I find the last day of a solo road trip a little sad. I knew the following day and from then on I would be in the company of friends and family, which is far from a bad thing, but that feeling of traveling alone, being one with your thoughts, free to do whatever you chose without compromise, is gone until the next time. I assume there will always be a next time, but in truth travels end. There is a last trip somewhere out there for all of us. I hope mine is far off. Yours too.That last day all I had to do was angle across the bottom of Mississippi, cross over a tiny part of Alabama and head into the panhandle of Florida, where I would settle into Pensacola and meet my golfing buddies from Ottawa the following day. The end was in sight.
From Natchez I got on Highway 61 (Dylan anyone?) toward Fayette, took 28 to Union Church and then 550 to Brookhaven. I was in the Mississippi boondocks; pine trees, pickups, and coon dogs. Not much else. I began to wonder if I’d waited too long to fill up on gas. Then I happened upon the Community Grocery and the oldest gas pump I have seen in quite some time.
As you can see there was no credit card slot in that pump, so I went inside to pay, a rare occurrence for me anymore. They were cooking lunch in there. Aptly named, Community Grocery was less gas station and more general store/restaurant.
“What’s for lunch?”“Beans, greens and ham hocks. Fried chicken if you want it. But it’s not ready.”
“That’s OK I had breakfast not long ago. Not to be nosy, but who are you cooking for? There’s not a lot of traffic heading your way where I came from.”“They’s loggin’. Come noon will have hungry loggin’ men in here. Truck drivers, skidder operators, chain saw men.”
“Well, it smells good.”“Don’t matter how good it is.”
She got a lot louder.“They got nowhere else to eat anyway lessen they bring their own lunch.” Ain’t that right Audrey?”
Audrey, an older woman in a hair net who was standing over a huge steaming stock pot, let out a big laugh and the woman I was speaking to joined her. They made me feel like they were glad to see me.I cruised the shelves for a snack to go, picked up a few cans of V-8, but couldn’t find the moon pies. I settled on a bag of peanuts.
When I took my stuff back to the counter the woman looked at my V-8 and immediately went to the kitchen for a dish towel, returning to vigorously clean off the top of the cans.“You don’t have to do that ma’am.”
“Yes I do. That’s filthy. You don’t want to put that nasty can up to your mouth do you?”I hadn’t noticed. But I think some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet live in the South.
“Thanks. Say where are the Moon Pies? I haven’t been seeing any in the stores.”“I don’t know what’s happened to those Moon Pie people but my bake goods man hasn’t brought me any in months. I don’t know if they went out of business or what but I don’t get any no more.”
I kind of wished I could have stayed for lunch at the Community Grocery but I had a ways to go yet on those slow two lane roads so I said good bye to Audrey and her friend and was off.It was a beautifully bright day for travelling. I passed through Brookhaven and Monticello on Route 84, then to 27 to 586. I steered the Buick on a slow glide through the small towns of Darbun and Foxworth. In Columbia I turned south on 13 which carried me to Lampton, Pine Bur, and finally Lumberton.
In Lumberton I was seriously held up by a train which did not move. Even a train that it switching, moving up and back, changing cars, offers hope but that damned train just sat there. I circled back downtown and found myself on a main street. Lumberton was not jumping with activity. But there on a corner, under a beach umbrella by a pickup truck, was the guy I’d been waiting to talk to the whole trip. As old as me, he had on bib overalls and was wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat.On the tailgate of his pickup truck and folding tables on both sides was a whole array of great looking vegetables. I parked the Buick and went over for a chat.
“How you doing today sir?”He eyed me suspiciously. I don’t know how I looked to him. I was wearing a Titleist hat with a Cubs logo. Could be it was how I sounded. Or maybe he saw my Illinois license plates.
“Not worth a shit. How about you?”“Is business that slow?”
“Business? You mean selling vegetables? Hell this is just a hobby. Gives me an excuse to get out of the house.”He looked away. He was chewing something. Could have been tobacco but he didn’t spit.
“Well that train has me boxed in here so I figured I’d stop for lunch. You got a recommendation?”“Just two places really. You got Wards over there (pointing), burgers and fries and shit. But if you want a real meal, I mean plate lunch specials, a meal of honest to God food, you’d want to go across the street to Fiorella’s.”
“So have you lived here a while?”“I lived here till I graduated high school and joined the Navy. Made a career of it. Been all around the world and couldn’t wait to get back to Lumberton.”
“Has it changed much?”“Has it changed much? Are you kiddin’? It’s gone to hell. All around here used to be full of pecan (he pronounced it pee con) trees. Farmers on little farms, raising kids, good families. It was a hustling town, Lumberton was, till they built the interstate. Ruined the god damned place. This town’s population is 2,226 and dropping like a stone. Hell, nobody comes through here anymore.”
He thought for a moment, looked at the Buick, looked at me again.“So what are you doin’ here?”
“I’m going to Florida the slow way. Wanted to see a different part of the country. Meet people like you.”“People like me? Who do you think I am?
