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Something About the Highway

David Curtis

It's easy to feel that you have momentum when you're out on the open road. With no choice after every stop but to get back in your vehicle and go, you just get used to nearly constant motion. You imagine Grace and Speed as your new companions. Something that resembles Hope emerges on the long horizon. What does a dream look like after all, in the process of becoming?

For three weeks last month I toured solo, through what I would call the heart of the American West. Since nearly the beginning of my life I have had a love for this region. In fact my earliest memories are of an epic trip my family took to the West Coast and back the summer I was almost three. We traveled in what we called the "Camptruck", an army green Ford F-600 that had been converted into what looked like a modern (meaning 1960) version of a Conestoga wagon, green tarp covering wooden bows that could be rolled up and down on the sides; a 16 ft wooden bed containing several mattresses, a large chuckwagon department for supplies in the very back. My grandfather and father and uncle drove and rode in the cab, while the women and children all piled in the back. My mother was pregnant with my sister, Anna. Which reminds me of the story of my great-great grandmother Anna Rebekah, who really did ride in a covered wagon from Tennessee out West after the Civil War, while she too was pregnant. In the story handed down she "prayed to die". The rest of the story is that she lived to have the baby, they didn't care for it out there, and they ended up retracing their steps back to Tennessee.

Such migrations have shaped not only this country, but have helped make each of us who we are -- those of us who have deep histories here. Those of us whose family trees are tall and wide and complicated, that record lives of forbears who arrived on this continent centuries ago and kept moving, until they found a place that felt like home? Then made it so, at any cost necessary, to themselves and of course to those whose home it was first...

It can be overwhelming to see and read (and try saying out loud) all the indigenous names -- for streams, roads, rivers, counties -- through Oklahoma in particular. When I passed a sign that said "Kichai", I instantly thought of my maternal grandmother. Billie Colwell Pope was born and raised in East Texas, an area they call the Piney Woods. She took me several times to a tiny cemetery in a place called Keechi, near Buffalo, where she grew up. My great-grandfather and several other relatives are buried there. When I tried to find information about the origin of the word, what little I found on the Internet revealed it to name an Indian tribe from Louisiana who migrated to both Oklahoma (Indian Territory) and Texas, before being forcibly relocated during the Trail of Tears. In the late 1700's one of their last settlements was near present day Palestine, the place where the cemetery stands. The Wikipedia article went on to note that the tribe and their unique language is now extinct.

I must assume there's no cemetery for any of these people, who were driven away from their homelands, and then dwindled away somewhere else.

If you take in the details along the road there is always sadness to be found. And lots of other things too.

At some point in the journey I declared the highway a living metaphor. No wonder there are so many songs about it. Maybe because it is one way to experience Time as it really is -- that is, fluid, elastic, flowing. Not fixed at all. It is possible to experience past, present, future, all on the highway, and all at once.


It sure felt that way at times.

As I drove the last 60 miles into Santa Fe, New Mexico, the sky reflected just such a concept. Piercing sunlight, layer upon layer of grey and white clouds, shimmering rain, distant lightening, of course a rainbow...I felt my past was dancing with my current self; it was strange and not at all comfortable. There were things I didn't want to see, or remember. But I did. I couldn't look away from the highway after all. It demands your full attention, especially under such conditions, in such unfamiliar terrain. There were things to mourn, and let go of; things to retrieve, and reclaim.

That glimmering, slippery two-lane was just the beginning.

From Sedona's magical stone-scape, softened by lush green valleys with creeks and towering trees, to the panoramic "painted desert" highway I took through the the Four Corners region, up the winding roads to the high elevation Colorado mountain towns, through the vast, endless plains of Northern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle -- each landscape had its own mysteries, each region was its own world. Essentially of course, I was passing through as a stranger, a traveler. But in all those miles alone behind the wheel I never felt lonely. I never felt not welcome. There were places that imparted a desolation, places that felt almost sorrowful. Also places that seemed to be forgotten by everyone else in the world.

I did not ask for the land to tell me its secrets. I hoped to honor it by noting its fierce beauty. The perseverance of Mother Nature, you could say, is always present, and to me that in itself is a majestic thing. The constant spaciousness of land and sky began to inhabit my mind, breathing new life into my own visions. Surely I can see further than before, I thought out loud.

The performances I had booked throughout this journey also yielded much to me personally. After being away from the musician's life for some time now, being on tour and walking up to stages alone in front of unfamiliar faces had the potential to be a little nerve-wracking to say the least. The kind of situation that could make me question everything all over again: Why I am here? What am I doing? Is it too late to start over again?

Instead, the overall warmth and receptivity I encountered from sharing my songs was a sort of nourishment not taken lightly. I've carried it back here to Nashville and it's helping fuel the plans for finishing a new EP and also getting back out to tour again as soon as I can.

For a few days after my return I felt strangely disoriented, like part of me was still moving out on the road somewhere. Just another transition I suppose, which seems to be a major theme for so many of us right now, in so many different ways.

Now I seem to be in the midst of what happens after you first step away from the crossroads. Unless you suddenly sprout wings, you have to keep walking the path you chose for some time...trusting you made the right choice, the destination still unclear.

In fact one of the many gifts I came back with from this journey is the memory of feeling guided, even when entirely alone, even when uncertain, worried, tired...I chose to keep trusting I would "get there", and I did. I chose to keep believing this whole endeavor of being open -- sharing what I have to share, letting myself receive in return -- is worth it. Now sometimes in the morning between sleep and waking I feel certain colors and shapes around me, I'm drawn back to a liminal place under the Western sky. The sensation will linger throughout the day, stirring up an unnamed longing.

I guess the highway isn't through with me quite yet. ~


Photo: Sam McKay