There’s a string of three towns outside Fall River, Massachusetts that I nicknamed “The S Towns” because Somerset, Swansea, and Seekonk all line up along the highway as you drive toward Providence. (Technically, Rehoboth is in there somewhere, but for the sake of mnemonic I pretend it isn’t. Sorry, Rehoboth.) In my many visits over the past year and a half, I learned them by their names and landmarks. Somerset is across the Braga Bridge as you’re leaving Fall River, and the first thing you see are the power plant’s water cooling towers (we call them the “cloud-makers”). Seekonk has a freestanding Starbucks in a sea of Dunkin Donuts and the Irish jewelry shop where my engagement ring was found. I think I have relatives in Swansea somewhere.
So there are The S Towns. I saw them laid out on a map the other day and it made more sense. Home is where you know how the roads intersect and you can always find your way back to family and a hot meal after a long day of exploring. You don’t have to worry about the oncoming night. You make your way, trust your instincts, and soon you can see the welcoming lights in the window.
One warm Saturday afternoon, I was driving home from my first solo adventure as a New England resident, a trip to Newport, Rhode Island, for bookstores and writing time by the sea, and I got almost lost—not completely lost, but derailed enough for an extra long drive home. I was driving along the highway, talking on the phone to my family back in Florida, and before I knew it a sign was welcoming me to Swansea. I was a good three towns past my exit before I realized I’d gone too far.
There’s a secret to making a place home though. Getting lost isn’t the enemy. It comes with panic and helplessness sometimes, but the only way to learn your way is to get lost a few times. You drive around a bit, pull off the road, check the map on your phone, scan for some familiar road name or number, drive some more, and over time, the pieces start to intersect. All that wasted time starts to draw up a map of real landmarks and surprises and moments of recognition.
Almost two months after that first trip, I was driving home from one of those S Towns with no GPS, no map, nothing to go on but memory. As the bridge came into view and the city skyline emerged over the harbor’s horizon, I could feel somewhere deep in my bones a recognition, the feeling of coming home.
I’d like to think that soon, very soon, I’ll know the winding back country of the South Coast just like I knew my way through the sprawl of Central Florida towns. Already I feel it growing, the names of roads and points of the compass orienting themselves, lining up, building a sense of place.