As we drove across interstate ten towards Baton Rouge, I wasn’t sure if I was saying hello or goodbye. Hello to the miles and miles of Louisiana marsh I hadn’t seen in years. Hello to the hope of something new glimmering in the back of my mind. And goodbye to pretty much everything else – but mostly to the broken, dysfunctional normal I’d always called home.
Out the window a movie reel of pine needles, oak leaves, and yellow-dashed highway lines cycled by. Concrete salvation supported by rows and rows of great stone pillars was the only thing lying between us and swimming in the reptile-infested brownish-green sludge below.
We were crossing the Atchafalaya bridge – ninety-six thousand feet of swamp and trees in every direction. From here, Louisiana looked a lot like an overgrown version of your eccentric uncle’s reptile farm; except the lizards grew sharp teeth, are as large as a small car, and like chicken. The Bayou was as close to a jungle as I ever needed to get.
I was riding with a family friend, Ms. Colette, who I’d known and had known me since I hated peas and kindergarten. She was driving me to meet my Auntie Petra in Tuscaloosa, the halfway mark for Berea, Kentucky where I’d be spending the next four years. Since we weren’t even to Baton Rouge yet, that meant we’d be driving at least another six or seven hours.
I stared out the window and watched my childhood pass by with every tree and restaurant gas station. Each one a crumb trailing back to the place and people I’d so long ago promised to take care of.
Ms. Colette and I talked about everything. We talked about her growing up in Houma just outside New Orleans; how the streets would disappear during really rainy seasons and you could practically boat to school.
When we couldn’t avoid it anymore our conversation turned to the last year – the struggle and everything that had begun going wrong in my family. We spoke about Momma and how her panic attacks had gotten worse and worse. Ms. Colette had known Momma since she was the artistic, iron-willed spitfire that loved her family and friends fiercely. Watching the mental illness steal that from her, wearing on her soul and mind, was as hard for Ms. Colette as it was us. The near daily attacks by Momma’s subconscious had taken their toll, draining her of the spirit and passion she always embodied. Leaving too many days where the choice to breathe was a struggle.
The truth was that it was nice to talk to someone who understood. I didn’t have to explain anything to her – not who Momma was before, who she was now, or even how incredibly those of us who depended on her felt the loss. She just knew. As we passed the blue-tarped houses, reminders of Katrina’s mighty winds, and the mangled cypress roots reaching out of the Atchafalaya basin, I bade farewell both to the home I knew and the people I once hoped we would all become.
Déjà vu met me in the trees, waterways, and tattered houses hoping for love and care.
It was as if each landmark was a new adieu. If Momma was first, then Daddy followed closely after, and Mississippi, with its beautiful, complicated reality, was the perfect place to thank and give a temporary sendoff to one of the most complicated relationships in my life.
Mississippi echoes the landscape and culture of Louisiana in so many ways. They are intricately tied in a way that arbitrary lines cannot erase. In the mass of cement roadways and battered fast-food signs reaching over green treetops, you miss the Mississippi of southern charm, good, driven people, loyalty to family and tradition, and down-home BBQ.
Things that reminded me so much of him. Daddy was the hardworking, steady arm my family needed to survive. He was the callused hands, rough edges, and long days. He was also the meal for a friend who couldn’t afford one and the gumbo mix of friends and family who couldn’t quite make dinner work alone.
Déjà vu met me in the trees, waterways, and tattered houses hoping for love and care. So closely resembling those before that they could almost be swallow by Louisiana piece by piece and never once have it believed they don’t belong. I let it swallow the pieces of my dad I wasn’t ready to let go of yet and said goodbye to the rough around the edges, deeply proud man who’d loved and defended me my whole life.
Sometime later, whether minutes or hours I don’t recall, we met Petra outside of Tuscaloosa and made the exchange of boxes and bags from Ms. Colette’s car into hers. I gave Ms. Colette a hug and thanked her for everything – all the love and support she’d given over the years. For being willing to drive me eight hours when my family couldn’t. After we had the car packed, Petra and I drove off. Out of the dilapidated, middle-of-nowhere gas station, up the long, semi-paved road leading to it, and back to the interstate heading north.
