I couldn’t quite make out the words “Penawawa Road” on the tiny green road sign, but I knew they were there. As sure as I knew the contours of the four fluffy Ash trees that marked the turn off. As sure as I knew the white pointed edge of the farmstead you see as you slow down heartbeat and all to make the blind turn across Highway 26.
“Penawawa Road” I mumbled with recognition. My husband didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. And I couldn’t blame him. I could almost guarantee those words had never been uttered in Italy before. Roughly twenty eight people had ever been on that road and they were all my relatives. Well make that 29 as some random stock photographer must have found himself there too at one point. I could almost hear his thoughts as he wiped the dust and sweat from his eyes. ”My God, this place looks just like Italy!” But there weren’t any vineyards or medieval hill towns. So he just threw it into the stock photo wind and Hertz grabbed it up for that exact reason no doubt. No details. But there were details and they were my details. And that’s when I just cracked up thinking to myself that out of all the holy places, out of all the churches and shrines and Buddhist temples I had visited over my lifetime I would come to believe in God standing in line for a rental car.
We had been in Venice celebrating our first year anniversary. Taking pictures of light flooded canals and plates of fish and markets and murky waters as I had at several periods in my life: at age 21 as a penniless student traveler tasting her first gelato, at 25 in a last ditch effort to save a dying romance, at 29 on a weekend adventure with friends. And now as a married woman with my Italian husband. What a crazy, good life I thought to myself stumbling across a somewhat familiar canal, chocolate gelato dripping down my arm.
But it was time to head down south to Rome .Our first driving adventure and my better half was busy signing the rental car papers. He handed me the Italian road map compliments of Hertz. And that’s when I saw it right on the cover. The trees my brother and I would wait eagerly to appear from the back seat of our Honda hatchback. The trees that meant the car was about to slow down and make that final turn to grandma’s farmhouse. The trees where later my mother would get out of the car and let me take the driver’s seat and taught me to drive a stick. There were strawberry patches and horses and cousins and my grandmother’s tanned arms down that road. Penawawa Road led to the farm where I spent the first five years of my life, where I dug holes and made fires and roasted random things on sticks. Where my cousins and I would sneak bottles of liquor out of the basement and drink out of ice filled tumblers, shingles of the roof scratching our bare legs with only a moon and an owl taking part in our pathetic teenage rebellion. This was indeed my road, God was sending me a message.
My husband was trying to speed things up while the heavily mascaraed woman behind the counter seemed amused by my little “Penawawa Road” chant. The words repeated over and over by an agitated American seemed odd I’m sure, but not unusual. Americans are always making strange noises in Italy. I continued and continued until the map with its cover image was flapping right up to her face. She glanced at it quickly and then at me. “Italia e bella” drizzled from her lips like honey. I tasted it but it wasn’t Italy I tasted. It was Eastern Washington.
There is only so much pointing and mumbling with glee one can do in a foreign country with people standing closely behind you in a rental car line. You can get away for it a bit longer in front of the Coliseum or San Marco’s Square or the Vatican but not in front of eager Italian families trying to drop off their keys. I asked for a small handful of maps, the mascara obliged. My husband grabbed our keys and we moved on ready to start our trip. But I didn’t forget. Not for one minute. I placed the map carefully on the dashboard with pride. And that road, and those words “Never Lost” stared back at me, my grandparents winking and waving from the porch.