It’s a short road from where we were to where we’ve been, to here. To Knoxville, again. Eleven brimming months of running. Over 27,000 miles. In some ways, the trip ended in December, back in Big Bend when we were in the truck full time. In others, it won’t end for months, yet. Until we find a home and settle, somewhere. Until we have our own quiet mornings full of kitchen tables and the first flickering light of our days together. In still others, what we started when we left our life behind back in November will never end. We will never be the people we were.
God, are we fortunate for it.
I’ve been dreading this. Being here. Because I worried there’d be something in this town that would beg me to stay. The comfortable ease of it. That after all our effort, all I’d drug us through, all we’d seen, I’d want to settle here again. It felt like the closing of a cage. An awful inevitability.
It’s why we drug our heels. Spent better than a week in Gulf Breeze, Florida weathering the congestion and sinus ache we brought with us from Austin. Decamped again with the friend we spent Easter with all those months ago. Enjoyed the impossibly warm weather. I’d forgotten the sense of it. How the mornings whisper the promise of a beautiful day. How the early hours unfold, opening like hands with a gift at their palm.
We took advantage of it. Drove out the National Seashore and pulled into Fort Pickens to explore those old ruins. The beaches are vision white, their dunes soft and low, peppered with grasses but otherwise unblemished. A few fisherman dotted the low-tide water line, their rods bent with the pull of the mid-week current. The fort’s cannons and archways are more than a century old, both standing in rigid defiance of the ocean, so close. It’s cool and damp in the fort’s shadows, the air thick with the smell of salt.
Kiddo was thrilled to be outside and under that warm sun. She scrambled up the broken brick and down again. Listened to the bright echo of her shouts in the telescoping corridors there, a smile dawning across her lips in perfect wonder. The place was empty. Ours for the exploring.
This year has grown her in ways I could not have comprehended. It’s more than her height. More than the way she stumbles through our language or runs through her days, her arms and hands flailing. It’s the size of her heart. How she seems made of love. Stitched from it. How tender she is, wrinkling her brow and crying, “Ouch!” any time I break kindling for a fire. How she cannot get her fill of this world, her eyes ravenous for its bugs and birds and flowers. For the limitless spectacle of it.
I’m compelled to hold her. I can’t keep myself from picking her up and pulling her close. From feeling how real she is in my hands because in the pit of my mind I know that these days are fleeting. That she won’t always run around kissing and hugging everyone in the room, her big cheeks raised in a toothy grin as she goes. That my chances to hold her hammering heart close to my own are finite. That soon, there will be so much more than the bones of our ribs between us.
I can see the first glimmers of her adulthood, already. It’s in her pigtails, or how her brown eyes can flash serious in an instant as they devour some puzzle. It’s in the way her limbs move. I see it and it stops me. It stokes an ache in my chest and I am desperate to hold on to the moment even as it passes through my fingers. I have never felt so helpless.
That helplessness is why I have such a hard time here in Knoxville. Because there’s something hateful about a place that tricks you into thinking there’s a better life indoors. That there’s nothing for you outside but a scrap of lawn and an ocean of traffic. I don’t just know better now. I’ve seen better. I’ve seen the wide and impossible country we live in. The heartbreaking beauty that exists just past the box-store wastelands.
It’s all I see when I drive around the place that was our home one short year ago. Big, empty, ugly businesses sailing on lakes of asphalt. It’s been seven short months since we were here last, and already it is easier to name what hasn’t changed than what has. And not for better. There’s no plan to it, just wild development. The chaos of consuming ever more shitty food, shoes, and cell phones. An entire population toiling out their days to pay for it all. To be here amid this emptiness.
I loved this place. Adored it, thoroughly. Would have told anyone who would have listened that this is a good town. An earnest one. And yet, something pushed me to leave. To get out. It was my daughter. The thought of her growing up here and seeing this hollow life as all the world has to offer.
This year has rewired me. I hoped that the roaming would still my heart some. Quiet that itch to up and go, but if anything, the freedom to do just that has grown it like a muscle. We’ve been in town for a week, crossing off necessaries like dentist and doctor appointments. Gathering our mail and dealing with the DMV. All I have wanted is to get back in the truck and fill our windshield. Two days ago, I couldn’t stand it any longer. Got tired of staring at this screen, grabbed the keys and went with no real direction.
I found myself at the far end of Chapman Highway, out where Knoxville begins losing its grip on the land and the first whispers of the Great Smoky Mountains take over. Seeing those blue hills felt right. It was the first real peace I’ve had since crossing the state line. Something about the roads out there. How they’re lined with those old, fence-row oaks and hay-field maples, bare-limbed and waiting for spring.
When we were here, we’d say it was great how close we were to the mountains, but it was a short drive we rarely made. And now I can see the heartbreak in that. To be so close to something you love and never visit. To have it stay forever just past your gaze or grasp. To settle instead for the ugly convenience of town. It’s a poor way to live.
And it’s why I’m anxious to go. To make our short road a little longer. To find a place that isn’t next door to something beautiful. To find somewhere to teach my daughter that a bright sun and blue sky beats four dim walls and a television every time. A place that reminds her our world isn’t as ugly as the internet would have you believe. That it’s gorgeous and valuable and worth fighting for. Worth loving.