A Pedestrian Empathy
What Lies Beneath

What Interstates Are Good For (Besides Cracker Barrel)

In the past four days, my little family (Mom, Dad, two teenagers) spent a total of 15 hours and 52 minutes in what amounts to a seven by seven room --- a car, that is --- with only brief excursions outside for necessities.  We were traveling to and from Raleigh, North Carolina to Lookout Mountain, Georgia, the site of Covenant College, a prize well worth the trip along the interstates.  On the whizzing car trip, I had time for a few observations, none of which may strike you as particularly original but, of course, there are no new revelations but only new ways in which old revelations come to roost.  Herein are my observations:

1.  Tennessee must license about anyone given the way they drive.  Other than Maryland drivers, who are in a class by themselves and better resemble the better drivers in Uganda, they are some of the worst drivers in the country.  On the east side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there is a particularly winding (for an interstate) stretch of I-40.  It sets these hillbillies free.  I now know why, when I used to frequent Nashville, most cars were dented or otherwise beat up.  It's the cost of all that reckless abandon.

2.  Thank God for Cracker Barrel.  I'm serious.  Their ubiquity is a testimony to the fact that most plain folks like me, the kind I see in Cracker Barrels all over the country, were taught by their Mommas to eat their vegetables.  How many places can you eat vegetables along an interstate highway?  Where else can you find great classic music like that of Buck Owens, Portner Wagner, and Marty Robbins alongside Chicago and Creedence Clearwater Revival?  Furthermore, eating my vegetables, listening to country music, and browsing the sugarland of candy that's the same as the kind I grew up eating (too much of), made me think of my family and, after recalling with horror (OK, not horror, but gentle remorse) that I had missed two of my sisters' birthdays, as well as my MOTHER's birthday (OK, that one I really, really feel bad about), I bought greeting cards, nice ones too, with animals on the front doing ridiculous things.  I felt better.  The only thing I regretted was that I did not have time to have a rock in their rocking chairs on the porch.  Now that's a shame. 

3.  People, even people who love each other, are not meant to be cooped up in a car the size of a small bathroom for over seven hours.  Even otherwise mature teenagers break under the pressure.  There are odd mood swings.  At one point my son and daughter are almost giddy with pleasure at their camaraderie, breezing through a collection of show tunes and other pop songs, singing, oblivious to our front seat ruminations; the next, they are clearly annoyed and ready for their space, as evidenced by the pleas of "he touched me" or tell her to. . ." or "you're rude."  After hearing this awhile, I'm ready to stop at whatever passes for the local pub, and I don't even drink.  But like I said, the confines of space are cruel and unusual, and when we arrive at home and the doors are flung open on a larger world, all will be forgiven. Like at the end of our one way trip to Heaven, we'll step out on firmer ground, in a bigger room, and all we said and did will be forgiven and the less becoming parts of our past will grow strangely dim.  I'm just a weary pilgrim, traveling through this world of bickering. . .

4.  I'm thankful when traffic stops dead on the interstate in a beautiful rural area like that between Knoxville and Asheville.  You can actually take your eyes off the bumper in front of you with obnoxious stickers and focus on what you're driving through.  It's plumb beautiful,  Not the drop dead beauty of the Tetons but, rather, an older kind of beauty, softer and more subtle.  For a moment, I consider just pulling to the side and parking, as I am nearly parked anyway, moving along at the average speed of five miles per hour, and just getting out of this contraption, breathing some mountain air, and sticking my toes in the cold water of the Pigeon River. I had that thought somewhere around Cosby or Hartford, Tennessee. About then I remembered stories of feuding hillbillies and wondered if I might get shot at or something exciting like that. I settled for rolling down the window.

