Childhood Road Trips




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.

Mind Drift and Writing Prompts

Image of a Rocking Chair

Image of a Rocking Chair

Mind Drift: Letting our minds drift is a good way to stir our creativity. A major pull of reflective writing is the freedom to drift, letting one idea, one image connect with another—seeing a rocking chair in a magazine ad and having it call up a memory of rocking on a screened porch in the South, sipping sweet tea and snapping green beans. Thinking about green beans brings the memory of the rows of beautiful home-canned green beans my mother put up every summer and stored on the pantry shelves, saving them for delicious meals later in the winter. That memory makes me wonder whatever happened to home canning? Do many people still home can their vegetables, or is it cheaper and easier to get them at grocery stores?

From Image to Image: Letting the mind drift from one image to the next can provide multiple writing prompts because a single imagine can touch so many memories or may resonate with the present or even the future. From the above rocking chair seen in the ad, we could write about rocking chairs in general and feelings associated with them, or about their practical uses, or maybe changes in the style of rocking chairs. We can explore our own memories of rocking chairs and the people that sat in them, which could lead to writing about those different individuals in our lives or perhaps about different places we’ve lived.

The Rocking Chair: Thus, one image—the rocking chair—can lead to another image—the green beans, which can then touch off other memories or call up questions we could have. Thinking of green beans may make us ask what types of green beans are grown today? Do gardeners still grow pole beans? Are green beans good for us and how do we cook them? Are green beans favored in any particular cultural cuisine? A single image can often prompt such questions, and questions automatically lead to further writing. So we may feel like we have nothing to say when it comes time to write, but all we need is one image. What is your image? What questions does it provoke? What memories does it call up?

Epic Moment—Learning to Read

The Funny Papers

The Funny Papers

Being Read To: I remember the exact moment I realized I could read. I was in (hmmm…I think) the second grade. My family lived in a large drafty old house, and on Sunday mornings my father would get up early and light a fire in the living room fireplace to warm the house up. Then he read me the “funnies” from the Sunday newspaper. This time was a special ritual for me. The house was quiet. The fire was roaring. The cartoon “funnies” made me laugh.

Recognizing Words: I knew my alphabet and had begun to recognize words so when Sunday mornings came around, I was eager to have Daddy read the “funnies” to me with my help. I would pick out words I recognized and Daddy would have me say them instead of his reading them aloud. One morning as he was about to read “Little Iodine” to me, he stopped and said, “You know the words in this cartoon strip. You read it to me.”

I looked at him blankly. “I can’t read, Daddy,” I said in astonishment, shocked that he would forget this.

I Can Read: “Yes, you can. Read ‘Little Iodine’ to me,” he said and pointed to the first words. Slowly and hesitantly, I began to read the cartoon, work by word, but feeling the connection between the words. I read the entire cartoon strip aloud and stopped, feeling happy, excited, and a little anxious that I had suddenly developed this skill that I had previously associated only with adults. Sure, my older sister could read but she was three years older than I! It was a glorious moment—epic even—in my life.

PhDs Remember the Moment: Years later as I began my teaching fellowship in graduate school for my PhD in literature, my fellow neophyte instructors and I were gathered into small groups and asked to describe the moment that we realized we could read. Everyone in the group except for one person remembered the moment in detail. The group leader said afterward that research showed that people typically do not remember the moment they realized they knew how to read, but that literature PhDs generally do. I don’t know if that research was true, but based on my own experience, it seems probable.

The Allure of the Next Book: Why am I thinking about reading? Reflecting on the process of reading last week led to more reflections—personal reflection about reading and how much it has meant in my life. Only one year in my life has not been given over to reading and that was the year after I finished my PhD. I felt saturated, wasn’t sure I would ever read as much again in my life as I once had. I barely made it through that year before I was back at my public library looking for something to read. How could life ever be boring when another book was waiting for me on the very next shelf?