Monday, November 12, 2012
I was sitting front and middle in a brand new, four-door, aquamarine 1965 Pontiac Catalina. I was sandwiched in between my dad, who had been driving all day, and my mom, who was skimming the pages of Life. I was thinking about a motel pool, Magic Fingers bed, and Kentucky Fried Chicken mashed potatoes. To my right, the air conditioning vents were aimed up and over so Granny and my older brother could get some circulation in the back. To my left, the speedometer was pushing seventy for the first time in a long while. Straight ahead, the dashboard crucifix had the centerline in the crosshairs. I was sporting black PF Flyers low tops, newly cropped cutoffs, and a fresh summer crewcut. I held a Scrooge McDuck comic in my lap, but I wasn’t looking at it. I was up front because I had to see where we were, where we were going. I was eight years old.
A job in science brought me to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and as a function of that work I regularly roam the countryside sampling both stream water and backwoods barbeque—though directly consuming only the latter. Not long ago, I was at a new site on a bridge over the Sipsey River, just west of the tiny West Central Alabama town of Buhl, leaning over the guardrail while straining to hoist a collection jug brimful of cool, liquid murk the shade of stiff sweet tea. An ambitious student, tagging along to gain precious field experience before making a run at graduate school, was patiently half-sitting the rail beside me. He handed me the first of two plastic bottles that would hold the portioned contents of the jug. We were deep into a discussion about something: football, cars, the scratch biscuits and salty red-eye at the Waysider, anything. I mindlessly filled the first bottle, traded it for the second, and then unconsciously inserted a pause into the conversation when I remembered that I hadn’t double-checked the labels. The undergrad, a native of the area, had written "SipOld82"—his code for "Sipsey River at old highway 82 bridge"—on the bottle I was holding. It flashed through my mind that the map and road signs claimed this segment as Tuscaloosa County Road 140. I started to raise the question, but when I looked up he was already halfway back to the truck—a distance that would reduce any communication to shouts and exaggerated gestures. I stared for a good minute as he walked down that straight, deserted stretch of cracked pavement. My focus wasn’t on him, however, I was absorbed in the whole scene; his silhouette was more like the shadow of a head at the bottom of a movie screen. I stepped to the center of the eastbound lane, turned toward its direction of travel, and mentally framed the road like a view through a windshield. The old surface in that setting peered back like a portrait, haunting me with the familiar eyes of a childhood acquaintance set deep in the wrinkles of an aged face. For a moment, the feeling was a mystery. But when I turned back around to the west, I saw it coming, knew what it was, and it hit me head-on. A vision and a revelation: 1965 Pontiac, a road remembered.
Uncle Bill and Aunt Melba built a house in Edgewater, Florida. My family made the trip to their place every summer and an occasional Christmas from 1962 to 1981. The annual migration had our Southwest Missouri hometown of Nevada as its origin and nearly always followed the same route: southeast to Springfield, West Plains, Jonesboro and Memphis; then due south toward Jackson. At Winona, Mississippi we left Interstate 55 and used U.S. Highway 82 East as a tether across three states to I-75 at Tifton, Georgia—after which it was wide open, four-lane, Stuckey’s and Howard Johnsons the rest of the way south. We did this for twenty years. We probably passed through Tuscaloosa fifty times.
No east-west non-interstate highway transects the South, both geographically and culturally, like 82. Start to finish it roams 1500 miles from Alamagordo, New Mexico to Brunswick, Georgia—literally points A to B—crossing the Pecos, Red, Mississippi, and Chattahoochee rivers along the way. From the southern tip of the Rockies to the South Georgia coast it loses two hours to time zones and 8640 feet to elevation. It is two-thirds transcontinental, but unlike other long federal routes it favors a rural course, shunning the multiple lanes of the big cities and the temptation to piggyback on a parallel interstate. In Dixie east of the Delta, the stretch I knew best, 82 wades through swamps, weaves around hills, and whisks by cotton rows. It brings students to Starkville, crops to Cuthbert, and revivals to Reform. It was a part of my youth as sure as banana seat bicycles and Dairy Queen dipped cones. So I decided to follow it again, west to east, Winona to Tifton, and not just as it is now. I wanted to see it as it was then.
Eastward view from Sipsey Road Bridge of Tuscaloosa, AL County Road 140.
On a sunny, late March morning, I purposely drove the 140 miles from Tuscaloosa to Winona wearing mental blinders. The objective was to mute everything of interest along modern-day U.S. 82 West until I turned around at Interstate 55, and it was easy—a testament to the numbing power of fast-food breakfasts, bypasses, and talk radio. Two and one-half hours later I pulled my 1992 Nissan Sentra into a Texaco next to the I-55 entrance ramp, filled up with gas, and washed down a two-bit bag of goobers with a Coke. Refueled, refreshed, and resolved, I paused for just a second to reset my trip odometer back to zero, and my course and curiosity back to the east.
The Mississippi Department of Transportation had made it easy—or so I thought. A week of research with vintage state and oil company highway maps at the University of Alabama Cartographic Laboratory verified that in most places where Old 82 runs estranged from contemporary U.S. 82, Mississippi calls it state road 182. The section of the old road through Winona must have been too short for them to mess with; all I had to follow was a hunch that the faded yellow lines leading east from the West Winona exit might be the initial divergence of the old from the new. I trusted my intuition and took the exit, then drove slow, surveying the landscape for clues. I did not have to look long or drive far. Less than one-half mile on the left was an older Citgo gas station—a holdout from the pre-convenience store era—looking as uncomfortable with its contemporary red and orange roofline façade makeover as Archie Bunker with a toupee. On a sign above the pump canopy was this garish, hand-painted affirmation:
Two words over and two words under the CITGO formed this meek, heavily faded salutation:
I went on east, confident of the route and content with a welcome that had not yet worn out.
