The summer before my last year of high school education my mother decided we needed to go on a road trip. I guess she figured that this would be our last summer together as I was planning on starting college right away. We did not have much money at the time, but she was determined that we would get to see America. Without much of a plan and a lot of blankets piled into the back of her mini-van off we went.
We started in south Texas. Just to get out of town took us a solid couple of hours. We made our way northeast, thinking we could check out the Smoky Mountains and then head down to the beaches of Florida. We certainly did not want to head northwest and go into the hot and dry heat of the desert in summer, and we could not go too far south without hitting Mexico, so off we went.
We drove and drove and drove. After half a dozen hours we finally made it out of Texas. Arkansas was a green blur. We stopped a couple of places to look at cool rocks (I collected them) and even stayed at a camping park on the edge overnight.
Let me explain something to you when I say camping. Before we left home we took out the two back seats of the van, leaving only the driver’s seat and the passenger seat. We did not have enough money for hotels, so we took out a map (yes, old school) and found camping parks along our path to stop at.
The first camp was an exercise in invention. It was hot and muggy. So humid at night that it was not fog as much as a constant drizzle. We rolled the windows down and set up a fan on the front seats, plugged into a long extension cord. We laid out our blankets and tried to grab a few winks. Then the mosquitos came. Not a handful but a mass so thick that you could see their flight formation. We rolled up the windows and killed and killed and killed until the roof of the van was red and black speckled. But no matter how many we killed they seemed to keep coming.
“Where are they coming from?” I asked, nearly in tears by this time.
“You didn’t shut the back widow!” Mom said, slamming the window shut with a bang.
Finally we could sleep, even if it was still and hot in the car. The next day we went to a fabric store and bought some tulle to use as mosquito netting across the windows. We simply stretched it over the outside of the windows and shut the door on it. Voila, instant window screens that let air in but keep bugs and other critters out.
As we continued our adventure we traveled through the horrible traffic of Memphis and into the Smokey Mountains. I had never seen mountains before and was duly impressed. Unlike the craggy pictures of the Rockies, the Smokey Mountains were covered in trees and a thick fog hung over the mountain range like a scarf. I love green and trees and nature, so it was a dream come true for me. We stopped at the national park and wandered around the natural beauty for a long while. When we left the next day the road wound through the mountains and I took picture after picture. I never wanted to leave there, but there was still more to see.
We cut through North Carolina intending to stop at a park in South Carolina. Hungry, we made a stop in a small town at the busiest restaurant there. At a fried fish and chips joint we ordered fried shrimp and tea. What we got was neither. We were on the road again before we started eating and what a shock that was. There was more grease and batter than shrimp to eat and the tea was so sweet that I thought it was just sugar water with brown food coloring. We choked down some fries and kept moving, hoping to reach the park before it got too late to enter.
This park was far off the beaten path and we traveled down a dark road. Fog swirled before our headlights and the only distraction from the endless Spanish moss covered trees was tiny white churches with huge graveyards. Every mile or so another popped up out of the darkness. I swear I could hear banjos playing like a scene from Deliverance and I kept clicking the door locks to make sure we were safe.
When we arrived at the park it was suspiciously dark. We entered the gate and started down the path, finally seeing the sign that said that this was a hunting park, not a camping park. But there was no way to turn around on the narrow road. We drove through the trees on a bumpy dirt path until it opened up at a dead end and then quickly turned and drove back to the main road. After almost an hour in the middle of nowhere with not even a gas station in sight we ran into another tiny town.
The local motel was two stories and about six rooms total. Everything about it screamed Psycho, and the man at the front desk hadn’t shaved or bathed in at least a week. We rented a room and brought up our own pillows and blankets. Shoving the wobbly table and chairs in front of the door, we finally felt safe enough to go to sleep.
Needless to say, we left early the next morning and I double checked the map to make sure the next place we stopped offered camping. We breezed through Georgia, stopping only to pick up some fresh fruit including the biggest and tastiest peaches you ever did see.
Then, at last, we were in Florida. We made our way down to St. George Island and camped right on the beach. Sadly enough it was the season for the baby birds to hatch and there were hundreds of smashed birds along the narrow highway that led to the island. But beyond that it was an idyllic island with plenty of sand, sea air, and charm. It also had the best key lime pie I have ever eaten. We got some at a restaurant and wanted some more so we stopped at a grocery. Even the grocery store brand key lime pie was to die for!
After staying a day or two we continued on. We stopped in Destin to check out the beach and locked ourselves out of the car. Thankfully we were able to get a locksmith out quickly, but it is sure embarrassing standing on the street in your bathing suit (and your very fit and slim mom in hers) while teenagers drive by hooting and hollering. Afterwards we stopped for a bite to eat but apparently did not meet their standards to be served. I never knew a whole town could be that snotty.
It was for the best though. We moved further down the highway towards Alabama and stopped to eat at a little Italian family owned joint. BEST FOOD EVER. I wish I could remember what it was called, but I have never eaten better food. If I lived there I would be fat from eating their pasta every day.
We stopped near Mobile, Alabama and checked out the nice beaches there and then moved on. The time was getting away from us so we drove through Mississippi and Louisiana with barely a stop. We did pause in New Orleans to check out some historic gardens that they had an ad for and the Mardi Gras district.
Finally we made it back to Texas. Eight states in seven days. What a whirlwind tour. As you can see, I still remember what a fun time we had together. I left out a lot of the funny bits and some of the hard ones, but that road trip with my mom is something we still talk and laugh about to this day. It was a bonding experience, to say the least.