Watching the news of Pope Francis’ visit to New York, I smiled, recalling my own recent visit to Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
The pope might have had a bigger turnout. But I could almost swear that I got more hugs. Don’t tell him I said that. I’d hate for him to feel slighted.
It’s always a treat to get to speak in my home state. I live in Las Vegas of all places. But I was born in North Carolina, grew up in South Carolina, and to me, both states are one — Carolina, a place I call home.
My column has appeared for years in the Winston-Salem Journal. I have no blood kin that I know of in the area. But the events at which I spoke recently and the warmth with which I was welcomed felt like a family reunion. Without the fistfights, of course.
I would have loved to stay longer but did not want to wear out my welcome. And my blood kin in South Carolina were expecting me to visit. So I got in an ugly red rental car to head south.
I ask you. What is there about me that makes rental car agents snicker to themselves deciding which Dukes of Hazzard-like vehicle to foist upon me? If you ever spot such a vehicle, please wave. I’ll probably be driving it.
To avoid traffic and big-rigs on Interstate 85, I asked Siri, my strange new phone friend, to direct me instead on back roads.
Boy, did she. Have you heard the term “pig trail”? More than a colorful expression, it’s a road, more or less, often frequented by slow-moving vehicles and occasionally, yes, pigs. I am not making this up.
First, Siri said to drive part way on Interstate 40, which wouldn’t have been bad if not for a major accident that slowed traffic to a crawl for miles. I don’t know how many miles. I lost track. When I got to the accident and saw a big-rig had crashed down an embankment, I quit being annoyed by the delay, felt lucky to be alive and said a prayer for the trucker and anyone else who might have been harmed.
Funny, isn’t it, how a little perspective can suddenly turn grumbling into gratitude?
Pretty soon, Siri told me to get off I-40 and start winding from the foothills into the mountains on old, two-lane, beautiful blue highways like the ones I knew as a child. My dad would drive 35 mph, one hand on the wheel, the other dangling a cigarette out the window. And I would sit beside him feeling happy.
I don’t smoke. But I rolled down the window of my ugly rental car, slowed to 35 and dangled out my arm.
It felt good. When I spotted a pig trotting down the road, I leaned out and yelled, “Git!”
Much to my surprise, it did.
I drove past rusty trailers where children played in the dirt, just as I used to do, and farmhouses where old people (about my age) sat on the porch drinking coffee or iced tea or beer.
Young and old, they all stopped to watch me go by — a strange woman in an ugly Dukes of Hazzard-like car with Florida license plates. And every one of them, God bless them, lifted a hand to greet me, as if to say, “Welcome home!”
I ask you. How on Earth did they know I was one of them?
Maybe they didn’t. But I did.
Hours later, I pulled into my sister’s driveway, happy as ever to be home once again.
Home is not a house or the town where you live or the country where you were born or the state where you grew up. It’s a place in your heart. You carry it with you wherever you go. You sense it in the eyes and hugs and lifted hands of people, young and old, who care about the same things you care about.
You find it, if you’re lucky, at the end of every journey, every step, every road you take.
I wonder. Do you think Pope Francis felt at home in New York?
I hope so.
But I still think I got more hugs.
Sharon Randall can be reached at P.O. Box 777394, Henderson, NV 89077, or on her website, sharonrandall.com.