Almost as soon as we crossed the Alabama-Georgia line, you could see a change in the surroundings. The highway rose higher and higher until all we could see before us was a combination of green and blue, tree and sky. It was as though you could just step out and walk across the floating green clouds and touch the sun.
The airy hopefulness of the peach state prompted me to say a silent goodbye to my youngest sister. Only in middle school, she had so much hope for life. Waves of bright green crashed around me, and I prayed for all the peaches in Georgia she could find a way to keep that hope alive.
Petra and I stopped at a few more gas stations along the way. We’d go to truck stops with dozens, if not hundreds, of giant tractor trailers lined up getting gas or breaking for food, bathroom, and a nap. The best part was the designs. It was like walking into a classic car show with all the flames, characters, and colors. Each truck a testament to the man or woman driving it. Sheila always wanted to own a cafe, but instead settled for bright red streaks showing she carried the best coffee on the interstate. Bart dreamed of building race cars, but needed to make money for his family so resolved to painting his truck in bright red with purple flames. When he went fast enough, he could almost feel the racer rumble in the back ground.
In Tennessee the mountains were a rollercoaster of ups and downs. There’s really no getting used to the constant popping in your ears or the breathtaking sea of green with strokes of red, mahogany, orange, and yellow beginning to peek through. I watched the walls of rock on either side of the highway climb higher and higher and couldn’t help but imagine what we’d do if suddenly the rocks began to slide. It’s at once awe-inspiring and jolting, the rugged and incredible landscape.
Streaks of black and dark blue went by and the night was empty and silent for a long time.
In these mountains, I found sorrys and good-byes for my sister, Jackie, and brother, John. They weren’t ready to face the world alone yet. I knew that. And, I couldn’t find the words to apologize for leaving them to it anyway. They deserved so much more than a boat-less push into swampy water. The rise and fall of the Tennessee mountains left me wishing, hoping they could somehow find a way to face the harshness and reach the beauty alone.
By the time we got to Kentucky it was night. I rode through the rolling hills staring out the window. Peering at the deep abyss receding up into the sea of blue and twinkles above. Even in the dark the Kentucky mountains felt different than the Tennessee. Somehow more open and relaxed.
Driving across interstate seventy-five, you could almost feel the mountain sigh as we rolled into Kentucky. I don’t know, maybe it was me sighing too, but as we crossed the Tennessee-Kentucky line, I felt something in me let go.
Sarah was my next goodbye. She was so much like me, but I knew she was tired, tired of fighting and tired of losing. I met the Kentucky hills with a request – help her make it through.
Streaks of black and dark blue went by and the night was empty and silent for a long time. The only disturbances were green markers telling us how many miles to the next town. I didn’t know if the mountains had heard my prayer, but as I looked into the night I felt a peace come over me.
Just thirteen hours earlier, I had been loading boxes and bags into Ms. Colette’s car and headed to meet Auntie Petra. Ten hours before that I was digging through drawers and trying to shove seventeen years into a few bags and boxes.
Only this morning I was kissing my mom goodbye with no idea when I’d see her again. Leaving my siblings and Dad with a farewell none of us were quite ready for and trusting they’d be okay anyway. Now, I was on the brink of a brand-new life. Here, in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains, unlike the flat, swampy home I’d known for the last seventeen years, I was starting anew. And, I wasn’t exactly sure how to feel about it.
Out of the window the cricket’s chirping broke the silence, and I heard it echo across the mountain. I took a deep breath to steady the excitement and nausea and found myself home.
Road to New is the third part in a trilogy of short memoirs from the southern state of Louisiana, by Jessica Ciccarelli.
Cover image: Kent Kanouse, Crossing the Atchafalaya on the E J Lionel Grizzaffi Bridge, via Flickr