Travelog from the road

composed on the road from Louisiana to Georgia, North Carolina and West Virginia, then back again, this past week

There's a rhythm to the road. I feel it in my bones when I drive familiar routes. The placement of landmarks, state lines, familiar restaurants, towns I know the names of but which I've never visited... all have a pace to them, a predictability and a lulling quality.

From Baton Rouge, it's 40 miles on I-12 to Hammond, where I used to teach. 83 miles total on I-12, then back onto I-10 just before leaving Louisiana. I sometimes turn around as we’re leaving Louisiana to see the "Bienvenue en Louisiane" sign, where we once drove with Jeannette and Chris (up from New Orleans) just so they could take our picture in front of it. Then there's the long bridge to Mississippi and the John Stennis Space Center with the model of the lunar module that we've stood under. About 80 miles of Mississippi, with Gulfport and Biloxi and their massive advertising campaigns along the interstate. The Tchoutacabouffa River bridge, where Jack and I always exclaim, "Tchoutacabouffa!" just to say it out loud. (When I was driving last Tuesday on my own, I texted Jack simply with "Tchoutacabouffa" so he’d know where I was and feel like he was part of the trip. He texted back "w00t.")

The first 26 miles of Alabama lead us Mobile, where we get on I-65 and then look for Panera at the Airport Road exit. 179 miles on I-65 up to Montgomery, passing small towns with names like Flomaton, Perdido, Owassa, Pintlala, and my favorite sign for Grace & Garland at exit 107. Nothing much else appears on this stretch of Alabama highway: a few overpriced gas stations and country restaurants, but we try to fill up on fuel and food before we hit I-65 because we know that the exits are few and far between and that those restaurants aren't going to have anything Jack can eat. Montgomery brings I-85 and another opportunity for Panera, in case we missed the first one or feel like eating there twice in one day.

After Montgomery, we drive through Opelika, which is another word we both love to say out loud, hence another text to Jack. Near Opelika is a sign for Jim Bob's Chicken Fingers. Jim Bob has thoughtfully placed an ichthus fish right in the middle of his sign after his name, so I always read it jokingly as "Jim Bob's Christian Chicken Fingers." After Opelika, it's on to Auburn country, and then the Georgia state line. I change the clock in the car to EST, and I know we're on the last leg of the trip.


Day 2 begins in Georgia, as we drive through Winder (which I used to think was pronounced like someone saying "window" with a country accent, instead of like something/someone who winds) and then Augusta. South Carolina emerges, and I get a rush of adrenaline at seeing the word "Carolina," knowing I'm nearly home. 109 miles of I-85 in South Carolina take us through Clemson (memories of my mom going to AP readings each June, even though I never went with her), Greenville (memories of visiting Lauren at Furman), Gaffney (stopping for peaches and seeing the giant peach by the interstate), Cowpens (memories of a trip to the battlefield in college, when I had a crush on the professor who was driving us there), Earl (thinking of Lauren again), and the Flying J travel plazas with their ridiculously cheap gas. On this particular trip, Georgia and South Carolina have a fascinating feature: snow on the ground, residual from the snowstorm of a few days before. In March. Kent and I stop at a rest area near Clemson to play in the snow for a few minutes, where I give him his first lesson on throwing a snowball.

As we inch closer to North Carolina, I know it's near because I start seeing more Bojangle's restaurants than McDonald's. I have to stop for iced tea.

North Carolina greets me. I sigh happily. We near Charlotte, where I spent four wonderful years at Queens. Then, the decision: I-77, or I-85? When we're going to Winston-Salem, it doesn't much matter which route we choose, because they're about the same length. This time, though, I'm going to Raleigh, which I hardly ever get to do, so it's I-85 for a few more hours. Leaving Charlotte and approaching Concord Mills, I see IKEA, a new addition since my last trip on this road. IKEA in North Carolina. What will they think of next? IKEA in Louisiana, perhaps?


The drive from Winston-Salem to West Virginia is an old friend. My mom and I made that drive dozens of times when I was younger. We pass Pilot Mountain and Mt. Airy, and then once on I-77, we enter Virginia. On this stretch of road, I note that Virginia has a new welcome sign, and I remember the time I was 15 and driving here with my learner's permit. My mom was beside me and Tucker was in the backseat, and Virginia came upon me so suddenly that I hadn't realized I was out of North Carolina and was — shock — driving illegally. I veered across two lanes of traffic and almost ran into a VW bus to get to the Virginia Welcome Center so that I wouldn't be driving without a license in the wrong state. I did some of my worst driving while endeavoring to be a good driver.

