An unnatural light flickered into the corner of my eye as I drove along the stretch of I-79 that runs between Charleston and Buckhannon in West Virginia. My car was rattling, glowing like a little cathedral, and the low fuel indicator burned orange and rectangular in the dark.
That length of I-79 must be one of the emptiest lines of asphalt in the country. You might expect to encounter such conditions on a tar road amidst the hollers, but to drive along a broad-backed Interstate corridor, seeing only the rarest of porch lights burning on the hillsides and nary a glimpse of any other vehicle, is not the Interstate travel experience you’d expect east of the Mississippi River. I don’t know a single person who has taken that stretch of highway and not also felt its desolation.
But there I was, alone, driving late at night from Charleston to Morgantown on the final leg of the annual trip I refer to as my Christmas Odyssey. Like Odysseus, I go in a massive, illogical circle. No matter where it begins, the journey takes me through Huntington, West Virginia; Jacksonville, Florida; and Nashville, Tennessee. On this particular Odyssey, I celebrated the 2007 New Year with high school friends in Nashville, stopped off for supper with more friends in Huntington, and was making my way back north to Morgantown for what would be my final semester of graduate school.
The meal in Huntington was really the last vestige of a long Christmas break. I only remember that we ate chicken soup and laughed like crazy. We must have been telling stories. We’d laughed so hard that after I had finally pulled myself away from the table and sat alone in the car, my cheeks hurt and my eyes stung with tears. Smiling and shivering with cold, I turned the key, cranked the heat, and plugged my iPod into the cassette player. The Subaru had less than a half tank of gas. No matter, I thought, plenty of places to stop before Charleston. My cell phone battery was almost completely depleted, but that didn’t matter either. For most of the trip, there’s no service.
I have driven along I-79 North to Morgantown more times than I care to count, and its emptiness always has a different effect. That night, I rejoiced in it. The moon was huge and full. Its silver glow seemed to be in and of the winter trees — actual breath from the mountains as my station wagon passed between them. Even though I was alone, I had everything I needed — a good half-dozen houses in points south that were open to me, a stomach full of peppery chicken soup. My attic apartment in Morgantown didn’t seem empty but rather a cozy place where I could finish my thesis and begin preparations for a job hunt.
I had music, too. At the beginning of Advent, I’d purchased a Robert Shaw Singers CD and become obsessed with the beauty of Morten Lauridsen’s arrangement of “O Magnum Mysterium” — Oh great mystery and wondrous sacrament that animals should see the newborn Lord lying in their manger. As I drove on amidst green and silver shadows, my car filled with inverted chords. The Latin crescendoed and layered over itself, tapering at last into the faintest alleluias. It was almost too beautiful to stand. I set my iPod on repeat and even switched the headlights off for long moments at a time. Moonlight and the great mystery pulled me along. I couldn’t see everything, but I could certainly see enough.
Whenever the fuel light switched on, I knew I had about 20 or 30 miles. Since I had been listening to music and reveling in the moonlight, I wasn’t certain exactly when the little bulb had come to life. At the same time, I was fairly sure that I wasn’t far from a big exit with lots of well-lit gas stations, so I zipped past one that had two stations with those yellowing, flickering lamps appropriate for the opening scenes of a slasher film. To my surprise, the next exit didn’t have any gas stations at all.
By that point, I had burned ten miles of fuel. According to a blank blue highway sign with only the word “Fuel” at the top, the third exit, several miles further along, had no stations either. I began to doubt where I was. When I saw an arrow pointing to a place called Frametown, I assumed a town would contain people who put fuel into vehicles and decided it was better to take the exit and hope for civilization than sputter to a halt late at night on an empty Interstate.
I took a left at the top of the ramp and traveled the two miles from I-79 to Frametown with one eye on my odometer and the other on my ever-dipping fuel gauge. The music was off, the satisfaction of soup and laughter and mystery waning. Hunched over the steering wheel, I willed a town and filling station to emerge from darkness. My relief at reaching Frametown, a long row of houses squeezed between mountains and the Elk River, was equaled only by my dismay at passing through it about twenty seconds later without seeing so much as a gas can. I continued on for another mile or so, hoping against hope, but there didn’t appear to be a gas station, and I was now alone on a two-lane highway between some mountains and a river with hardly any room for moonlight. My headlights illuminated the pavement just ahead of my wheels; I watched the yellow lines scroll along.
