You should read Part One first.
My route home from Norfolk, Virginia to Montgomery, Alabama went a little further inland, running through Asheville, North Carolina then over to Chattanooga, Tennessee through the Nantahala National Forest before turning south to head back home via Birmingham. I was thankful that much of the journey out of Norfolk through rural southern Virginia occurred on Highway 58, which – like Highway 64 in North Carolina – was lined with homes, homesteads, mills, churches, and the occasional school. Everything was smooth and right pleasant.
Yet, back on the interstate, it was late in the day when I saw my first Confederate flag, near Hickory, North Carolina. And this one was a whopper. It was huge and flapping in the early spring wind, not something that one could ignore while traveling by it on I-40. There’s a similar flag – equally huge – in Alabama on the stretch of I-65 between Montgomery and Birmingham, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of it. When I see these, I just have to wonder why— a century-and-a-half after the surrender at Appomattox, a half-century after the end of the Civil Rights movement . . . . really? What is this flag’s prominent display really saying that could possibly be relevant today? I just can’t abide the argument that these aficionados of the Confederacy are preserving history. In the twenty-first century, the history of the Confederacy is being preserved quite well by a plethora of books, scholars, and institutions that provide a plethora of perspectives. In my opinion, waving that flag is nothing more than an attempt to garner attention for a debunked historical narrative – the Lost Cause – which, at this late date, is akin to the toddler who screams No! and runs away naked at bath time. Sure, you’re being defiant but the options are pretty limited. I am left to wonder, do they really think they’re winning anyone over with these gestures, or is just about thumbing their noses at modernity?
Still pondering that huge flag, I arrived in Asheville, which is one of my favorite Southern cities. Unlike Atlanta or Nashville, it’s not too big or too crowded. The landscape and geography are gorgeous, and the stony heaviness of the place appeals to my better nature. I’ve also long been a fan of Thomas Wolfe, since discovering his novels through Jack Kerouac as a twenty-something and reading a couple of them back-to-back. For various reasons over the years, this or that has brought me back to Asheville: seeing Oysterhead in the early 2000s and later interviewing John Beecher’s widow Barbara in nearby Burnsville. However, this time, I wouldn’t be staying downtown but chose instead to go through AirBNB to book a tiny house on a horse farm for my night’s rest.
That decision to forego a hotel in a bustling area of the city was based in part on a desire to maybe meet some new folks, maybe chat a little . . . but that wasn’t in the cards. This chilly fact of life in the age of handheld technology goes against every single thing I was taught as a boy growing up in Alabama: you speak to people, greet people even if you don’t know them, look them in the eye, and be welcoming. Not today. I don’t know if it’s the after-effects of paranoia-inspiring historical events like the attacks on 9/11 and NBC’s To Catch a Predator series, or if it’s just that people are getting too used to conducting life’s business without human interaction, or if it’s a combination of both, but I’ll say it like I feel it: it sucks how cold and distant and standoffish many people have become. I don’t walk around trying to be everybody’s new best friend, but I do expect human decency and some degree of civility in my daily interactions with others. My narrative, which is steeped in a Southern upbringing before cell phones and the internet, says that being hospitable and friendly are parts of getting along in society. To be frank again, I just can’t fathom what is wrong with people who respond to a casual attempt at conversation by hanging their mouths open and staring blankly. I guess I’m just feeling a bit like old Hank Williams, Jr. did in his 1980 hit “Dinosaur”— I know what I’m seeing, but I just don’t get it, and I sure don’t want it for myself.
Yet, if the stay in that lonely tiny house had my spirits low, the events of the next morning pushed my blood pressure way up. I can share that I have now driven on the windingest road known to all of mankind: Highway 74 as it runs between Asheville and Murphy in western North Carolina. Oh. My. Goodness. But I couldn’t complain, I chose it. This curviest of all curvy roads started out as a four-lane as it traipsed downward, careening first left and then right as the small groups of cars and trucks alongside mine alternated between barreling downhill and braking to make the turns. I was thinking, Man, I’m glad nobody is riding with me. They’d be pretty carsick. But I hadn’t seen anything yet. Once the highway went down to a two-lane, almost everyone had peeled off at their exits, and I was mostly alone as I wove my way through the preferred terrain of the kayaker and the hiker, doing no more than about thirty. Here, the curves got sharper and seemed to follow the riverways. Along the roadside was a mixture of kayaking operations in plain view and small homesteads tucked into hollows. Few stores, no gas stations, no cell service for a while. Frustrated by two different drivers who wanted to ride my back bumper, I used those rude motorists as opportunities to pull over at the roadside picnic tables and actually take a look around. This was an experience – not one I’d care to repeat, necessarily – but an experience, yes. (What’s funny is: movie buff that I am, I couldn’t help but think of Jeepers Creepers when people were riding aggressively close behind me.)
The last leg of this nearly 1800-mile ride was mostly smooth sailing— mostly. I-59 carried me from Chattanooga to Birmingham, and for a while, I was glad to be on a smooth, straight interstate. That span of miles ticked away, and mountains became hills as I approached home. Unfortunately, the good people of Birmingham, Alabama didn’t want me to pass through so quickly, preferring instead that I sit idling for more than hour, sucking up carbon monoxide while the suburbanites who live in the bedroom communities south of the city clogged the way with their attempts to exit at Alabaster/Columbia. As we inched past the exit, I kept expecting to see a wreck or maybe some construction, but nope. We all had to come to near-standstill so that the town-and-country types could get on and off the interstate.
All that was left, once high speeds resumed, was to pass by that big ol’ Confederate flag I just mentioned and then the infamous “Go to Church or the Devil Will Get You” sign before sliding into home mid-afternoon. Yet, life ceases its long march for no one, and within an hour, my wife and I were back in the truck, heading to Tuskegee for our daughter’s high school soccer game that evening.
Responding to people who say that America has become homogenized and now every place looks alike, the Texas writer Larry McMurtry remarked in his 2001 book Roads: no, it’s just that every interstate exit in America looks alike. I think I remember him writing something to the effect that all the fast food joints one could build wouldn’t make Boston look like Austin. The South is still a “place” – several, in fact – but the closest one might get to it from the interstate is having a sandwich made in a truck stop Subway by two sugar-sweet, tattoo-covered women who do their work like they were making their kids’ lunches in the morning. During these brief interludes of rest, the South teases weary travelers in the way a firefly does on a summer night, or sometimes it calls out like an owl or a hawk does from among treetops. The uninitiated will know it’s out there, but that’s about it.
More “A Road Trip” posts in Groundwork, the editor’s blog
A Road Trip, Eastbound: Highway 80, December 2022
A Road Trip, Northeast: Clayton, Georgia, April 2022
A Road Trip, Southbound: Highway 31, December 2021
A Road Trip, Northwest: Highway 82, November 2021
A Road Trip, Southbound: Highway 331, August 2021
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