We have been doing a lot of interstate driving – I-95 and I-64 to Williamsburg; the interminable I-85 to North Carolina and Atlanta; I-20 through Georgia to Alabama; I-22 from Alabama to Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee, I-55 to Arkansas – and I am amazed at how fast people drive and how noisy it is in the van with the windows rolled down. Of course, I’ve been more aware of how fast everyone else is going because everyone else is going faster than us. Wesley at full throttle is closer to`the minimum speed limit than the maximum so it might be that folks are going as fast as the law allows. What I shake my fist at as they fly past us though is the way they change lanes at the last second nearly clipping our tail, try to pass on the right when the blinker is on signalling we are trying to move right to get out of the way, and how they look so damn smug in their cars with the automatic transmissions and the windows rolled up and air conditioning blasting. We’ve gotten a few honks and waves from folks who either feel some nostalgia for seeing one of these VW Westphalia dinosaurs still stomping the earth or can’t believe some idiot would take the thing on a public highway, but for the most part, people just want us in the rear view mirror.
The stretch of State Route 78 that we drove out of Birmingham, Alabama, may have been most unpleasant bit of driving I’ve ever done, and I cut my teeth behind the wheel in North Jersey and currently live in Northern Virginia, where drivers are notoriously unable to merge, thus turning twenty mile trips into day long ventures. It was hot. There were red traffic lights every hundred yards, narrow lanes and big trucks on all sides, and the only businesses that seemed to exist in the otherwise empty strip malls were pawn shops, Dollar stores, garages, fast food joints, and adult novelty superstores. And then we saw a WalMart and that explained why the other retail businesses – including a grocery store – had failed. The highlight of this part of our trip, by a longshot, was seeing a dead armadillo by the side of the road.
We’ve been on the interstate so much rather than the more time-consuming but interesting and scenic country roads because we are still on a schedule. We committed to meet R’s parents in Atlanta and my cousin in Arkansas on certain dates so we aren’t able to linger another day at camps that we like. We also want to get to Mexico, so pushing on day after day isn’t all bad, but it does change the dynamic from take your time to hurry up – which is opposite of how we envision life once we leave the United States in about ten days.
As R pointed out, the places we’ve been in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and now Arkansas, may turn out to be just as foreign to us as Mexico will be – maybe even more foreign because in Mexico we expect things to be different but in the States we expect things a certain way. It would have been nice to be able to spend some more time getting to know these places. Most of the Alabama that we drove through was flying the confederate flag from a ramshackle home that had several abandoned cars with weeds growing up through the engine block permanently docked in the front yard. Bet you don’t now how many used appliances you can discard by the side of a barn: a lot.
To be fair, our camp on Monday night on Clear Creek in Alabama, part of the vast Lewis Smith Lake, was pretty. And the drive west towards Mississippi on Country Road 278 was a nice change from interstate driving and revealed a few nice homes in seemingly otherwise forsaken towns. Maybe there is more to these towns than we could see – I don’t know – but at least our experience was a bit more organic because we drove through at about 45 m.p.h. and with the windows down. We did spend about 20 minutes chatting with a park ranger who had come to take a water sample near our camp in Fulton Campground on the Tennessee River-Tombigbee Waterway in Mississippi. He was enthused about our trip and may follow through on some of his own wanderlust – which would be great if we inspired him to do that. This is to say that anyone we’ve talked to has been nice.
For the most part, Coconut and J look at their screens while we drive and R navigates from the passenger seat or orders things on our friend’s Amazon Prime account that we forgot or have already lost. We are expecting R’s new swim shorts (three pair; they were on sale), her old lady face cream, a VW repair manual, and our replacement credit cards to be shipped to our next known address in Tulsa, which belongs to my cousin, who will host us next Sunday. Coconut is also hoping some of her friends will respond to the letters she sent.
The kids reading, doing other worthy things, or even playing some games on their screens while we drive is fine. Once in a while we can get them to look up at something interesting like a ride-on mower parked on a front porch and sometimes Coconut will ride shotgun so R can sit back with J and play cards. J spends a lot of time playing games on his Kindle and we need to help him download some books once we get to free Wifi.
We haven’t spent much time living out of the van yet to establish a routine, but we have started to engage Coconut and J in helping set up camp when we arrive and doing some chores around camp while we are there. I’ve taught J how to scrounge unused or partially charred firewood from the unoccupied campsites and he’ll take off doing that and report back on the burned ones that are still good but that he doesn’t want to carry because he will get his hands dirty. Coconut will set up the chairs and her tent. They both do the dinner dishes. They’ve been receptive if less than enthusiastic about doing these things but we’re hoping that we can help our children succeed not by doing for them, but by showing them what they can do for themselves. This slower pace of life on the road is new to them, and we realize enthusiasm may go up as the temperatures go down. So far all any of us have wanted to do once we get to camp is put on our swimsuits and hit the water.