THE ROADS NOT TAKEN

We went retro on a recent southern sojourn. We took an old-fashioned driving trip, without a detailed plan, waking up in a different roadside motel almost every day, and seeing “the country.” It’s my understanding people used to do this sort of thing on a regular basis back in the 1940’s and 1950’s. But my family never took such a trip when I was young and when my wife and I had children of our own, nothing could have sounded worse than piling into the car and driving for hours each day.
Now, unencumbered by jobs or small children, spurred by cheap gas and relatively cold temperatures, and chastened by the hassle of air travel, my wife, Katie and I opted to allot ten-twelve days to see the south. Of course, we didn’t leave everything to chance. Our first stop was Charleston, always a dependable spot for great food and sights. And our final destination was Savannah, also a guaranteed source of interesting and delicious things to enjoy. In between, however, we traveled the back roads of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. And we got together with friends I hadn’t seen in over thirty years. As Robert Frost concluded, “And that made all the difference.”
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Several improvements have been made to car travel since the heyday of “the road trip.” First of all, our car is not a station wagon or van, but a BMW with heated seats and cruise control. Second, there’s no struggle to find something to listen to in out-of-the-way places; we have Sirius satellite radio, books on tape and CD’s. Finally, there’s no dealing with maps or asking for directions from strangers. Rather, our smart phone and a GPS combined to save us time and anxiety.
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Our first destination after Charleston was Aiken, South Carolina. A college friend, Scott, settled there thirty years ago and invites everyone on our mutual e-mail list to visit when they are in the vicinity. Given that Aiken is the definition of “off the beaten track” in the southwestern quarter of the state, I believe we were the first in decades to take him up on the offer.
Aiken, I learned, is the home of “The Bomb Factory.” It’s where the United States produced much of its nuclear weaponry during the Cold War. Now, the same facility is the repository of millions of gallons of radioactive waste from that effort and Scott, a nuclear chemist, is in charge of devising methods for its safe disposal. While he indicates he is making progress, at the present rate, his employment is assured for several centuries.
Scott cooked a fabulous crock of chicken tortilla soup for lunch; it would have suited Charleston’s finest establishments. He introduced his wife, Deb and his son, Mark, who is a recreational food-eating contestant. I’m not sure if I could describe Mark as “accomplished” or “aspiring” in this particular avocation, but his You-tube account shows numerous triumphs in such disciplines as pizza and hot dog inhalation.
A third college friend drove down from Atlanta to join us for the day. Scott and I felt honored since Dan’s been visible only via Facebook and e-mail for the past three decades. Sure to stump any “What’s my Line” competition, Dan is an itinerant pediatrician, traveling the country on short-term assignments. He offers an amusing and insightful perspective on our healthcare system, parenting, and the difficulty of landing a fulltime position for a person determined to speak the truth.
Neither Scott nor Dan is defined by their careers or by having graduated from Dickinson College in the late 1970’s. Scott is a leading expert on the Three Stooges. He is published on the subject and owns a collection of memorabilia, correspondence and memories that would be the envy of any nine-year-old boy in the country. Women, not so much. In addition, Scott has the unique talent to make his shoulder blades speak and several less couth skills, if you can imagine.
Dan is renowned for having memorized the home address of every person in our entering class as of 1974. “Why?” one might ask. Some questions defy answers. The three of us had a great afternoon reminiscing while Katie and Deb endured. We communicated as easily as if we were back at our table in the rear of the cafeteria during the Carter administration. How could so many years have passed?
The visit stretched into dinner at a restaurant where I thought Mark might order twenty servings, given his eating skills, but he refrained. The next morning, Scott made blueberry pancakes, and we covered more meaningless but enjoyable trivia. As one might imagine of someone who can recite 400 home addresses after so long, Dr. Dan was particularly good at making one shake one’s head and say: “Oh, yeah, I had completely forgotten that.”
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After breakfast, Katie and I resumed our trip with Valdosta, GA as the day’s destination. Picked randomly as a place five hours due south, it sits just above the border with Florida. I can conclude the following about western South Carolina and central and southern Georgia: there’s not much there. Still, the ride was traffic free and the scenery pretty. To see it one time was interesting; if I had to take that drive on a regular basis, oy vey.
The weather was unseasonably warm, in the mid-70’s, and it seemed a shame to spend the entire afternoon in the car. Accordingly, in the town of Tifton, one hour north of Valdosta, we stopped at what a billboard proclaimed “The Third-Best Golf Course in Georgia.” The opportunity to knock off one of Katie’s least significant bucket list items was at hand. While I flailed my way around the course, which may not have even been the third best in Tifton, she drove the golf cart. She did a fine job driving and following the location of my shots. Her only serious breach of etiquette occurred in front of a large lake. As I stood over the ball, she said: “Don’t think about the water.” Do I need to complete this paragraph?
Also in Tifton, anchoring Main Street is “The Big Store,” owned by the family of a friend. It was Sunday, so the store was closed, but the exterior reminded me of my father’s store in Philadelphia. If he’d somehow settled in southern Georgia or the like, how different my life would have been.
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Following a planned two-day visit to Katie’s step-mom in Sarasota, we resumed our unplanned road-trip. Encouraged by the visit with Scott and Dan I e-mailed another college friend, Dave, whom I knew lives in Jacksonville, FL. Dave is like the three-toed sloth of our group of friends. We know he exists but is hard to see. Rare to weigh in on our email communications, I doubted Dave would be accessible for an impromptu visit.
An email elicited no response, and neither did an initial phone message left at his work number. But two hours into our drive, Katie texted Dave and he responded immediately. He agreed to meet for dinner at a local restaurant. My mind filled with recollections. Not only had Dave attended college with me, he had also attended the same high school and had shared my Washington apartment during my first year of law school. Yet, we’d hardly communicated in the interim.
The temperature fell from 79 in Sarasota to 54 when we arrived in Jacksonville during a fierce rainstorm. The billboard-dominated ride northeast featured orange groves and small towns dominated by trailer parks. We stopped to buy oranges and grapefruits but didn’t see other attractions unless one is a passionate about seeing baby alligators in cages. We aren’t.
Dave waited in the foyer when we arrived at PF Chang’s. An associate athletic director at Jacksonville University for eighteen years, he looked the same as I remembered except greyer. The same could be said of me. We enjoyed reviewing our shared history for several hours and vowed not to let thirty-five years intervene again. As to his lack of communication, Dave didn’t explain. Offering many memories but fewer insights, I accept that Dave is simply on the more private end of the human spectrum.
Jacksonville was a revelation to me. For no particular reason, I’d always assumed Jacksonville to be a sleepy backwater, surrounded by swamps and filled with trailers. Instead, it’s a vibrant city with over a million people. When the weather cleared the next day, we saw an impressive skyline, a river walk, beaches and museums.
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When we finally arrived home after two days in Savannah, Katie and I agreed it had been a good trip, different and interesting. Would we do it again? I doubt it’ll be anytime soon. Driving hours each day is tedious. But if we can catch up with old friends in new places again, you never know.

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