LETTER TO A STRANGER: WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA
BY MATTHEW OLZMANN
At some point, that night, you probably thought I was a cop.
My headlights behind you for a mile.
Who knows how much farther.
You slowed down, I slowed down.
You sped up, just a little; I sped up, just a little.
Truth is, in that storm, the taillights of your truck were the only thing I could see, the only way I knew the road was still there. There was no other light. No streetlamps. No other cars on the highway. We were miles from any city. Just the Blue Ridge Mountains. And even those I couldn’t see. But I knew they were there, and I knew deep ravines opened all around us. My headlights barely seemed to cut through 15 feet of night. I couldn’t see the exits until we were passing them. My windshield wipers were just swishing around darkness mixed with unrelenting rain; it was like using your windshield wipers to repel a waterfall.
I wondered if it was easy for you, weaving through rain. You seemed to understand the dark, anticipating each turn, as if you had memorized the shape of each mountain, as if you had lived with them for a long time.
When people wake in the dark of their own homes, they can navigate the obstacle courses of their lives without reaching for the light switch. They know where the sofa is, the corner of that little end table that waits to gouge an unsuspecting kneecap or shin, and the single stair just before the dining room. Without knocking the vase from the nightstand or tumbling over a cliff, they arrive in the kitchen, reach into the blackness, find a handle, open a refrigerator door. Then there’s a light. Then they make a sandwich.
I wondered if this dark was like that for you. Maybe you lived among these peaks and valleys all your life and knew, by heart, exactly when the road would plunge or whisper in a new direction. This dark was new for me, complicated and unfamiliar. I was driving toward a new job, a one-year teaching fellowship at a small college in Swannanoa, North Carolina. My wife was already there, and I was bringing our last carload of supplies from Michigan. I had no idea what was ahead of me.
What was ahead of me, I learned later, was a tiny attic apartment in an old stone house where my wife had already unpacked several boxes of books. A teakettle on the stove. A welcome mat by the door. What was ahead of me was a life where I would sometimes get lost among the trees and emerge to find women playing banjos in a clearing lit by fireflies. The burn of homemade moonshine. An evening or two on the porch of a weathered farmhouse, watching the shadows of the neighbor’s cows blur into the shadows of twilight. Discussions of poetry and essays in small classrooms with students who spent their free time tutoring children, building community gardens, and volunteering at homeless shelters.
As the rain stopped, you took the next exit, and I kept going.
When it’s not raining, you can see little lights between the trees in the mountains. Houses. Perhaps one of them was yours. There are many stretches of highway on I-40 between the border of eastern Tennessee and Asheville, North Carolina, where even on a clear night, you can’t tell where the mountains end and the sky begins. The lights of the houses hover above the Earth, like new stars hung strangely low on the horizon. Like the old stars, these new ones form little clusters—constellations—shapes that travelers might recognize as stories, from a past life or new one creeping closer, luminous, and waiting to be known.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matthew Olzmann is the author of two collections of poems, Mezzanines, which was selected for the Kundiman Prize, and Contradictions in the Design, to be released in November 2016. His favorite place on nobody else’s list? Octavia, Calvino's imagined floating spider-web city. "Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia's inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long."