Thursday, July 17, 2008

Taking the Long Way Home

As a child, my parents and brother and I would load up the car and head off through the Ozark Mountains for our annual Summer outing to my grandparents' homes in Texas. We lived in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and to get to the desired destination you had to drive through the winding mountain roads that would dump you out right next to Fort Smith. From Fort Smith it was a not-so-scenic drive the rest of the way.

I always loved driving through the hills, and always felt a little sad when the straighter roads began appearing. The mountains afforded awesome views out my backseat window, and we would sing songs and play license plate hide-and-seek and hold pretend spelling bees (remember that my Mom was an English teacher and Dad was a journalism professor). But the thing I most recall about the drive was the allure of these little rundown shops that would appear on the roadside as we began to drive downhill toward the end of the road.

The shops--usually with hand-drawn signs and peeling paint--told me that they housed rock collections inside. Every trip, I'd see the Rock Shops from a distance and beg Dad, "Stop, stop, Dad. Please. I want to look at the rocks."

We'd drive right by--not because Dad was a bad Dad, but because it's what I imagine all fathers in their 20s do. They prescribe to the "get where we're going" travel plan. If it's not on the planned itinerary, and if it will put the schedule in jeopardy by more than 15 minutes, a stop at a candy shop or historical marker or rock shop is not in order.

I moped and whined and Dad said something about how we "have to get to Grandma's by 5 o'clock," but I kept those rock shops in my mind.

Fast forward some twenty five years and I'd married a man who also prescribed to a very organized, "make a list and check it twice" sort of mentality. Christmas shopping demanded a strict budget; our monthly calendar needed to be updated regularly, to make sure nothing fell through the cracks; and vacation plans came with checklists and directions to "not leave anything behind, or we'll just do without."

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out that Gary delighted in stopping at historical markers "just because" and that the promise of a covered bridge down the road meant "let's drive down there and check it out." When on vacation, Gary's personality evolves into a carefree one (I think it's because he so delights in getting out of the office, but also because he knows how happy it makes me).

On one trip home from Gulf Shores, Alabama, I noticed the sign for a town I'd noticed for years and always yearned to stop at. The green road mileage sign promised nothing of significance, but I knew that "Monroeville: 24" meant something pretty special. Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, grew up in Monroeville and she based the fictional town of Maycomb on it. I knew that the town supposedly had a courthouse like the one in the book, and I itched to see what else I could discover there. (McKenna, who was 1o at the time and had just read the book for the first time, itched along with me.)

We turned off the interstate and soon found ourselves in truly rural Alabama. With towns named things like Burnt Corn and Raysville, and miles and miles of both cotton and corn as far as you could see, I felt like I had transported back to the days of Scout and Jem in the book. The trip grew longer by the mile, and I wondered if Gary would grow discouraged or agitated by the fact that Monroeville was harder to find than he might have imagined. But, as I giggled and ranted on and on in the seat next to him, he sensed my excitement and continued to indulge the sidetrip.

We finally rolled into Monroeville, a sleepy little town, and found most of the stores and offices closed. The Courthouse was closed too since it was a Sunday, which of course disappointed me, but we still parked there on the downtown square and wandered around the building. I could imagine Scout running up the steps after her father, Atticus, and could just hear the sounds of childhood laughter and adult conversations. I stopped to take a picture in front of the historical marker that told the uninformed about Harper Lee and her novel, and went on to get pictures by the courthouse and a display set up outside for an annual play based on the novel that is performed there each Summer.

As we stood there on the square, we began to notice cars honking and police car sirens wailing. We looked around to see cars and trucks circling the square, young children waving from the carseats and the truck beds. After about ten of them rolled through, we looked at each other quizzically, wondering what we'd just seen. I then noticed a sign on the back of the last car, inviting everyone to "Come to Vacation Bible School." We'd caught ourselves in a small-town church parade (which, apparently, in the lazy town of Monroeville, justified a police escort). We laughed a little bit, and talked about the joys of small towns, and then proceeded to hunt for some cold Coca Colas to enjoy on our trip out of town.

