Hitting The Road

There is still an America out there, begging to be driven, begging to be found. Have the interstates, the price of gas and the rush of our daily lives sucked the romance out of road trips? Has the compulsion to see what's around the next bend or over the next rise been killed? Are road trips now just a relic of days gone by? Sadly, for most people, I think so.

But not for all of us. Most people like the idea of a road trip; rolling down the byways just to see what's out there, but few actually do it. I sometimes look on a map and pick out a place that catches my fancy because of its name - Fly, Tenessee; Ben Hur, Arkansas; Happy, Texas - and plot a course from here to there, taking only the 2-lane blacktop roads. I want to see country not infested with dozens of fast food places, large office buildings and traffic backed up at traffic lights. I want to be in towns where you park on the street on the town square a few feet from the front door of the business. I want to see old men sitting on benches in a park and talk to them for a while, finding where to eat the best bar-b-que and the best pies this side of heaven and yes, I'll tell Alice hi for you when she serves me. I don't mind getting stuck behind the occasional tractor using the same road I am. I want to go to places between nowhere and never heard of.

Invariably, when I tell someone I've just returned from a road trip, they ask, "Where'd you go?" And I'm stuck on how to answer, how to tell the story. They seem confused if I tell them my destination wasn't Dallas or Memphis or New York City or some other large or at least well-known spot. They don't seem to understand it's not where you went, it's what happened on the way. It's about contentment with the land you are driving through, listening to good music and loudly singing along sounding good only to yourself, thinking about your life and the choices you made (both good and bad), wondering whatever happened to old flames, and planning what you will do when you hit the lottery.

It's the joy of running into Mabel, the 88-year-old lady who still single-handedly runs the old wooden-floored convenience store on Route 66 in Oklahoma that she and her husband built "back in the day" and the house next door where they lived, loved, and raised 6 children and getting her autograph on a bottle of Route 66 root beer I bought from her. She put down her cigarette long enough to find a felt pen and sign it. Nobody was, by God, going to tell her she couldn't smoke in her own damn store. It saddened me greatly when 2 years later, I heard she had recently died and the store was closed. I'm glad I stopped. Now, when I think of the word "feisty," she is my mental image.

It's the fun of the cute small-town girl who served me a delicious bar-b-que sandwich plate in some forgotten spot along the road (hand-painted on the front window - "Almost World Famous!") with the top two buttons of her blouse undone, leaning over and smiling big as she took my order, obviously working me for a big tip. I left a $20 bill for a $9 tab and didn't mind.

When I see a map of the United States, I don't want to just see boundaries and squiggly road lines. I want my mind to see mountains and rivers and forests and wide open spaces and the 2-mile stretch of blacktop in west Texas where I encountered thousands of tarantula's crossing the road en mass one evening, my car exploding their little hairy bodies as I drove onward in pursuit of the horizon. I want to look at that map and think that's where Mabel lived and that's where cute b-b-q girl lives.

So many places, so much road. Always another bend to go around, another rise to drive over. And so very little time.