I wish I had one of those hand-held recorders so that when driving I could just dictate my thoughts, because now that I’m back home after a mini-road trip I can’t remember what I thought was so profound at the time. Maybe it will come to me.
It was along the lines of getting off the beaten path. The advent of the U. S. Interstate Highway System was in many ways a wonderful transportation milestone. I’m sure the trucking industry is happy to get its drivers where they need to be faster.
However, this same advancement in one sense has separated us more from our surroundings. Could you seriously distinguish one interstate highway from another? Well, maybe you could by terrain, but they all tend to blend together to me.
But I think back to when my mom took U. S. Hwy 82 west from Alabama to Texarkana in the summers and then continued on even more rural roads to Haworth, Oklahoma, to visit Granny. We started out after my mom got off from work on Friday and often found ourselves in that soft twilight time right before the sun goes down with a hint of honeysuckle, kudzu and pines as we whizzed by ram shackled barns and forgotten gas stations along the route. Big 18-wheelers, which nearly blew us off the road when we passed them on the narrow two-lane rolling highway, were scary to a six-year-old sitting in the back seat with the windows rolled down. Mom drove until after 10 p.m. when we’d start looking for some cheap motel. Some times it would be so late that it was one-after-another bad choice. But, the ride the next day was shorter.
Once we crossed the Mississippi River, I began to dread the trip through Arkansas. Normally I’d say much of Arkansas is beautiful, but the part around Crossett, which we were forced to drive through, was about the smelliest place in the South. Paper mills. If you’ve lived near one, I needn’t say more. Back then in the days before the Environmental Protection Agency and air pollution control, the giants of the timber industry pretty much spewed whatever they wanted to spew into the air and water, and it was tolerated. Small as it was, I could never hold my breath all the way through Crossett.
As we neared Texarkana, I began to look forward to our traditional stop at the gift shop where I could straddle the Texas-Arkansas state line, one foot in each state. I guess only kids think that kind of gimmick is clever. These days there is a post office on the state line and tourists can still pose with one foot in Texas and the other in Arkansas, but back then we always left Pecan Joe’s (or whatever the shop was named) with a pecan log and some sort of tacky souvenir I couldn’t live without. At this point, Granny’s place was less than a couple of hours away where we could count on her fried chicken, fresh from her garden corn and green beans and a strawberry shortcake if we timed the arrival just right.
There’d be cousins and aunts and uncles who, while not close in distance, were family just the same. After dark the kids ran around and around the house and garden playing chase and catching lightning bugs, too tired afterwards to even wash the dirt-bead necklaces from our tanned and sweaty bodies. Soon, we’d all be piled onto pallets (is this uniquely Southern or do y'all know that I mean a temporary bed on the floor?) of Granny’s quilts. The next day it was off to the river to swim or fish, and Mr. Martin, Granny’s second husband, would let us ride there in the back of his dilapidated old pickup Chevy truck, rusted and dust-covered but a fine four-wheeled country chariot to a gaggle of pre-teens who’d scrambled into the back with no thought to safety; this was before seat belts after all. Or we’d run down the road to visit Hett and Emmett’s earthen storm shelter with its cool darkness, an oasis from unbearable Oklahoma heat. Never in our wildest thoughts did we imagine that our dear Granny would one day wish she'd been in that bunker that night a tornado blew her and her little home away. She was tough enough to survive that but not the stroke that struck her down several years later.
These are the memories of my childhood. Life in the 50s and 60s was different of course. Was it better? I suppose every generation favors its own times over those that follow. I can’t imagine our children and grandchildren talking about a trip to visit granny in quite the same way. The interstate means faster car rides--the kids in the back with a DVD player, iPod, GameBoy or PlayStation to entertain. Sure families are together in one sense. And in another, they are very much individuals only sharing a space each in a world of his own.
“More than any single action by the government since the end of the war, this one would change the face of America.” The impacts of the Interstate System remain controversial, but it did, as President Eisenhower predicted, change the face of America—not simply by altering the landscape during construction, but by supporting changes that transformed our society in the second half of the 20th century.”from Celebrating 50 Years: The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System
“When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.” John Steinbeck
In A Life on the Road, CBS’s Charles Kuralt explained why he preferred the back roads:
“If the traveler expects the highway to be safe and well graded, he may as well stay home. The little roads without numbers are the ones I have liked the best, the bumpy ones that lead over the hills toward vicinities unknown . . . I keep thinking I will find something wonderful just around the next bend.”
This summer will you find something unexpected “around the next bend” or will time squeeze the spontaneity from your life yet again?