The Professional Guest: The Longest Road

2015-08-04 17.39.36Monday morning, pulling out of Fayetteville, Arkansas at around 10:30 a.m. with my heart filled up and a car full of music, I was ready to drive. Rhonda had lent me a Rocketfish adaptor that can be inserted into the cassette drive of the car (yes, my car still has a cassette player). The other end plugs into your phone or laptop to play your iTunes through your car stereo. In case the local radio stations got spotty, I now had another option for road tunes.

Northwest Arkansas is genuinely beautiful country. Some of us in the northland don’t know much about Arkansas except the occasional Razorbacks football news but let me tell you, it is a hidden gem and I would definitely come back here.

Next destination: Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I entered my travel coordinates into my phone and got set to drive, letting Miss Google guide me for the first time in my life. I had never needed her before and I wasn’t sure I trusted her but she got me out of town and onto the major highways with no problem.

2015-08-04 10.53.02I drove along a lush, tree-lined divided highway with signs indicating I was passing by such whistle stops as Black Pond Slough and Toad Suck Park. I found KABF Radio 88.3 and enjoyed Jason Isbell, Bob Dylan, Malcom Holcomb and a beautiful ballad perfect for driving—“Think About You,” by Eliza Gilkyson. The day was early, the road stretched long in front of me and I was sad to leave Rhonda.

142238092.P4bI3ymN.MississippiDeltaFarmland-StovallSeveral hours and highway twists and turns later, Miss Google stopped talking to me and I was out in flat farmland for as far as the eye could see. No road signs to tell me which highway I was on, speed limit 55, no gas stations or even towns for all I could tell. Alarmed, I felt anxiety begin to swell in my throat. Where am I? Apparently, I was in Hotzeplots with more than a hundred miles of crops growing tall in the hot Arkansas sun—if I was still in Arkansas. Or was I in Mississippi already? KABF Radio had fizzled out of range and I began to hear black gospel music, “Meet me Jesus, meet me. Meet me in the middle of the air.” I thought, Sweet Jesus, don’t let them find my abandoned car rusting in the middle of an alfalfa field ten years from now. I can hear Sheriff Jake now, “Looks like she left her vehicle and wandered, oh, about five miles or so in the heat. Musta been looking for a gas station, poor darlin’. Didn’t find ‘er body for ten years, bless her haarrt.” I knew the Sheriff’s name was Jake because I had heard a public service announcement on the radio asking “y’all” to re-elect Jake Sheriff as Sheriff of Yazoo County (yes, his last name is Sheriff, for crying out loud).

I called Carole back in Minnesota and asked her if she could pinpoint my location on a map. “I think I’m near Dumas or MeGehee and I think I’m on Hwy. 65 but I can’t tell!” She plotted the course for me from her “radio control tower” in Minneapolis and assured me that if Miss Google wasn’t talking to me, it was probably because I was going the right way. I clung to that hope but when you are driving out in the redneck boondocks of America with no familiar landmarks like EXXON or SHELL and no one is talking to you, your thoughts can get jittery. What if some truck full of wild-haired boys pulls up to pass me and one of them points a gun out the window at me? Rhonda laughed at this. She chided, “You were probably in the safest place you could be in redneck Arkansas. They don’t like bad people there!”

After what seemed like an eternity, I finally recognized the town Jackson on the “up ahead” signs and breathed a sign of relief but it was a very long day driving through the scary cornfields of southern Arkansas and northern Mississippi. I’ve been alone in some of the biggest cities in the world, I’ve smuggled Bibles through customs in China, eyed suspiciously by Kalashnikov-toting Red Guard officials. I’ve been beat up by a drunk Mexican in Los Angeles and slept with a machete under my pillow thereafter, but I have never been more afraid then I was in Yazoo County, Mississippi.

I found a roadside stand just as the sun was setting and pulled in. Carole had reminded me to buy peaches and vegetables while I was on the road in the South because, “You’ll never find any better.” I was greeted by a young, fresh-faced Mennonite woman named Lucia. Wearing a simple flowered frock and a black bonnet, she sold me three peaches and a real Coke in a bottle, handing over a bottle opener as she rang up my order. She even washed the peaches for me. She told me her husband had fled the Michigan cold a couple years ago and they had settled in Mississippi, but she was from Belize and wanted to get back to the tropics. I thought, Oh? This isn’t the tropics? 