Personal travel proverb number one: Seek not the least sinuous path, for each bend in the road is a flex of the mind. From Winona to Kilmichael, Old 82 has been lost forever to fourteen miles of four-lane, restricted-access, minimum-speed, grade-stabilized, modern antiseptic automotive monotony. The scenery reminded me of the backdrop in a 1970’s vintage Hanna-Barbera cartoon, and I was a frustrated George Jetson in a compact coupe de cosmos whirring past the same asteroid over and over again. My attention started to drift, so I turned on the radio in search of something regionally unique on the far end of the dial. Nothing but hiss, static, and syndication. The sound and the futility of tuning triggered a flashback from the old road, however. I remembered Dad as desperate for some midday news, and in a time before search buttons he was manually surfing AM when he hit on this noteworthy local announcement:
It says here that there was a bad tornader in (a town with a name that I can’t recall) last night. Tore things up pretty bad. Nobody was kilt, but a bunch were sure boogered up…
At Kilmichael I avoided the bypass and turned onto Montgomery County Road 413, which followed the path of 82 on the old maps. Still no sign of 182 yet, but a fractured remnant of pavement cut the corner of the right turn I had just made, so I trusted its jaywalking lead and carried on east at the point where it dissolved into a newer surface. Immediately I passed through the business district; one compact city block fronted with a quaint patina of softly weathered brick, glass, tin, and townspeople, all seemingly leaning on some component of the other. It was a charming southern setting—which I had absolutely no memory of whatsoever. How could that be? Did I nap at this exact geographical location twenty years in a row? First the contentment of a timely welcome gets kilt on an asphalt treadmill, and now Kilmichael was boogering up confidence. Demoralized, I retreated to the bland homogeneity of the bypass.
Wide and fast funneled down to narrow and tedious east of Kilmichael, where the original roadbed forced four lanes of traffic to tiptoe on two for a while. At the Webster County line, 82 angled north to test new asphalt, and I caught myself rubbernecking to the south where the old pavement lay quiet, waiting to be exhumed. I saw a section where the edge of the road had been sliced away, exposing a clear cross-section of the entire blacktop, so I stopped and walked across dry, cracked clay to get a close look. The original concrete was visible under three dark, distinct seams of overlying asphalt, each approximately eight inches thick. As I squatted to scrape at the outcrop, it struck me that the strata could be dated much like a geologic road cut; with the oldest layer at the bottom and successively younger deposits on top, it was an artificial bedrock and synthetic sediments representing very real epochs of highway history. I studied each layer, guessing when it was exposed and which of our family vehicles may have left imperceptible footprints on its surface. The thought gave me an idea for a classification system. The first layer probably predated any car I knew, so it was from the Precatalinian Age. The rest, from oldest to youngest: Catalinian, Deltaceous 88, Fordivician Van.
One mile later, Mississippi 182 appeared for the first time and beckoned me to Eupora. Entries from my notebook as I drove this stretch:
2 fisherman w/straw hats & cane poles
welcome from Lions, Rotarians, and Methodists
old National Guard armory
old natural gourd aviary
white, half-buried passenger tire planter borders
no filling stations-turned-tanning parlors
no portable signage w/pulsing arrows
@ stoplight—building—straight ahead—?????
The sign on the window said CENTRAL SERVICE GRILL. As I waited at a red light, I clearly remembered the character, but not the chronicle, of this building. It was a brick structure with odd, rounded angles—sort of like a square with one corner sanded not quite flat. There was glass across the front, a metal awning over the glass, an old clock centered above the awning, and up on the roof, art deco lettering that—like an old mouth minus some molars—had lost a couple of C’s and E’s from each side but still managed to spit out NTRAL SERVI. The hands of the clock had been stilled at a 4:55 from who knows when—a moment in time in which I, too, was stuck. Had it been a service station? An old garage? A car dealership? The car behind me tapped the horn. The light was green.
Dee Dee was real busy. Besides being the only waitress, she was also working the cash register, where we were both standing. Without looking up, she counted change to a paying customer, grabbed an order pad, pulled a pencil from behind her ear and said, "To go?"
"Actually, I was just needing a quick answer to a short question." I realized it was straight-up noon. The place was packed. She handed me a menu, still without looking up. "I’m sorry, I’d just like to know what this place was before it was a grill," I said.
She looked up. "Oh, uh, well, it was a car dealership—but you know, you really oughta talk to Cindy because she’s the owner. I’ll go get her." After about thirty seconds she came back and told me Cindy was really busy but Henry was sitting over there, and I really oughta talk to him because he’s the owner. She pointed toward a head in a booth at the far end of the room.
I started toward Henry, sidestepping tables and excusing myself through conversations while scanning the scene. The place was nostalgically trendy, using lots of memorabilia and era-appropriate décor to take full advantage of its mid-1900’s automotive roots, but I was finding it difficult to look behind the theme for clues of the original layout. I passed by a couple of state troopers slumped over their food, all four elbows on the table, hands working forks from the back of the plate. Some people say the presence of more than one policeman—especially highway patrol—in a roadside cafe is a sure-fire indicator of good food. I’ve heard the same thing about calendars. In our midwestern travels, Dad and I documented the existence of a positive linear relationship between the quantity of bowling trophies and the quality of diner fare. Edibles grew exponentially savorous, however, if there were bowling trophies and a refrigerator—preferably old, without glass doors—located in the dining area containing JELL-O salads. We never ordered a square of lime JELL-O with diced pineapple and pear on a lettuce leaf. We just wanted it around.
