Trees line both sides of the old highway that meanders between the town of Cumming and the small city of Gainesville. Lake Lanier’s many fingers reach out to fill the space in between the two communities and the road is named for the largest of the three bridges that make the drive possible. The glimpses of the lake itself vary depending on the season and the zeal of the crew tasked with keeping the shoulder clear. Throughout the winter when I start my drive in darkness I am sometimes rewarded by the site of the sun rising on the other side of the lake, the colors of the sky reflected across the water, sometimes still, sometimes rippling in swatches of rose, peach and coral. After the second bridge the road cuts quite close to the lake and there is a break long enough in the trees for more than a just a glance of the water. A small cove opens up into the larger body of the lake and a small island of trees sits there. On foggy days the mist seems to rise up off the lake and swirl around this little island and seem to offer the possibility of Celtic mystery or magic.
Even on the most breathtakingly beautiful mornings and afternoons not all the views I see on my commute are classically picturesque. I pass many squat structures marooned in dark empty fields of asphalt that spark no curiosity. I have no desire to stop at the brightly lit squares full of convenience or even to visit the stately lake homes with their promise of comfort and repose. However on this stretch of road there are many abandoned structures, old homes and businesses that have already resigned themselves to the passage of time. These places call to me, tempt me to pull over and spend time gazing into their dark windows, craning for just a hint of what secrets might be hidden within.
I tell myself that one day I will make the drive leisurely, leave the house or office with time to spare. I think of how nice it would be to pull over and really absorb the scenes I just steal glances at every day. A few of the views even seem to warrant bringing a camera or sketchbook along to try and capture the unique pull of these places I pass so often. I have been driving this road twice a day, five days a week for six months now and I have yet to feel bored by it. I like my commute. I appreciate my listening options as much as the views. The books I don’t have time to read, sermons, lectures and other programs are available to listen to as I drive. When the words become especially compelling the landscape returns to its role as background, but sometimes the scene I am moving through is louder than what comes through my earbuds.
The most memorable example of this was a Friday when I was driving home listening to a lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls and watching the clouds. It was towards the end of February, a warm day that stood out, sandwiched between so many frigid ones. The clouds were especially dramatic that day. Dark masses of thick clouds roiled about the sky on both sides, but to the left the sun was streaming down from behind them in distinct rays that seemed to belong in a fresco or alter board. As I crossed the second bridge I thought to myself that it is no wonder that since ancient times we have looked up at the sky and seen heaven there; that of course most people’s traditions tell of battles in the sky. The struggle between light and darkness is immense and shown to us everyday, writ large across the sky.
It was not quite sunset but the light was changing and a breeze seemed to have come up. Bright hues of blue stood out in patches around the masses of cloud, the dark ones gathering stronger on one side while the light continued to pour through others causing them to glow. As my car left the bridge and started down the hill the scene before my eyes did not change, but my perception of it did. Everything became more vivid. I got a sense of vertigo as the saturation of everything intensified and the sky seemed to grow larger. What had seemed like casual observations of the sky seemed full of deep and important meaning. Though I could not have been staring at the sky for more than a second, I startled myself with the realization that I was driving a car and needed to focus on staying in my lane. When I looked back at the road it seemed to warp away from me at a strange angle, the curves and hills more pronounced, deeper. In that moment it seemed possible that my car and I could fall off the road and into the sky. I felt breathless and a bit nauseous as I gripped the steering wheel more tightly and continued on my way. I did not want to keep looking at the sky but I did not want to stop looking either. The thought occurred to me that I should pull over. I do not know if it was fear or the responsibilities waiting for me at the end of my drive that kept me in the car, mainly looking at the road, only stealing quick glances back at the sky the rest of the way home.
The vertigo went away and my breathing returned to normal before I got to my daughter’s school. But even while preparing and eating dinner I was a bit queasy. Though my surroundings and actions were all the same as they are every evening, nothing felt routine. The air was prickly, the colors too rich, sounds too loud,even ominous. After dinner I went out on the front porch and sat and felt the night. My skin tingled. The neighbor’s windchimes, a dog’s bark, the leaves rustling in the yard, all raised goosebumps along my arms. Anticipation engulfed me. It is an inelegant comparison but the sensation was almost identical to watching and waiting for hallucinations to begin after ingesting a drug to provoke them. There is certainty that something is about happen with no assurance of what form it will take. I do not think any dramatic news would have surprised me that night.
It has been several weeks since that experience. I continue to drive back and forth across the old highway and its bridges twice a day, five days a week. I am still not bored with the views.The moments of breath taking beauty in the sky still make me smile and whisper prayers of appreciation. The buildings in decay still awaken my curiosity. I even still think about which of them I would most like to try and draw or paint, but it all seems dimmed somehow by the moments of vividness. The clouds and roads and trees I saw that afternoon are the same ones I see everyday, yet I feel like I was given a chance to see through a window to something different. When I look up at the sky now there is an added combination of fear and hopeful expectation. I do not know if I am more scared that it will happen again or that it won’t.