“Southern man about my age living in a small town. I’m a Northern man kind of like you, live in a little bit bigger town, hundred miles southwest of Chicago, have a garden. I mean, we’re both Americans. We can’t be that different can we?”“Oh you might be surprised. I’m guessing you’re a Democrat.”
“I am. And I’m guessing you’re not.”“No shit Sherlock, what was your first clue?”
He gave me a big smile. He had giant teeth. False I’m guessing.“I dunno. Might have been the hat.”
He laughed.“How is your guy doing you think?”
“The Donald? He’s tearing it up. Making a big damn mess of things. That’s exactly what I hoped he’d do. Scare the hell out of both parties. We’ve had it both ways down south here and there’s not been a dime’s worth of difference between Republicans and Democrats till now.”“You think that’s the way to go?”
“Well nobody was doing shit for us before. You know what it’s like to live in a little town in nowhere America these days? Not like it used to be I’ll tell you. Whole damn countryside is owned by lumber companies. All you can do is work for somebody else. No jobs that pay anything anymore. I’m glad my parents aren’t here to see this.”“Hell they’re dissolving our school district. Half of its going to Purvis and half to Poplarville. We won the 2A state football title in 2004 and 2005, now we’re 1A and they’ll probably end up closin’ the damn school altogether.
“Why is that?”“You know why as well as I do. Nobody’s got any money. You can’t tax a damn turnip.”
“Yeah, and God knows we can’t raise taxes on those lumber companies. Might hurt them. In fact he cut their taxes.”He ignored that comment. Had I ignored his?
“Lumberton is fading away. And nobody does shit about it.”“Do you think your president’s going to change that?”
“He can’t do any worse. I hope somebody’s listening. We’re tired of getting taken for granted. Something’s gotta change. And I think he’s the guy to do it.”“Yeah, well I don’t. I think he’s going to do a lot of damage to a lot of people before he’s through. Already has if you ask me.”
We were both quiet.“Those are sure nice sweet potatoes,” I said. “I’ve tried growing them but never had any luck. I can grow regular potatoes, but sweet potatoes never seem to turn out.”
“You need a lot of heat to grow good sweet potatoes. They grow good in red dirt. Loose red dirt. Not that hard clay.”“If I had a kitchen I’d buy some of your produce. It’s nice looking.”
“Thanks. Keeps me sane, growing this stuff. Like I say it’s mostly a hobby.”A diesel engine revved up and we heard the boom of empty train cars jerking along the track.
“Guess I’ll head over to Fiorella’s and get some lunch. Nice talking to you.”“Nice talking to you. Sorry if I got carried away.”
“That’s OK. Me too. Lot of it going around these days, that getting carried away. You got a legitimate gripe. We just don’t agree on how to fix it.”“Yeah. Don’t suppose we will anytime soon neither. But enjoy your trip.”
We shook hands. I should have gotten his name, like that woman who made the bread pudding in Arkansas. They are the unsung voices, the undiscovered talent in today’s America.At Fiorella’s, save for kids coming in to put money in a gumball machine, I was the only customer at 1:30 in the afternoon. The waitress sat me at a table near the counter and told me about that day’s special. Meatloaf with mashed potatoes and green beans. Rice pudding or ice cream for dessert.
“The mashed potatoes are real,” she said.“That’s unusual.”
“Yeah, well that’s the kind of place we are.”“Does your meat loaf come with have that canned brown gravy all over it?”
“Doesn’t have to, I can leave it off. It’s fresh too. This pan came out of the oven about 10:30.”“I’ll have the meatloaf, skip the gravy. Glass of milk. Rice pudding for dessert.”
My lunch came up quickly and it was good. As I ate the waitress sat at the counter with a giant glass of pop checking her phone.“How’s that meatloaf?”
“I like it. I like being in a real restaurant, and not a chain.”“A chain?”
“Yeah you know. Olive Garden. Denny’s. McDonald’s.”“Well, Fiorella’s is kind of a chain. We got three restaurants. This is the original but we opened one in Purvis and another in Poplarville. In Poplarville we got beer, and we’re trying new things on the menu.”
“Like what?”“Like poppers. Jalapeno’s filled with cream cheese and stuff. They’re selling good. I think we’re going to have them at all three places pretty soon.”
“I work all three restaurants. I got three kids and need the hours. Tell you the truth, I don’t much like the work but I love my customers.”I could have stayed in Lumberton and talked to more folks but I knew I had to be on my way. I was headed to the gulf coast, Mobile Alabama, and into the Florida panhandle where I would end my trip. I gassed up before I left town. Lumberton turned out to be my last stop before Pensacola.
From Lumberton I cut over on 13 through Carnes and Fruitland Park to Wiggins. There I picked up 26 to Lucedale, then got on 98, which turned into 42 at the Alabama line. Before I knew it I was into Mobile and on that long causeway which is I 10. The sun was behind me on the bay and the water sparkled. The causeway took me over to Spanish Fort, then Ensley, and finally Pensacola where the solo road trip ended. I hope the Buick and I get out on the road for another trip next year. I’m undecided as to whether I should keep telling you all about them however. We’ll see what happens.