Into the Wilderness

It took two phone calls and an email to get the lady to Arenzville. She’d lived in Jacksonville for I’m guessing most of her life, but on this fateful day she had to drive to my house and it was a major undertaking.  There’s an algebraic equation at work when people travel . . . the larger the town they live in, the more dangerous it becomes to leave that town.

I often have JHS students enroll in my Lincoln Land theatre class and the class is usually held at Triopia or in Arenzville.  While the “country” kids of Triopia think nothing of driving to Jacksonville three times a day, some of the Jacksonville students consider packing a suitcase when faced with the prospect of traveling outside the city limits.

I’ll admit that if you live out here in the hinterlands where electricity is still a novelty and we’ve only been peeing indoors for a couple of generations, you must travel some distance for nearly all your needs.  Our little towns have lost most of their business districts and therefore any shopping trip beyond a tank of gas and a cup of coffee pretty much calls for a drive “into town.” (Linguistic footnote: Even if you’re standing in the middle of Franklin, Chapin or Concord, driving “into town” still requires leaving town.)

I recently hired a Springfield actress to come do a performance for my classes. She wanted to come, we wanted her come, there was no lack of desire, but the prospect of driving that far out of Springfield had the poor lady in anguish. “Can I get home by dark?” she asked me. “Yes, you perform at 1:30 in the afternoon.” She paused, then, “So I can get home while there’s sunlight?” I said, “Unless you go through Afghanistan on the way home.”

I once hired an actress from Decatur to rehearse a play in Jacksonville. She wanted the part and could afford the gas, but the idea of traveling all those miles of empty interstate terrified her. “It’s the farthest I’ve gone without street lights,” she told me. “All those miles and miles of . . . well . . . nothing.” I don’t mean to cast a bad light on any of our neighboring cities, but driving down the darkened streets of Decatur is more terrifying than traveling through the farmlands of Illiopolis and New Berlin? Hello? I’ve lived around here all my life and have yet to read a headline proclaiming, “Waverly Taken Over By Gang Activity!” “Pisgah Destroyed by Black Plague!” or “Hordes of Vicious Wolf Packs Devour Murrayville!”  What is it about the countryside that so terrifies our city friends?

Okay, we have our share of nuts, numbskulls and weirdoes, but at last count Jacksonville has been holding up its designated quotient of those oddballs, too. Is it perhaps the very lack of danger that makes everything outside a city’s limits seem so dangerous? Is there something scary about silence? Is tranquility terrifying?

I have a friend whose family lives on the Arenzville-Concord road. He says that he’s always enjoyed his location but the only downside is that he’s sometimes awakened in the middle of the night by a nervous stranger with car trouble. I asked he if always helped them out. He looked at me like I had two heads. “Of course,” he said. “That’s why we’re here.” So much for the terror to be found along rural roads. Oh sure, sometimes bad things happen but in general they don’t.

I guess it all depends on what you’re used to. If you spend your whole life driving only three blocks for bread and milk and simply cruising around the block to buy gas, then an adventure outside the town’s limits might seem like a voyage to the moon.  Maybe we out here feel safer driving toward the city lights then our city friends do driving away from them. ‘Tis a pity. There’s much to be appreciated about driving a country road after dark. If you can somehow avoid the herds of roving Bambi’s then it can actually be quite a treat.

My friend Matt was born near Arenzville but has spent most of his life in Boston and on the West Coast. He returned recently and we were driving home from a Jacksonville restaurant when he asked if he could open my moon roof. I’d forgotten I had one, but said, “Heck yes.” Matt leaned back in his seat and looked up at exceptionally starry night sky. “I really miss this,” he said. We drove the rest of the way home in silence and were never once mugged, beaten or robbed. Miraculous.

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