I’m driving a rental car, speeding down the highway through a light spatter of rain. I don’t know how fast I’m driving or where I’m headed, only that the speed-meter in front of me measures time in 1’s, 2’s and 3’s and it feels like I’m going really fast. I’m flying blind, relying on the herd I’m running with to gauge my stride. The woman in the magic box, that all-knowing, all-seeing GPS, lolls beside me in the passenger seat. She trusts me. And I trust her.
I date places like I date people. I show up having done just enough research to have a vague idea of the terrain. I choose a single point in this mind-boggling, massive universe, on this wild and unruly island of a planet, and I do my best to find it.
In Nashville, that was The Hermitage Hotel. When I finally found it and sat by the gas lit fireplace, wet, cold, and recovering from my early morning travels, I knew the city would open up, just a bit, and maybe share a secret or two.
Places and people always have secrets. For some reason, they like to share their secrets to me.
Listening is key when you’re not quite lost, but you don’t know where you’re going. I credit the Lady of the GPS for teaching me that.
Here’s the structure of a date. Beginning, middle, and end.
For academic purposes, we’ll use Nashville as an example.
First, you flirt from afar. You read up. You ask around. You decide to meet. You might have a reason, such as research. But, you might not know why you really do the things you do.
That’s the beginning.
The middle is the start of the real exploration. it takes off after you leave the Hermitage to seek out the Johnny Cash Museum, and find yourself at a pre-date at a bar, sandwiched between a drunk woman from Iowa and a not quite drunk woman from Connecticut.
You meet another personality, this one even more specific, for he sought you. He is your date. He’s nice enough. But something about him strikes you as unusual. Unlike many other states, Texas, Iowa, and Pennsylvania come to mind, this man is not lonely. He’s actually well-adjusted, and even laughs as he confesses that Nashville might be the only place on earth where a guitarist has a hard time getting laid.
Could Nashville be calm, happy, and sweet because the music makes it so? Does having a passion fill the soul, soothe the spirit, and simplify the whole beautiful mess we call life? Can being wrapped in song keep you safe? Is this the secret Nashville desperately wants to spill?
Later that afternoon, your mind wanders as you sit in the audience at a geriatric talent contest. A woman tap dances in a pink, sequined tie and black leotard, arms stiff, smile frozen, as she shuffles across the stage. Suddenly, learning to tap dance seems like a very good idea. You make a mental note to research tap dancing classes later that night.
Between the world champion whistler and the church lady who drops her cane while singing her face off, layers are revealed. Here is a town with a catchy heart beat. The trees whisper a tune and the people tap their feet. And when the mild-mannered man in his red cardigan huffs a rousing ballad on his harmonica, you wonder whatever happened to yours – you had three growing up, an echo harp, a slide harmonica, and a standard issue – and if you should try to learn again. The band plays on. By the time the long-term survivor of Alzheimer’s disease takes the stage to dance a tango, ballroom dance sounds like a lot more fun than tap dancing. Your seat in the audience is a rocket ship and you are spinning in a tidal pool of past, present, and future.
“Live until the end,” the Alzheimer lady says, a couple of times, before the music plays.
Nashville has shared with you a sliver of her soul.
The story has reached its point of no return.
When I was married, my husband often asked “what do you want.” I always thought it was a stupid question and always answered, “depends on the day.”
Today, I’m pretty sure I want to learn how to do a backflip. I’d like to dance a sweeping waltz around a big room. A feather trim on my dress would nice, but it’s not a deal breaker. I definitely want to try to make a hard cheese and see a few more whales. And, if I’m lucky enough to find someone who I’d like to get to know over the next forty years, I’d like him to be someone who will sing to me in bed and inspire me to be a better person.
But that’s just today, at 11:11 in the morning while my laundry’s being swished clean in the basement and my dog sleeps in her sunlight. Tomorrow, I might want something different.
The third act climaxes with things look pretty grim. A four a.m. drive on the highway to the airport looms in your future. An emotional wrench has been thrown into your anthropological study. A crush on Nashville has developed, even though you must go. And you’ve arrived at a music venue at 6 to discover the act doesn’t start until nine.
The couple to your right is from Texas. They drove through Tupelo the day before to see Elvis’ birthplace. They’ve been married since birth, or so. And they love country music.
“You are so brave to travel alone,” says the wife.
“I like traveling,” you explain.
“My children love Europe, but I don’t know why anyone would want to leave this country. There’s so much to see.”
“It’s a really beautiful world out there,” you answer. “But, it doesn’t matter where you go, so long as you go somewhere. So long as people keep talking.”
“I could never do what you do. You are very, very brave.”
And then you shrug and say, “live until the end.”
The band takes the stage. Three fiddles, three guitars, a stand-up base, a slide guitar, singers, an accordion, piano, percussion. Part bluegrass, part swing. And it makes you want to dance.
There are layers out there. Lots of layers.
Physical, metaphysical, thematic, chemical, historical, geographical, geological, musical, psychological. It goes on and on. Whether you wait on the shore for high tide to sweep you away, or dive in to the ocean, if you close your eyes, stop talking, and listen for a bit, you’ll hear stories and secrets.
Anyway, at some point while I’m driving that rental car, I notice a second round meter on the dashboard. It’s to the right, back behind the steering wheel. This meter’s numbered in 10’s, 20’s, and 30’s and is much easier to match with the speed limit signs on the road.
I detect a faint giggle from the Woman of the GPS. I’m glad I amuse her so.
I don’t drive too often. She knows that.
She’s always in a rush. I like to take the scenic route. Slow and steady.
But, sometimes, she’s right. Sometimes, you have to drive on the highway.