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Been Thinkin' About...Those ribbon road skies

The blue sky wind was from the north in southern Missouri, brisk, chilly, sunny, necessitating black coffee and making me wish, briefly, for a jacket. I've been fooled by the temperatures before, driving from Branson to Springfield. Our Arkansas latitude is often deceptively warmer, making Interstate 44 a kind of magic line, separating atmospheres, ragged southern mountains to the south while great Midwestern skies soar toward the north and unseen northern stars.


"High pressure front coming down from Canada," said the weatherman. And tonight, social media posts of the northern lights extending unusually far into the south dominate. Aurora, the Greek goddess of the dawn. Boreas, the Greek god of the north. Our archetypes and mythologies are not as far-removed as we might think.


Driving. I am driving and will be driving most of the day. Roads are funny things, connecting things, delivering things, crisscrossing things. Roads may have connected the Roman Empire but they defined the American myth. Missouri — and the Missouri Ozarks — are crossed by perhaps the most iconic ribbon road of all. Europe and Asia can have the Orient Express. The USA has Route 66, the Mother Road.


It's just a lot of old pavement, you know. A lot of old pavement overlooked perhaps most by those who live near it. Just another road, and God knows we have plenty of those. Nothing magic, nothing potent, nothing worth remembering. Tell that to the thousands of foreign tourists, European roadies, taking a few weeks or a whole summer to savor the American myth, to somehow touch something inexpressible. "The road takes you someplace," says Jeremy Morris of the Boots Court Motel in Carthage (and also of the Red Oak II village as well as attraction). "The road takes you to the people. People who are larger than life, anti-celebrity celebrities."


There is grit here, here on the road, grit and magic. There are oaks growing from within the limestone cathedral of an abandoned general store? Or was it a casket factory? The place is forgotten and vacant, empty castle-like windows facing the ever-present passage of time. Sun, moon, birds and endless traffic. Few drivers stop at this crossroads. Crossroads are, of course, magic spaces, the space between, the space where pacts are made at midnight. At midnight here, of course, the aurora borealis will light up the night but for now, just an occasional car flies past, headed someplace other than here. A turtle pokes his head from the orchard grass in the grader ditch. Poison ivy will grow tall here this summer. The road goes on.


There will be gravely-voiced George at the Sinclair station, quiet and hospitable Phyllis of the Rockwood Motor Court, and sky divers with bright parachutes diving from a clear blue sky to green fields and plates of fresh, bright strawberry pie at the Hanger Cafe. There's haunted Avilla with stories of Rotten Johnny Reb the headless bushwhacker, and a dark riverine cave on the very tail-edge-end of the Kansas Ozarks, a place where crystal quartz limestone overlooks fast-flowing Spring River. The great plains of Kansas beckon from beyond the west.


This is the American dream. It can't be faked, even as it's being made up. It can't be bought or sold, even as it is undergirded by commerce. It's larger-than-life, even as it's overlooked. It's a thousand-times-a-thousand stories and souls lost to time but strangely remembered in song or photo or painting, gilded and glazed and then forgotten in the back of a highway flea market. Heady stuff indeed, reminding us that civilization, even empire, somehow finds us all. But through the headlines, the history pages, even the thick, bland marketing schtick, the thing that really matters, the thing that really hits home, is the impossible-to-define individuality of the human spirit, irascible, tenuous, hopeful, forever doubting, forever fighting for something, forever beneath those everlasting ribbon road skies.

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