There are roads, and there are roads. And then there is THE road.
It’s a different road for every traveler, of course. At least for those who are able to appreciate the journey as much as the destination.
I used to think my own favorite road should be one that would impress other people, a famous thoroughfare like the Pacific Coast Highway, with the cliffs of Big Sur looming over all those barking seals in the surf, or the trek up to Stratford-on-Avon from London. That one is especially fine, beside hedgerows and stone walls and through picturesque villages and the ancient university town of Oxford with its quaint pubs and bookshops and students gliding along on old bicycles and bookshops and old churches and bookshops. Did I mention the bookshops?
I enjoyed those roads, and many others. But it turns out my favorite isn’t famous at all.
A few years ago my wife Karen and I were driving north on a pretty spring day. We left Interstate 45 at Madisonville and headed up old highway 75, because we find country roads to be altogether more interesting than freeways. Along the way I spotted a sign for Farm-to-Market Road 831, which makes its winding way over to Oakwood, the town that raised me. I’ve been back to my hometown countless times, but always on Highway 79. 831 sort of sneaks into Oakwood through the back door. I did a little quick calculation and determined I hadn’t been that way in over decades.
I turned onto it and, to quote Robert Frost, we followed a road less traveled that day. And I went back in time.
Its two narrow lanes curve along through pretty stretches of woodland and beside handsome pastures dotted with cattle. It’s all rolling hills and valleys, with little stock ponds full of still water mirroring whatever clouds are floating overhead. Attractive homesteads sit on hilltops, offering whoever drinks their morning coffee on those porches a fine view that encompasses miles and miles, off to a hazy blue fringe of treetops in the far distance.
Here’s what’s left of the little Flo community, where some of my boyhood friends lived. I helped load and haul bales of hay off that hill right there, or maybe it was that one over there. It’s been a long time. The bales out there now are the huge round ones that look like toppled gigantic tin cans and have to be moved by tractors, probably putting a good many country lads out of work. Back then they were the smaller box-shaped ones – the bales, not the boys – but they still got awfully heavy on a broiling summer day after hoisting a hundred or so of them onto the back of a truck.
Out there was the Cormier Ranch, famous for its horses. When I was in 7th or 8th grade somebody had a birthday hayride and barn dance there. 45s were spun on a portable record player that opened up like a small suitcase and we, reluctantly at first, danced. The Twist had just been invented by Chubby Checker and it was all the rage; we’d seen it on “American Bandstand”. Thank God none of the parents brought their 8 millimeter movie cameras that night; trust me, a bunch of rural children seeking the rhythm required for that dance was best left undocumented for posterity.
That’s Bobby Goodner’s place right there beside the road. I saw his name on the mailbox when Karen and I passed it that first time, so I knew that he still lived in the house he grew up in. I made myself a promise to stop and say hello one day. But I didn’t keep it. Somebody called a few years ago to tell me Bobby died of a heart attack.
I wish I’d stopped.
Up past that curve is the house where my friend Chris Stevens grew up. We were running buddies all through school, and I felt as much at home in his house as I did in my own. His daddy was a carpenter and a preacher, and Chris’ sweet mother would, pretty much on demand, make us a pan of dark, buttery fudge full of pecans. Then she’d play a few hymns on her upright piano. In payment for the fudge, we’d sit politely and listen as we ate it.
Driving that stretch of country road in Leon County is as close as I’m likely to come to being able to click my heels together and go back to another time and place.
Maybe, after years of wandering, your favorite road is simply the one that leads home. I’ve found mine.