15 July 2008

“Do not mistake coincidence for fate”: A Journey Through the Southeast in 5 Parts

Part 1 – “Lost” and Seen

What do you think of that title? That quote? Over the last several weeks I have become immersed in the ABC series “Lost.” I am now in the middle of the third season after a recent hiatus to Florida and back. During my week in Florida, I thought a lot about this show—the questions filling my brain. Why should they push the button? Why 108 minutes? What is that black smoke thing? Who are the “others”? Why are they on the frickin’ island? Is it coincidence? Fate? Chance? Is it all in someone’s brain? Am I gonna be disappointed two years from now when the series ends? If you’ve seen the show you have an idea of what I’m talking about. I told my roommate “I never thought I would be one of those “Lost” addicts.” But I am just like so many others; I love the suspense and keep pressing the button. So, what does this television show have to do with my recent road trip through the Southeast? Absolutely nothing, except that it is a part of my life at the moment, I am thinking about it (I do that when I watch a movie or TV show that I like), and I thought about coincidence and fate, two of the most thought-provoking ideas found in the continuing escapades of Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Locke, Sayid, Hurley, Charlie, Sun, Jin, Claire, and on and on after I witnessed (saw with my own two eyes) a motorcycle accident on I-40 W in Crossville, TN.

Part 2 – Murfreesboro, TN to Clinton, TN to Jacksonville, FL

I drive a lot. I like to drive. I am a good driver. My Mom still bitches at me from the backseat like I’m 16. “Slow down, I don’t want you to get a ticket.” “Let me drive for awhile.” “Kevin, you’re doin’ 80.” The truth is: I know how fast I’m going. I know how to stay with the flow of Interstate traffic. And I don’t want to let my Mom drive I-75 through Georgia, because it would take forever and I cannot sleep in cars. Never could.
I should start at the beginning though. I left the ‘Boro on the Fourth of July at 7 PM. I have driven this stretch of I-40 so many times that autopilot is the only way I do it now. Everything went the same as usual except I was missing the fireworks so I could get to Clinton (my hometown) and get some shuteye for the trip to Florida the next day. The same as usual turned into a bit different when I reached Roane County. There is a stretch of highway in that part of 40 that shifts down the Cumberland Plateau through the thick foliage of summer (in this case) and you get to a point where it feels as if you are driving on the edge of a cliff. You look down and see where the town of Harriman becomes the town of Rockwood—a Wal-Mart hundreds of feet below and a mile to your right is the landmark that tells you this. The stretch of I-40 in question is sparsely traveled, but when I reached a bend in the road now marked by a sign advertising the “stay off I-40 because of construction in downtown Knoxville” thing, I saw something out of the ordinary. A man on either side of the Interstate yelling what seemed to be “SLOW DOWN!” They were in fact yelling this because a split-second later, I “see” a car that has obviously flipped several times and come to a rest on a tuft of thick brush to my left. I am driving so fast and slowing so quickly I have no idea what to think and several people seem to be helping out so I simply pass like the one car in front of me and the two behind. My heartbeat comes back down and I make my way to Scotty J’s house to pick him up. His keys, he tells me, are at the bottom of Fort Loudon Lake. So, since it’s 10 o’clock on the Fourth of July, Scotty J decides to bust his back window out with a rock to retrieve his stuff. This is not out of the ordinary for him, and then we leave…
You already know the trip from Clinton, TN to Jacksonville, Fl. My Mom gripes, we listen to music, talk, stop for gas, Scotty J almost runs of the road packing his cigarettes, my Mom trips out on me, she makes us sandwiches, we get to Jax, and Kid Sister, Scotty J, and I get drunk, drive to St. Augustine Beach, drink more, my sister’s new boyfriend gets a ticket for drinking in public in front of me before I even meet him, we go into the Old Crow Medicine Show concert, and drink even more. I one-eye it back to Jacksonville jamming to The Katies, we get some Taco Bell, pass out, and wake up hungover. My Mom makes breakfast, we go to the pool, the next day the beach, and so on and so forth for six days—a great time.

Part 3 – The Carolinas to Tennessee

The unlikely trio of travelers headed back to Tennessee from Jacksonville on July 11. I start us off after having decided to take an alternate route through coastal Georgia, South Carolina, and western North Carolina through the mountains to “the hills of Tennessee.” It is a much prettier drive than I-75 through Georgia (and Atlanta)—this is what led to my decision to take this route. I drive and drive and drive and then hit a snag. Traffic jam on I-95 just around Brunswick, Georgia. Mom and Scotty J are both sleeping, so I entertain myself by seeking the local FM stations and luckily stumble upon this: “From WHYY in Philiadelphia, I am Terry Gross with Fresh Air” and get to hear a great interview with the beautiful actress, Zooey Deschanel. She was pitching her new album, which I believe I will buy. Is it coincidence or fate that has led me to this interview at this time in this traffic jam? It has to be one, right? If I was in Valdosta, Georgia on I-75 at this time, I might not be picking up “Fresh Air.” The trip continues smoothly through South Carolina, Scott drives briefly and then I drive some more. A word of advice: Be careful when driving through the Blue Ridge/Smoky Mountains portion of I-40 on the NC/TN border at midnight. It is difficult. Imagine passing 18-wheelers with an 8-foot concrete barrier on the other side down a hill of switchback curves—enough to make any seasoned driver a little nervous. Our last stop before home is the Jefferson City exit near the Cocke and Jefferson County lines—the Pilot behind Perkins. If you know what I’m talking about, you’ve probably been to North Carolina. This is where my Mom starts griping again, now nearly 2 AM and only 40 minutes from home. I am at the point where being inside a car is not fun anymore, and all I want is the freedom to move around, to smoke a cigarette (“Kevin, please don’t smoke in the car.”). Thank God, we made it back to Tennessee without accident or injury.

