I think that when you travel by car you can see a microcosm story of life. I always wonder about the people in very small towns. How did they get there? What is their life like? What are they like? But the answers might be right in front of me. Little clues left on the side of the road. It's possible that human nature, and my nature, can be witnessed without ever leaving my vehicle.
I've been traveling a lot lately. Our work normally covers three adjoining states, so when we have an out of town project we drive. My husband doesn't like interstates. He hates the lack of change. The semis. I hate the semis. So whenever possible we take the back roads. My parents often did the same. When I was a child I would lie in the back seat and read. If we were traveling to Pennsylvania to see my sister, I would tell them, "Let me know when you see the mountains." The southern states held no draw for me. I don't hide in back anymore but oftentimes on these trips I reach for my bag and pull out my book. Lower my head. I know he'll let me know if he sees something interesting. It's just when I see the long stands of everlasting pine trees. Identical. One after the other, the base slippered in palmetto scrub. Within the car with a regulated cold breeze blowing I watch the side of the road. I know the feel of the crackly brown grass and crunch of pine needle interspersed with the white sandy soil in small break through clumps. I know the still, overbearing heat of that forest. The feel of that sand, hot and sticky in my shoes. The relative coolness of the needles. I know the fact that in the middle of a summer day no amount of shade those pines produce would cool me. We pass a blackened, charred acre of fire remnants. I agree with the view. The scent of hardened pine sap, heart of the conflagration, infiltrates the interior of the car and I know in my soul the sucking of oxygen, the suffocation of that heat. I pull out my book.
The shoulders of the road depress me. Carcasses litter the white line. Wild creatures, sometimes still recognizable. Maybe not so attractive to begin with, like Armadillo. The peaked white face of opossum, a striped raccoon tail, the only part of a lump still intact and occasionally a deer. That moment of question. "Is that a dog?" It's large, no, the tan coat gives away the waste. Sometimes it is a dog. Heartbreaking thoughts fill my imagination. Someone opens a back door, calling with no response. Someone heartlessly opening a car door and speeding away. I catch my breath, "Oh no. That was a kitty." Sometimes even worse are the discarded pets that still live. They return to my memory time and again. Emaciated hounds sniffing along roadside trash. Lost on the hunt. Small creatures running haphazardly in zig zags, searching. In a long stretch of unpopulated state road in South Carolina you suddenly come upon a crossroad. Marked by a single small store with gas pumps. The parking lot full with pick ups, road crew trucks and tractor trailers. A lovely red and white spaniel, her flowing fur does not disguise the horrific site of her ribs, sharp and clearly defined at her sides, though her teats are full and dragging low with milk. She cautiously inches toward a big rig parked alongside the building. My heart swells. A hand reaches out the window and waits, while with head lowered, eyes upraised, one tiny step at a time she approaches. Finally the arm arcs a half eaten sandwich,. It lands at her feet and she grabs it quickly, looking up for a moment at the kind trucker and wagging her tail before scurrying back towards the woods. How did she get here? Where are the puppies? Why was she so full? Are they dead? Was she dumped without them? I'll never know but my heart broke that we were packed without an inch of room and even if we were not, we had a deadline. Didn't even know if she could be won over. I cried. I hoped that having found this store someone would care for her. I think about her every time I travel. If I pass that way again I will be searching the edge of the woods. Looking. Hoping.
The animals aren't the only heartache. As we reach the outskirts of small towns they begin to pop up. Almost every bend in the road like a monument to human misery. Rounding the corners revealing the signs. Simple white crosses. Sometimes with a name painted on them. Or posts with a circle inscribed, Drive Safely. Ringed with flowers and occasionally stuffed animals. The more recent bearing zip locked cards and messages, fogged with dew. These markers are commonplace in my home town. I'm used to them. Many are familiar landmarks in my daily drive but nothing more. In some cases I know what happened. A testament told on the evening news. But these markers standing out on lonely country roads seem to hold more grief. They often mark the entrance to the return of human habitation. Tiny communities. These markers call to mind a whole town grieving. Places so small that every person who passes may know the whole story. May have known the person lost. A friend, a co worker, a relative. A sad reminder in a place where truly, everybody knows your name. Again my imagination fires. Bored teenagers in a town with no place to go, racing through the night for thrills? Old Mr. So & So from the mill, blearily winding his way home from the ramshackle No Name Bar and drifting off the road? Mrs. Such & Such coming home late from bible study and swerving to avoid one of those poor raccoons she always hates seeing squished in the road?
