Driving the Southern Route
by Terry Barr
Before we got married, my wife and I spent most of our dating time riding around in my car, the yellow Firebird I inherited from my maiden aunt. We’d drive the hills and backroads around Knoxville, TN, back in those days when gas cost lest than $1.50 a gallon. We were students, a label synonymous with poor. She was in Human Services and I in English, career paths that were much straighter and more predictable than the roads we drove. On these drives we talked, held hands, got to know each other. I was a native of small-town Alabama, she, a native of big city Tehran. That’s Iran. Iran before the revolution. She got out just before the Islamic regime clamped down. It turns out that we arrived in Knoxville the same month of the same year: July 1979. Our fated road.
When I felt sure that she’d say yes if I asked her to stay with me forever, I planned a date to an intimate restaurant somewhere in the wilds beyond Lenoir City, fifty miles outside of Knoxville. The restaurant was run by a husband and wife team, and I had been there exactly one other time for a deliciously unorthodox meal. I remembered the way, for one benefit of driving backroads for fun is learning various routes. So on this evening, bottle of champagne in tow, the ring my parents had fashioned from diamonds in my mother’s family comfortably resting in my pocket, we drove. And when we arrived, the one flaw in my plan made itself clear.
The restaurant was closed.
Why it never occurred to me to call for reservations, or at least to learn of its operating hours, I can’t say. Maybe it was just that I was in love. Doesn’t that answer all seemingly useless questions?
How many people would have gone catatonic at this development? Lapsed into despondency? My soon-to-be-wife, however, looked at life both then and now as something to be entirely enjoyed. So she did what she always does in such moments: she laughed:
“Oh well. What do you want to do now,” she asked.
So I did what any sensible guy in love would do. I reached into my pocket and gave her the ring. Then I opened the champagne and we drank richly, straight from the bottle.
She wasn’t surprised by my offer, though I think the beauty and history of the ring took her aback. We laughed and kissed and enjoyed another unusual moment in our history. And then we drove back to Knoxville and ate dinner at an Italian place on Kingston Pike: Naples. I ordered a peppered shrimp dish for us, and we shared another bottle. I drove her home afterwards to her parents and returned to my basement apartment.
We got married a few weeks later at the Knoxville courthouse — in back of the courthouse actually, in a maintenance tool shed. The man officiating was called The Bishop. He looked about eighty.
He couldn’t pronounce my wife’s name: Azadeh. After he mispronounced it three or four times, she asked if he could just go ahead and pronounce us. This relieved him and he did as she suggested, a good move I’ve come to learn. I gave him $5.00 for his trouble, though he asked for ten. Ten was all I had, though, and I was saving the rest for a glass of champagne. We left the shed happy, even delirious, and certainly married.
The one thing about us that marriage didn’t altar a bit was our love of driving. So on many nights that summer after our wedding, we’d get in my car and drive a circuitous route talking and listening to the radio. Bruce Springsteen was big back then. You know. “Thunder Road” and other assorted gems.
We’ve been married now for over thirty years, and I’m realizing just how integral driving has been to us. I shouldn’t be surprised because in her family at least it all comes so naturally. She tells stories of how her father would drive her, her two sisters, and their mom from Iran to France and back. In fact, not long after her parents married, they made such a drive and bought an imported American car, a Pontiac Tempest, in France. Her mother didn’t know how to drive, but learned on the road from Paris to Tehran.
My wife’s father passed away twenty-five years ago. Her mother, in her mid-eighties now, still wants to drive, though after a few accidents, we don’t think it’s such a good idea anymore. But I get the impulse, the independence driving conveys. I feel it as intensely as I do anything else.
In our years together my wife and I have driven far. Once we moved to our current home in upstate South Carolina, we both got jobs fifty-plus miles from our house, and twenty miles away from each other. So five days a week, we drove from 180-200 miles round trip, depending on who got dropped off first. It was more wearing on our car than us, because we were together on these trips, listening to Radio Reader on NPR or to mix tapes I made on weekend days. When my wife became pregnant, we’d have to leave even earlier to account for all the stops we had to make to let her get sick in McDonald’s restaurants or on the side of the road. She quit her job when the baby came, though the day before she went into labor, she drove us that entire distance, and when we got back to our town, we decided to go to a movie.
Driving Miss Daisy.
After our first daughter was born, we learned other late night driving routes. She often had ear infections that made sleeping difficult. So our doctor advised that along with the antibiotics, we should put her in the car and drive her around until she fell asleep. So the three of us would journey to the beaming red neon of Krispy Kreme, load up on sugar and caffeine and then venture into the wilds of Greer or Duncan, San Souci, and Woodruff. We’d put in the soundtrack to Twin Peaks, and something about Angelo Badalamenti’s lush tones and the rhythm of the road soothed our baby. When she was two, we made a cross-country trip and wore that tape out somewhere in Utah, a state where I was also stopped on a mountain road by a trooper. I was switching lanes without signaling, he said, something I like to do when I’m descending curvy mountain roads. He looked in our front seat and saw a rolled up brown paper bag.
“What’s in that?” he asked.
“Here, I’ll show you,” I said.
My wife likes to make a nut and raisin trail mix for our drives.
The officer laughed and let me off with a warning.
