Labor Day I labored. I wrote the photo captions for my new book due out next spring about lesser-traveled road, a familiar refrain. By now you readers surely can tell what I’m working on by the columns I write. I’ve often written about my expeditions into the countryside. I drove over 10,000 miles deliberately avoiding interstates. I chose to take the long way home as Supertramp famously sang.
Even though the book is in production, I’ll continue to travel back roads. They’re just too peaceful, beautiful, and surprising not to travel. Plus, they reveal that the past isn’t past. If you live along a back road, you may take it for granted, and you may grow weary of the trips into the city to get provisions, but you live in a place where life seems more genuine even if you live amidst a lot of abandonment. As Aida Rogers, editor and writer of books and magazines, wrote in her foreword, “It takes a certain eye to see beauty in the abandoned, the collapsing, the forgotten.”
Here are excerpts and photos.
Along back roads, pay attention to old churches, stores, and home places and you’ll spot old-fashioned petunias. They bloom spring through autumn in muted pastel shades of pink, lavender and white and unlike modern petunias, they’re fragrant.
Along forgotten byways, in small towns especially, you’ll spot ghost signs, an old-fashioned advertisement painted onto a rough and unforgiving canvas, a brick wall. Ghost signs hawked products and businesses that no longer exist, Coca Cola being an exception. The products and businesses they peddled possessed names as colorful as ghost signs were in their prime. Owl Cigars. Old Reliable Bruton’s Snuff. The Creamery Café. King Midas Flour. Can’t Bust ’Em Overalls. Uneeda Biscuit. Ballarat Bitter. Made by Cows Milk, Mother’s Bread 100% Pure, and Nightly Bile Beans.
There was a time when building a home depended on access to water that was fairly close to the surface. That changed when electricity and drilled wells came along. Thanks to those modern conveniences you could build a home most anywhere and you could lift water deep from Mother Earth’s bosom. For folks out in the country an electric pump and tank meant water was as close as the faucet—as long as they had power. An ice storm that knocked the power out for days, however, meant no water. That’s not a problem with hand-pumped water.
Continuing on Highway 181, I found the bridge I had crossed years earlier, a bridge of the old days. Neither you nor I will ever cross that bridge again. Its South Carolina terminus has been cut away. It hangs over the river, a dropping off point if ever there were one. A wide concrete bridge, which seems to be the trend, now, has replaced it. Barriers prevent you from driving onto the old bridge. Drive across this bridge and you essentially walk the plank with a plunge into the Savannah River your fate.
I remember seeing a car barreling down a dirt lane eons ago, a billowing wake of dust settling onto the purple-green leaves of silage. We pave every road we can now and cars trailed by dusty contrails are a rarity.
I love an old, weedy back road more than a freshly topped highway with pure white stripes. The old roads have character. Remember the centerline of tar? Gone. James Dickey mentioned that centerline in Deliverance. “Around noon we turned off onto a blacktop state road, and from that onto a badly cracked and weedy concrete highway of the old days—the thirties as nearly as I could tell—with the old splattered tar centerline wavering onward.”
So, that is but a small glimpse of my book. In the epilogue I closed with some observations:
The beginning of the end began for many of South Carolina’s fine two-lane highways June 29, 1956. That’s the day President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, the Interstate Act. Eisenhower, a general to the end, envisioned highways, “broad ribbons,” laden with tanks and troops, and South Carolina got its share.
Over sixty years, five interstates, and 757 freeway miles later, a grid of steel, cement, and asphalt makes it possible to cross South Carolina and see little of anything other than interchanges, bridges, concrete barriers, and orange safety barrels. And lots of trucks … at times it’s like driving beside a train.
Don’t despair. The real South Carolina is still out there. While it’s true that interstates relegated once-busy highways to back-road status, think of it as an act of preservation. The state’s hidden beauty, history, and mystery wait along forgotten byways and back roads.
With great patience they wait for you and me. And as Aida Rogers pointed out in her foreword, “This world is even more fascinating because it exists right alongside us. At least for now.”