For the Love of the Open Road
I’m not sure why I grew up with such a robust love of the open road. A long stretch of highway symbolizes so much more than transit to me – it’s freedom. When I was young it was a place where my father would smuggle me a Sprite from the gas station on the sly – with the silent agreement not to mention it to my mother or sister – and I’d crawl to the back of the station wagon to guzzle it down while waving at the drivers behind us. Often, when he would pick me up from ballet, we’d drive along the pavement through the tobacco fields to our home outside of Charlotte, N.C. One specific farmer sticks in my memory – we’d pass him every week, he’d be sitting on a rocking chair on his front porch and I’d wave enthusiastically. On Christmas my mom would bring him a plate of cookies and some casseroles.*
As soon as I was old enough and could drive on my own at night, I would take to the country roads for liberation. Driving was an escape. To this day, nothing calms me quite like a state road lined with split-rail fences in the nighttime, with crickets chirping through the open windows along the road, humming along to whatever Nick Drake song I have queued up.
Out there, you can sing as loud as you please, with the windows down and the radio blasting. You can let your arm hang out the window and toy with the wind. Your mind can wander along the verdant rolling hills and treetops that surround you. Over the years I’ve collected favorite roads all over the country – Old Frankfort Pike, the Blue Ridge Parkway and Highway 143 among ‘em.
Living in Atlanta now, I find myself too removed from such freedoms. It’s impossible to let my mind wander with streets so heavily staccatoed by stoplights. (Not to mention, my head and heart are much more cluttered than they used to be.) The nearest country roads from my apartment are a good, solid hour away – and the traffic I’d have to endure to reach them is stressful enough to defeat the purpose of a joyride entirely, or so I thought.
This past Labor Day weekend, my dad surprised me by rolling into town on his Harley with an extra helmet. From his perspective, I had gotten too wound up in day-to-day stresses and it was time to do something about it. On Saturday morning we hit the road with no plan – just a AAA map and my cameras. We took to the highway.
Being a passenger on a motorcycle is an active act of surrender. I trust few people more than my dad, but handing over the reins was still a struggle. It had been quite a while since my last ride with him, and the first hour of our trip I was preoccupied by thoughts of my imminent death.
But then it happened: We made our way up north, where the Smoky Mountains toe the Georgia/Carolina border and the sight of the endless tree-topped mountains took my breath away. Out in the elements as we were, the clouds seemed so much more within reach. Even when it drizzled, the rain was an afterthought. My fear of crashing vanished. Further away still were my bills, my upcoming move and the array of stresses associated with the 9-to-5 life. In comparison to the sky overhead and the pavement below us, those were less than trivial.
Out there, on the highway, we were free.
*I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the critical part that Waylon Jennings’ cameo in “Follow That Bird” played in romanticizing the highway for me.