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Looking back and driving forward

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JULY 27, 2017

I am a firm believer in the power of road trips.

The closest major city to Houston, in any direction, is more than two hours away. (No, y’all, I’m not counting Galveston, and you’re not going to change my mind on this.) So in some ways you could argue that, growing up, driving anywhere outside of Houston was a sort of road trip. That being said, the Hilborn clan has a far more storied history of road trips than simple jaunts to neighboring cities.

So much of Texas is empty. The whole western half of the state only has a single major city to its name, El Paso. I experienced this emptiness in full this past spring break when I drove eight hours from Houston to a small town in west Texas. More than five of those hours were spent in isolation broken only by the occasional rest stop or gas station.

Interstates and highways in Texas are poorly lit except in parts that pass through major cities, and because the major cities are so spaced out, driving between them means driving through darkness. You can see a few feet in front of your front bumper — maybe a bit farther if you turn on the brights — but what exists beyond that, in the darkness, is unknown.

I’ve driven past a number of weird or unsettling things on the road. I swear before God and man that I stayed in a haunted hotel in Louisiana. The next morning, we stopped at a McDonald’s to use the bathroom, and my brother found his stall covered in white supremacist graffiti. The number of deer that have appeared out of nowhere, watching from the side of the road in the dead of night, is something I don’t want to think about. There are the stretches of road in Louisiana that extend for miles, and when you look down there’s nothing but swamp, no solid ground in sight.

When I was 15, my family and I took a trip to the Northeast. We were visiting Boston, New York City and Niagara Falls, seeing some family in upstate New York and finishing off at a wedding at some hunting lodge. We drove from Houston to New York City over the course of two days.

Driving from the bottom of the country to the top is a humbling experience. For one, you pass through at least three climates, leaving the heat in the Deep South to chase relatively cool weather in Virginia before ending up in the sweltering Big Apple. And two, you pass through a whole range of Southern states.

I’ve road tripped through the South a lot. I’ve driven to Florida eight different times in my life, New York and Mississippi twice each, Tennessee an indeterminate amount of times and Arkansas once. I’ve at least driven through, if not stopped in, Georgia, Alabama, both the Carolinas, Virginia and West Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Louisiana has the worst roads, Virginia has the prettiest landscapes, and if we’re going to get pulled over anywhere, it’s going to be in Arkansas.

The South, setting aside the heatstroke-inducing weather, is incredibly beautiful. The sunsets in Texas spread across a sky so big, you can’t see it all at once. Mist rolls around the hills of Virginia in the early morning. The Mississippi River is grossly polluted at this point, but it’s size is still awe-inspiring.

The South is best understood by its roads and its emptiness. There is so much empty space in the South. The roads are dotted alternately with reminders of doom and farmers markets. You drive through dirt-poor towns and past abandoned gas stations. Hollowed-out buildings with brown, grimey windows litter every small town. Any sense of what those buildings once were is lost to time. The ghost of Dixie is strong in the South, and you can sense it if you spend enough time in between civilization, late at night, on some interstate.

I don’t know if I believe in ghosts or spirits, but I definitely believe in the weight of history. Whether or not the hotel in Louisiana was haunted, it was built on old plantation land and decorated with portraits of the family that once lived there. Southern states have seen a great amount of violence.

The Confederate memorials, the “Hell is Real” signs — they are all indicative of a common feeling in the South: that the past, sins and all, is always lurking just down the road, just beyond the reach of the headlights.

Danielle writes the Thursday column on finding your home. Contact her at [email protected].

JULY 28, 2017