Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Shifting Home

I could teach you to drive a standard, but we’d have to do it at home. It’s not too hard, it’s the feel you’ll get, easing off, pushing down, “like a piano” my dad told me.
If you learned at home, I could tell you which gear to shift into at each point.

Neutral at the stop light on 220. First as the light greens, second rounding the turn on Catawba Road, third at the Antique dealer, fourth at the Daleville Swim Club, fifth by the pond with the fountain.
Traveling down Catawba Road you’ll pass houses, subdivisions replacing apple orchards blossoms and some old farm estates. Don’t be too bothered by all of that it’s Tinker Mountain to your left you should check out. Watch the road though! The speed limit is 45mph; I’d go 60, but you’re just learning.
See that space on the ridge between the metal telephone pole and downward slope? That’s where my cross country team would stumble over briars, rocks, and dead leaves to get up the mountain. That climb is tough, but at the top is the Appalachian Trail, and once you hit that, it’s smooth ridge running. We always stop and climb Hay Rock. Look, you can see its silhouette from the road. Perched on top of that rock Carvin’s Cove, the city’s reservoir, sparkles to one side, and Botetourt County stretches out to the other.
But we’re not running right now, so watch your speed.
Shift to neutral as we pass the Jamestown subdivision sign, coast down this hill. After that tractor crossing sign shift into third for our turn on to Etzler Road.
This used to be marshier than it is on our right, with lots of cattails. With windows and radio down on warm nights the spring peepers were deafening. Shift to fourth. Since the county built Greenfield Elementary the peepers are quieter, but still there. There’s the school, shift to fifth.
Cresting the top of this hill, pop to neutral. This is part of the reason manuals are more fuel efficient than automatics, a definite plus in driving one. You know it’s illegal to drive in neutral, but my Dad does it all the time, so I figure I can too. Besides, these rolling hills aren’t big enough to wear down your brakes so lower gears can be bypassed. Don’t break down this hill, that’s for pansies and outsiders; drive like you belong here.
Shift back to fifth as we lose momentum from the hill. Check out the cows on our left, Greenfield soccer fields and running trails on our right.
My cross country team practiced there right after the county turned the former hunting ground to parks, fields, lake, and bird sanctuary. We would indian run down the gravel roads to the water tower, abandoned cabin, and unfinished soccer fields. There’s an actual mown runner and horse trail now; I can’t imagine doing indian runs on that. It’s slanted, bumpy, holey ground. My dad practiced on it to shape up for the Fincastle 5K and overstressed his knee from the constant slope; the doctor told him after physical therapy he still wouldn’t be healed for the race. That fall he walked the race.
Speed up to pop over this hill where the Dal Nita Hills subdivision entrance is. We’re one mile from the house now. Neutral down the other side. Fifth where the road curves right, but slow down, this curve surprises you, it’s the worst one on our road, stay in your lane.
Coming up on our left is the old Etzler place. Bethany and I call that tree the Elephant Tree. We would sit on the head, climb up the trunk and pour Pepsi on ants. “We can pour Pepsi,” Bethany would say, “but if we had Coke we wouldn’t waste a drop.” I never shared her enthusiasm for Coca-Cola Brand products, but she was a zealot.
See that picnic shelter down the creek from the tree? We used to have Etzler Road picnics there every summer. The whole road plus some Dal Nita Hills residents would bring their pot-luck dishes for the feast. Bethany and I would scout the creek with the other kids for crawdads, but we always like the snails better.
That’s the old Etzler house across the fence from the shelter. I think Mrs. Etzler is either dead or in the nursing home now; we haven’t had a picnic since 1997.
After those fields and the pond on our left is Wood Ridge, an older subdivision with a more country road feel. It marks the last stretch of road before the house. I like to go as fast as I can, pick a point and shift into neutral. With enough patience that can coast you all the way home.
Bethany and I used to play Barbies in the bamboo forest on the left. We’d slide through the dense stalks over to the creek in our private play world. That’s her house just past it, and there, on the right, is mine.
Not the gravel driveway, but the paved. The gravel one is Mr. Etzler’s third house. He has one exactly like it on Smith Mountain Lake. Seven acres of wetlands and woods that my collie and I used to run through turned into a driveway and a third house. But he owns the road and the land, so I guess we have to accept the development. I thought about monkey wrenching around the construction my first few times home from college when I saw the abomination, and never quite got around to it. I did however give the soil and erosion inspector from the county all the information I knew about my new neighbor’s building project when he came to the house asking. It seems when you own the road, you don’t consult about the wetland you’re covering with your driveway.

I walked through my childhood woods last Christmas. I had meandered back the hills to a cow pasture and was following the route of my past for the quickest way home. Remembering.
A cherry tree heralded the entrance to the woods after crossing the fringe of the pasture. Snaking through the leaves and branches led to a fallen tree; I called it my balance beam. In the spring there would be blankets of Mayapples, we called them umbrella plants, and I would test my cat-like skills here, checking through the seasons for the white blossoms, and apples of the shin-height umbrellas.
Then there’s the fork-trunked fallen tree; I called that my bunk bed. When I could sneak Bethany into my play world one of us would take the top trunk, the other the bottom, and lay there intent on napping. It’s just down the ravine from the tree stand my dad and cousin built.
The thing about tree stands when you’re little is that learning to climb up doesn’t necessarily mean knowing how to climb down. My first time up there I got stuck, had to go to the bathroom off the side of it, and eventually was coaxed down by my cousin. Thankfully, to a seven year old not much is embarrassing. It wasn’t long before I mastered climbing up and down the giant nails.
I used to rummage the woods for antiques. A barrel washing machine I found on its side near the tree stand initially inspired it. I found sheets of metal, parts of cars, maybe. I usually didn’t know what my treasures were, but collected them nonetheless, creating a little pile by the tree stand. I kept a keen look out for the elves in these woods, occasionally catching fleeting glimpses of one in a tree.

It was weird, you know, seeing all of that as someone’s front yard.

Second into the paved driveway, down over the creek. Curve right around the cedar, it marks the half way point in the driveway. Shift to first for this last big hill and pull under the basketball goal.
Press in the clutch, shift to second. Pull the parking break, keeping the clutch in. Turn the key and pull it out of the ignition.
You need some more practice, but good job for today.
Like a piano remember? And sort of like dancing; Dad wouldn’t have said that to me, because he doesn’t dance. But the whole shift and weight change, that’s what you’re really doing. Ballroom dance shifting from one foot slowly to the other; bend and send, clutch and gas.

I wonder if learning to drive a standard is an improvement. I wonder if we’re better off for growing up, living in, returning to dynamic places. I think in the end we’re just trying to find some comfort and belonging. Whether it’s achieved by living in a subdivision with a remnant apple tree from the orchard, living in a third cookie cutter house to your second, or nestled on the bottom bunk of a fallen tree, we search for it.
And maybe, learning to shift like you belong here is what it will take to coast you all the way home.

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