This is not an ordinary day for me. I’m up early, but I’m not going to work. I bump my way in the dark to the sink and wash my face with a hot rag. Max gets a head scratch. Coffee is on. The Braves pulled out a great win last night. I can tell this is going to be a good day.
I’ve been planning for some time to take a road trip. Get away for a few days. Feel the moan of the road beneath my tires. Put the house in the rearview mirror for a while. I’m headed to Kentucky. Far eastern Kentucky, within about 10 miles of West Virginia. I’m going there to see some good friends who used to live down this way. They’ve been after me to come up for a visit. That is the destination today.
The return trip will be different. I don’t know yet where I might stay or where I might go. I could take the non-interstate route and meander down through the hills of Tennessee. I’ve checked and there are no state park cabins available anywhere. The leaf peepers have them all booked up. But I don’t care. I brought my sleeping bag with me just in case. The point is to be somewhere that is not here for a while.
The thing that settles over me is this. Even though I’ve made a few business trips on my own, this will be my first real travel adventure without Beth. No partner this time. Just me and the open road. My thoughts running with the highway. Reflection. Contemplating the changes. From time to time, Bonnie Raitt and Chris Stapleton on the playlist.
It’s a little ironic to talk about the open road when that road takes you through Atlanta. I got jammed up on 85 approaching 285 from the south. And I don’t mean slowed down. I’m talking grid lock. Creep a hundred feet and sit for a while. I had planned to run the perimeter on the west side, but when I finally got to the ramp, I shot over to 75 and went north right through the belly of the beast.
It’s been a long time since I’ve traveled the I-75 corridor north through the foothills. I pass Cartersville. Beth and I spent most of the first decade of our married life in that town. A little further and the See Ruby Falls signs start showing up. We went there a time or two. Lookout Mountain. The Civil War battlefield at Oglethorpe. The Chattanooga Aquarium. These were some of the road trips we shared.
About halfway to Knoxville my belly begins to fuss at me. I find a Waffle House at some no-name exit and pull in. I’m always amazed that no matter where you find a Waffle House, the same crowd is always there. Mostly gray hairs. Sloppy sweatshirts. Cheap flipflops with painted toenails. I fit in with the gray hair.
There is one exception today. I’m sitting at the counter and down three seats and around the corner is this young Hispanic kid who’s maybe 23. Jet black hair falling forward over his forehead. Bluetooth ear things stuck in the side of his head. He is holding a gargantuan-sized phone in both hands and doing hyper-speed things with his thumbs. He is focused on his device like a hawk. Every now and then he speaks to himself, “Oh heck.” He actually said heck.
A few minutes after I sat down, a tall drink of water about my age walks in and sits down at the table in the corner. He’s wearing a mask and talking on a phone through the muffler. The conversation sounds business-like. Information. Questions. No laughter and friendly banter. And I notice that he is also wearing clear plastic gloves on each hand. A reminder of how much the world has changed.
Video game guy grunts, “What’s up with that?”
Then, of course, there are the waitresses of WH. I think they pour them out of a mold back at the WH factory. Mine are like little round grandmas. Cheeky smiles. Visor caps over salt and pepper. Even their names are perfect. Sharon, Joyce and Betty. Joyce banters with the cook over which order has the hashbrowns smothered and covered and which one has ‘em plain.
“Nooo. Nooo,” says game boy. He bangs his forehead with the palm of his hand.
Sharon reads off an order like she’s announcing the arrival of the President in the senate chambers. Tom, the cook, is only 10 feet away, but she’s belting out two eggs over medium like he’s a hundred yards across the lake. Tom shouts it back to make sure he’s got it right. This is their system. WH is their world.
The young man saving the universe tilts back in his seat. “How? What the…? Heck no! That ain’t happening.” He actually said heck again. I like this dude. He remembers to take a bite of his sandwich.
I-75 north of Knoxville is like an obstacle course. I’m gawking at the mountains on the horizon and weaving around concrete construction barriers. I’m trying to drive hands-free of any device today. I’m not used to voice command. But on this stretch of road, it seems wise to try it out.
Lesson learned. Old men should try out voice commands in the driveway sitting still and not on the interstate at 75 mph.
I get a text from our youth leader back in Columbus. It’s a group text asking about the sanctity of allowing little kids to wear Santa hats in the church during a Christmas program. She wants to make sure that no one will bring down fire and brimstone on a bunch of five-year-olds for being too secular.
I listen to the lady in my dash read this text to me. This is kinda cool. She wants to know if I want to reply. I say that I do. I want to play it light-hearted and start with a little humor. What do I think of Santa hats? I say, “I prefer little red hats with a fuzzy white ball on top.”
I’ll call the lady in my dash Sharon. She sounds like my waitress back at WH. Sharon says she’s got it, and she reads it back to me. “I prefer little redheads with a fuzzy white ball on top.” And she wants to know if I want to send it now. Holy Cow! My eyes are watering. I can’t see the road. While I haven’t considered my preferences for redheads, I’m thinking this may be a little too personal to share with our youth leader. Cancel, please. Don’t send.
The remainder of the trip is quiet. The rolling hills of Lexington pass by my window. Tall tobacco barns painted black. I’ve forgotten how green the fescue could be this time of year. The closer I get to Grayson, the more like West Virginia the hills become. Salt Lick, Kentucky on the interstate sign. Love that name.
This is my healing. The quiet. The road. The Waffle House. These hills. Just a few more miles to go.