Several years later (this time with our own little Scout in tow), we stopped inside the gift shop in the back of the Mercer House in Savannah, Georgia. The Mercer House is famed from the novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and the curator and gift shop operator fascinated us with stories from the book and the movie. More than anything, he fascinated us with his honey-dripping Southern accent. Impeccably dressed in a beautiful suit and talking in a drawl that was absolutely "to die for," this man radiated Southernness (I wondered if, in fact, he might have been who one of the eccentric characters from the book was based on). He asked us what we'd done in Savannah and he then began recommending different places to visit.

When he told us, "You have got to drive over to Beaufort," we were intrigued...since this guy looked like someone who knew what we was talking about. He recommended that we drive up to the town over the border in South Carolina, mostly because you could get "the best adult libations there." (And then, winking at us and looking toward our girls, he added that a particular restaurant there by the river had wonderful ice cream.)

Never one to back away from an adventure--and the promise of libations--we packed up the next day and, instead of driving straight back to Birmingham, took a detour to Beaufort, South Carolina. The trip took much longer than expected, but three hours later we drove into the town that we discovered to be a beautiful one filled with neighborhood upon neighborhood of huge, beautiful antebellum homes, historical markers on every corner, and odes to the many Hollywood movies that had been filmed there ("My Dog Skip" and "Something to Talk About" among them).

And then we found the trail of restaurants that had been recommended to us, lying beside a coastal river with beautiful benches to enjoy the view. We found the ice cream (delicious, as promised), but passed on the libations since we had many miles to go before we returned home.

We didn't pull into our driveway until the wee hours of the morning, but the sidetrip had been worth it.

As had the sidetrip to Monroeville before that.

when you take the long road home,
when you stop and explore,
when you don't worry about destination,
but instead enjoy the journey...
You will be surprised what you discover about
the world around you,
the people around you.
And you will learn that life is meant to be

Life can truly be a
wonderful surprise.

(And let me take you back to the beginning and tell you the "rest of the story." After a few trips with me whining about not stopping at the rock shops, Dad finally relented and pulled into one. I lingered over the rocks, oohing and aahing at their beauty. Quartzes, and crytals, and obsidians, and slate, and fools gold.

I selected several for myself, and they quickly became the foundation for a rock collection I'd enjoy for years to come. In fact, my favorite rock--that I still have to this day--is the one with purple crystalline formations and fossiled crevices that I bought at the rock shop that Summer afternoon when Dad decided to veer from his planned itinerary and give his little 10-year-old daughter a break. And, in so doing, he taught me an important lesson... that things like rock shops, and small town parades, and an uplanned ice cream cone are the most precious joys in life. Those are the things you truly remember when all is said and done.)


Redhead Editor said...

What a wonderful travel log. I got tears in my eyes thinking about Atticus Finch and Scout and Jem. I used to dream that Atticus Finch was my father since I didn't have one. I thought he would have made a wonderful father and wept when Gregory Peck died. You have a wonderful father and a wonderful husband and continue to be so blessed.

hippochick said...

Delightful!! I would die to go to Monroeville. Mockingbird might just be my all time favorite book. Like redhead, I fell in love with Gregory Peck. He was just how I had pictured Atticus.

We were in Savannah last year and didn't know about Beaufort. We have friends who may build a home in the area. If so, we'll be sure to go to Beaufort.

My Jim is a vacationer like Gary. Isn't it fun.

~hippo hugs~

~gkw said...

That was so sweet.... You'll have to write that one in your essay book...

I Love you....

~gkw said...

hippochick - I'm really NOT a vacationer. I'm a homebody. I just wish my home was on a beach! LOL

Nnairda's said...

Thanks for sharing those memories. We are the adventurous type as well. I've found nice treasures here in my own little town.

The town VBS parade sounds like a once in a lifetime experience.

I look foward to our vacation before school starts.

Enjoy your weekend!

Monogram Queen said...

I just got To Kill A Mockingbird to read again... never get tired of it.

I love road trips. My favorite childhood memory is when we'd travel from PA down South and stop at some of the look-outs at night and seeing the lights twinkling in the little towns......

rhonda said...

would you believe that my mom was born in Monroe county...and my sister lived and worked in Monroeville when she first married...and would see Harper Lee every now and then...she doesn't like the public eye at all though. My mom has the original printing of TKAMB & my sister could never muster enough courage to ask for the autograph!

