We talked about Steve Martin and Anastasia and asking for signs. About the times when you plead for a neon billboard to drop out of the sky and tell you where that next step should go – and the times when you think something is a sign but hindsight proves you wrong. And then we talked about visas for England and Canada and laughed over airport mishaps — and then the day was over and it was time to go.
Driving home under a sparkling Kentucky sky, I thought again about signs and remembered a recent moment that could have been prophetic – but maybe not because sometimes it’s hard to separate wishful thinking from divine nudge. And I turned on the radio at the exact moment someone read a Bible verse that repeated nearly word-for-word my almost-maybe-not-sure prophecy. And I had to breathe deep and slow to calm the butterflies that leaped up inside at the flicker of “but what if it’s true?”
Winding my way through the hills near the apple orchard, an oncoming pickup truck flashed his lights at me as he appeared over a ridge, and I instinctively began to slow. Here on these narrow back roads lined with stone walls and flash-flood gullies, drivers warn each other to prepare for what’s coming and I knew to expect a hazard somewhere over the hill. But what I didn’t expect was a tree-lined bend and a man in blue jeans standing in the grass at the curve and motioning for me to stop. A second man with a long gray beard and tattoos up both arms planted himself a few feet further on and repeated the command as a stream of cars began to pass me going the other way. I waited, watching them and smiling to myself at the everyday beauty of the way the drivers here work together to avoid catastrophe. When the stream of cars dried up and they waved me on, I rounded the bend and the previously-unseen truck stalled in my lane and continued on my way, confident in my faith in two strangers who could see my future better than me.
It wasn’t until I’d turned onto the main road that it hit me. I had talked and laughed and wondered about signs today – hoping for road signs that would tell me exactly where I was headed. But instead of highway markers counting down the miles to my destination or big overhead signs telling me where this road would take me, I got a few flashes of light from a passing truck and nonverbal gestures from total strangers who were positioned to see something I could not.
My grandma used to tell a story from when my dad was young. They were driving across the endless hills of Wyoming and Montana, the whole family heading west. And then the billboards started to appear: “You’ll love Three Forks!”
Over and over, these billboards popped up by the side of the road, proclaiming again and again that Three Forks was something to love. And so my grandparents decided to stop there overnight, and my dad and all his siblings waited to see what glories this Three Forks would bring.
The joke that made my grandma – and my dad – laugh so hard was that Three Forks turned out to be one of the most awkward experiences of their years of shared stories. Their motel room was not en suite and the toilet was public and located off of the lobby – the lobby where locals sat until late into the night. The bathroom was not soundproofed and the family – with eight kids and a long day in the car – kept it busy all night long.
I don’t know much about Three Forks or if that billboard campaign ultimately worked for them, but I know that it didn’t work for my dad’s family. If you had heard my grandma tell that story – barely holding back her laughter – you’d know that they do NOT love Three Forks and never will.
And I think again about signs and wanting to know exactly where I’m going. And I hear my grandma’s laugh in my deepest memories and the way she always said it – “you’ll LOOOVE Three Forks” – as if to emphasize the error of the giant billboards that had led them there. And I know that sometimes we do get neon signs that point the way home, or “Road Closed” signs to keep us from going astray, or big searching spotlights that pierce the sky and guide us in to land.
But today I watch the sun set from the safety of home, and I think about small flashes – almost undetectable in the light of day – and about strangers who told me when to move forward, even though I didn’t know why. And I think about words that maybe-sort-of-might hint at a future I can’t see – a future I don’t even really know how to find.
I want billboards to mark my route. I want the assurance that I’m on the right path – assurance like fireworks and my name written across the sky so I know it’s definitely meant for me. I want to know what I can do now to make the right future happen. But I know that sometimes the signs are small. And sometimes the future will happen no matter what we do today. And sometimes all we can do is follow the direction of those who can see what we cannot — to sit in the car until that tattooed arm waves us on around the bend.
And so — today — maybe it’s okay to trust that signs will come when we actually need them — and until then, maybe it’s okay to trust the waiting.