Far Beyond the Country Road
Our minds are passports to past places and feelings. Without much effort, for example, I can be in the backseat of my dad’s old car. The seats are a velour-like fabric in the same pale oatmeal shade as the rest of the interior. I am little- four, maybe five- and strapped into a car seat. The air smells faintly of the DOTS candy hidden in the glovebox; if I am lucky, I might get one before the ride is over. The rest of the backseat is covered in the pages of well-worn maps of places I can’t pronounce. A John Denver live album CD is playing.
The soundtrack of my childhood is brief: at various period of my youth, my family rotated between a Les Misérables cast recording, Reba McEntire’s Duets album, and John. I still enjoy Reba’s duets and can sing the Les Mis soundtrack backwards, but John Denver is the only musician who inevitably transport me back in time. It certainly helps that so much of his music is about ‘home’- leaving home, coming home, missing home. It’s the potent theme behind several of Denver’s biggest hits, to the point that individuals who have never crossed the border into West Virginia will croon about the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River when “Country Roads” plays. The song might be rooted in a specific location, but everyone knows the longing euphoria of going back to where you came from.
Over the past several months, I’ve found myself drawn to the melancholy that underscores even his most upbeat songs. At twenty years old, I am struggling to reconcile how my home looks very different than it did when I was four or five. The oatmeal-colored car, for example, is long gone. I am trying to navigate my adult relationship with my parents, and people I assumed would always be in my life are no longer in the picture. In fact, I can’t even find my own “country road” anymore, because Google Maps recognizes the college campus where I spend most of the year as “home.” I resent this, because it feels like the universe is telling me to be an adult when I do not know what that means yet.
One of my favorite John Denver songs is “Wild Montana Skies,” which tells the story of a man born in the Bitterroot Valley. He lives an unextraordinary life, but it’s a punch in the gut when he dies at the end of the song; in just a few minutes, the listener becomes very attached to the solitary man living off the land of the same prairie where he was born. The song highlights Denver’s acute sense of how small we are and how fleeting time is, and yet how these realities only make the present more beautiful. By reminding me of the power of happy memories and the potential of what is to come, listening to John Denver’s music helps soothe the inevitable sting of growing up.
It’s true that nothing lasts forever. Country roads become highways. Cell towers blight the Montana horizon. We grow up, and our homes change. It can be a crushing to realize that childhood memories are just that: the past, reduced to frozen snapshots in photo albums. But if you listen closely to John Denver’s music, you will learn that the most important bits transcend time. Regardless of how many years go by, and whether you move 3,000 miles away from home or stay in the same town your whole life, you will always carry the wild eyes and fiery heart molded by all what came before.