When one loves the road, destinations are easy to appreciate, eagerly anticipated. Journey’s end and knowing what awaits there keep the wheels (both mental and mechanical) smoothly rolling. The hum of tires on pavement and the meshing of cognitive gears are one. Can’t wait to get there: clean lodgings, hot shower, glass of wine in closed-drape solitude. Relax, sleep, then work. There are fish to catch, people to see, stories to tell. All activities dictated by assignment and responsibility.
But, wait. There’s something amiss and not quite right. To love the road, after all, is to also love the journey itself, not merely the end of the trail and what one knows with certainty he will find there. And today loving the journey is not always easy. It can be monstrously tedious.
The interstate highway, America’s bypass, where, according to the late Charles Kurault, it is “possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything.” Rest stops, with their gosh-awful vending-machine coffee and automated urinals that still make me jump when they flush by themselves. Urban-sprawl exits, greasy fast food, pop-up motels. In between, miles and miles of nothing broken here and there by big city gridlock. Not a journey easy to love.
Ah! Mercifully there appears a “blue” highway, U.S. 129. Turn north out of Macon, then hard left in Gray. Skirt a protruding finger of Lake Sinclair. Drive the eastern edge of the Oconee National Forest. Real places. Places to stop, not “merge.” Real people. They live here and look at me funny. I don’t blame ‘em.
Mom and Pop establishments, offering bait and tackle, ammo and camo. “Welcome Fishermen,” say the signs. Used cars and barbecue. Buy a clunker, eat some pork. “Naw, boy. You loster’n a he-haint in hell. Missed that turn three miles back.”
Thank you, sir.
They roll their eyes, wondering how you made it this far. Or maybe it’s the beard and hair. No matter. Smile and move on.
Another sign: “Caution, Log Trucks.” Another: “Senior Citizens Entering Highway.” I slow down, ready to brake for a merging line of walkers and power chairs.
U.S. 441 now. Eatonton, Ga., where Joel Chandler Harris and Alice Walker were born. Wow! Must be something in the water. Had I been born here I might be a real writer now. Gotta stop, see the Uncle Remus Museum and photograph Br’er Rabbit’s statue on the courthouse lawn.
“Eat at Hannah’s,” a lady tells me.
Hannah’s: gaudy, Key Westish, and wonderful. Pan-seared tilapia, pan-roasted corn, and sautéed spinach. Amazing sweet potato cheesecake.
A taste of the Keys in Eatonton, Ga.?
Yep. Go figure.
State Road 44 to Greensboro. Cross I-20. Emphasis on “cross.” Lake Oconee’s hometown, they say. They’re right. Stop and stay awhile.
Let’s see, now. I-20 west to Madison? Uh uh. Backtrack instead. 441 again. North out of Eatonton through dairy country. Black and white Holsteins against a pinewoods forest backdrop. Surreal. There’s the General Putnam Motel. Last time I saw it was in “My Cousin Vinnie.” Hollywood knows a good exterior shot when they see one.
Roadside produce stands selling cider, peaches, and local honey. Slow down. Check their wares. I can do that on this road without getting rear-ended.
Madison, deemed the “Number-1 Small Town in America.” Just might be. Sherman didn’t burn it in 1864. Thank the fates for that. There are happy ghosts here. Their houses still stand.
Another turn, another backroad. Destination in sight, easily appreciated and still eagerly anticipated. Cross Lake Oconee to the lodge. A clean room, a hot shower, a glass of wine in closed-drape solitude. Relax, sleep, then work. There are fish to catch, people to see, stories to tell.
And, thanks to that godsend exit in Macon, a journey to fondly remember.