For the past few years, I have essentially worked as a roving curator seeking out new artists and projects for Institute 193 and occasionally finding time for my personal work. I am on the road constantly: crisscrossing the Southern United States, meeting people, visiting artists, and making pictures. Things happen along the way.
This past fall, I was driving from Atlanta to Dallas, a short twelve-hour jaunt, to deliver some paintings. Around sunset, I pulled over to photograph a roadside memorial near Cuba, Alabama. I had been talking to my mother at the time (I know, distracted driving) and our heated, but lovely, conversation had made it slightly more difficult to slow the car down while crossing multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic. As a result, I was much farther away from my subject than usual. I hung up the phone, jumped out of the car, and zig-zagged through one hundred yards of un-mowed wet grass and weeds to the wooden cross. I typically run along the highway shoulder, but it was narrow; the sun was setting; and one of my obvious but unstated artistic goals of my project is to NOT become the subject of a roadside memorial. The irony would be too much for me to posthumously suffer.
After a long slough through the mud and weeds, I bent down and took the picture. I ran back to the car, tossed my camera onto the passenger seat, put my foot on the brake, and watched a small light on my dash flash the words: NO KEY FOUND. And that is precisely the moment when things got interesting.
I retraced my steps slowly, then quickly. I created a grid and walked back and forth from the cross to the car, the car to the cross in some strangely modern Calvary scene. I tried closing my eyes and intuitively retracing my steps from the car, and then retracing those increasingly muddy and confused steps with my eyes open. It was getting darker by the minute. I called a tow truck. They didn’t show up. I called another service. No one answered. I called my girlfriend in Atlanta, but she couldn’t find a spare key, and driving to Cuba, Alabama in the middle of the night with her two young daughters didn’t seem like a great idea. I continued looking for the keys, now on my hands and knees using my phone’s flashlight, in rural Alabama darkness. Then my phone died.
(For you pragmatists, I should also mention that abandoning the car loaded with expensive paintings was not an option since I could not lock it – you MUST have the key to do that.)
As luck would have it, my mother had bought me one of those ridiculous Justin Case emergency kits. You know, just in case, you lose your keys on the side of the road while photographing roadside crosses or anything else buried in the un-mowed drainage ditch of your local highway. It had a very small LED flashlight that, as it turns out, fits perfectly between your teeth. I crawled around in the mud and thick grass for another two or three hours with the light in my mouth. It was quiet save for the gigantic rumble of the occasional passing semi-truck. Sometime around midnight, I began to plead with God, “If you help me find these keys, I promise to do this, to be better at this, to not do this, etc.” The same thing one does, I assume, when the plane is crashing. But God seemed pretty uninterested in my plight. I sat at the foot of the small cross and cried.
After a brief obligatory breakdown, I decided to try one last ditch effort and crawled with my eyes closed through the grass, feeling my way through my steps. After a few passes, I felt my pinky graze a small metal ring sticking out of the mud. I must have stepped on them several times, because the keys were buried except for half of the small metal ring. I have never felt such extreme joy and sorrow in such proximity. After a brief, but fervent, end-zone style celebration (think: Icky Shuffle by a Bengals-obsessed seventh grader), I jumped in the car and drove straight to the Waffle House in Meridian, Mississippi and ordered cheesy eggs, sausage, and a plate of hash-browns (smothered and covered).
My waitress was named Ashley. She looked about 17 years old and was skinny in an awkward, adolescent way. She was having a rough night in a rough place – the whole restaurant was full of drunk, hillbilly hip-hop night club types. Strangely, no one seemed to notice me: covered head to toe in mud, grass, and those little sticky seeds that only grow on plants alongside the highway in Alabama. After a most-satisfying meal, I tipped her twenty dollars on an eight-dollar check, and she ran out into the parking lot and gave me a hug and said it was the nicest thing anyone had done for her.
That night was the closest thing to a religious experience I have ever had. Sitting in the mud on the side of the road with no phone and no car. Just me, the semi-trucks, and the stars. I think Christ said something to Nicodemus about being re-born. I don’t really believe in any of that stuff, but being “reborn” after being broken down feels pretty good.
Contributed by Phillip March Jones.