The last hundred miles were always the time in which I’d surrender, when I’d breathe in the cool air in the parking lot of a motel in Orangeburg, South Carolina, pack my duffel bag into the car, make a last circuit of the room for left-behind items, and leave a few dollars for the maid. I’d slip the key into the stainless tray at the motel office, and would have the same old rush of regret that I’ve had since I was a child—
I will never be in the place again, in this moment.
The last hundred is when I can let it all out, when I can put on the saddest songs and reflect on the losses and the troubles, and this is how I do it, when I can make the trip. It is when I sing along to the most lonesome down-and-out songs I love, and when I stew in the losses, in all the failed crops and storm-beaten grain that never made it to this harvest festival time, when we come together to share what we reap over the length of our lives.
The highway is a dead one, old Route 301 tying my world to my father’s, and it’s a smooth ride as metaphors go. The traffic’s all since shifted to the roaring modern corridor of I-95, and year by year, the old loops and bends of 301 are being ironed out and forced into compliance, but this last stretch, connecting my overnight stop with the small Georgia town where we meet, is still almost as it was, and it’s a good place to be free—free to roll down the windows and sing yodeling, hiccuping country songs about love lost, free to open up all the neurons and cupboards in the brain to all the anxiety and frustrations and laments amid the relentless brush of pine forests along the way.
It is a part of why I love to travel alone, that; why I relish the morning and the last hundred miles, when I can just reflect without any filters at all. It is where the statistics add up, totaling up the people we’ve lost, the relationships that crashed and burned, the friends moved onward and elsewhere to new lives in which we are no longer part of the day-to-day.
I sing along to all the saddest songs in my worst and most earnest voice that cracks at the inadvisable high notes and mumbles off in the half-forgotten lyrics, wiping tears on the back of my hand, watching old familiar landscapes of a favorite in-between world rising and falling until we’re into the swamps, my car and me, a spark of hot nerves racing the morning sun along the abandoned causeway of the old road, built when this route was big and important and left to rust when life moved westward. I play out arguments, parting moments, the horrors of death and disaster, and it is a thing curiously full of warmth and love and celebration, the sea of dried stalks parting before the plow at the end of another season of emotional agriculture.
The South Carolina welcome center lies abandoned, too, just north of the border, a once modern building left to sag, and I’ll stop, sometimes, to pee in the unneeded privacy behind the place and peer through the windows at the half-dismantled racks of brochures bleached to a bloodless blue in the relentless sun before setting off again.
I think of you on the trip, and how and when I lost you, and of this you, and of that you, and of another you, and of how so many lights have gone out by now, when the grey hairs are sweeping in like winter weather, and how many voices have retreated into this place in my heart, where I’m the only one left to carry on the conversations, and that’s another pang, another heartache, and it’s all okay, because it’s the last hundred miles, when the crop is coming to harvest. The roads are dusted with tufts of cotton where the trucks have come and gone and left the land milled down to red clay and churned up roots, and it’s okay to end a season this way and let the harvest festival begin.
I will tell stories about you, and some will just make me smile a private smile when everyone’s all there, lush in life and rich with tales to tell and the comfort of a rare family gathering on this scale. The last hundred miles lets me let it all go, because one fine day, we will all die and be someone else’s burden on that journey, and someone’s well-deserved reward for the hard years spent tending, bringing water and nourishment, pruning, and recovering from the sudden hailstorms and unstoppable floods that wash over everything, leaving only ruination—
It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . . And then one fine morning—
For the holiday, the harvesters lie silent in the fields, immense egg-beater blades standing in as way-stations to the starlings that sweep up from the quiet lands in sinuous clouds that I watch through the haze of melancholy, and I sing louder and surrender more, until I’m a ragged mass of nerve endings reaching for the light like sunflowers looking to their sun god, and then the fields start to have that old familiar feeling, the one that lifts me up, and brings me back to this moment, right here and right now, where everything is fine, and more than fine.
I park and carry my things in, crunching across the sandy soil, and let my fingers trail through the rosemary bushes, sending a cascade of that gorgeous evergreen scent into the air, and open the door and step into the warm embrace of love again.
Yet, even without the trip, as life moves and shifts and things that always happen become less regular and less dependable in the bustling riot of adulthood, this morning is still the last hundred miles. I’m standing in my kitchen, earphones singing heartbroke ballads into my senses, chopping asparagus and onions and washing broccoli and grating parmesan beside steaming pots and pies packed up for a shorter trip, and it’s just the onions, I swear—
And the food is that much better, and the stories are that much richer and funnier and more meaningful, and the faces are that much more beautiful, and the scampering run of children is that much more raucous and joyous, all because the harvest at the end of another long year is always the sweetest, juiciest fruit, all laid out for us by sacrifice and the bitter counterpoint of loss and revisitation, and so it’s not the onions, and it’s not the music or the last hundred miles, and it’s just everything everything everything and how we so seldom have the occasion to stop struggling long enough to just let the landscape rush by and reflect on how lucky we are and how much joy and wonder we’ve had in our hands, even if it’s never quite enough, and then we open the door to a steamy holiday kitchen full of voices and that rare golden autumn light that washes out almost everything but love.