Henry Ross standing in front of the Central Service Grill, Eupora, MS.
I hated to bother Henry Ross; he looked wrapped up in his paper, The Wall Street Journal, which was spread out across the table. On top of the editorial page, a red plastic basket lined with wax paper housed his barbeque sandwich between bites. At that moment, the sandwich was being held aloft in his right hand, poised for a pause in the print. Not a drop of sauce was on the paper or his shirt, which happened to be the whitest, most perfectly starched oxford cloth long-sleeve button-down that I had ever seen. Henry looked to be in his mid-forties, no noticeable gray and only a slight retreat of hairline at the part. I introduced myself, apologized for interrupting his lunch, and asked about the history of the building. He looked up through round wire rims and offered a seat. He then pointed to a framed newspaper that hung on the wall above the booth directly across from us.
"Well, just about everything you would ever want to know is in that article. It’s a pretty good summary of the business conducted in this building."
I couldn’t read the headline, let alone the print, and the booth below it was very occupied with four people in a very animated conversation. Henry noticed my apprehension of the prospect of another personal lunch space encroachment.
"Well, let’s see—I might be able to come up with a few events and dates…." He proceeded with this brief summation:
"The building was originally a Ford dealership—Central Service Ford—and was operated first by my grandfather. My father, Joe Ross, ran it together with my grandfather for several years until ’59 when Dad took sole possession of the business. Not too long after that, the Jameson family bought the dealership—although we retained ownership of the building—and kept it going until ’68. I know I’m skipping over a bunch of years, but it bounced around between proprietors until Ford finally closed it down in the late ’80’s—like many small town dealers, it couldn’t match big city prices and inventories. The grill opened in June of 2000."
He anticipated my next question. "We are now sitting in what was the parts department. The open area to your right was the showroom, and the kitchen was the garage."
I had to ask: "So you’re the owner of the building, and Cindy is the owner of the business?"
That cleared up the double-owner dilemma. I told him about my experiences traveling on old 82, how his building was a familiar icon from that era, and my goal of retracing the old route.
"Well, yeah, this was a fixture on that highway, up until November of ’98—when the bypass around Eupora opened." He thought for a minute and then asked, "You going to write about all this or something?"
"I started out just trying to scratch an old itch—but if the whole thing gets interesting enough, I might take a shot at it." I didn’t feel like much of a journalist—I had to borrow his pen and one of Dee Dee’s Guest Checks to get everything down.
He said, "You should. I know of a guy who took a chance on writing, and wound up doing quite well with it."
I bit. "Who’s that?"
"John Grisham was a law school classmate of mine at Ole Miss."
I smiled and nodded. We sat quietly for a minute until Henry caught me stealing a glance at his sandwich.
"You had lunch yet? It’s pretty good."
"No, not officially. It does smell really good, but to be honest, I didn’t anticipate stopping anywhere for more than a couple of minutes, so I filled up on snacks." An egregious violation of a basic barbeque tasting tenet. I thanked him, shook his hand, and promised I would come back sometime to try a sandwich. Who knows? Maybe a pair of troopers trumps a full house of trophies.
State road 182 dissolved into four-lane 82 a couple of miles east of Eupora. Just like that—gone. I cranked the Sentra back up to seventy and pouted my way under the Natchez Trace and through Mathiston. It was not long before construction crowded all traffic onto the original two-lane where it was narrow, congested, and rhythmically rough from the steady cluh-clump, cluh-clump of front, then back tires hitting seams. The familiar cadence paced me on through Adaton and into the city that is the home of Mississippi State University.
I owe an apology to Starkville, Mississippi. Sometimes the old southern two-lanes were indifferent to monuments of wealth or culture; they buzzed through town on a beeline, snubbing the boulevard with the mansions and museums. U.S. 82 passed through some of the poorer sections of Starkville, and for years I was convinced the town took its name not from a brilliantly heroic officer of the Revolutionary War, but from a brutally honest adjective modifying -ville. Flashbacks: shotgun houses, sagging porches; an LTD with a shredded Landeau top idling blue-gray smoke; blanched curtains wafting from wide-open windows; a blank expression in the back of a school bus. Maybe some memories turn cruel over time, because it was not nearly as bad as I had remembered. Still, as I crept with traffic by THE DERBY and UNIVERSITY MOTEL signs—two rusting neon relics from another commercial era—I decided to take a detour through the heart of town. I turned right on Montgomery Street, toured the business district, cruised through campus and a few neighborhoods, and—for the first time in forty years—gave the town the good looking over that it sorely deserved. Please accept my sincerest apologies, Starkville. You have a nice place, here. I’ve passed you on the street a few times, said hello, but we’ve never really been properly introduced.
Twenty-three miles to Columbus, and 182 materialized again to slice straight across the Black Belt—a crescent-shaped spread of ancient prairie earth so named because organic and mineral amendments from native grass and stone have turned the soil dark, friable, and productive. The road relaxed with the terrain, recumbent now with gentle slopes, easy curves, and wide aspects. The tranquility was short lived, however, because soon 182 was ordered to heel; except for a short section dug up for the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, it was leashed tight to four-lane 82 as a service road the rest of the way into Columbus.
