the slow lane

Beautiful wreckage along the back roads. It’s a chest of tarnished treasure. The key is that red, white, and blue shield you see in the photograph. Rather than speed from one destination to another, I follow old roads into the past. And it’s there that I ramble, detouring and losing track of time. It’s there that mysteries occur, something that never happens on a rough-surfaced interstate where road noise drowns out your thoughts.

To Interstate 77 store falling down

Take the scene here. It’s the remains of an old store near Great Falls. Being between the forks of two roads did not save it. When the interstate came through, it sucked the life out of it and many more a business. Not even the old tree survived.

I stayed the course on Highway 97. With good reason. The Land of Monotony and its endless ribbons of asphalt and concrete make for a bland, sleep-inducing trip at timesaving speed. Think about that. Sleep inducing and high speeds. And gridlock, which you won’t suffer on back roads.

I seldom travel interstates. I look at maps and plot alternate routes through the country. Sunday I got up at 5 o’clock and hit the road for Davidson, North Carolina to see my granddaughter, Katie, play in a volleyball tournament. I could have slept in and made the trip in two hours via three interstates. Instead, I took Highway 321 as far as I could. My journey took three and a half hours but it was worth it.

I drifted through fog banks and over billowing clouds called rivers. Wildlife appeared out of the mists like phantoms. A wild turkey crossed the road. Two deer grazed along the shoulder. A hawk perched on a powerline. A mockingbird chased a crow across a field.

Morning sunlight struck a white clapboard church with such force it blinded me; it was as if Jesus himself had just descended. I saw an abandoned cemetery, several stones leaning as if about to fall. I saw old homes adrift in weeds and vines. No one calls them home anymore. Back roads can be melancholy places for wayfarers, for there we enter the domain of broken dreams. I see businesses that went bust. Gas stations … tire stores … hair salons … and Sunday an ill-fated nightclub. In the middle of nowhere I passed a cinder block structure with a faded sign, its ghostly blue letters paling white. “Nite Life.”

“Nite Death.”

The beautiful, sad wreckage aside, I love sleepy lanes, gravel-dinging roads, and dusty roads where the past clings to a slender thread called existence. Here you enter the province of historical markers, rusty steel bridges, hand-lettered signs, old gas pumps, tin buildings, and old sheds.

Monticello Mercantile

Old stores, especially, catch my eye. Sometimes you just might see a rusty sign on a screen door, “Colonial Is Good Bread.” Peek inside and you’ll see an authentic bead board ceiling.

You’ll also come across burnt homes. Here and there only chimneys remain but some homes with gaping black holes in their roof—like a molar with a cavity—welcome rain and ruination. But colorful sights balance out dark moments. Come summertime you’ll spot a patch of glistening blackberries, a peach orchard, and perhaps heirloom tomatoes. Sometimes, you’ll spot a pole hung with white gourds imploring purple martins to nest. Good luck doing that from an interstate.

Driving in the country is welcoming. Friendly fellows raise a finger from the steering wheel. “Hi there.” And you’ll see murals local artists paint. I saw one on a cement block building … “Mural by Martha” but no others. What became of Martha and her murals? Mysteries abound on the back roads. About the only mystery you’ll see on an interstate is an empty billboard. What big business did it last hype?

Life in the slow lane … that’s where you’ll find wreckage, winsome ways, and bucolic beauty. I’ll close with an observation. Something about the back roads brings me closer to nature. Patterns become apparent. Ever notice how many crows fly over the back roads? They’re always darting about or hopping across a road. They seek places where they can dine on a scrap of food, flattened squirrel comes to mind. They understand there’s less chance of being killed on a sleepy lane than on an interstate slammed with cargo-carrying eighteen-wheelers and impatient motorists.

Maybe there’s a lesson here. Something to think about. Maybe you should survey the wreckage along the back roads. Do it often enough, and like the crows and me you just might become a convert.



Images: Both of the photo in this story were taken by the author, Tom Poland.

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at Email him at [email protected].