Illustration by Christa Allen
Gamut Illustration June 2015
There’s a road in the area I grew up in known as Devil’s Backbone. It’s not local vernacular, a nickname given to an otherwise banal roadway appearing on maps as “Oak” or “Henderson.” If you lived on this stretch of concrete, your magazines, bills and birthday cards would arrive with the words “Devil’s Backbone” scrawled on the outside envelope.
I don’t know historic details about this roadway of sinister nomenclature beyond the fact that a fictionalized version of it appeared in Airborne, a 1993 rollerblading movie you’ve likely never seen. My dad, a deliveryman who maneuvered a box truck along the lanes for decades, tells me Devil’s Backbone stretches about 2 miles and half of its addresses were erased in a devastating tornado in 1974. He also tells me that, curiously enough, the road “isn’t very windy.”
The name pops up in other states, such as Virginia and South Carolina, with a particularly frightening iteration, Devil’s Hollow, twisting through a pocket of central Kentucky. I hope to one day find myself in a situation where it’s revealed to me why Satan’s spine first inspired road namers, but for now I’m satisfied by my personal history with Devil’s Backbone.
As I child, I helped cut and load a tree that stood in the front yard of a Devil’s Backbone property. The owner was probably someone on my dad’s delivery route, and I’m sure my family burned the salvaged wood in our living room’s red brick fireplace. These details, though surely integral to a good story, are insignificant to my memory—what I remember, quite clearly, is my grandpa’s beat-up old pickup truck, me sitting between father and grandfather on the worn, warm vinyl of the bench seat. I remember the trebly whine of country music on AM radio, the increasingly pungent smell of two and a half men, sopping with sweat, filling the pickup’s cab as we made however many trips across the Ohio River carrying truck beds piled high with thick, heavy oak plugs. I remember feeling like a man, an adolescent certainty that trumps mine now at 38.
Roads are like that. They carry us as we rush toward memorable moments, and they usher our minds back through time as we revisit and recount the past. So much of my personal nostalgia traverses along roads, my memories mapping a country that exists only for me. The street where a little, white dog menaced me to actual nausea, and the adjacent pavement where, years later, I faced down a looming mastiff and emerged the victor. A small town boulevard where my family and I watched local luminaries float by in creeping Cadillacs, standard fare for a Fourth of July parade but a touch point in time I close my eyes and revisit at will. The long and winding country lane I used to travel along late at night after disappointing evenings with a past love, listening to Jack Kerouac rattle beat poetry that made ‘90s Kentucky feel like ‘60s San Francisco for as long as the engine stayed alive. That inner-city avenue where my wife and I witnessed a troubling accident then, later in the day, discovered we were pregnant with our eldest child.
I used to walk to work along a specific route in Kent, my boots shuffling over grass-cracked sidewalks, dim morning mind barely registering the shuttered businesses brushing my right shoulder. This particular section of space is gone, crumbling brownstones replaced by shiny buildings infinitely more profitable, but I’m gone too, and I took that timeworn alleyway with me. A slow blink, quick meditation—the road’s still there, ready for a sepia-toned stroll whenever I need it.
The roads I travel now are different from the suburban cul-de-sacs and congested city throughways I’ve known my whole life. I routinely travel along claustrophobic, single lane asphalt on trips that present at least one unintentional game of chicken every time. The route I take to the grocery store involves a U.S. Numbered highway composed almost entirely of twists, turns and intimidating curves that claim SUVs regularly. This road follows a crooked creek bed and, on a map, appears something drawn by a toddler. If Beelzebub has a menacing lumbar region, I’ll bet it looks a lot like this.
This improbably windy road that makes our tires sing an anxious song is my home. It may seem like just another treacherous A to B as I race through this twist, that curve, but each turn of the steering wheel adds another inch to a map I’ll study in later years. Long after the state has drawn a handful of pencil-straight lanes over the route, after self-automated hover cars make roads seem silly and outdated, when my worn, wrinkled body sits in a retirement village overlooking one of Mars’ reclaimed oceans...then I’ll close my eyes and remember the series of curves that reliably turned my youngest son’s face a pallid white, the shocking view of autumn covering trees with her finest quilt, that time a herd of cattle overtook the road and all we could do was wait and laugh.
Time is a road that races along the demon’s back, life really is a highway, and I’m doing my best to not take the curves too fast.
/ Rodney Wilson is either a pig farmer who writes or a writer who farms pigs. Either way, he’s got a freezer full of bacon and a finished manuscript, and he’s trying to sell both.