I remember three long, narrow bridges we used to cross while travelling on Old 82. The first spanned the looping channel of the Tombigbee River at the lap of downtown Columbus. I found it there, still intact, as the centerpiece of a city park. Traffic was no longer allowed by axle or ankle on the old bridge (a much newer one was just to the north), so I trudged up to its west approach, halted only by a sorry wire fence succumbing to thick braids of still-dormant kudzu. The old steel structure looked pitifully decrepit, but I was glad they left it. As a child I imagined it as a long, narrow drawbridge over a steaming, monster-choked moat. We would race across; barely slipping through groping tentacles, just sliding through two massive, shutting wooden doors set in the mossy stone walls of downtown Columbus. You can call me hopelessly nostalgic or declare my venture wildly hallucinogenic, but there was a kind of strange synergism between these slow, muddy rivers and this old road that made memories flow fast and clear.
Old 82 was Business 82 through the heart of Columbus, and just up the hill from the bridge the route passed through downtown and by the birthplace of a great American playwright. To be honest, when I was young, I knew more about Tennessee Tuxedo than Tennessee Williams, so I wasn’t much impressed with his connections to Columbus. While on our 1971 Florida trip, however, I read Eudora Welty’s latest book at the time, Losing Battles—and I let the passing sights of rural 82 illustrate the settings of the story. Her descriptions of fictional backwoods Banner, Mississippi and the antics surrounding Granny Vaughn’s 90th birthday party/family reunion became as real to me as the view out my window. I was hooked. Anyway, I noticed on the dust jacket that Ms. Welty attended the Mississippi State College for Women (now Mississippi University for Women) in Columbus. That’s what impressed me about this town. Business 82 passed within a couple blocks of the campus, which catches the eye with two architecturally unique towers that project above the surrounding residential landscape. I took a short side trip to get a closer look at the tall, perfectly round, painstakingly prim, red brick spires. If you stand facing the university’s main entrance gate, then turn forty-five degrees east, the tower on your left features a large clock and a roofline shaped like a Hershey’s Kiss. The tower on your right seems built to house a large bell and skewers the sky with a lid that looks like a dunce cap. There is a passage in Losing Battles where a main character—Gloria—is asked to describe the college where she was trained as a teacher:
"Two towers round as rolling pins made out of brick. On top of the right-hand one was an iron bell. And right under that bell in the tip-top room was where they put me. Six iron beds all pointing to the middle, dividing it like a pie. When the bell rang, it shook us all like a poker in the grate…."
In 1971, the experience of reading those sentences, then seeing these structures, rang a bell that shook me, too.
Over the years, if we made good time, we stopped for the night in Montgomery, Alabama. Average time: Tuscaloosa. If slowed by construction, weather, or National Guard convoys: Columbus. Just across the tracks, I found the first motel where we used to stay. It didn’t used to be a Budget Inn, but it is now; another bought up, scaled down and franchised out old motor lodge left half-beached in the high wake of a new bypass. Amenities get pitched like jetsam when you have to stay afloat on just a trickle of business route traffic. Down the road on the left, past the park with the old, well-preserved Columbus & Greenville Railroad steam locomotive, I saw the first restaurant where we used to eat. We never ordered a steak at the El Rancho Steakhouse. In fact, I can’t remember ever eating anything except breakfast there. Back in the heyday of the roadside diner, its location on the very eastern edge of town made it the first convenient early morning stop on our way back home after an overnight stay in Tuscaloosa. Even though it was mid-afternoon, I decided to drop in again. Maybe, like hot syrup on a short stack, I could soak up some sweet memories that would satisfy an old craving.
The place is hard to describe. It had a greenish-white block exterior that looked like pale, rough brick culturing an even stand of algae. It was traditional in the sense that it was longer than wide and lower than high—classically restaurant-rectangular—except for a big curve in the roofline over the entrance that dated it as fifties or sixties-ish. The lone sign was neon in cursive, opaquely dormant in the bright spring sun. I walked up to the front, where blue-glazed and frost-topped lettering on the window redundantly blustered:
COOLED BY REFRIGERATION
Two women sitting at a table way in the back, no one else in the joint. I picked out a booth along the front windows and sat down. I ran my hands across the table, examined the sugar dispenser, ashtray, napkin holder and salt and pepper shakers. Smooth Formica, cool glass and chrome. The silverware was tucked neatly away into wax paper sleeves: knife, fork, and spoon—four sets to a table. The old seats had been replaced, but I remembered us sitting just about right here: my brother and I establishing our independence in one booth, Mom, Dad, and Granny accepting the next. I remembered what I would order: two eggs over hard, ham, grits, toast (which would come as two pieces sliced diagonally and stacked in pairs on the edge of the plate with the buttered sides facing), and a large milk to be brought cold with the hot food. I would stir sugar into the grits, and Mom would say it’s a good thing Aunt Melba didn’t see that because Aunt Melba, a Louisiana native, was adamant that the only thing a true southerner sprinkles on grits or grapefruit is salt. Dad would dump umpteen tiny vats of Half n’ Half into his coffee and Granny—at my request—would squirrel away the unused apple jelly tubs, because you never knew what preserves would come with the bread at the next road breakfast. My brother would scowl and tell me through his teeth to quit kicking him. I would smirk and mumble under my breath, I thought that was the table leg.
As I got up to go, a waitress walked out. Except for the black apron, she wore all white—paper hat down to practical shoes—with the name Rhonda embroidered on her blouse. She saw me and broke into a trot while wiping her hands on the apron. She said, "Oh my gosh, I’m sorry—I was cleaning up a few things in the back and didn’t hear you." She straightened the hat. "Do you want a lunch or dinner menu?"
