“A Homesick Song”

Seems like every time I start blogging more, I lose the habit just as quickly.  Sorry for the gap–I was doing some intense last-minute studying for my GREs.  Once I took the test, my husband & I went on a small road trip to a part of the state I hadn’t seen: Appomattox.  Since we got back the other day, I’ve had Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” stuck in my head, as well as Easy Rider‘s famously enigmatic scene.  Just as there is a tradition of the American road trip, there is the corollary of personal disillusionment that goes with it.

I’d like to say that this particular trip resulted in the same.  But that sentence wouldn’t be true.

I think I know the reason that these two particular pieces have been stuck in my head. Typically the trips my husband & I take end, on my part, with a flavor of regret or unsatisfied curiosity.  Our excursions were a little too structured or I hadn’t overcome the feeling of being an outsider puzzling out what makes Place X so unique.  In each case, the typical American travel experience I mentioned, hinted at in the song & the movie, has held true.

But, coming back from Appomattox has not felt the same way.  Our return has made me newly realize how we Americans expect a certain amount of dissatisfaction with our far-off destinations.  We go someplace, expecting to be wowed by these new experiences, & when events don’t match up to our expectations, we nod, thinking, Well, it’s not like home.  What did we expect?

So, what exactly was it that I experienced in Appomattox that caused a different outcome?  Perhaps it was the realization that Appomattox was more like home than I expected.  I do not know if I could adequately cover in one blog exactly what I mean, but I’ll try.

I grew up in Fredericksburg, which means I grew up around the Civil War battlefields my entire life.  I avoid them, as an adult, for many reasons–mainly because I’m still trying to work out my identity as a Southerner & all the baggage that goes along with it.  Visiting the historic battlefield of Appomattox is like visiting a battlefield at home times ten.  More than once I was moved to tears, confused by the relative peace of the site, the emotions of relief and sadness inspired by the events there, and overwhelmed with all the possible futures that could have sprung from that site.

Detail of Civil War display at the Appomattox visitor center

Staying in the town of Appomattox didn’t give me a feeling of being far from my personal history either.  The town itself is small, clinging to whatever commerce is brought in by the railroad or Lynchburg nearby.  The buildings there don’t look like that they have been changed or updated in a very long time & any development is done closer to the busy roads that lead away from town, not into it.  Appomattox could easily be Fredericksburg or even Ashland minus a few important factors.  There is no historic college to attract young people.  There is no easily accessed, highly trafficked roads or routes to more developed cities.  (Compared to DC or Richmond, Lynchburg is small potatoes.)

In short, Appomattox suffers from the same conflicting pull that most of the South still suffers from, that Thomas Wolfe hints at in The Web and the Rock.  The pull between changing & developing & the mule-headed refusal to become something different from our past.  It is the sense of “Northern-ness” that we ache for & revile.

Before Kurt & I left, I talked to one of our hostesses at the bed & breakfast where we stayed.  She had grown up in Appomattox, attended the same college I had, had the fortune to live in Michigan for a several years before returning to her hometown.  She insisted that the town had not changed in all of those years.  I tried to explain that Fredericksburg was the same but I don’t think she quite believed me, given all the development that has happened in the past 30 years.  I tried to say that it didn’t matter, that even with all the new shops & subdivisions, the mentality was the same.  All of the new growth happened on the roads going out of town, that despite all the development few of the roads had been upgraded or widened, that the city council was determined to see downtown unchanged despite the influx of transplants & new business.  The same gap between life in a Southern town & the idea of what a Southern town should be existed in both places.

As my husband & I drove the country roads back home, I tried to put my feelings behind us by jokingly reciting, “They went looking for America, but couldn’t find it anywhere.”  But for once I was thankful for being from my hometown, even if the history of the city & my long-lasting family ties there do feel like a weight.  Appomattox was proof that I could have lived a more confined life, that my dreams could have been larger than my search for America could sustain.