When I crossed the Mississippi River at St. Louis, it felt like I’d officially re-entered the “East” and that I had also entered a magnetic force field pulling me closer and increasingly faster to my North Carolina home. For the first time, I could reliably predict when I’d be arriving home. Furthermore, El Guapo mysteriously started to limp. Though I couldn’t find and scars or trauma to his back paw beyond some swelling, he wouldn’t put any weight on it. So I didn’t consider any prolonged stops or extended exploration away from the car. It felt good that my pace was quickening toward home, but I still maintained my travel ethics by sticking to state highways rather than the interstate, and trying not to hurry too much.
I did still have a planned stop for this route home. I stopped for a night and morning in French Lick, Indiana to visit one of my favorite schools (and teachers) that I’ve worked with the last 5 years. They have already filled up their trip for March 2016, so there wasn’t much need for me to “promote” the trip, but I spoke with several classes about the trip and travel in general. As I looked into their small town faces and talked about visiting distant places, it often seemed I was talking over their heads. I thought of my Chelsea, OK upbringing and how there was little evidence that I would become a world traveler. I told them I didn’t come from a family with money or status, but that doors opened for me and they’ll have more doors of opportunity than I did when I was their age. I maintain that “curiosity” is the most valuable resource to grow up with. I also talked about my current road trip, and encouraged them to be curious about their own small town, and not to become too enamored with famous cities and famous names. Look for the local stories to tell.
Along with avoiding the interstates, I also largely avoided chain restaurants, but on my last day of travel, I made exceptions. During the summer, I’m a huge fan of “smushies” (My term to categorize a blended ice and fruit drink that could range from real fruit smoothies to synthetically flavored slushies). I am particularly a fan of Sonic’s 2-4pm happy hour fruit slushes, and thought I would make frequent stops during my road trip. But there’s not a lot of Sonics out west, or I never hit them at the right hour, yet I found one in Kentucky and indulged myself. Further down the road, I grabbed dinner at KFC in Corbin, KY. This was the location of the very first Kentucky Fried Chicken, so it was more of a “history” stop than a fast food stop. Even though it’s a global franchise now, its beginning is the story of an entrepreneurial individual who just tried to satisfy the roadside needs and tastes of long distance travelers. Way to go Colonel, nice to see your humble roots in Kentucky, though not so nice to see your branches in Colombia and Kosovo.
As I continued East for the final stretch, I passed in reverse direction a number of landmarks highlighting our nation’s Westward expansion. There was of course St. Louis’s Gateway Arch marking the entry into the Louisiana Purchase. Then later on the Wabash River at Vincennes, Indiana a memorial marked where the Americans captured a British fort during the Revolutionary War, and thus ensured that the Ohio valley up to the Great Lakes would be claimed and settled by the new USA. And when I finally started to reach the forested hills of the Appalachians, I stopped at Cumberland Gap Historic Site, which has some personal significance for me. It is almost certainly the route that my great-great-great grandfather Joseph Mosteller passed nearly 200 years ago when a branch of the Mosteller family left North Carolina for opportunities in the West, eventually settling in Indiana and beyond. In my genealogy research, I have the contents of a letter that was written at the onset of the Civil War from one of the “westward” Mostellers to the kinfolk back East. It says that he hadn’t heard from any of the eastern Mostellers in years. It gives a rundown of recent births and deaths. It says it would be good to see each other, but that he doubted he ever would make it back. It is likely the last attempt at communication between the family lines diverging with time and oncoming war. Joseph likely never did return to the East, and his offspring spread even further West, but I wonder when he reached the crest of Cumberland Gap, if he stopped to look back East and ponder that among his descendants years and years hence, there would be one, born in the remote West who would backtrack in his footsteps and return to home in North Carolina.