The rest of the trip was uneventful until we drove past Kansas City.
“Keep going,” my wife commanded. “I don’t like this place and whatever you do, don’t stop!”
I had never intended to stop in Kansas City anyway, but after that warning, well, I never plan to visit that town, and I don’t care what it offers.
We did stop, though, back in Wyoming, when we saw a sign advertising deep-fried cheeseburgers. I don’t know about you, but as a native southerner, the thought of someone deep-frying a cheeseburger for me is somewhat akin to offering me a free ticket to an Alabama-Auburn game. I’m 58 years old now, and cholesterol being what it is, I probably will never have another deep-fried cheeseburger. But I had one once, and it was among the five best things I’ve ever tasted. The other four? Fried oysters; my mother’s spaghetti and meatballs, recreated from our Italian neighbor’s recipe; seafood gumbo from the Bright Star in Bessemer; and a cup of café con leche somewhere west of Madrid as we were driving through the Spanish countryside.
So, it might have dawned on you that many of our road trips are accompanied by or end with some sort of food. And it’s true. That may be the point of this story, or it may just be what happens along the way. But for me, the point is this:
My wife can’t cook, or rather, she can but doesn’t enjoy it. She likes multi-tasking, and I’ve learned through the years that the one way you shouldn’t cook is when you’re trying to do four or five other things. Once, my wife decided that while something she was cooking was in the oven, it was imperative that she run out to Home Depot. Which she did.
We ate out that night.
On our earlier road trips, she also liked to pack us sandwiches, fruit, and other goodies so that we wouldn’t have to get our food by chance. Maybe she didn’t enjoy that deep-fried cheeseburger as much as I did.
But lately I’ve noticed that she’s easier about our trips, what we pack and where we stop. Maybe that’s because both of our daughters are grown and she doesn’t have to worry about the lack of nutrition they might be getting at roadside inns. She also seems more willing now to let me lead us to places I know about or have read about. Is this an indulgence or a form of love?
Recently, we took a trip to Mississippi where I was the keynote luncheon speaker for a Faulkner heritage event. I know that when you tell some people you’re going on a vacation to Mississippi, they look at you like you want to force-feed them deep-fried cheeseburgers. But as she usually does, my wife looked on this trip as an adventure. After we got to Birmingham, we were able to take backroads the rest of the way. And on US 78 West, thirty miles outside of Birmingham in a town called Dora, my wife allowed me to lead us to one of “those places”: Leo and Susie’s Green Top Café specializing in pit-cooked barbecue. Pork. Now while my wife isn’t Moslem, she did grow up in a land that fears the pig. So she got the BBQ chicken while I indulged in the large pork plate. She did order a big plate of fried onion rings, so I’ve corrupted her that far at least.
When we first walked into Leo and Susie’s, though, it was one of those strange encounters with the locals. Everyone in the place stopped talking and turned to look at what had walked in the door. There are plenty of people who would have left at that point and found the nearest Zaxby’s. Not me, and more importantly, not the person with me who trusts me as much as I love her. For how many people would take this chance with me, follow me on this long road? In fact, in getting there I missed the turn because sometime in the last decade, the state thought it expedient to build a new four-lane highway that bypasses Dora and Sumiton and Jasper. Neither Mapquest, nor my Alabama barbecue guidebook thought to inform me of this new turn. So it was my wife who calmed me down when I realized my mistake. It was my wife who Googled the directions to Leo and Susie’s, and who successfully drove us there. She made photos of the place and sent them to our daughters, too.
As we left the cafe, driving in the early November dusk, I pointed out to her a turn which led to the house of a girl I dated back in college. For the short time I dated this girl, I’d have to drive the sixty mile round trip twice to get her, take her into Birmingham for dinner and a movie, and then back again to her home before returning to my parents’ home in Bessemer. When I told my wife all this and pointed to that road, though, she just smiled and said, “Uh-huh.”
I took her hand then as we drove. “You know, one of the things I love most about you is that you’re the kind of person who’ll get lost with me as we try to find a BBQ joint I’ve read about somewhere.”
“I know,” she said. “I always have.”
Once when I was especially anxious about some event — a doctor’s visit or an impending financial decision — she told me that in such moments I should search my mind for “that comfort place,” that place that makes me happy. Full disclosure: my wife is a psychotherapist.
I take her advice often. And when I do get anxious, the place I go to is that road, that piece of state highway near Dora, or the one beyond Lenoir City, or somewhere in Greer, or Wyoming, or even Pleasantburg Road by the Krispy Kreme.
In that place I’m never alone and I’m always comforted. Because she’s always there, just as she said she would be when we were standing in that maintenance shed all those years ago.
Terry Barr lives with his wife and daughters in Greenville, South Carolina, and teaches Southern Film and Creative Nonfiction at Presbyterian College. His essays have been published widely in such journals as Full Grown People and Under the Sun and are forthcoming in Red Truck Lit and Rougarou. His essay “Neither the Season, Nor the Time” has been nominated by Belle Reve Literary Journal for this year’s Pushcart Prize. This essay looks at the journey he and his wife have travelled for 30 years over the backroads and highways of Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and elsewhere. “While I don’t like to drive, I find that our driving together always finds me in a place I long to be,” he says.