Wreckage Along The Back Roads
By Tom Poland
I seek beautiful wreckage along the back roads. It’s out there, a chest of tarnished treasure. The key is that red, white, and blue shield you see in the photograph. I know it is a place to avoid. Rather than speed from one destination to another, I follow old roads into the past. And it is there that I ramble, detouring and losing track of time. It’s there that mysteries occur to me, something that never happens on a rough-surfaced interstate where road noise drowns out your thoughts.
Take the scene you witness here. It’s the remains of an old store near Great Falls, South Carolina. 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, a sad tale oft repeated. As you can see, not even the old tree survived. The stop sign seemed to be begging someone to stop at the old store, so I did.
I did not venture on to I-77. I stayed the course on Highway 97. With good reason. I speak to groups about my journeys into the countryside. I promise people that they will see nothing of interest along the interstates. You can be in Georgia, South Carolina, or North Carolina and the terrain will be remarkably similar, mountainous regions excluded. The Land of Monotony and its endless ribbons of asphalt and concrete make for a bland, sleep-inducing trip, albeit 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. Only in dire circumstances do I take them—when no time to linger exists and when they can’t be avoided. Whenever possible, 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 till 8 a.m., hit I-26 to I-20, and then to I-77 and made the trip in two hours. Instead, I took Highway 321 as far as I could before the interstate system got me in its clutches north of Charlotte. My journey took three and a half hours but it was worth it.
Thanks to the unseasonably cool weather, I drifted through patches of fog and drove over corridors of billowing clouds called rivers and past streamers of mists that hung over ponds and lakes. Wildlife appeared out of the mists like phantoms. A wild turkey crossed the road in front of me. Later, two deer grazed along the shoulder only to spring up a shoulder into an avenue of oaks as I approached. A hawk perched on a powerline. A mockingbird chased a crow across a field. (Why the crow didn’t turn and attack the much-smaller bird is something I cannot comprehend, some law of nature must be at work.)
I saw quaint churches up close. Morning sunlight struck the white clapboard front of one with such force it blinded me, as if Jesus himself had just descended. Not far past there I saw an abandoned cemetery in a clearing, several stones leaning as if about to fall. I saw plenty of old homes, way too many adrift in weeds and vines. No one calls them home anymore, another mystery that confounds me.
One of the revelations driving the back roads always brings sadness. Back roads can be melancholy places for wayfarers, for there they enter the resting place of dreams. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” comes to mind. I see many businesses that went bust. Gas stations … tire stores … hair salons … and now and then an ill-fated nightclub. Along Highway 321 in the middle of nowhere I passed a cinder block structure with a faded sign, its ghostly blue letters paling white. “Nite Life.”
You get the feeling a lot of these business owners had little money to start with. What became of them? Picked up and moved on I suppose. But the beautiful, sad detritus aside, I love forgotten byways, sleepy lanes, gravel-dinging roads, and dusty roads where the residue of 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 shops, old sheds, and fields rife with big round bales of hay.
Old stores, especially, catch my eye. Look closely at an old store’s screen door and you just might see a rusty sign, “Colonial Is Good Bread.” Peek inside and you’ll see an authentic bead board ceiling. Stores with locks on their doors and stores with broken windows share one thing—abandonment.
You’ll also come across burnt homes. Here and there only chimneys remain but in some places homes with gaping black holes in their roof—like a molar with a cavity—welcome rain and the elements. But delicious and colorful sights balance out dark moments. Come summertime you’ll spot glistening patches of blackberries or get a close look at a peach orchard or spot heirloom tomatoes. Sometimes, too, 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 seems more natural and for sure it’s more entertaining. Friendly fellows raise a finger from the steering wheel. “Hello.” I like country folk. I sprang from their stock. I feel at home around them and I find their ways charming. Always worth a smile are the murals some local artist paints on the side of a store or shed. I saw one in a rural county on a cement block building … “Murals by Martha.” I saw 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 business did it hype?
Life in the slow lane … that’s where you find winsome ways and bucolic beauty. And wreckage. Lots of wreckage. It’s all entertaining and thought provoking. 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? Seems they’re always darting about or hopping across a road. I think it’s because they feel safer there. They seek food along the roads, places where they can land and dine on a scrap of food, even if it’s flattened squirrel. I’ve seen it many times. They understand there’s less chance of being killed on a sleepy lane than on an interstate slammed with cargo-carrying eighteen-wheelers.
Maybe there’s a lesson in that for us. Something to think about should you decide to survey the wreckage along the back roads. Do it often enough, and like the crows and me you just might become a convert.
Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press released his book, Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It, in November 2015 and his and Robert Clark’s Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II in 2014. The History Press of Charleston published Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia in 2014. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia, “Georgialina.” Email Tom about most anything. firstname.lastname@example.org.