I remember my grandfather, gray-haired and spry eyed, telling stories about his past in Georgia. For a time, he was a salesman and drove all over the backroads of the state. It was a true adventure for him and I can imagine so! For in the 1920s the roads were mostly dirt and places to stop were few. Grandfather would talk about how dirty automobile travel was because cars didn't have air conditioning and the only way to stay somewhat cool was to keep the windows open. Unfortunately, this meant lots of dust. Dust in your hair, your eyes, your nose and mouth. Dust everywhere. And in those days, because of the harsh roads, it was not uncommon to have multiple flat tires on a trip.
And every time I get stuck in Atlanta traffic I think of my grandfather and his travel stories. While I sit at a standstill waiting for a wreck to clear on I-20, barely moving a yard in 30 minutes, I think of how rough it must have been in the past to travel via automobile and how lucky I am to be listening to a radio with air conditioning blowing in my face instead of dust.
But I also imagine the good parts of travel back then. I hear the gurgling pops of a Harley sitting next to me and I can see that old Model A sputtering down a red clay road. On one side is a large field of cotton which seems to go on forever. The lush green plants still have a long ways to go before it will look like a field of snow, for now only pink flowers adorn them. On the other side is a small dairy farm filled with holsteins. There is a rusty, barbed wire fence held in place by gnarly, gray posts full of knots and wrinkles. The cows stop their grazing to look up as the old car sputters by. And I can see my grandfather driving that car. His arm resting on the open window sill as dust billows along behind the slowly moving vehicle. The road travels downward into a river valley and at the bottom, it curves and travels into a deep forest filled with sycamores, sweet gums, oaks and pines. Their branches hang over the road providing a canopy and shade from the blistering Georgia sun. The temperature drops in the coolness of the shade and my grandfather stops alongside a small stream. Taking his handkerchief out of his pocket and dipping it into the icy spring water and wiping his forehead with the refreshing liquid. Leaning against the old car, one foot on the ground the other on the sideboard.
It is silent except for the tricking sound of water flowing under a makeshift bridge ahead. A woodpecker hammers away on a decaying limb, tap, tap, tap____tap, tap, tap___tap, tap, tap. The sound echoes in the dense forest. Eventually grandfather turns the front crank of the dusty, black car and the engine sputters in disbelief that it is already time to move again. There are still many more miles to cover before dark; it is best to keep moving.
By 4pm, grandfather had made it to Woodbury, Georgia. His back tired from the bouncy trip, his eyes itchy and irritated from all the dust and his shirt soaked through with perspiration. Even though it is still over 90 degrees, the suit jacket folded in the back seat needs to be worn. First impressions are important and as he fights with each sleeve, struggling like a mentally unsound person in a straight jacket, he sees his client and puts on a staged smile.
By 6pm, he is finished for the day. Just a short walk up the street is the old, brick hotel he'll be staying at for tonight. The sun has begun it's decent and the rusty colored brick buildings around the city square all appear to be on fire with the orange glow; the last hurrah of the sun before it dips under the horizon. A church bell chimes slowly and finally, a gentle breeze brings some relief to this weary traveler. My grandfather's feet shuffle along the sidewalk as he walks by the businesses. The owners closing up shop for the day, turning the wooden open signs to closed and pulling down the blinds in the tall, front windows. On the second floor of one building, he hears laughter and the sound of glasses and silverware. A small child cries and a mother's voice scolds another. Just a few more steps and his day will be over.
The hotel is not a fancy place, but a good place to seek rest after a day of travel. On the side of the red brick building is a painting advertisement for Coca Cola and the entrance door is made of wicker and screen.
As he approaches the door, shapes can be seen moving in the darkness. There is the sound of piano coming from the front parlor, and it sounds like a Chopin Waltz with variations added by the person playing. As he opens the screen door there is a welcoming familiar sound that he has heard a million times in his life. The squeaking hinges remind him of all those carefree summer days of his youth. Running home late for dinner and the anger in his mother's voice. Flying through the screen door and it slamming behind him with equal fury. Washing up in the bathroom and landing at his place at the table with wet hands and arms as his mother stares sternly at the panting child. His father, a country doctor, sitting at the head of the table, has a wide grin and tries not to laugh, for he sees himself in this young boy. Soon, his mothers stern look applies to both of them as the dishes of collard greens, corn, fried chicken and cornbread are passed around the table.
These thoughts all make my grandfather very hungry and as he stands by and fills out the paper work for his stay, he smells the evening dinner cooking in the nearby kitchen. He tries to conceal the growling of his stomach and coughs with each conversation from his gut. The foyer and parlor behind him are filled with oval backed chairs with deep, red fabric, further into the room a white mantled fireplace sits empty and of course, there is an older woman sitting at the piano playing her medley of classical music. Old photographs adorn the walls and now, as the evening and darkness approach, the breeze becomes stronger, blowing the white, petite curtains that decorate each window gently into the room. My grandfather catches a whiff of cigar smoke and the smell directs his eyes to a rotund man in formal clothing sitting on a love seat at the opposite side of the room. The butt grows orange and smoke billows into the air as the man reads the evening paper intently.
A horn blasts behind me. I am jolted into present day as the traffic along I-20 begins moving again. My return trip home won't pass through Atlanta again...this time I will be taking the backroads.