The Road to Auburn
I’m leaving my parent’s house, finally cleaned out and ready to rent after their passing. After saying goodbye to my sister who is flying out later that day, I resolve to make a short stop in Auburn on the way home to Charlotte. At a gas station on the edge of town I further decide against the usual route to Interstate 65 and to instead take the ‘old way’ to Auburn one last time.
It’s April, and early flowers are in bloom. The day is bright and sunny with only a few clouds far to the west. I turn the car north on a familiar two lane road through the Eglin Air Force Base reservation. Finding nothing on the FM band, I chose the ‘Southern Rock’ playlist on the music player feed into the radio. As Duane Allman’s ‘Little Martha’ began to play, I think back to every other time I ever took this route.
Sunlight splashes brightly on the asphalt through high branches of rank upon rank of loblolly pines as the miles and the memories fly by. I’m alone on the drive, but in my mind’s eye the seat beside me is occupied from time to time.
“Must we?” My wife asks, as we pass the on ramp and go under I-10 to turn on the parallel US 90 at Mossy Head. It’s 1990, mid-afternoon in late August and we’re in our Dodge Caravan. Our young children are sleeping in the back, completely worn out after a long week at the beach and visiting my parents. “It will just take longer this way.”
“No, it won’t” I insist obstinately, knowing full well it will. “This cuts out all the speed traps.”
“Uh-huh” she replies, completely unconvinced, “and just happens to go by Auburn so you have an excuse to get MORE T-shirts.”
“Just a quick stop,” I say as I turn on a county road that cuts an imagined 12 miles off the way to US 331.
She rolls her eyes, “OK, but don’t make it too long. We’ve still got another four hours to Fort Gordon from there.” She puts her hand in mine as we drive.
I pass through Florala on US 331. The ancient oaks lift high branches over the roadway, thickly draped in Spanish moss like bearded sages of antiquity overlooking a carpet of brilliant azalea blossoms. ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago” sounds from the speakers and it is August 1979. I’m driving my brother’s Volvo wagon on the route for the first time. Tim is reclined back in the passenger seat and dozing. Unsure of the route, I miss the turn for US 84 and we enter the old brick fronted downtown of Opp. He wakes up at a stoplight, startled.
“Where the hell are we?” he says irritably as he looks around. “Opp? You missed the turn.”
“What do you mean? I took the road you said – US 331, and there’s the sign for US 84.”
“But the first turn takes us around the town. Now we’ll hit a stoplight on every block.”
He turns over on the seat and mutters, “Take US 84 to Elba and look for Alabama 125 going north. Watch it going over the bridge; there’s a 90 degree turn. Wake me up when you see the sign for US 231. “
“Ain’t Wastin Time No More” comes on as I turn north on US 231. It’s the fall of 1981. I’m driving my girlfriend’s faded yellow 1972 Pinto and it is making a noise that I don’t (or don’t want to) hear.
“I still hear it.” She insists.
“Well I don’t, and neither did the mechanic at the gas station when we stopped.”
“Are you kidding? He listened to it for all of 20 seconds! Then you did that ‘guy look’ at each other that said it was all in my head. I tell you, something is wrong.”
“You’re imagining things. Nothing’s wrong with the car.”
Two hours later, after being towed to a service station in Brundidge and replacing the thermostat and blown coolant hose, she is triumphant as we pull back onto the highway.
“Told you so.” She says with a mischievous grin. She will remember this moment forever, and will remind me even decades later any time a car we own makes a noise that I seem even the slightest bit indifferent to.
I slow to a stop. The sign for Alabama State road 15 points to the right as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Made in the Shade” comes on. I make the turn and pass farmhouses under shade trees standing well back from the road. Stubble fields and pastures line the highway with rusted, sheet metal roofed barns. The sun begins to reach towards noon. The scents of redbud and dogwood flowers waft through the open windows of the car as I drive through the intervening strips of woodland. It’s 1971, my Dad is driving in the lime green Chevrolet station wagon on the way to my brother John’s graduation.
