I had a one-day road trip and I want to tell you about it. One tiny road trip, from an early morning through a late afternoon. It came about because I had to be in a town halfway between central North Carolina and the Virginia border for a midmorning meeting. The rest of the day was mine and I decided to skirt along the state border westward to the mountains over roads I had never been on. I went through scruffy crossroads that were nothing but names on the map and nothing else and proud little towns with names like Locustville, Wentworth, Sandy Ridge, Stoneville, Francisco, Westhaven, Toast, and Lowgap. Some had flags flying, little parks, a spruced up main street. Mostly, there were no towns, just fields, farms, gardens, and forests. The almost flat Piedmont rose to high purple mountains. I had a lovely day.
Let me tell you what you would see if you did this. First, the early morning sun would pour in parallel waves across the swells of road in the Piedmont glinting on pine needles and meadows, finally crawling through the trees and casting spotlights on houses. You would see a sunbeam settling on an old abandoned store’s weathered wood, lighting it up as though to say look at me, I am still here. You would see all sorts of interesting houses from very old to very modern, from tiny to huge, decrepit to fancy, wood and stone. The tiniest cottages with pumpkins out front to celebrate the season, glinting in the morning sun might be your favorite.
You might find it hard to stay on your route as it would have so many turns. A blink of the eye might make you miss a turn and in moments you are in Virginia suddenly turning around. The rolling hills mile after mile will seem almost manicured with their sprawling fields mown and now sprouting new grass invigorated after the summer heat dissipated. You would see even now in this 21st century there are fields and fields of tobacco and even some cotton. You might round a curve and see a row of trees planted by some thoughtful person which have leaves whose undersides flutter pure silver in the breeze, gently trembling just to show you how pretty they are.
Odd things show up, too. Lots of them. Strange structures, funny houses, a tiny ice cream store in the middle of nowhere made in an old van, dusty antique stores. A church named Progressive Primitive Baptist Church. When it is lunch time, you might find the old café in the town where trains whoose through its center with piercing whistles trailing their clacking wheels. As you pass by the door of the storefront church beside the café you see painted in big letters, “Have you been washed in the Blood?” The word blood is painted red and is bigger than the other words. The sentence below asks you, “Are you ready to die?” Now you might feel somber and contemplative but with a hungry stomach you open the door, its old chipped dirty paint letting you know its been years since anyone fixed the place up, and you go into the café, a narrow old place with a long counter and a just as long row of barstools covered with that heavy diner-red vinyl. Old guys with deeply grooved faces group together smiling at the young waitresses. The few booths are full. You might think about how in the past the place would’ve been heavy with tobacco smoke. The lunch you get might be perfect by your taste or it might give you indigestion if you are not used to that kind of food.
The rolling hills begin to look like mountains and your ears might start to stop up. With delight, you may notice that your route is taking you along a foothill ridge line for miles and miles, to the south of which is a huge mountain often glimpsed when there is a break in the trees and a good position for a view. Luckily there is almost no traffic because when there is it can really be slow – a school bus, a truck full of tall evergreen trees, a tractor-trailer truck that makes you hold your breath for fear it will fall over as it rounds the curves.
The ridge line road flows on and you might be startled when you see a gentle curve ahead banked with an inward slope as they do so the rain will runoff. It makes the edge of the road look like it is really the edge of the world and as you round it the great blue glory of an enormous sky opens before you and you might take a deep breath with the beauty of it all.
Have you ever noticed that the maple trees in the mountains show their first brushes of gold and orange on the side where they get the most sunlight? They glow forth in the sunny day seeming to thank the sun for its gift. The mountain ridges are the first to be burnished with this gold, looking like a giant paint brush ran down the tree tops. The abandoned fields have given way to white and purple asters. The goldenrod once so bright is mostly brown and drying up. Sumacs offer up sudden glimpses of their deep red leaves and berries.
Soon you may find yourself rolling towards an enormous looming rippled mountain range as though you would simply lunge straight into it. After a while, if you keep going you are in a pass and as you wind your way you cross the Eastern Divide. Something about that always causes reflection, especially when you notice that the signs of autumn are more advanced on the other side. So often along the miles of road there are little lanes turning off, the kind with two dirt strips and grass in the middle where cars and tractors have gone and carts way long ago, and they meander around little swells and finally disappear. The trees on their edges have showered yellow and brown leaves into puddles on the lanes. Oh, how these little roads beckon. Such a longing they set up to know their stories and where they go.
Even the poorest of some houses have put out Halloween decorations. Some houses are greatly festooned. One even has a giant tarantula spider web that takes up most of its front yard. Another has a round bale of hay with half a scarecrow sticking out looking distressed. There are straw people and pumpkins, orange, white, green, tall, and flat. Shafts of dried up corn stalks. bales of straw.
A field full of pumpkins comes into view. That is pretty enough but a few miles on around another curve there is a huge field full of pumpkins lying on grass as though placed deliberately and this field is also full of black cattle contentedly grazing. The stark shapes of brilliant orange, green, and black are so beautiful and arresting you may even feel your eyes well up with tears at the wonder of it.
The sun is getting lower in the late afternoon and some clouds have gathered. You might have some cello music to listen to and as you round another curve and the music is swelling into a climax some clouds have opened at just that moment and the beams of sunlight coming through the opening are kissing the green blue mountain top.
Evening approaches. The waning light mutes the autumn colors. You may be thinking about the gentle seeming men and women you met tending their stores when you stopped here and there for a stretch. You pass a church that has a large colorful sign out front obviously painted by children. There are lots of stick people around its edges and in the center it says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This could be the perfect time to end your trip.
All this is true. One day, a lifetime of wonder. Don’t you want one tiny road trip?