I politely told her neither, thank you, that I had come for breakfast, and like always, it was very good.
The Alabama state line is about six or seven miles east of Columbus, and at that point Mississippi 182 became Pickens County Road 30. To me, this was always the line of demarcation between the South and the Deep South. I realize one would think such a boundary to be more latitudinal, but the largely horizontal path Old 82 cut across Mississippi became a diagonal plunge southeast near the Alabama border—and the terrain changed drastically with the direction. Just after Ethelsville the road lost interest with the gentle slopes of the Black Belt and charged off like a carnival coaster, throwing its riders up, down, and side-to-side, coursing like fast water through deep cuts in vegetative canyons of pine and kudzu. Trees draped with slumbering vines became giants snagged in thick gray nets, harmlessly threatening passers-by with outstretched limbs. The soil lost its sable hue; a consequence of time, hard scrubbings by natural forest acids and repeated rinses with rainfall that scoured away everything but a red clay primer. This was not the manicured and polished South of checkout lane magazine covers. This was the Deep South lopped down to the quick.
Old Highway 82 Bridge, Columbus, MS.
County road 30 surfaced to cross 82, then ducked under the trees again. Except for the few miles that the wild thing was shooed onto the new road, it did this all the way to Tuscaloosa—dipping in and out, cutting back and forth across the four-lane like a dolphin running the bow of a cabin cruiser. Some loops were well maintained, others could barely be called paved. It showed itself at Coal Fire (which was originally called Cold Fire, but maybe the residents didn’t want to go through life as an oxymoron), then hitched a lift on the four-lane through Reform (which got its name from what a disgusted preacher yelled as he left), and slimmed back down to squeeze through Gordo (the Spanish word for "fat"). Not too far east of Gordo, just after turning onto Tuscaloosa County Road 140, I saw an original 82 marker in the rear view mirror. The old sign had been left standing because it was easier to attach "JCT" than spring for a new one. It was bullet-ridden and bent at the post. Beaten up and left staggering along the road because somebody didn’t like its looks.
East of Elrod, just west of Buhl, I came to the valley of my epiphany. The road settled down, then stretched out, and I was relieved of most forces centrifugal, but seized by others much less definable. I have been back to the Sipsey River many times since that day on the bridge, and each time, I find myself—at least for a second or two—staring east. What I see is a swamp: a place where pavement catwalks a scape irresolute of solid or liquid, a scene where living fossils leave swirls in a dark, organic broth that stains the swollen trunks of water tupelo and cypress. A flatness, a straightness, that—after so many miles of low hills and tight curves, after a long day of travel nearing its end—burned an indelible image into my malleable childhood memory. It comes back to me each time, small because of distance, yet hauntingly clear; like a negative held to the light long after the print was lost. The sirens of the Sipsey were singing to me again, but I had to keep moving. County road 140 pulled me up and out of the valley, on to Coker, and back to the four-lane. A few more miles, and 82 blended into the bustle of Northport and Tuscaloosa.
You can always tell when you enter or leave a goodly-sized southern city anymore, because the rural-urban interface is nearly always occupied by at least one doublewide sales lot. I passed a couple, plus a Wal-mart Supercenter, a Foodmax, and an Exxon Speedmart. Double, super, max, speed. Just about everything about Old 82 along here used to be single, little, low and slow. I’m not sure this is an improvement. After several lights, I came to another old motel where we used to stay. I parked and headed toward the pool, thinking about a conversation that took place there a long time ago.
It was one of those hot, hazy, summer evenings where a dull orange sun dims to half-gray before touching the horizon. Dad had checked us in, then made a run to Kentucky Fried Chicken. When he got back, I traded Mom a wing for something bigger and swapped Granny a slaw for a second mashed potatoes and gravy. I passed the thirty minutes of post-meal quiet time necessary to avoid sudden death from swimming-induced stomach cramps by feeding coins to the Magic Fingers bed. When the all-clear finally came, I changed, sprinted for the pool, cannonballed to the bottom of the deep end, tagged the drain, and then pushed off hard to the surface. I came up and a voice said, "Betcha can’t get this penny." A Negro boy about my age—feet stuck like stirrups in the chain link fence, one hand gripping the top rail like reins—dug a coin from his pocket and threw it in the water. I watched it flutter down until it was a spot on the bottom that could be aimed for, took a big breath, dove, and brought it up. I tossed it back at him, and he started talking.
He told me about his swimming hole. He told me about his fishing hole. He told me about his brothers, his bike, and what he had for lunch. He told me his mama worked nights and he could go home when he felt like it—but didn’t like to be out after dark. He asked a question once in a while, and my short response would segue him into the next subject. I listened closely, because I’d never talked to a Negro kid before. Only one Negro family lived in Nevada, Missouri. I heard the children went to school just across the state line in Fort Scott.
Like me, he thought catalpa worms were good bait. Like me, he could never beat his big brother at checkers. Like me, he went everywhere on his bike, ate lots of meals with his grandmother, and scavenged pop bottles to cash in for ice cream money. He did a lot of things I did, but I still had the feeling his life was far removed from mine. I heard Mom calling. I had to come in. As I dried off, he asked where I was from. I said, "Missouri."
He said, "Is that up by Dee-troit?"
Swim time was over for everyone at this pool; with everything left in place, it had been filled dead level to the top with soil. The handrails of the old ladders stood in lopsided, parallel arcs above the surface like warped wickets in an oversized croquet set. Where I used to tread water and spring from the board was a freshly tilled garden ready for spring planting. The crazy thing looked like an outdoor bath at the Pompeii Holiday Inn.