5.  On long trips like this, conversational lulls can be frequent and sometimes long.  I fill the interstices like we all do, with daydreams, plans, and internal talk.  You know you do it too.  You carry on an internal dialog with yourself.  Sometimes I do it just to see how it will sound if I actually said it, like, if I said to a friend, "you know you should really think about doing this or that. . ." or maybe rehearsing the sound of something I might write.  I can actually hear it in my head.  Anyway, without these lulls in conversation, where would I be?  You wouldn't have the benefit of all this wisdom borne of reflection.  So I'm thankful.  And you better be.

6.  I'm also thankful for the relatively smooth ride most interstates provide.  My rear (can I say that here?) is especially thankful.  I mean, I have traveled the roads of Uganda and I have to tell you that local beauty is magnificent but one quickly loses the ability to appreciate it after three or four hours dodging big potholes so you can run over other big potholes.  That being said, on some stretches of the road it seems that someone on the road crew fell asleep at the switch because either icing or filling was poorly mixed in this recipe. Ka-bump, ka bump, ka-bump, and the like for several miles.  But then I think, how many times have I been asleep at the switch or worse?  So I try and forgive the men or women who did this to us.

7.  Remember road trips as a child when you used to pass the time by counting things?  I do.  One of the things we used to count was graveyards.  Have you tried that lately?  It's nearly impossible to find one from an interstate highway.  I theorize --- have we as a society pushed death out of sight and mind, because we don't won't to think about it?  Because we have no hope for life beyond death?  Someone just cut me off.  I'm thinking about it (death), someone's anyway.

8.  Some people aren't very original in naming towns.  In Tennessee, you have Nashville.  We got that one too in North Carolina and I bet it's a lot more civilized and less full of flim-flam persons (I guess there are women flim-flam persons but I never met one and the one in the book by Guy Ownes is a man).  There's Cleveland, and I bet it's prettier than the one in Ohio, the one Chrissie Hynde says is gone anyway (The Pretenders, "My City Was Gone").  There's Wildwood, an overused name if ever I heard one, and not very descriptive.  Wear Valley, as in "this valley really begins to wear on you after living here all your life and never gettin' beyond the crick and this holler."  New City (oh, sure) and Athens (toga, anyone?) and even Philadelphia (population 533).  It's all been done.  But Soddy- Daisy?  I don't think that one's been done.  Two communities joined in matrimony.  Soddy married up, I hear.

9.  The thing about Cracker Barrels is that you don't usually find them in the midst of big cities.  People there are too uppidy, eating noveau cuisine (tiny portions of raw fish served on huge white plates with obscene pricetags) or atmosphere that's meant to make you feel important.  I feel at home in Cracker Barrel, like I am among my own.  I feel plenty important.  These folks enjoy their food (they have well-developed midriffs) and like to set a spell and talk about politics (the conservative kind, mostly) or weather or maybe huntin' and guns.  Though I didn't mention it to my family, I secretly hoped for a Cracker Barrel around the Biltmore Village exit in Asheville.  I was deluded.  These folks have probably zoned out "trash" like that.  We ate at Panera Bread (fast food for the better-heeled), shook the dust from our feet, and beat a path over the mountain.

10,  Lest you think this just a promo piece for Cracker Barrel, let me finish with one final observation.  If I could write this in the form of a song, I would, but I have no talent in that regard.  The people that keep these roads as nice as they are work all night to do it.  My heart goes out to them.  The last one I flew by was manning a solitary drill about midnight at the edge of a blocked lane of the interstate between Durham and Raleigh.  Now what kind of a life is that?  Where is his family?  What sacrifices has he made to put food on the table?  Mister, I know you don't read blogs, but I sent a prayer up for you and left it in the air behind these taillights.  There are no little people.  You are out here doing what you do so I can drive my family on a decent road.  To your dog, wife, and children (and not necessarily in that order), my hats off (I mean that figuratively.)  May God bless you and them tonight.

So there you have it.  That's what you get for 15 hours on the interstate.  If you don't write down these profundities, you might forget them.  And probably you will.  But I won't.  And the next time I eat at Cracker Barrel, you can bet I'll think about this trip and maybe a few others out there on the interstates.  Thank God for them.