Lynilu said...

I love the story, Cheryl. It touched my memory button, too, not that my father was like yours or like Gary, but just because road trips with dads are story-worthy. :)

I've spent a number of times in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, because my ex-hub's grandparents lived there! And my first "grown up (almost)" love came from Fayetteville! Wow, the world is shrinking!

K-Mom said...

What a nice stroll down memory lane. The Ozarks holds a special place in my heart, too. We used to spend a lot of time in Hot Springs, in fact, my mom took my sister and me on a crystal dig there once and I still have some of my treasures.

Adrienne said...

What a wonderful entry Cheryl! You have such a way with words!

camport said...

I am FROM SC and have never stopped in Beaufort. Our Honeymoon was in Savannah, though, so I have been to the Mercer House.

Love this story and am so glad to say that I am an endorser of unplanned stops. Then again, when you've driven round-trip from SC to AZ 4 times in 2 years, ya kinda have to be.

Great post!


Gin said...

Great post once again Cheryl. Do you think all of us had Dads who wouldnt stop when we wanted to? I remember my father being the same way. ha ha!

Edleen said...

love your post today Cheryl :)
stopping to view something we assume that's precious to us, that's really a great feeling isn't it?

you have a Lovely Husband!
have a fun weekend :)

Cheryl Wray said...

Redhead--I always loved Atticus too, and Gregory Peck was amazing in that role. I am blessed. :-)

Pam--You will love Beaufort. It's your kind of town, I imagine!

G--You're too sweet. I love you too! (And, yes, Pam, he's not as much of an adventurer than I am . He loves the beach more than anything and he's always a little wary of new places. But once he's there he loves it! :-)

Adriann--Isn't it amazing how many surprises you can find in your own town? I think that we forget that sometimes.

Patti--What a great memory of looking at the twinkling lights from the city.I love that!!

Cheryl Wray said...

Rhonda--That is such a cool story!!I know that Harper Lee would happen up to the journalism department at UA, where my dad works, every once in a while. He always said she was so "normal" looking, you'd never know who she was. LOL

Lynilu--Wow, look at that Fayetteville connection. How cool!!

Kmom--I have done one of those digs in Hot Springs too. How fun!

Adrienne--You're too sweet.

Camport--I knew that YOU would relate, with all the traveling you guys do.I love Savannah and Charleston and Beaufort and all those towns up in that area.

Gin--Maybe all Dads are like that. You might be right. :-)

Ed--I love discoveries like that. I hope you have a great weekend too.

Ms.L said...

What a lovely,lovely post!
And a valuable recipe for life:)

I collect rocks too!
I NEED a new one from every new place I visit. My house is filling up rapidly;p

Josie said...

I love reading about all your adventures. Something about small towns are just so alluring. I would love to take a road trip down south and just explore all the nook and crannies.
Road trips from my childhood are still some of my best memories. I cannot wait to have the same adventures with my kids!

Kathy said...

OOOH! I felt like I was right there with you! What a wonderful post!

I like to stop along the way too.

There are so many beautiful things to see. While we were in Arizona, visiting my brother, we pulled off to the side of the road, so that we could take pictures of the wild flowers growing along the highway. Those are some of my favorite pictures!

It's those little things, that become big things in our memories.

Dettao said...

Wow, what a great read. I can always count on such a treat when I have time to venture over here. You have such a gift and such a charmed life. Lucky you

Sheila said...

Great post that reminds me of when my family would drive to the south and the sites along the way.

Dawn Bibbs said...

Cheryl, I almost get sad when I get to the end of one of your post. Especially ones like this one. Now that I've met you IRL and heard your voice, I can almost imagine you sitting next to me saying what you've written. What a gift you have.

Thanks for sharing.

By the way, a friend of mine named her son Atticus because this is her favorite story.

Gretchen said...

You're so right--it IS the side trips and the long way around which make life so much more interesting and memorable. Bless your dad for taking one for the team and stopping at that shop for you. I could hug him for that.