We stop for gas at a lonely crossroads just south of Union Springs. A couple of old-style gas pumps sit in front of an even older country store with uneven steps leading up to a screen door. As the attendant pumps our gas, we wait our turn outside the single bathroom, standing in order of sibling rank within the family. As the youngest child, I’m dead last.
To one side of the building under a huge gnarled oak tree is a wooden table around which a group of old men in hats are sitting on cane backed chairs. Leathery hands slap ivory tiles on the hardwood next to square flasks of smoky brown liquor. Deep gravel voices lift in laughter or muttered curses and drift through the warm breeze as the cicadas begin to whine. My dad gives me a quarter to spend on an ice cold 10 oz bottle from the Coke machine. I sip it slowly, savoring the flavor while watching the old men from a distance.
“Son, git yo’ Daddy to buy you some peanuts to go in that!” chuckles an old farmer in overalls as he passes by me on the way to join the others under the tree, the screen door slapping as he exits the store.
Ten years later, the old men are still seated around that table, sipping whiskey and playing under the tree as a thunderstorm is threatening. My buddies are laughing as they put six packs of beer and bags of ice into a cooler on the tail end of our scuba diving certification trip to Panama City. The idea of beer sold on Sunday in Alabama is a novel one. The proprietor says “Son, I’ve been selling beer to Auburn students on Sunday since before your Momma first winked at your Daddy. Get yourselves some RC Colas and moon pies and ya’ll be all set!”
We do, and we are. The screen door slaps again as we exit the store. As the first drops of rain begin to hit the windshield we drive off. Seemingly unconcerned by the weather, the old men are still hunched over the table, intent on the game.
As I drive past the same stretch of road this time, the old store has been replaced by a brand new station, all gleaming plastic, pavement and glass. The old tree stands alone in a vacant lot. The table and the men are gone, their age-long game ended at last. “The Ballad of Curtis Lowe” begins to play as both station and tree recede in my rear view mirror.
“Jessica” begins to play and it’s 2004. My two grown sons and I are driving home from my niece’s wedding in my black Jeep Cherokee. As we make the turn at Tuskegee onto US 29, I’m explaining to them the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. They’re listening politely as I drone on. I stop talking, suddenly aware they haven’t contributed much to the discussion.
“You’ve heard this before.”
“Of course, Dad. Every time we drive through here.” My oldest son says.
“So why do you let me go on about it, if you’ve already heard it?”
“Because it’s what you like to do – tell stories while you drive.”
We all laugh.
As I pass Chewacla State Park, the song changes to “Blue Sky.” I’m in my girlfriend’s Pinto again in the spring of 1982. She and I are in wet swimsuits sitting on towels as we drive back up College Street.
“I should leave soon” she says.
“Want me to ride with you to Atlanta?”
“And how do you propose to make it back without a car, brilliant one?”
“I can take the bus.”
“A six hour bus ride back, just to spend two more hours with me? Don’t you have a test tomorrow?”
The stoplight at Magnolia and College turns red, and I slow to a stop as the memory evaporates to the present day. After an hour or so, I’m back in the car, my cell phone to my ear.
She answers, “Don’t tell me, let me guess – you’ve got a lemonade from Toomer’s and a sandwich from Momma G’s?”
“Yeah, and a couple of T-shirts.”
“Of course. Only a couple?”
“Uh huh. That’s what I thought.” Her eye roll is almost audible. “So you’re back on the road now?”
“Yeah, just starting out. I should be home in about six hours,…. ”
“Sweet Home Alabama” begins to play as I turn onto Interstate 85.
The final trip from the old house to Auburn has ended. There is little likelihood I’ll ever drive that way again, with its kudzu covered telephone poles, broken back barns, and sleepy little towns. Interstate travel is faster, but lacks the charm and nostalgia of that old route.
But let me hear just a single summer cicada, the slap of a wooden screen door, or catch a whiff of dogwood blossom and it all comes back. I close my eyes and let the memories wash over me. In a moment I’m behind the wheel again, listening to the Allman Brothers on yet another trip to Auburn over those winding back roads through the heart of South Alabama.