To get across Maryland, West Virginia, half of Ohio, and the Allegheny Mountains in 7 hours, all that is needed is to depress a pedal on a machine with flying wheels. You don’t even have to press it that hard to go 70, 80 miles per hour. To walk over that land, it would take more than two weeks, two weeks of hiking and laying your head down in a different place each night.
It took us 1/3 of a day to disappear from a hilltop in southern Ohio where a brunch was shared with grandparents under a locust tree, and reappear at a stucco house in an Eastern seaboard city where yards are arranged in checkerboard squares.
There was just a skin of light left when pulled into the driveway, enough to see that the zinnias had grown taller than Diana in the week that we were gone.
“What’s this?” Sofia said when she pulled out a scraggly weed at the top of the cooler packed with milk and butter, green peppers and tomatoes from my mother’s garden.
When you’re flying in a spinning machine because you want to get home before dark, you only touch your feet to the ground but once or twice.
The weed looked like a shooting star firework, its skinny seed pods shooting off the stalk, each with a single white floret at the tip. The type of flower that grows in the shade.
At the rest area off I-79 near Clarksburg, West Virginia, the kids sat around a cement picnic table by the bathrooms sharing M&Ms and an Orange Crush from the vending machines. No one wanted to relocate their snack break to the shade of trees at the top of the hill.
I left my shoes in the grass by the car and walked up to the band of shade. But instead of the grass ending, the trees simply parted, the grass unrolled up the hill, and soon I found myself in a clearing in the middle of a small wood. Some kind soul had swirled a mower up here. This place was meant to be discovered.
I could no longer hear the whining of trucks over the freeway. Instead the steady ring of crickets. Sunlight — bossy and yellow in the outside world — sifted through the trees and came out blue and hazy, filtered with drifting bits.
A mowed path led further into the woods. The ground felt spongy and cool on my bare feet, and I bent down and saw that it was not moss but a blanket of miniature fern fronds. The smell of damp things — creeks, dragonflies, spores. A blue and black butterfly danced up and around the path.
Of the weird things in the cooler, I told Sofia, “Oh, those are my artifacts.” But the shooting star flower, the wild daisy, and the purple thistle I had tucked in there were now twisted and black like things left over after a fire.
Once we got the kids in bed, cat fed, food put away, and some clothes unpacked, I had to lie down. It wasn’t that late and I felt I hadn’t done much of anything, but all the cells in my body were still tumbling and rolling over like those tires, and I needed to stop so that everything could come to rest.
It’s not natural to move a human body so far in a day. It seems so ordinary, so inexpensive, to get from there to here with only a map and a tankful of gas. But at that velocity, a single glance away from the road, a fumble with the air conditioning dial, or a slight bump of the wheel, and we could have all been killed.
“Naturalized Area,” I noticed a sign said after I wandered back down toward the picnic table and parking lot and looked back up at that secret garden.
I guess when you let things be natural, they get magical like that — they smell like dew, they turn sunlight the color of water, they carpet paths with fern moss, they bring striped bees and Monarch butterflies to the rose velvet tassels of Joe-Pye weeds.
Thank you God for rest areas. Those modest harbors where you don’t have to buy anything to use the bathroom or wash your hands. Where you can sail off the American interstate highway — birther of chain restaurants and suspected killer of small towns, mother of quick trips home and enabler of packages delivered in a day — and fill up on enough free grass and trees to get you home, and your feet back on the ground.