I went back to the car and drove on. I hung a right two lights later, where Old 82 once turned south. A few blocks down, the old route gradually angled left, following Bridge Avenue. This little jog was very familiar. Right around here was a Dairy Queen, where I remembered getting butterscotch dipped cones. It had two serving windows. A sign over one said it was for people some considered to be not like me.
The road quietly burrowed under a berm at the Black Warrior River—there was no bridge for Bridge Avenue anymore. The second of the three spans I remember stood at this site. Strangely enough, while the first was a drawbridge in imagination, this one was a drawbridge in reality. I recalled it being long, creaky, and crowded, but that was the best I could come up with—it had been a long day and I was getting tired. I headed home for the night, and would start fresh again tomorrow on the other side of the river.
The Horn of Plenty, Chilton County, Alabama.
We were an eager bunch when it came to traveling. We were up-and-at-em by 3:00 a.m., on the road by four. I managed to get out of the house around dawn—tardy by the old standard, timely still to fit in a long day’s drive to Tifton and back. I drove down to the river and turned around at the bank opposite from last night’s stopping point. Yesterday, my only purpose was to follow the old route come-what-may. I set off this day in search of three things: a fruit vendor, a fleur de lis, and a fire.
With all due respects to the State of Georgia, Chilton County, Alabama produces some of the best peaches in the South. Each summer, on our way back home, we made it a point to stop at one of the produce stands that lined the highway there. We did this for Granny, because she dearly loved a good mess of fresh peaches. I dearly wanted to find one of those old roadside markets.
The Fleur De Lis Motel in Montgomery was just so-so in accommodations, but had a sign out front that was a sight to behold. It was a flowing, flashing exhibition of electrified grandeur which, in the eyes of a ten-year old, was like a two-story diorama of Times Square with COLOR TV. I loved to stand beneath it at night, bathed in a faux moonlight of white neon, hypnotized by the stately silhouette of the fleur de lis and the static-laced hum of NO VACANCY. I would do it again if I could.
One late evening in March of 1978, three college buddies and I were traveling straight through the night, hastily returning from a spring break in Florida. I was sound asleep until someone shook me hard, and I sat up, adding an illuminated, startled face to those of my friends as seemingly the only witnesses to the incineration of the central business district of some town. We watched in muted disbelief for what must have been several minutes. Then, like an anthill with its top kicked away, people finally began to emerge and move frantically about the scene. Sirens ran through the silence and rotating flashes of red hovered below high candescent columns of yellow and orange. Headlights gained fast in the rearview mirror. We became afraid of getting in the way, so we drove on. We have all since forgotten what municipality burned that night, but calculations of average speed with an afternoon departure time from Florida placed it somewhere between Tuscaloosa and the Georgia line. I scanned numerous old Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, and even Birmingham newspapers on microfilm at the University of Alabama library, but incredibly found no references to the disaster. I knew it really happened, and I was determined to find out where.
I tagged along as Greensboro Avenue, the chaperone of long, lost Old 82 through Tuscaloosa, picked up the highway at the Black Warrior and took it downtown. The boulevard restrained the wayward soul with stoplights in front of the marbled courthouse, staid churches and stately homes, the Waysider Restaurant and the train station, then sent it on its way. At the outskirts of town the old route slowly gained speed, and, like a hobo catching a boxcar, ran quietly alongside new 82 and cautiously hopped aboard.
Personal travel proverb number two: Fear not the void of darkness, for the absence of light reveals the embers of thought. Dad and I had some of our deepest conversations along this stretch—in the dark. We looked forward to that hour of travel before first light; it cleared yesterday’s clutter like a forearm across a card table, opening up space for whatever was dealt with the new dawn. I wished I had left earlier. Reflection is much harder here after sunup.
Bibb County Road 58—Old 82—branched off at Eoline. Eoline pointed me toward Brent, and Brent showed me to the county seat. When I asked an employee in the courthouse annex in Centreville if they had experienced a big fire in the spring of 1978, the question gathered everyone in the place around me. No one could recall such an event, but one person thought there was a big fire in Union Springs about that time. Hmmm. I thanked them all, went back to the car, and unfolded the Alabama map. Union Springs—a decent-sized county seat situated midway between Montgomery and the Georgia state line—was certainly a possibility. I ran my finger east from Centreville down 82. The old highway didn’t pass directly through Prattville; Montgomery was too big, nothing else was big enough. That left Union Springs and Eufaula, and now I had a rumor suggesting my fire was in the former.
Just east of Centreville, 82 skirted the north edge of the Talladega National Forest. This rolling tunnel of timber used to be a bear to drive through before third lanes were added for passing on hills. I crossed into Chilton County and kept my eyes peeled for produce stands. There were a few here and there, but none I recognized. Near Maplesville, 82 intersected with U.S. 22, and at this spot in 1978 my spring break-bound buddies and I came within a few days—possibly hours—of crossing paths with William Least Heat Moon. The fellow Missourian and Ford van driver was on the Selma leg of a loop around the United States that became the subject of the classic byway travel memoir, Blue Highways. In late 1960, John Steinbeck crossed 82 just down the road at Montgomery and dropped off a hitchhiker; for three months he had been documenting his travels with a French poodle named Charley.
On a terraced field to my left, peach trees stood erect in tight, contoured formations while striking up bright lavender florets. Distracted by the horticultural halftime, I stumbled across THE HORN OF PLENTY. There it was, big as life, just north of the Chilton-Autauga County line. Makes sense now that we stopped there a lot, because on our way back home it was an easy-in, easy-out produce stand that would have been one of the first we encountered. So I eased the Sentra on over.
