The thunder of rain on the roof of my cheap motel in Florence, Alabama wakes me at dawn. I stopped in Florence because I thought maybe I'd get that rare mix of Italian and Alabaman culture, perhaps deep-fried chicken carefully wrapped in noodles cooked by Vinny's grandma Mabel. But all Florence has for me is rain.
I don't think I've ever seen so much. The left side of my body gets soaked in the time it takes to roll down my window, grab my Sausage McMuffin and orange juice from the drive-through lady, and roll the window up again. Sixty miles down the highway in Huntsville I've got a headache from the constant roar of water flogging my car. I've never driven so far so blind. It's impossible to see properly. The wipers work as hard as they can but it's like trying to wipe the foam off the beach between breakers. I pick a semi with bright taillights and follow, hoping he doesn't stop at a gentleman's club, because if he does then I am too. I'm in it with this guy, for better or for worse.
|Sometimes, you just have to sleep off those rainy day blues. Belvidere, Tennessee.|
The rain eventually eases to a mere deluge as I ease into southern Tennessee but picks up again when I climb the small, twisting roads into the Cumberland Mountains. This is where the culture of the land shifts yet again, from easy, southern lowland living to the hardscrabble frontier mountain life of isolated civilizational pockets. There's little laughter in the faces of four soaked teenagers I pass high in the Cumberlands on a little-used road. They're dragging their feet down the center of the southbound lane, their old plaid shirts hanging wet and heavy and limp from bony shoulders. They're sucking on cigarettes. One boy pushes a bicycle. He shoves his long, wet hair from his face with his free hand and watches me with hard eyes and a knitted brow as I slowly pass. I wonder where they're going, in every sense of the question.
|You can see the hills' breath in Carysville, Tennesee.|
There's an old, white church at the far end of a tiny, deserted nook in the hills. I splash past, crane my neck for a good look, then slam on the brakes and throw the minivan in reverse, because that's the first Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints building I've seen since I left Utah, and it's in such a strange and isolated location.
|Take me home, country roads. Or, in my case, away from home. High in the Cumberland Mountains.|
It turns out this well-preserved building has long been retired from use and has been on the National Register of Historic Places for more than thirty years. It's the Mormons' first meetinghouse in the southeastern United States, having gone up in 1909. I stand there in the rain by this old building with a cemetery out back and it feels like I'm not only miles but years from anybody and anything. And rain is beating so hard on the summer leaves and the grass and my bare arms and the air itself that it sounds like a wild rushing river. And I have the sensation that I'm completely and wonderfully alone, somewhere undiscovered, brushing water off my eyelashes and feeling it leap off the tips of my hair and roll down the back of my neck. And I tilt my face toward the water-logged sky, and it's one of those freeze frames in time where you just sense that something important is happening, even though you're not sure what it is. It's beautiful, for no reason, and for every reason, both at the same time.