Early Mountain Road Trips: My earliest road trip memories came from when my family traveled a couple of times a year from western North Carolina across the Smokey Mountains to visit my father’s parents on the family farm in eastern Kentucky. Interstates 40 and 75 didn’t exist then, so we usually followed U.S. 25 north across the southwestern tip of Virginia into eastern Kentucky. U.S. 25 was then a narrow two-lane road that wound and twisted through steep mountain passes and along the French Broad and Cumberland rivers. Drop-offs on the outer edge of the road plunged down steeply into valleys and what were called “The Nars,” small narrow gaps between the mountains. Sometimes we drove through “The Nars” and other times we wound our way to the top of steep mountains and down again.
Time Before Interstates: My sister and I occupied the back seat, minus seat belts which weren’t in common use yet, and amused ourselves on what seemed to us these eon-long trips.The electric gadgetry of today hadn’t been invented yet, so to amuse ourselves we relied on our imaginations to pass the time. My father, who was a constant observer of the landscape, helped entertain us since he pointed out anything of interest he noticed along the way. This gesturing and commentary often occurred to my mother’s horror. White-knuckled, she would be watching the narrow verges where the roadside plunged straight downward while my father would be enthusiastically describing a rock formation he’d noticed on the mountainside.
Newfound Gap: Memories, of course, can often be distorted, as I later discovered was true of my road trip memories. One of the steepest roads we followed on these trips was along Newfound Gap. We always seemed to have been driving for hours when we reached this narrow road with the sharply plunging sides. Later, as an adult, when I explored this area, I discovered that Newfound Gap was about fifteen or twenty minutes from our front door—so much for driving for hours.
The Characters: In addition to observing the beauties of the landscape, my father was also a collector of characters, and we seemed to run across many on these trips. Two, in particular, stand out in my memory. A tiny gas station, which perched on the top of one of the towering mountains, was run by a tall, mountain woman who did everything at the station. She filled the car with gas (this was long before self-serve), checked the oil and the water in the radiator, and washed every window in the car. She considered these chores standard service. During this work, she and my father held lengthy conversations that picked up from the last trip six months before. They discussed the weather, the mountains, politics, and anything else that caught their interest. Those stops for gas stand out clearly in mind as an essential part of those trips.
Molasses on the Side of the Road: The gas station lady led us to other interesting characters. She told us about a woman and her husband who grew sugar cane further on down the road. In the summer time, this farming lady ran a roadside stand where she and her husband made molasses. This sweet stop became a regular event during our summer trips as my father liked to stop and buy molasses to take to his mother. The sugar cane lady would cut small pieces of cane for my sister and me to taste. The sugar that poured out of the open end of the cane seemed like magic to me. Sugar that I associated with stores, actually grew in nature, who knew.
Later Road Trips: These trips formed my predilection for making road trips, an activity I still enjoy today. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share some of my favorite road trip memories. Next week, I’ll trace the college road trips my friends and I made to Carolina beaches.