairs room. I pulled up in the driveway and ran up the stairs. He opened the door, shirtless in jeans. “Welcome home, darlin’, ” he said with a smile as he handed the bourbon on the rocks to me, “I’ve been waiting for you.”