Virginia, ironically, always felt like it was just in the way when I was a kid. It stretches on for all of an hour, but I'm always just itching to get to West Virginia. Now, I know Virginia more intimately thanks to Jack, but it was simply a thoroughfare to me when I was younger. Ft. Chiswell is a necessary stop for cheap gas, and I know that I have to memorize the price we paid, because my grandmother will always ask and then roll her eyes at how much cheaper it is than whatever they're paying in Charleston.

Two tunnels mark our time in Virginia, the ones through Big Walker Mountain and East River Mountain. In the years before iPods and car CD players, we always lost our radio signal in the tunnels, listening to a minute or so of static and contemplating the peaceful, dark silence before we popped out the other end and the sun and auditory civilization found us again. I've often held my breath for fun all the way through the tunnels, including at least twice while I was driving. There used to be a third tunnel in West Virginia, but they rerouted the interstate around it sometime ago, changing the pace of the trip to me. It was always three tunnels, three toll booths. Now, they're lopsided, like Tchaikovsky's 5/4 "waltz" in his Sixth Symphony. The second tunnel, through East River Mountain, starts in Virginia and ends in West Virginia, so I'm greeted by a welcome sign and I get one of those adrenaline rushes again. West Virginia is a known quantity, a comfortable place to breathe and just be.

Once we're in West Virginia, it's exactly 100 miles to Charleston. I see the familiar sign for Bland, Bluefield, and Beckley that always amused Mom and me when I was a kid. Alliteration was my kind of fun. So was playing the alphabet game, and singing new songs and old favorites. As we wind through the mountains and look down on all the towns we pass, I remember the songs my mom taught me on those trips. "Fifty Nifty United States" and "West Virginia Hills" are the two I remember best. We were total dweebs. I'm pretty sure we still are.

Back then, in the days before I lived thousands of miles away from family, three and a half hours actually seemed like a long time in the car. I usually lay down in the backseat and attempted to sleep for part of the trip, until my mom started to get drowsy and either turned the radio back on or woke me up and told me that I needed to talk to her to keep her awake. The only time I ever saw her drink coffee was on those trips. I've gradually built up my driving stamina over the past few years, culminating in Mobile > Blacksburg in one very long day last fall with Kent, so I chuckle a bit when I think about how the trip to Charleston always seemed like such a long drive that I just couldn't possibly stay awake.

The travel plazas now have Starbucks. Seeing Starbucks in West Virginia still shocks me, but not enough to prevent me from stopping and getting my grande mocha.

Tamarack tries to seduce me with its siren song of Fine Crafts, but I feel like I'm in too much of a hurry to linger over baskets, pottery, handmade toys, and glassworks. This, I think, is what's wrong with long road trips where everything is planned to the hour. No time for Tamarack. Must remember this for the next trip.


Coming home, marking the time in reverse order, is always a little strange. Since we're mostly heading south and west on the way home, the exits are counting down instead of up and seem to be propelling us toward home. I reflect on our journey and am happy for the trip, but I feel antsy about the fact that it takes so long to get home now that the trip is over. "Bienvenue en Louisiane" is our first welcome home, but then the 83 miles of I-12, which is so pleasant and sunny on the beginning of a trip, feels like an eternity. It's all that stands between us and our cats, our home, our bed.

If you count the fact that we came from Baton Rouge, we've stayed in four state capitals on this trip. We've driven the entire length of I-12 (it's just that stretch in Louisiana, oddly enough) and driven to one end of I-74, I-65, and I-85. Other roads, like I-40, feel entirely full of promise, like if we just stayed on them, we could let them carry us all the way across this enormous country. It makes me think about Bilbo's line in Fellowship of the Ring: "It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to." I never thought I had much wanderlust when I was younger, but now I realize that the adventures I may never have are rather intoxicating to consider.

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I was wondering if you and Jack realize that we once lived in Opelika, AL. It was a small town surrounded by rural roads lined (isn't the right word) with Kudzu.

As all of you know, I love the road trip and spend a lot of my time out there doing math: how far to-go, average speed, ETA, bakeries per county, MPG, whatever. Doing math in my head is fun. It is my indicator that I am tired and need to get off the bike. When I don't obey that signal, the next one is having to work to keep the bike on the choosen line. I seldom get to that point any more since I figured out the math error indicator.

It is good to see a post from you, we miss them. I did not know you went all the way to Charleston...

Glad you are home safe and sound!
Don and I refer to the giant peach in Gaffney as the "Ass-crack of South Carolina". It just looks like a giant butt to me! LOL. Maybe now you can have something a little less tasteful to text Jack on the road.
Yup, we're still Dweebs (and proud of it)! Thanks for refreshing those memories, Sweetie!
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