When I was little, my family would drive to Florida about once a year. It was not until I was a teenager that I traveled by plane. A 21-hour drive, not a 2-hour flight, was my normal.
This was how I saw so much of the South. Many hours and many miles, but much of it only from I-95. Cars with different license plates, gas stations, Shoney's breakfast buffets, South of the Border billboards, and rest areas distinguished by something special in the vending machines (strawberry soda, mostly like Crush, or once, an event so special I sought to recreate it for much of the 90's--a Milkshake candy bar) or palm trees (which I might later learn were actually palmettos) planted near the Welcome sign.
Very often, we wouldn't get a hotel between New Jersey and Florida; we would drive straight through the night. My mom would sleep, my dad would drive, and sometimes, I would be awake, too, listening to music and talking with Dad. I loved the car ride, if not as much as Disney World, at least as a part of the vacation, an event without which the yearly vacation just wouldn't seem right. I loved being awake in the middle of the night, in a place I didn't live, looking out the window and staring at what seemed like thousands of stars. I felt like an explorer. And I especially loved being awake in the last hours of night and the first hours of morning, and that little bit of time in between when the sky would start to lighten and change colors.
When I began looking at and applying to law schools based on my advisor's suggestions, I noticed that many of them--Vanderbilt, Duke, UVA, and Emory, where I am now--were in the Southeast. The Southeast wasn't where I'd immediately planned the Jersey-to-Portland-to-???? path to take me, but I thought about these road trips and it seemed alright. Those road trips created most of my frame of reference for the Southeast as a place to move and live for my first year of law school and marriage; when I thought the place to which I'd be uprooting my husband, a place and possibly a region where he'd never been, I pictured Shoney's breakfast buffets, palmettos at rest areas, and misty sunrises over I-95. Even the day we drove from New Jersey to Atlanta, that image comprised much of my vision of our new life.
New images have filled my mind since we moved to Georgia. Also, here in the Piedmont*, with Appalachian geology, botany, and ecology, my surroundings more closely resemble the rural northwest New Jersey where I grew up than the Coastal Plain stretches of I-95 I saw as a kid in a car on the way to Disney World.
Over winter break, I started a routine where, if I didn't get exercise in some other way, I'd walk around my neighborhood four times. According to my smartphone, it's half a mile around, so four laps is two miles. At first I felt self-conscious about it, like people might be thinking, "Why is that woman passing our house for a fourth time?" but then I noticed that I wasn't the only person in the neighborhood walking in circles every day. Now that it's summer and it's hot and humid by 9am, I'm trying to walk in circles in the morning. Unless it's just rained, evenings are still hot and humid. One night last week, it was so hot that just the first half-mile lap made me tired! So, I try to get out before 8am. There's enough to see here that even walking the same route four times, I notice something new at every turn. It is in these early mornings that I've started to see something that reminds me my I-95 road trips in the South. Just one corner of my route looks out to the main road, and there, across the main road, by the train tracks and the traffic light, over the trucks and 7-11, is the sky, fringed with mimosa trees. The trees are now bedecked with sunrise-colored blooms. Mist hangs over the scene; the pink mimosa-colored sky and the pink sunrise-colored flowers above the trucks and the train tracks and the traffic light and the 7-11 behind a thin screen of mist are the image that merges this moment right now, the life I live today, with middle-of-the-night watching stars over the highway fade and brighten into a sunrise over I-95.
So far, I haven't been able to get a camera-phone picture to capture it successfully.
Albizia julibrissin, Persian silk tree, in the Fabaceae family, like mimosa, but apparently technically not a true mimosa.**
*Some geology, based on Wikipedia, Google searching, and what I remember from a land use planning internship in 2007: Atlanta and therefore, my home in unincorporated DeKalb County, lies in the Piedmont physiographic province, which is part of a larger Appalachian geologic something (region? I don't know the proper terminology!). Much of New Jersey also lies in the Piedmont region, but the part where I grew up lies in the Appalachian Ridge and Valley physiographic province. The parts of North Georgia where I've (so far) gone apple picking and hiking are either also in that Ridge and Valley province or they are in the Blue Ridge province. North Georgia especially feels familiar; when we are there, I am constantly exclaiming that some view from a hill looks IDENTICAL to suchandsuch in soandso place in Sussex County, NJ. Picking apples at Mercier Orchards is like picking apples at Pochuck Valley Farms, etc etc.
**I only buried this in the footnotes because it makes me a little sad; Albizia julibrissin is now classified as an invasive species in Georgia.