Slow down and see the America that used to be is the America that still is

Published 12:28 pm Wednesday, March 24, 2021

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I came across an old photograph of my parents and older brother. They had taken what used to be called a motor trip, and the photo was taken as they were sitting in a glass bottom boat in Silver Springs, Florida. No one wrote the year on the photo, but my brother had to be three or four, so it was probably taken in 1951 or ’52.

There is no telling how long it took them to make the drive in the pre-interstate days. It takes about six hours to drive there now. There were no fast food restaurants, and gas stations pretty much only sold gas—though they would check your oil and wipe your windows while they filled your tank.

Car trips used to be the norm.

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Did you know that Clark Gable—yes, that Clark Gable, the one who got famous as Rhett Butler in “Gone With the Wind” for telling Scarlet that, frankly, he did not give a darn (this is a family newspaper)—used to drive to Florida every year. And did you know that he made a point of stopping in at the City Café in Roanoke? It happened to be on the route he chose, and he happened to like their food.

Oh my, the America that used to be.

I decided to take a drive last night for no apparent reason. Some of the best things in my life happen for no apparent reason.

I often go across the dam to watch the spectacular sunsets on Lake West Point. But not tonight. Instead of going that way I, drove south on highway 29.

My plan–if I had a plan–was to drive down the Valley (you have to be a local to understand the phrase “down the Valley”), hang a right somewhere along the way, and make my way back home. But wanderlust evidently took over. Instead of taking a right and wending homeward, I kept driving, past Valley High, past Daniels (are there better hamburgers?), past Givorns.

I drove over the Duwayne Bridges bridge. It takes you over what we used to think of as stink creek; it was always fun to drive across it to see what color dye West Point Pepperell dumped into the creek that week. A little farther down, Judge Brown Road comes in at a sharp angle from the right. Have you ever noticed how no one ever calls it “the” Judge Brown road?

Hudmon’s Store comes up fast, and if you aren’t looking for it, you will completely miss that you can veer to the left right in front of it and wind up at what used to be the skating rink. If you keep going that way you wind up in Beulah, and where my friend Alan Pritchett used to live.

But if you stay on 29 you have much more to see. If you keep driving you come up to the Lee County sign. That means very little any more, but it used to mean that you’d just crossed from a dry county into a wet county. For those of you who don’t remember the wet/dry days, you could buy beer in a wet county, but you couldn’t in a dry county. Chambers was a dry county. That used to be a big deal. Many is the Valleyan who would slip away to have a beer with their catfish, hush puppies, and biscuits at the White House. I’d still give a shiny nickel for a good steak from Barnes. Hold the beer.

Remember the old grist mill on Halawakee Creek? It was one of the earliest mills in the area and it’s still something to see.A little further down the road, I popped out of highway 29 only to realize that I was about a hundred yards from the turnoff to I-85. In fact, I doubt I’d ever been far from the interstate.

I came back that way. What a let down.

When I was on highway 29 I’d been driving near rolling hills, past pretty churches, around gentle curves and over small bridges. Then I spilled onto the interstate. I got back home in about half the time. But oh my, what I had to give up for that speed.

There was a time when a motor trip was an adventure.  Maybe we should slow down, ease off the interstate, drive on our state and county roads, and see the America that used to be.

We might just learn that the America that used to be is the America that still is; maybe we just don’t slow down enough to realize it.

And maybe that’s an adventure we need.