Our road trip started at dawn, leaving behind the farm, Jack’s orchard chores, my daily writing sessions, and Holly in our neighbor Daniel’s care. Jack was eager to hit the road.
He had an idea, somewhat like the one that brought us to Salem, of co-owning a Florida orange grove with his friend Arthur. They both hated winter and pictured themselves in shirtsleeves in Florida rather than shoveling sidewalks. I was along for that delightful getaway feeling and a look at whatever southern states we might touch.
When we reached lower Georgia, we passed through the city of Bainbridge. According to the sign, it was nicknamed the “Oak City” for its many large oak trees. The old mansions still lined the main street and the perfumed smell from the azaleas, camellias, and rhododendron blooms filled the truck. I could even feel the slowing down, molasses-like pace inside the truck.
The city reminded me of another time and place—spending the Fourth of July in Goodman, Mississippi as a child. My eyes couldn’t take in enough of it at once. I didn’t bother to ask Jack to stop and have a walk around town—he was a man on a mission with no time for sightseeing.
Prior to the establishment of Bainbridge, the Oak City Cemetery site had long been home to an Indian Village. [Hmm]
Outside the city, the poverty was stark; tiny gardens were planted against hunger, being worked by the poorest locals. Rural hardship has a different look, especially in the south. Here was the land of the have-nots, forgotten in a nation with a short memory.
That night we stayed in central Florida and began to feel like we were getting close to the real South.
Distinct patterns—extra ees like suddenlee—filled the balmy air as we walked around after dinner. The next morning, we drove to the area that Jack had targeted to explore. What should have been miles of blooming orange groves, fed by abundant lakes and small rivers, was instead a tragedy of natural causes. A drought and a harsh freeze in December had left miles of dead trees.
“As long as we’re this far, let’s look around,” Jack said, his orange grove idea evidently in his mind’s rearview mirror.
We had a delicious, lazy lunch in a restaurant on the Withlacoochee River—don’t you just love that name? Known as the Crooked River, it flows west, then northwest, and finally west again before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico near Yankeetown. A troubling name but not as bad as its neighboring town—Crackertown. We followed the course of the river and finally parked the truck and had a relaxing walk on the beach, before ending the day in Perry, Florida, driven there by a fierce thunderstorm. We stayed at the Southern Inn, where historic grace and tradition had collided with K-Mart. Our room had single-digit-thread count sheets, a dripping shower, and three different wallpaper patterns. Breakfast was served across the parking lot at a Waffle House.
McDonald’s, the Colonel, and possibly Dairy Queen had just about reduced this part of the country to hearing from your grandmother what food used to taste like. It didn’t matter where we were, if we followed a major highway through a small town, there was the trio. Diversity had mostly been reduced to regular or extra-crispy, deep dish or thin crust.
That night we dined in what can only be called a local joint. The buffet line yielded large, broiled shrimp, collard greens, black-eyed-peas, and those divine hush puppies. I channeled my mother and took several out in my bag, wrapped in a napkin for later.
The food was amazing but the waitresses were the real show: friendly, with deep, whiskey voices, skinny as rails, and maximum, rodeo-style hairdos.
They sprawled in the back booth when they weren’t working, drew hard on their cigarettes, no doubt gossiped about the customers—including us, and propped their feet up on chairs. We all know that waitresses work their butts off and go home at night with tired legs, but this place was so benevolent, it actually gave a booth over to them.
Each table had a large ashtray; the No Smoking sign was faded and stuck on the wall behind the cash register with a nail. It was a memorable treat to be smack dab in the middle of what was left of native cuisine and flaunted rules.
Our last night on the road took us to Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace of Elvis. There, resourceful locals had turned his home into a shrine, alongside Lake Elvis. I offered to drive Jack out there, but we both preferred to ground ourselves with free HBO at the hotel. All I could think about was seeing Elvis for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show TV show and my father having a conniption over his grinding hips.
The next morning, in the Holiday Inn coffee shop, we asked our waitress about Elvis. She looked about my age and was happy to talk. She felt that perhaps Tupelo should make more fuss over their famous honey. We spooned generous amounts on our biscuits.
She pointed to the dining host and said he’d gone to school with “the King” and wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, “But he sure knew how to sing and work his magic.” She told us that her girlfriend’s brother was the paramedic called to the scene when Elvis died. He declared that “He was bluer than his suede shoes” when they found him, and that Elvis sightings, denying his death, were the result of grieving fans who just couldn’t let the King go. But she said, lowering her voice, “Elvis had definitely left the building, if y’all know what I mean.” It’s insider information like this that makes travel by car so rich.
After Tupelo, we sped through Tennessee and decided to come up through the boot heel of Missouri, rather than spend time in Arkansas. The boot heel is one tough region, with a mix of farms, cattle grazing, small towns, and a hillbilly poverty that casts a spell. Here your eyes are treated to homesteads literally ringed with abandoned cars, parts of unidentifiable appliances, and several rusted out school buses. Given the hilly geography, there are plenty of gullies to dump your trash into. Almost every gully and creek bank I could see was filled with broken trash bags, the household contents having escaped the bags. Hidden from view in big cities, this part of the state yields a picture of the copious amount of junk we acquire in our society—a legacy as such.
We knew we were close to home when the two-lane roads got treacherously narrow and the shoulders disappeared. Holly and I were beside ourselves with joy as we wagged and hugged as though it had been years rather than five days. We unloaded the truck, Jack called Arthur to give him the orange grove news, and Holly and I headed for the upper pasture, so grateful to be in the place where it felt like we belonged, for however long.
Photo credits: Road Trip – leio-mclaren, Home Sweet Home – james lee. Other photos from their public sites.