By then, my gauge was even with the bottom line of the letter “E.” It had never gone that low before. Abandoning any hope of finding gas, I took a U-turn and went back to Frametown. All around me, porch lights burned from darkened houses. Occasionally, lamps or the blue burn of a television screen emanated from a window. Every house had at least one car parked in a gravel drive or pulled into the yard. The drivers were inside. Home for the night, they were unaware of the nervous grad student sputtering past in the darkness. I felt sheepish and stupid. I had burned more gas looking for fuel and had no choice now but to head back to I-79 and hope that I was close enough to reach the exit with fuel despite my blunder.
It was then I realized that I was driving through a town. There were people mere feet from me on either side of the road. I considered knocking on a door, presenting myself as the foolish and vulnerable traveler that I was, and asking for directions, but I quickly dismissed the idea. Who does that any more? Seeking help from strangers would present me with more problems than being alone. Still, it was true that I needed to know the quickest route to a gas station, and I was surrounded by people who had the answer.
I drove slowly, trying to choose a house that appeared, from the outside at least, less likely than others to contain someone who would shoot me. After a while, I saw a white frame house next to a Methodist church with a Subaru Outback parked in the driveway. It seemed as good an option as any — perhaps it was the parsonage.
Frost was forming on the ground. I left footprints through it as I cut from the church parking lot across the yard. The winter air was complete in its silence, but I could hear the river, faintly. I climbed two steps onto a porch adorned with knickknacks and rapped lightly on the door. All the lights were out. I decided to knock once more, gently, and if they didn’t wake up, proceed back to I-79 and hope for the best.
My knuckles were poised when someone inside switched on a light, sending a yellow glow around the screen door. The front door opened, and there on the other side of the screen was an elderly woman in a nightshirt. Her thin, dark hair hung down to her shoulders. She smiled at me, mouth closed, mostly using her eyes. I smiled back, but my heart was pounding. I had made a mistake. I had woken them up. This was way too far outside social conventions. Travellers do not just knock on doors and ask for help.
“M’am, I’m sorry but I came off the Interstate looking for a gas station. Is there a gas station in this town? I’m about to run out. I’m not sure how much farther I can go.”
A man joined the woman, standing behind her on the thick brown carpet in their living room. He had gotten dressed and was tucking a plaid shirt into his jeans. He didn’t seem angry. If anything, they both seemed a little charmed by the situation.
“She’s about to run out of gas,” the woman said.
“Oh. Well, there’s a station just up the road. In Gassaway.”
I was smiling now, too. Not only was the name of the town appropriate, but it was the exit I had been looking for since I first noticed the fuel light.
“Do I have to go back to the Interstate to get there? I don’t know if I can make it that far.”
“Oh, no,” said the man. “You can get there from here.”
“It’s about eight miles,” said the woman. “Do you have enough gas for that?”
“I think so,” I said. Honestly, I had no idea, but a compunction not to cause any more trouble won out over worry. The woman, however, must have seen through my act.
“Do you have a cell phone?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“I’m going to write down our phone number,” she said as she turned towards another room. “Now, if you run out of gas, you just call, honey.”
She hobbled away, her bare feet gnarled and arthritic. Walking on her heels, she set off to retrieve a pen and the only scrap piece of paper she could find. Some time later, she returned with the cardboard stock a person might find at the bottom of a box of bows or gift tags. Still smiling, she wrote the phone number in shaky, blue ink and handed it to me.
“Now, you call. You call if you need us. And we’ll get you.”
“Yes, m’am. Thank you so much.”
There were days before low fuel lights and cell phones when travellers knocked on strangers’ doors and asked for help. By 2007, I was a rarity, but the couple and I swung into the same motion, the routine of seeking and providing assistance on a cold night. I took the card stock from the woman. We wished each other a happy new year and I crossed back through my own frosty footprints in the yard. As I looked back at the highway leading to the Interstate and turned my car in the opposite direction, I thought of the angels who warned the Magi to return home by a different way.
Since I was worried about having even eight miles left in my tank, the husband drove ahead of me in his pick-up until I reached the turnoff to Gassaway. He pulled over then, waved me on, and turned his truck toward home. I watched the highway and the fuel gauge. I gripped the card stock with the phone number. When, at last, the next bend in the road revealed a filling station, I pulled over under the glowing yellow awning and wanted to call everyone I knew to tell them that there, at the start of a year, I had knocked — and a door had been opened to me.
ERIN E. TOCKNELL grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, but she moved to Chattanooga when she realized it had both mountains and rivers, which are pretty much her favorite things. Her essay collection, Confederate Streets, was published by Benu Press in 2011, and her essays have appeared in the Tampa Review and The Southern Review. Most of her essays are explorations of place and its influence on people. Erin teaches at The McCallie School and lives on campus with her intrepid fox terrier, Winston.