The road home was different. I had two days to make a one-day trip. No agenda. No schedule. No hotel reservation. Just me and the road looking for adventure.
I made the decision to drive the backroads. Over 500 miles to home and no interstate highway. Some would think I’ve lost my mind. The goal of most trips is the destination. Get there as quick as you can. Drive like a streak of lightning. Set the cruise button and hope you don’t have to stop too often. Dodging the slow lane. Nobody looking out the windows. The world passing by unnoticed.
Against my better judgment, I tried the map thing on my phone. It didn’t like my idea. It kept telling me that my route was 49 minutes slower than the route it had picked out for me. Even after I got the interstate button turned off, it kept insulting me for my travel choices.
“What idiot would take this road? Take the next right to a faster route. Hey stupid, you missed your turn.” I finally turned it off, took a glance at my 1992 road atlas, and pointed my truck south.
Kentucky state route 89 between Hargett and McKee is a mountain road. If I was younger and if I still road on two wheels, I’d go back and do it again. Winding curves around deep ravines. The kind of road where you can see your taillights in the side mirror. Some of it nearly one lane. Boulders close enough to take the paint off your passenger door and gorges deep enough on the other side that they’d never find you if you rolled off the edge.
The most common DOT sign was “Broken Pavement Ahead”, which was of some concern. And there were a few places where chunks of asphalt were missing on the gorge side. I think I averaged about 35 mph for around 2 hours. I crept along beneath a cathedral of fall color. I had the window down and my jacket on. Old barns standing like old men leaning against a post. Open pasture on the ridge and then dive right back into the tunnel made by Maple, Oak, and Sycamore.
There was no shortage of worn out single-wide trailers tucked away on the hillsides. I’d like to meet the guy who backed those in place and set the blocks underneath. Nerves-of-steel kind of men. Yards littered with worn out trucks and tractors. A sign at the end of one driveway, spray painted in red, that said bluntly, “Lock Her Up.” I wondered about that story.
My goal was to make it to Pine Knot, Kentucky where I could pick up US Highway 27. My house in Georgia is just a little ways off Highway 27. I figured I could ride it all the way home. I slipped under I-75 at Williamsburg. The cars whizzing by overhead as I eased on west.
I had to force myself to slow down and enjoy the ride. Even on the backroad, it was tempting to push hard. The locals didn’t seem to appreciate an old guy from Georgia poking along at grandpa speeds. But my speed reflected my mood. Life has slowed down since Beth passed. The right seat being empty left me with a lot to think about. A determination to see the world differently and not just blaze past it.
US 27 took me into Dayton, Tennessee. A little town not far from the Tennessee River. I pulled into the Best Western a little before 5:00. I had left Grayson around 8:00am. I asked the lady behind the plexiglass two questions.
“You got a room for tonight?”
“We sure do. Just one?”
“Yes Ma’am, just one.” I knew my next question would seem odd to her. “That room got a TV that works?” I was a traveling man who needed to see game six of the NLCS.
“Uhhh! Well, unless somebody stole it since I last looked, there should be a TV in your room.”
“Sign me up.”
Once I got checked in, it was nearly three hours until first pitch. I drove a few miles out to the Watts Bar Reservoir. One of TVA’s massive power generating lakes along the Tennessee River system. Nick’s Bar & Grill at the marina fed me. The slow moan of boats easing in and out of the docks made me wish I was a boatman. The reds and yellows of fall reflecting off the calm water. I finished the evening sitting at the park below the dam. A perfect sunset. A calm spirit and moist eyes. I’m not sure if it was Beth or the Good Lord holding my hand, but I needed that moment.
When I rolled out Sunday morning, the local Waffle House beckoned to me. You know this by now. Waffle and bacon for breakfast. I bought four WH coffee mugs to take home. One of them had a lipstick stain on the rim. I should probably wash them before I use them.
Just below the Chickamauga Battlefield in Georgia, I hung a right and headed for Cloudland Canyon. I’ve heard of this place my whole life but had never been there. The overlook into the canyon is worth the trip. Couples and families came and went. No one seemed to stay longer than two minutes in front of this gorgeous view. They looked. They sighed. They took selfies. They left. I stood there for nearly an hour. It cost me five bucks to get into the park. A small price for a moment worth so much more.
After I checked the atlas, I headed south down the ridge into Summerville and picked up Georgia 100. I was pleased to note that the posted speed limit was 50 mph. My kind of road for this trip. I stopped in a country store to buy lunch. A Mountain Dew, fried pork skins, and a small bag of peanut M&Ms.
“There’s a snack after my own stomach.” The lady at the cash register bantered with me about my food choices. “I’ve only got a few more hours on the road,” I told her. “This’ll get me home.”
I thought when I planned this road trip that getting away from home would do me some good. But, with or without Beth, I am still a home-body. The large amounts of her absence and the complete lack of conversation made me keenly aware of how life is meant to be shared. I’d catch myself talking out loud to myself, glad that the windows were down, and thankful no one was around to report me to the looney tune police.
Note to self. Do not talk to yourself in public.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad I went. I’m refreshed by the solitude and reflection. I’m grateful I got to see the lesser-known parts of Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia from the backside of nowhere. This trip was good, and it was necessary for me to figure out a few things about where life is headed.
I still have a lot to figure out.
In the meantime, the Braves won the NL Pennant. Life is pretty good.