Visiting my grandparents on my own for the first time was a real thrill. I felt so independent with my own car, my own license, both still being so new that I felt entirely grown-up.
“Look at me, I’m on a road trip,” I’d say to myself, checking the rearview mirror, the side-view, following all the rules of the road as though I had something to prove. I was even tempted to wave at the few troopers I saw to let them know that I’d already guessed where they were hiding, always on the other side of a larger group of pines.
“Ha ha,” I’d say out-loud, “ain’t gonna catch me. I’ve got the cruise on.”
It was a straight shot up I-55 until you hit the exit at Senatobia. After that, it was all two lane black top with lines on either side of the road and down the center, if you were lucky. I took notice of when I started seeing Kudzu, that southern plant that takes over everything; telephone poles, telephone lines and even livestock, I decided, if they stood still long enough.
Yes, Kudzu was a wonderful sign that you were entering rural Mississippi and getting nearer to my grandparents house. Oh, another sign, skunk spray or at least that’s what my daddy always said it was. It was an odd odor and bearable in the car, drifting in through the vents. Yet its “dis-stink” smell had everyone going for their noses.
The dips in the road though, those were the most memorable. A virtual free roller coaster ride as pavement spread out over red clay offered subtle drops after a slight rise. With the speed limit going up, the exhilaration went up as well, the stomach flopping and causing even the oldest child to smile a bit.
“Wheeeeee,” the rest of us would say, our hands going up over our head in anticipation of the next one. Daddy would always gun it at the bottom making it that much more fun all while Momma would make sure she pointed out that he was going to get a ticket if he didn’t slow down.
Then as evening approached, the ground fog would rise, over green pastures, dotted with cows and trees and of course Kudzu. It was the perfect southern picture. As it got darker though, it became a bit of a hazard. Harder to see deer and the lines on the road.
“How do you see when another car is coming at you?” I asked my daddy once, leaning on the back of the front seat, before seatbelts were mandatory. You’d think a trip through the windshield from the backseat at seven might’ve taught me something.
“You just look at the lines on the side of the road,” Daddy said. And I did just that as I drove, at the same time flashing my hi-beams to get the other car to lower their lights. Yes, I was very grown-up.
Presently, I was also worried. The turn off to my grandparent’s trailer park was not easy to spot, especially in the dark. You needed to know when you were coming up on it or else an eighteen-wheeler on your tail might barrel over you. They can’t stop fast, you know. You have to start pumping your brakes early.
Road signs were all I could see now and the one I’d just passed read Byhalia, (pronounced by-hell-ya) We always thought it was funny to tell anyone who asked that our Granddaddy Lawler was a Southern Baptist preacher who pastored a church by hell, subtly dropping the “ya” part so it sounded like we meant it to sound. Of course, we didn’t tell many adults how humorous we thought this was lest we get in trouble. A few knew though, and we found them telling the same joke to their friends.
Well, there was Dewberry’s feed and seed so I knew I was close now. I was losing all hope of finding it on the first pass however, until I remembered something else from my past, words I’ll always cherish to this day, words that every good southerner who ever visited “old folk” will never forget, words that a national motel chain found phenomenal as well.
Both my grandparents said it often, every time you’d leave their house destined to come back late, anytime you were coming to see them but wouldn’t arrive until after dark. Words that brought such hope I no longer doubted my ability.
“We’ll probably be asleep by the time you get here,” they’d say, “but that’s okay, we’ll leave the light on for ya.”
And there it was, at the top of the hill.
Hope renewed, I pumped my brakes and made the turn.
(side-note: yes I went over the word limit and have already corrected one error. Ah the beauty of regular article submissions!)
Read more articles by Sue Dent or search for articles on the same topic or others.
Awww Sue. I liked this. I liked the little bits and pieces about the scenery and the trip, as well as the liberation of that first big trip as a driver. Best of all, I loved the ending. That's what got the "Awwww" out of me. Love, Deb
What a great memory and a memoir with a neat punch! Ah, the open road. Have to say I love it, too. One thing, watch the transition from you alone to you and family in car and back again - bit bumpy. (But a fun ride :-))
This is delightful! You are from my area (I'm in South Louisiana). I know those rolling hills and two lane highways well.
Your descriptions were beautiful. I felt I was right there with you. I well remember that intoxicating first road trip on my own. Great work!