Battened down for the off-season. Fading concession stand-style signs bracketed to a rolled asphalt roof and bookended by middle-aged Coca-Cola ads. Three cracked wooden posts buttressing a head-high canopy shading a large, boarded-up display counter. Semi-fresh coat of Mercantile White semi-gloss. Small billboard stashed behind hog wire hawking PEACHES and PLUMS with print arcing like raised eyebrows over faint representations of each fruit. I paced back a few steps to fit it all into view. This was Granny’s element. We would let her take over here. I saw her there: hair not yet white but a little beyond gray, cat-eye glasses, understated print dress cut from a Simplicity pattern, black sandals with short heels. She was hefting the tomatoes, smelling the strawberries, thumping the melons. She was in a discussion about how much sugar goes into shortcake. She bought some nice peaches—she always got peaches—and saved the best looking one for her pocket. Dad found room in the trunk by digging and stacking slate-gray Samsonite. We drove off, and Granny pulled out the cream of Chilton County’s crop, peeled it, and offered me a slice on the blade.
In Autauga County, prisoners wearing Cloroxed white shirts, matching pants, and DayGlo orange vests were picking up roadside trash next to a shiny white Alabama Department of Corrections van. The old image was much less sanitized: chain gangs in gray stripes swinging scythes between two shotguns and a beat-up school bus. After a few hills, the highway leveled off and spread briefly to four lanes to get around Prattville. Another incline, a descent with a familiar vista of power plant smokestacks, and the road shrank back to two lanes. A couple of miles, then brash lights and brusque signs barked at 82 to stop, go right, and share four lanes with U.S. 31.
The Alabama River bottoms. I remembered seeing the first Spanish moss and the last long bridge here. The epiphyte remained, but the edifice did not—dynamite dropped it into the river a month ago because it was no longer safe. After the bottoms the landscape stayed flat but turned industrial, and then I passed a doublewide sales lot—so I knew I was coming into Montgomery.
At the intersection of West Boulevard and Selma and Montgomery Road, U.S. 31 excused itself south, and Old 82 met U.S. 80. While waiting here at a stoplight in the summer of 1965, I heard Mom say to herself, they came this way. I knew exactly what she was talking about.
U.S. 80 haunted me back then. I knew policemen had hurt some people walking along U.S. 80 in Selma a few months before. Black and white snapshots of hard hats, gas masks and billy clubs, of arms folded across cowering heads and cringing faces, flashed like recurring specters in my eight year-old mind’s eye. I heard that bloody day in Selma had something to do with a big parade of people that went right by this spot, and hooded ghosts didn’t like it one bit. Just after the parade, those ghosts followed a lady named Viola down U.S 80 not too far from here, and killed her right beside the road. U.S. 80 could frighten a kid to no end back then.
I passed a few familiar-looking motels in Montgomery, but no Fleur De Lis. I remembered the truck stops around I-65, the houses near Court Street, the strip malls and the Diplomat Inn. On the south side of the busy highway, a small, painted-brick Scottish Inn caught my eye. We probably stayed there once or twice when the Diplomat or the Fleur De Lis was full.
U.S. 82 took the easy way out of Montgomery on four-lane, sixty-five mile-per-hour U.S. 231. The road was flat and fast; thick stands of palmetto and pine stayed in easy focus ahead, yet blurred at the sides in an instant. In an instant, I once saw the face of fate right here.
My brother, who had just gotten his license, was driving our new green Oldsmobile Delta 88. It was the morning of the second day of our 1969 summer trip south. I was sitting next to Granny in the back seat. Mom must have been in the back, too—but I know I was beside Granny, because when it was all over I realized I had the hem of her dress balled up in my fist.
My brother was passing a semi truck. A car at a crossing up ahead turned into our lane, coming right at us the wrong way. My brother punched the horn. The trucker hit his and held it.
More than anything else, I remember the din. It saturated the air around us; made it feel thick, gave it resistance, like we were suddenly moving through a gel. Nothing numbs like an earsplitting sound. Maybe that is why we scream when we are scared. Maybe loudness mutes the shock. Maybe noise muffles the blow.
My brother considered the ditch, but at the last second the other car lurched to the side. An instant before, I saw the face of a woman reflecting the horror coming at her. An instant after, I looked back and saw her holding that face in her hands.
Personal travel proverb number three: Even the least undulant road is not long for melancholy; at the far end of the slightest depression is an uplifting experience. Sounds like one of the many inspirational message-of-the-week church signs that I saw along the way. There is truth in this adage, because I had just been given one more sign from on high. It said, PINE LAKE MOTEL.
Wayne Gurley walked up as I stood dumbstruck in the draw of his neon and sheet metal lodestone.
"Like it? Been here since 1957. The first one said, FREE TV, SPRING AIR MATTRESSES, and ELECTRIC HEATING AND AIR instead of what’s up there now. Otherwise, all original."
What’s up there now was VACANCY, FAMILY OWNED, WELCOME, and 3269 SINGLE painted on four slender white parallelograms bolted to the bottom half of the sign. In fact, the whole thing was a study in shapes. Take a piece of paper and draw a long, narrow rectangle standing on end. Then, just to the left of the rectangle’s base, begin drawing a gradually widening arrow shaft that shoots up and slightly away from the rectangle. When you are not quite even with the top of the rectangle, make a very sharp bend to the right and continue drawing the shaft on a line slightly down from horizontal. After crossing the rectangle, put the point on the arrow. Now sketch a reclining peanut-shaped blob in the middle of it all. Write PINE LAKE in the semi-horizontal part of the arrow shaft, write MOTEL across the blob, and stack four thin parallelograms on top of each other in the area below. That’s Wayne’s sign.