But that isn't all of course. The pines begin to filter out and you know there is water nearby. A lake. a river. Giant spreading oaks might mark the beginning of humanity returning. Hand lettered signs announcing tomato's, fruit, nuts For Sale up ahead. In early spring fields open revealing sprigs of some sort of crop, which we might guess at. Is that cotton? Corn? Strawberries? Rows of majestic Pecan Trees mark the edge of a sprawling farm. Horses, goats, I hear my mothers echo, Look at the cows!" No wait, that's my husband. He smirks, knowing my family's private joke on me. I see the damn cows. My husband and I have a game. We guess which store the next town will frequent, A Family Dollar or Dollar General Store. If both show up we know we are in a good sized place. There might even be a fast food restaurant. Always, even if there is just one, there is a Chinese restaurant. Without fail. Even in the tiniest places. I love the local businesses in these small towns. Susie's Beauty World contained within in a small pink clapboard house. Joe Joe's Best Barbecue. The sign peeling and faded but the smoker in the parking lot is going full on. It smells heavenly.
Mama Mary's southern fried chicken. You know that would be heavenly too. Bo's Fish camp. Dottie's Special Occasion Flowers. And of course, Tiny Town Thrift. There is never a lack of church. Baptist leads the numbers in the south. First Baptist. Missionary Baptist. Primitive Baptist. First Pentecostal Missionary Baptist. But there is always a healthy scattering of other denominations. White steepled Methodist. A fairly modern peaked roof Lutheran. A rather fancy brick Presbyterian and the occasional Catholic. All of them with messages of hope neatly lettered on their front lawn welcome signs.
You see the most interesting things in 'the middle of nowhere.' I recently saw a Cherokee Seminole meeting circle. A huge confederate flag marked the entrance to another fenced compound bearing a large sign: Sons of the Confederacy, Join Now! No thanks. But just when you think you've warped back a few decades you see something unexpected. In a place that you would swear still lives in the 1930's we suddenly happen on a huge yoga retreat camp. On a tiny block building deep in farm country a bright yellow banner joyously invites, Join Zumba Fitness Now!
Then there are the roads. So many named after people. J.R. Smith Lane. Nancy M. Cotton Ave. Who are they? How did they warrant a street name? Some of them are dirt roads that appear to be deserted and leading absolutely nowhere. Cemetery Road and Old Mill Lane speak for themselves of course, but last week I saw Old Soldier Road. I liked that one. I would like to know the story.
Last week we passed through a town called Enigma. Only a few scattered buildings could be seen from the road. We did pass a road sign for Main Street with an arrow pointing to the Post Office but that's all we saw. I was intrigued. I want to live in a town called Enigma. Then again, the enigma may be how did these people got here and what exactly are they doing here? It took all of 5 minutes to pass the town.
I often wonder how these people came to be here. Tiny places. Sometimes huge sprawling homes and fenced land abutting worn trailers with rusting cars and toys strewn through the yard. Tiny houses neatly painted white with carefully planted flower beds and the yards decorated with miniature windmills, iron deer and doll sized gazebos resting just feet from the road. Homes built on quiet country lanes, later widened for the convenience of civilization. The front porch holds a rocker and I imagine a woman sitting there trying to catch a breeze at the end of the day. Staring with satisfaction at the gee gaws and ignoring the intrusion of traffic that they distract from. The personality of the residents sometimes breaks through the hum drum ride and it's always worth it. I know of a place where a house, that can't be bigger than two rooms, sports a front yard with a three story flagpole sporting an enormous American Flag waving over a life size statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched, patiently watching over the traffic. I feel honored and blessed as I pass. Is that what the resident wants to say? I don't know. But it works for me. Many years ago, driving alongside cow pastures in Vermont I saw a mobile home completely painted like a black and white cow with a mailbox to match. Driving through a another town I see an old house in bad need of repair. Sagging porch, peeling paint. An old wooden business sign stood in front, it's original message long ago faded away but fresh spray paint tagged an new one, Happy Birthday Mom with a Smiley Face). I imagine Mom's smile when she came home. I see her tired and walking slow with sore feet at the end of the day and looking up to see this message of love. Maybe there was cake too. I've seen mailboxes shaped like sharks, personal diatribes written on buildings and fences made of bicycles. But last week I think I saw my all time favorite. We rounded a deep bend in the road, passing a worn looking yellow house set under huge ancient oaks. The deep shade and time of day made it blend to almost invisible but at the last moment it caught my eye. I had to do a double take because to my surprise, beneath the tall trees stood a full size topiary brontosaurus. Perfectly executed just a couple yards from the road. It reminded me. People live in many different ways. We come from myriad goals and walks of life. It added to my question of, how do people end up here? I don't know that but I know this for sure. Regardless of how or why they land where they do, some people are a trip. And make it a trip worth taking.
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