Part 4 – Encounters on I-40 Westbound - Knoxville to Lebanon

I stayed a day and a half in my hometown after returning from Florida. My hometown, like so many hometowns, is the same and “still crazy after all these years.” I love it though. I got to catch up with some of the “old gang from high school.” The best visit was with my longest-time best friend, Travis. I was formally invited to be a groomsman in his wedding in October and was and am very excited about the big day. Travis’s house, in the Karns section of Knox County, was my last stop before heading back to the ‘Boro. In Knoxville, Interstates 40 and 75 become one through downtown, and then diverge just past Campbell Station Road in Farragut. As I pass the exit following Campbell Station in which there is a massive Fireworks Superstore, I see a sign that states “I-40 Westbound closed. Use I-75 S to I-24 W.” I did not want to do that at all, but I could not get on I-40—no way because it was blocked by TDOT and a line of Staties. So, I go up and get on 40 in Lenoir City, run fine for about 10 miles until 40 closes again in Harriman—DETOUR! With no other choice, I take it and drive through, if you’ll remember, the area in which Harriman turns to Rockwood, so now I am in the valley that you can see from that “edge of the cliff” on I-40, the place where I saw the wrecked car nine days previous. I am on a new stretch of road and wonder where the detour will take me. I never knew what was beyond Roane County on that side of the plateau, and I sure as hell found out. It is called Rhea County, and it contains a town called Spring City, which is more a blink and you’ll miss it town than most. The detour continues in Rhea County up and then down a plateau road dissolving into Cumberland County. I was, as a lover of driving and scenery, in awe of the view I received as I drove this two-lane road filled with Interstate traffic from east and west passing through the communities of Route 68, places you have never heard of like Grandview, Alloway, Grassy Cove, and stops like the side-of-the-road “Time Zone Bar.” All of this was beautiful. I feel blessed by that detour and the Kings of Leon in my CD player. I would like to take it on purpose. It gave me that feeling of finding something new, something I’d like to tell people about, something beautiful. It made me want to live in a tiny, unincorporated community with no cell phone service on the top of the Cumberland Plateau. I finally regained a cell phone signal and made it back to I-40 W—smooth sailing after Crossville I thought.
A good two hours after leaving Knoxville, I finally made it to Crossville, which should take forty-five minutes. I merged onto the Interstate just behind a motorcycle holding two people—a driver (Ronnie) and a passenger (I never caught her name). Now, how do I know that driver’s name? I do because less that thirty seconds after I followed them onto I-40 Westbound at exit 322, something very frightening happened. Because all of the traffic had been routed off of the highway at the exit I just exited, there was hardly anyone else on the road save my truck, the motorcycle, its two passengers and me. I “see” the following happen before I even get up to 60 mph and one mile down the road: the motorcycle slows, wobbles from side to side, the driver drifts to the shoulder, lays down the bike, it spins, the female passenger hits the guardrail, and I immediately pull up behind the wreckage with a heart pounding out of my chest. I yell, “Are you all OK?” She screams, “I’m OK, but he needs this bike off of him!!” She is crying, hysterical. I lift the heavy Harley-Davidson off of the man, I find the kickstand, I situate the bike, and she is calling 911. I speak to the injured man. His foot seems to be dangling by a thread, his shoe is completely mangled, there is blood, gasoline, definite broken bones. I tell the woman to calm down, she hands me her blood-soaked cell phone, it is dark out now. I talk to dispatch and give them our exact location: “I can see the sign for mile marker 321 on I-40 Westbound.” She asks me if I was involved. “No. Single motorcycle accident.” She takes my phone number. I ask the man if he is OK. He says calmly, “No. I’m not OK. My shoulder, leg, and foot are on fire.” I ask him his name. He says “Ronnie.” I tell Ronnie to be calm, stay still, help is on the way, “my name is Kevin.” I have never seen anything like this. The woman says a tire popped. Ronnie says anxiously, “I heard it, I heard it. I tried to get it over, but I couldn’t.” The woman says “It’s OK, baby. They’re on the way. I love you.” She says to me, “Thank you, sir.” I say “No problem.” After watching the paramedics get them into the ambulance and giving my statement to the Staties, I go to the next exit to wash the blood from my hands and drive, mostly in silence, down I-40 to Lebanon…to home.

Part 5 – “Long way down, one last thing”

I pull to the red light, the left turn lane at the intersection of Memorial and Clark in Murfreesboro. A very attractive young woman is stopped in the lane beside me with two male passengers—college students for sure. I glance over and then turn left. She turns left as well the lane beside me and commences to play the famous road game where you speed up and slow down as to not let the other driver pass or get over. They all look over at me as they speed up. I give them the sarcastic smile and thumbs up instead of the finger. I brake, get behind them, they slam on their brakes and make an immediate turn probably because they thought I might try to follow them and give them a piece of my mind. The truth is: I turned right on the next road to try to find them and organize a “come to Jesus meeting.” “Preach Heaven and beat the Hell out of somebody.” At this point, I don’t need any bullshit, but I couldn’t find them. So I went home, and continued with the final episodes of season 2 of “Lost.” One of those episodes, like so many, made me think about fate, coincidence, and chance. Are the castaways on “Lost” meant to be on “the island?” Was I meant to see that accident? To be a part of it? Did my week away from home lead to that point in time on purpose? Does it mean something? I like to think it does.

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