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Road trip

Seen and heard on a summer road trip -- 6,000 miles across America and back:

Brown prairie expanses dotted with patches of green. Within each patch is a brick school building, a steeple reaching above all the other rooftops, and on the perimeter, grain silos, skyscrapers of the prairie.

On the radio, a 14-year-old evangelist whips the congregation into a tearful whirlpool of repentance.

Roadside signs: "One Kansas farmer feeds 92 people."

On the Kansas/Illinois border, the Tiger Tee Driving Range, a white-haired man in a John Deere cap and overalls drives a bucket of balls.

Turnoffs for Mexico, Brazil, Paris, South Vienna, London, New Rome and Scotland -- all across the central Midwestern states.

Nostalgiaville, USA, central Missouri. A huge aluminum warehouse with a long front porch sporting a row of oak rocking chairs and fake hitching posts. Inside, souvenirs made of corncobs. The industrial-sized bathrooms are decorated in gingham and bows.

Rhode Island and Connecticut. Villages with signs announcing incorporation dates of 1786, 1782, 1789. Roadside Coney stands with neon signs in primary colors flashing "Hot Wieners."

Spray-painted overpass graffiti, Pennsylvania: "I love mad cow burgers."

Roadkill. Dead deer, one with its head cut off, on the side of the Pennsylvania Turnpike as bumper-to-bumper traffic inches ahead. Boats grounded on the side of the road, filled with rainwater, dumped from trailers around Scranton, Pa.

Lyrical place names from the upper Shenandoah to southern Appalachians in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee: Lords Valley, Blooming Grove, Promised Land, Falling Waters, the Misty Mountain Motel, Sapling Ridge Road, Meadow Rue Lane, Forgotten Lane, Poorhouse Road, Wingspread Road, Hidden Hillside, Old Jonas Lane, Bear Wallow Road, Old Washboard Road, Bobwhite Trail.

Walton's Mountain Country Store in central Virginia. For lease. The clerk discusses her divorce over the telephone as she rings up my John Boy postcards.

Best country music radio station: WSLC AM 610, Classic Country from Roanoke, Va. Freddy Fender, Merle Haggard, Charlie Rich and Roy Orbison in the same half-hour.

Between tiny towns in the Appalachians, metal and asphalt shopping pods where one can buy a satellite dish, stereo or television; a prefab home; a suntan. Signs rise over them with economical names: Video Tan, Movie Tan.

Small towns in Tennessee and Mississippi, generally run down but the banks and medical centers are shiny and new, and the funeral homes are built to look like miniature antebellum mansions -- red brick with white columns, long front porches with lacy black cast-iron chairs.

Everywhere: grocery stores and supermarkets called "savings center" and "food outlet."

Billboard just west of the Mississippi River: "Prepare to meet thy God." -- Amos 4:12.

In Arkansas, mist rising from the road. Air so thick with moisture it is tinted green. Soft-edged trees and hills.

In eastern Oklahoma, billboards announcing a free 72-oz. steak for anyone who can eat it in an hour, at the Big Texan steak house in Amarillo, more than 500 miles away.

Rest stops with concrete and steel picnic shelters shaped like teepees.

White cattle egrets perched in the limbs of trees overhanging central Oklahoma ponds. White egrets sitting atop a bored steer's wide back.

The Largest Cross in the Western Hemisphere, at exit 122 off I-40 near Groom, Texas. A 190-foot-tall column of concrete and steel, covered with aluminum siding. The gatekeeper, a lovely blue-eyed man in a straw hat tells me last night's winds reached 110 miles an hour and the cross was "rockin' and rollin'." I ask if he was scared. "Never prayed so hard in my life," he replies.

In New Mexico and southern Colorado, clouds as white as bleached bone boiling upward from behind stark mountain backdrops. Landscapes with sharp orange edges. A sign announcing: "Next rest stop, 32 miles." A sign announcing: "Next rest stop, 70 miles."

Everywhere: Kind folks who question the wisdom of a woman traveling alone, but generously offer directions, suggestions, assistance. At every juncture, something familiar, something mysterious, something old, something new. Around every corner, intimations of home.

-- Written and observed in 1996. Reprinted in anticipation of this year's holiday road trip to Galveston. Happy holidays to all.

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