Somewhere along the stretch of I-5 between Seattle and Corvallis, Oregon, there’s a sign marking the 45th Parallel. I crossed that line dozens of times during the two years I lived in Corvallis. It was of no true consequence to me; there’s no reason I would ever need to orient myself with that invisible band that wraps around the Earth.
A couple weeks ago, I made that familiar drive for the first time in almost ten years. I knew when to start looking for the sign, and I’ll admit I was proud of myself for not missing it.
This marker situates me not geographically, but within my own lifemap. It’s weighted down with a world of associations. Travels in Oregon are travels through my own writing landscape. Were I to alter the signage I pass on my trip between here and there, travelers would learn that Corvallis is the birthplace of story and character. This is where June and Binky Chastian were conceived. This is where Virgil Beadenbaugh founded his church, where Joe decided to go on without Mattie, where Miss Proserpine was seen.
My characters sat with me along that stretch of freeway in those years. They kept me awake on darkened drives, the volume of their voices drowning out whatever was on the radio. They spoke to me, and begged me to remember to pen what they were telling me. Sometimes their voices were so loud, and filled with such urgency, that I had to pull over and jot down what they’d said. Rest stops became spaces for release. When the words fell on the page, the voices quieted—at least for a few miles.
The miles passed quickly, as they do when you have someone riding along with you. On this most recent trip, I drove alone. No voices. Just a head full of memories. The way autumn sets into to the valley. The way geese glide overhead in familiar form. The way the farms lay fallow. The feeling of getting closer to one home and further from another. Adjusting. Succumbing.
I thought of how I almost lost my characters. How story faded and craft became unimportant. I thought of what kept me in Corvallis in spite of having lost my life. I thought of those who held me up, of nights of drinking and music screaming in my ears. The way the leaves had changed and fallen and I’d missed it all.
I drove past the new and the familiar and into a town that surprisingly felt like home. And, for the two days I was there, I celebrated at a reunion of voices, a gathering of characters who kindly met me in their hometown. Their cadence wrapped around me, warm as the arms of old friends, and when it was time, they piled in the car and, just like old times, kept me company for the journey home, across invisible lines that wrap around an earth I am still a part of.