It’s a messy business eating a sun-ripened, roadside-stand peach. Best not to even try it while driving. I had to get out, bend over the side of the road and eat mine with the juice dribbling down my cheeks and chin. A good wash with water from my thermos and I was a happy camper. Good peaches.

I arrived in Hattiesburg after dark, stumbled into my hotel room and fell asleep almost immediately. The next morning, I woke up rested and refreshed and plotted my course to Ocala, Florida.

boiled peanuts standOn my way to Mobile, Alabama, someone had encouraged me to try boiled peanuts (“bowled” if you’re from around here) when I arrived down south so I pulled into the first stand I saw. A big, friendly, bearded man, shirtless, in overalls—one strap on, one strap unbuckled—limped over to the big cans of boiling peanuts to give me a taste. I liked them immediately and bought a big cup for three dollars. Later at another stop, I found some pickled okra, guava jelly, praline pecans and passed on rows of gaping alligator heads. The man said they were from farm-raised gators for meat and hides. I guess they didn’t need the heads. When my son Garrett comes to visit me in September, we are definitely going to have to try gator meat. We like to try new foods we’ve never had before.

Driving through the Deep South is a very peaceful experience. Time seems to slow down here. You are greeted with “Yes, Ma-am” and “Take your time, Ma-am.” It’s hazy, hot and humid, cicadas buzzing so loudly you have to talk louder just to hear yourself. Across miles of blue-green rolling hill country peppered with churches and correctional facilities, drivers are polite, go the speed limit or signal they are going around you, and songs like “Sentimental Old Me” croon on the radio. I found myself charmed.

After a pitstop in Ocala, Florida, I set out on the last leg of my journey. I was tired. They always tell you the last 300 miles is the hardest. No amount of coffee was going to help. Instead it increased the number of pitstops needed on my way to Naples.

Something changed when I hit I-75 in Florida. Florida drivers are—well, they are crazy, plain and simple. At least the ones on I-75 are. Every car on the road drove like it was on the way to a hospital emergency, darting in and out of lanes, changing lanes without signaling, swooping up behind me, riding my tail until I moved out of the way and then zooming past me all of ten feet to get directly behind the car I was just following closely. It was a game of leapfrog and the players were not mannerly. Cruise control was not an option. I white-knuckled the entire 3-1/2 hours to Naples through road construction and road bullies and ran the gauntlet through the Tampa area alternating between being nice and pulling out my “Aggressive Driver’s” license. I had to put on Icelandic music to keep my inner harmony. I read an article in Gulfshore Life by Stephanie Davis called “The Great Uber Escapade,” where she described being on I-75 as “like being on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney World.” I’ve never been on that ride but I can now imagine it.

Once I hit the Cape Coral area and points south, the traffic slowed down, drivers calmed down, the radio stations began to broadcast “aging gracefully” ads and I knew I was almost there… almost to Naples…almost to my design turf. WAVE 101.1 radio played “Stand Tall” making me wish I could because I was becoming one with my car seat, melded, molded into an uncomfortably squished blob. The station continued with Muzak versions of “Nights in White Satin” and “The Good Life.” I remember standing in an elevator once listening to Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” in Muzak. That was an out-of-body experience in so many ways.

Miss Google guided me all the way to my destination and in sweltering heat and humidity, I unloaded my car just before my phone died.  The only casualty of the trip was my bed pillow which got soaked through with juice from the cowboy caviar Rhonda had graciously packed for me. Not too bad. I’m here at last, in one piece. Sigh. And sigh, again.  Wish I could kick back for a week and be on vacation but I have to get set up to work very quickly and find mini-storage for my belongings. Triple sigh.

Driving across America, we may pass through different states and different cultures, but we are all Americans. We obey the same laws, speak the same language (albeit with different accents), and a kind word goes a long way no matter who you are or where you’re traveling from.

Glad to have landed safely.

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