A spokesperson for the travel industry estimated this week that at least 5 billion Americans made a trip of 100 miles or more during this holiday season. A large majority of these were on the airlines or driving on the road, though a growing minority of travelers are choosing clean alternative transportation such as paddle boat, skate, and sliding downhill on a piece of cardboard.
When my family and I decided to go the 200 miles from Charlotte to Charleston, S.C., to visit my great aunt, we debated the merits of flying versus driving. We could make it either way in about the same amount of time, when you consider the attendant hassles and time delays involved in modern jet travel. Did we want to pay about ten times what it would cost to drive so we could experience the stimulation of surly counter agents, body searches and a potential plunge from 20,000 feet, or could we endure the tedium of freeway motoring? We realized how close a call the decision was about 50 miles out of town when I almost fell asleep at the wheel, but in the end, we’re glad we decided to drive.
There’s little of the magnificent American landscape so idolized in popular culture on the stretches of interstates 77 and 26 that bisect the state of South Carolina. Brown flatlands give way to sulfurous marshes as you approach the coast, so you’re generally left to your own imagination to summon enough interest to stay alert.
One way to do this is to admire the creativity (and lack thereof) that’s been put into the naming of different locations along the route. Towns have been saddled with unimaginative monikers like Jedburg, North, Cope and, from mapmakers who gave up completely, Ninety Six. There’s also a “Townville” that apparently was judged to be better than “Cityberg” or “Villageton”. Meanwhile, interchanges between the federal highway and various county roads have been given elaborate names to honor prominent locals, I guess because “Exit 17” was just wasn’t inspirational enough. For example, there’s the Medal of Honor Recipient Eugene Arnold Obregon Memorial Interchange, the State Solicitor J. Robert “Bobby Joe” Adamson Jr. Interchange, and the Buck Mickel Memorial Southern Connector, to name just three of the dozens we passed. I can only assume that the memorials were put at highway exits to symbolize how these heroes left the mortal world in much the same way we drivers are forced to get off for gas and a Pepsi.
Though most of the old-time South is located too far off the highway to appreciate, we did get a good sense of the bygone era when we stopped in a tiny village called Restarea. The town had only two roads – “Cars Street” and “Trucks and Campers Avenue”. Though the manufacturing base of Restarea left long ago, there are still pockets of commerce among the 100 or so residents of this bustling community. The only shopping area is a bank of vending machines behind a beautiful wrought-iron gate. There’s a small park where families eat at picnic tables and dogs romp at the end of a leash. The city hall still shows an unfortunate remnant of segregation, with the community rooms divided into separate men’s and women’s facilities. Despite that, there’s still evidence of an active cultural scene inside, including an innovative arts installation where residents can leave their thoughts for others to consider, including thought-provoking folk wisdom such as “eat me,” “Goths and emo rule” and “your stupid.”
As we got further into the last half of our four-hour drive, amusements starting running low until we were passed by a large semi with a sign on the back that asked “How’s My Driving?” I’ve seen these for years and always wondered if anyone ever called, so I pulled out my cell phone and decided to give it a try. After a couple of rings, the operator answered “England Transport customer service, can I help you?”
“Yes,” I responded. “I wanted to offer a comment on the driving of one of your owner-operators.”
A pause, then skeptically, “How can I help you again?”
“I was just passed by one of your trucks on the interstate and a sticker on the back asked ‘how’s my driving?’ and gave this 800 number. I figured not many people responded unless they were mad about something, and I just wanted to offer another perspective.”
“OK,” said the woman. “Can you give me the truck number, please?”
“No, I can’t. It’s already passed. But I can tell you it had a metallic silver trailer, mud flaps on the back wheels and was heading south about 60 miles from Charleston.”
At this point, I got the distinct impression this woman was only pretending to care. “Oh… kay,” she said. “Can you give me your, uh, comment?”
“Yes,” I said. “The driver seemed to be doing an adequate job. Nothing dangerous, nothing dramatically good either. I’d say he was meeting expectations.”
Another pause. “Um, okay. England Transport appreciates your input. Thank you for calling.”
“Do I get a coupon or a discount or anything toward my next less-than-truckload haul?”
No response. She’d hung up. At least my grogginess had passed.
Rural South Carolina was now receding in the rear-view mirror as we headed toward the more metropolitan Low Country. We passed a pickup truck with a bumper sticker advertising the “Medieval Tattoo Studio,” and I couldn’t help but wonder how inked scarring of the skin could be more primitive than it already was. Maybe they splash you with flaming tar to give your etching a random effect. Soon, the “Holy City,” as Charleston bills itself, was all around us.
We had a pleasant two-night stay at our favorite Hampton Inn-Historic District (thanks for the one night free, Mr. Eichmann). We started to remember next morning at the lobby breakfast buffet some of the reasons for the “Holy City” nickname. A family at the next table grasped each others’ hands and bowed their heads, quietly but audibly thanking the Lord for the Honey-Nut Cheerios, banana and decaf that His Mercy had bestowed upon them. Later we met up with our aunt, and got to hear all the details about how her tiny evangelical congregation had schismed yet again, this time over something to do with casseroles. (They had been renting a movie theater for their weekly services when there were 40 of them; now that they’re down to 20, they’re looking at local self-storage facilities.) Aunt Vertie confirmed later that she had indeed erased the line between faith and lunacy. We commented on how well her Buick Regal seemed to be running, and she noted that it probably needed some brake work but she was hoping the occasional addition of fluid would allow it to last “until the Rapture.” This sounds like something that GMAC and other car loan financers should investigate – leasing options that are pegged to the End Times.
It was a short enjoyable vacation that made a nice respite during the holidays. Charleston is a great place to visit but I prefer my home just off the Ungodly Memorial Interchange.