Pine Lake Motel sign, Montgomery County, Alabama.
"I stayed here once" is all I could get out. Wayne—a no-nonsense, medium-build, middle-aged, t-shirts and Levi’s type of a guy—took over from there.
He showed me all around. Wayne has owned the Pine Lake Motel since 1972. It had a western theme when he got it—wagon wheels, steer horns, the works. He dropped all of that hooey, but the sign, rooms and grounds were still a spick-and-span time capsule of 1963.
"Rooms on this side used to have linoleum floors. They were a dollar cheaper than carpet."
A buck less with linoleum. Get a load of that. Throw in one of those white dial phones with no dial, a Magic Fingers bed, and a Sanitized For Your Protection toilet seat and you’d have to slap yourself to keep from trying to fine tune for Ed Sullivan’s mug on the FREE TV.
I finally got around to explaining myself to Wayne, thanked him for the tour and his tolerance of my silliness. He told me to come back and catch the sign at night. That gave me a thought.
"Wayne—you being a veteran motel man in these parts, do you remember the Fleur De Lis in Montgomery?"
"Sure—it had a great sign, too. Across the street from the Diplomat. It’s a Scottish Inn now."
U.S. 82 bid adieu to U.S. 231 not far from the Pine Lake Motel. Things began to get a little fuzzy here. In the early days, it was easy to brush off 231 as an annoying little two-lane that would just get in the way. It grew up quickly though, with broad shoulders, flashy lines, and four wide lanes that held the door open for a fast spin to Florida—and we often left skinny 82 behind. In fact, my friends and I only came this way in 1978 because we had missed an exit. I kept my date with the old travel chum this time, but found nothing in our leisurely cruise through the prosperous woodlands and pastures of this neighborhood to reminisce about.
I snooped around the downtown area of Union Springs for a bit, then stepped into the Bullock County Chamber of Commerce and inquired if anyone around remembered a 1978 fire. A woman with a drawl as smooth, light, and finished as freshly browned meringue told me with a calm smile that she had lived here all her life, and could assure me that Union Springs had not hosted the housewarming I described.
Eastward, I met little traffic, passed sod farms, and saw kudzu, Spanish moss and mistletoe all in one tree. Eufaula was a living postcard of live oak, Spanish moss, columns and azaleas. The town was absolutely ablaze with white, purple, and hot pink blossoms; so much so that if I could have flipped the switch on the sun right then, I swear they would have glowed enough to throw shadows. I inquired about local conflagrations at a rusty old motor lodge. A woman with salt-and-pepper hair and a crossword puzzle on her sweatshirt told me that she hadn’t worked there long, but the owner was in the shower and she could go get him. I told her not to bother, and decided against further pursuits of incendiary issues. I drove across sprawling Lake Eufaula, gaped across the silver foil surface of the captive Chattahoochie, and departed Alabama.
Progress was callous to my cause, so it was tough not to sulk my way through Georgia. Only forty-eight miles of original 82 roadbed remained between the state line and Tifton; the rest was a four-lane effectively dividing eastbound traffic from the west—and me from the past. Stodgy antebellum homes enduring wisteria’s annual obsession with dangly purple party lanterns perked me up a bit in Cuthbert as did the textbook case of turrets exhibited by Andrew College. I had to dodge a municipal water tower standing smack dab in the middle of the road like a friendly farm dog. Cuthbert always did have character.
West of Dawson I crossed Ichawaynochaway Creek, then from this or that-a-way caught a whiff of the familiar burnt mustiness of peanut mills. East of Dawson the scent of the old trail disappeared in the turbulent flow of the four-lane. I sniffed the breeze again along Business 82 in Albany, but detected no remains.
In Tifton I stopped at a Wendy’s one block from the I-75 South entrance ramp and checked the trip odometer: 495 miles. I grabbed a medium Frosty, pointed the Sentra back toward the sunset, and drove home in darkness. The towns all looked different at night. Wayne’s sign was hard at work drawing weary motorists and wired moths.
The next day at the University of Alabama library, I spun through countless reels of microfilm, scanning the words of state papers printed in late March and early April of 1978. Finally I hit on this Tuesday, March 28, 1978, Montgomery Advertiser page 13 subheadline:
EUFAULA BLAZE CAUSE UNKNOWN
The fire had destroyed a downtown shopping center the previous Friday night. The call to the station came at 10:46 p.m. Fire Chief Judd McKee declared the blaze "the worst I can remember in the history of Eufaula."
The year we saw that fire, my spring break buddies and I had a band. We played some bluegrass, a little old-time country, and a few novelty tunes. You could catch our act at the Downbeat Club and dorm functions in Joplin, or St. Canera’s Ham and Bean Dinner in Neosho. We were always making up songs. We came up with a little ditty while driving through Tuscaloosa County. With a backbeat of snapping fingers, it went something like this:
Tuscaloosa County, hey—I’ve been there I’ve seen those girls with the long, dark hair I like their hats I like their shoes I love the way they sing the rhythm and blues In Tuscaloosa County, I’m going back some day.
And so I did. On Old 82.
Kevin Pritchard is a Research Technician in the Center for Freshwater Studies at the University of Alabama. He lives in Tuscaloosa with his wonderful wife, and they have two fine sons in college. This is Kevin's first published work of creative writing.