In the summer of 1969 my dad and I drove to Miami Beach from our home in the Detroit suburbs. We were on a rescue mission of sorts, trying to get down there as quickly as possible to meet up with my mom and sister. They had been there for nearly two weeks, commuting each day between their hotel and the hospital where my grandfather lay dying. Our arrival was a moral boost for them, and also a rare moment in which I experienced being a hero simply by showing up.
But it was the trip south, alone with my father, that has remained with me for all these years. We drove straight through, stopping to sleep for only about 4-5 hours at a Tennessee rest stop. I was all of 10 years old, and the sights and sounds of the road offered up a perfect melange of Americana: Roger Miller’s King of the Road, Arthur Godfrey on the radio, Glen Campbell’s Gentle on my Mind, Stuckey’s pecan log rolls, and free road maps at gas stations.
We were neither Sal Paradise nor Rabbit Angstrom, but we were each keeping it real in our own unique way. Conversation was kept to a minimum as we let the silent scenery speak for itself.
The highlight of the trip for me was when we saw a road exit on I-75 in Tennessee for Stinking Creek Road. As soon as we saw that sign we both laughed so hard that we just had to turn off and see what lay beyond the exit. It was nighttime and we only got as far as a nearby roadside diner. I remember having grape soda and a grilled cheese sandwich; there was country music playing on a radio that sat near the cash register. My dad winked at me at one point, two Jews from the north soaking up the atmospheric riches of a friendly but still “foreign” culture.
Of all the trips I’ve taken since, that one moment stands out with all of its detail permanently etched in my head. More than just a father-son experience, it is also a memory of a specific period frozen in time. Like watching an old movie on television, the backdrop and surroundings sometimes become more important than the story itself.
Fast forward 47 years and I made the identical trip earlier this month except in reverse. I now live in Florida, and so my wife and I traveled much of the same highway to see family and friends in Michigan. For the benefit of our personal interests, and because I also had no desire to re-experience Dad’s thrifty solution for sleeping, we deviated from the original route a bit.
The nation has changed many times over since 1969. Where a smattering of national chains once nestled harmoniously next to local businesses, the interstate panorama is now dotted with a sea of ubiquitous franchise restaurants, motels, and gas stations. Corporate America has diabolically changed the essence of that which once defined who we are from a regional standpoint. A sameness now pervades at every exit on our highways. “Flo’s Diner” and its ilk have mostly given way to Taco Bell, Burger King, Chick-fil-A, etc.
Thankfully, the actual physical landscape itself is harder to co-opt and change. The Georgia red cedars are as unique as the steep hills of the Inner and Outer Bluegrass areas in Kentucky. The flat Ohio farmlands offer a vastness to a seemingly endless horizon.
Our country remains beautiful in spite of the commercial explosion.
Each state proudly and sometimes loudly proclaims its uniqueness. After living over a decade on the west coast, I had forgotten how absolutely stunning the southeast is. On our return trip back home, we headed east after Knoxville to make our way to the I-95 corridor. This allowed us to take I-40 in North Carolina and drive through the Appalachian Mountains, crossing over the Eastern Continental Divide. The vistas on this stretch are at times breathtaking.
Still, it wouldn’t be a road trip without some level of hilarity and sophomoric humor. For instance, on the northern portion of our route we must have gotten at least 50 miles worth of laughter when we passed the Big Bone Lick state park in Boone County, Kentucky. Gorgeous asked in an incredulous tone, “Just what kind of a park is THAT?!”
Or perhaps it was the tow truck driver we observed who somehow managed to balance a box of fried chicken in the center of his steering wheel while also holding and eating a drumstick, all while driving and also towing a car. We guessed what he lacked in brains he more than made up for in dexterity.
And then there were those Allen Funt-type moments when each of us got caught in the act of simply being ourselves. Such as when your humble blogger hit the rumble strips on the side of the road after glancing at a billboard for a strip club in Georgia. Or in the early evening as we were finally approaching our hotel in Michigan and Gorgeous wearily tried to use her iPhone’s calculator to dial a number.
Our trip in the mental aftermath is now a blur of hours in the car, budget and trendy hotels, family and friend visits, and the re-telling of endless stories.
We were even a part of a world record ice cream sundae creation in Ludington, Michigan. Americana is still alive and well if you choose to find it.
One of us had TWO of the finished sundaes, and was still able to later fit into all of his pants. Do you believe in miracles? I now do.
I reconnected with a sister with whom I had been quasi-estranged for several years; I met Gorgeous’ mother, sister, and brother-in-law, and she in turn met some cousins of mine.
We even met one of Tennessee’s more famous residents, if you’re willing to overlook that it wasn’t necessarily a flesh-and-blood encounter.
My brother-in-law allowed me to sit on his farm’s tractor provided that it stay in the off position…
… and Gorgeous fell so much in love with the last stop on our trip, St. Augustine, that we’re now including it into our mix of possible “forever home” cities when we hopefully buy a place next year. She loved its energy.
Throughout this trip I did feel my dad’s presence. A trained cartographer during the war, he no doubt would have made a face at my dependence and use of a GPS to get us from place to place. More than a few times I felt like switching it off because of him, but ultimately opted not to since my own map reading abilities are quite pathetic. Nevertheless, I think he would have enjoyed our forays into unknown places and colorful locales.
Gorgeous has several times now reminded me that two weeks on the road is way out of her comfort range. I pushed her just about to the limit of what I know we should do in the future. Subsequent trips will most likely have to be capped at 7-10 days max.
At least she got to see Stinking Creek Road, though. Everyone should at least once in their life.
Until next time….