31 December 2001
It’s hard to imagine life without Interstate highways. They allow us to get from place to place with ease, in relative safety, and save us some time in the process. I truly can not imagine travel without them. But they are lacking in something that the older two-lane US highways were not–character. The old roads had character, character given them by the towns they passed through and the billboards that lined them.
I recall some of the happiest times of my childhood were in a car with my parents going to visit grandparents. As we traveled from Georgia, or North or South Carolina to Mississippi, we always took US Highway 78, a little two-lane highway that connected us to them. Highway 78 had character. It had the Jolly Joe’s billboards about every half mile hawking their wares from hot coffee to pecan rolls. Fireworks, and T-shirts, the grand souvenirs were all to be had at Jolly Joe’s, just fill in the blank miles ahead. How could anyone possibly live a complete life without a stop in their store somewhere in the middle of Nowhere, Alabama along US 78? I can never recall our stopping, so there obviously was a way to pass them by. But their signs, I loved the signs.
Getting to see the country was also part of the trip. Unlike the manicured landscapes of the Interstate Highway system with the uniformly sloped banks, non-descript bridges, and cookie cutter guard rails, US 78 let you see it all, up close. The road made its way through small towns and forest; it seemed to go through places that time had forgotten. There were true roadside parks on the highway then too, places where you could stop and eat and play.
Many a piece of the Colonel’s finest chicken was eaten at one particular park on the side of US 78. I can’t recall the precise location but it was a nice little park. There was a waterfall there that I always wanted to climb to the top of, and there were several picnic tables for us to spread our food on. The ice chest was always removed from the car with load soft drinks and ice and occasionally a desert prepared by my grandmother. The chicken was always warm, never hot, because it had been purchased a few miles up the road. It was torture being small and hungry and locked in a car with a bucket or barrel of chicken. Of course it was Original Recipe but it wasn’t called that then—there was only one kind.
Christmas trips were always the best. As we drove through the small towns we were able to see the stores decorated with their most popular items proudly displayed in the windows. Every light pole had a Christmas tree or Angel mounted on it. The streets were usually empty and clean for our travels were always at night or on a Sunday.
And then there was Norman’s. Norman’s was a diner just off the highway in Bremen, Georgia. I don’t know who Norman was but stopping at his diner for a meal was always a treat. If I recall correctly, my personal favorite was always a hamburger steak and a Pepsi. Yes, Pepsi, Norman’s always had Pepsi. I’m not even sure if he sold Cokes at all. On one stop, our Pepsi’s were a little flat and my mother remarked that they tasted like they had been left out on the railroad tracks that ran behind Norman’s. I didn’t really care because Pepsi’s at Norman’s always tasted great.
We listened to the radio, AM radio on those trips. I don’t know if FM stations were around or not because we only had an AM radio in the car. At night we listened to the clear channels, stations out of Atlanta and Nashville. My father always managed to find the Grand Ole Opry on those trips. I was never a big fan of the Opry but I sure did enjoy listening to it on those trips. The Opry commercials were almost much fun to listen to as the Jolly Joe’s billboards were to read.
On Christmas trips, the one’s we had to make on Christmas Eve, were punctuated by the NORAD reports of reindeer and sleigh sightings. My sister and I almost broke the car windows trying to look out for Santa Claus. I knew we were special to always have Santa Claus come visit us first. I questioned why he didn’t stop at the houses up north first but I was told he always came to see us early in the night.
Upon arriving at our destination, we seldom went straight to bed. My grandparents would always wake up and sit around the kitchen table with us eating candy and talking. The house was always warm and the Christmas tree was always in the same place with lots of presents under it. The number of presents would always increase as soon as the car was unloaded, usually after I went to bed.
Interstates certainly make it much easier to get to where you’re going; but the journey is not quite the same as it used to be, seems character is missing.