Driving Through Time is a short story written by Tim Clark and shared with The Ugly Writers under the theme Trust The Process for the month of November
Driving Through Time
Highways are gouged across the face of the country. Mostly it resembles a pattern of surgical scars, Frankenstein’s monster created by an efficiency expert with no sense of aesthetics. They are designed to be functional, not beautiful. Designed and executed for our benefit. We use them to get around, to get from one place to the other. They are a utility, not much different than electricity, or indoor plumbing. Don’t bother to think about the enormous expense and herculean effort, just pick a place and go.
In our haste to get to our location we routinely rocket past charming, delightful places. Sometimes we don’t even see them thanks to all the planning and work put into our highway system. And what exquisite work and planning it was. You can see the ingenuity in every mile of concrete running as flat as possible, and mostly straight, with gentle sweeping curves and rises, where the land refused to conform.
What about the places you go past, though. Small places with state highways and county roads, local businesses, diners, grocers, thrift stores, shops staffed by entrepreneurs, hoping to carve out a living. People with a sense of civic pride. Most of them grew up in the town, went to school there. They have roots, maybe even branches, they belong. They are as much a part of the town as the high school or the fire department.
We’ve started taking the back roads, traveling through places that have seen better days. These are the places you can see America, earthy, furrowed beauty. Walking down the main streets of these small towns you can feel the history. It breathes from every shop, musty and redolent, the sweat of keeping customers happy and still making enough to survive. Hundreds of transactions, maybe thousands.
We get a lot of odd looks wandering through little places. We’re like a curiosity. Tourists in a place that doesn’t really have many visitors. Normally everybody is nice, just interested. Just like us.
Stores have changed hands over the years. Being outsiders, tourists, aliens, we don’t know what was in the little shop originally, how many people have given it their all in the little place, or what it was last year. Sometimes we aren’t sure what it is in the now. We can see the crafts, and artwork, hanging next to the antiques and rummage. An odd mixture of secondhand books and clothes next to hand-painted jeans. The owner is usually the person behind the cash register.
If you’re lucky you will find a little café tucked away between the bank and the lawyer’s office or hidden in the back of the drugstore. They have simple food; made the same way it’s been made for years. The owner will take your order, cook your food, tell you about the storm that came through last week and knocked out the power. Then they will take your money. You can get a cup of coffee, but probably not a latte.
Often, they are amateur historians, who can tell you about the town, the original industry that the town was founded to serve, a railroad, or brickyard, maybe to harvest the mineral wealth mined in the low hills and forests around the town. There are posters hanging on the wall with the football schedule of the local school. Sometimes they want to talk as much as I want to listen.
While we travel, we like to stop to see ghost towns. Places that used to be but aren’t anymore. There is a delicate sadness that lies over the broken foundations of old churches and schoolhouses. If you stand still, close your eyes you can hear the wrenching hum of the conveyor moving coal from the mountain to the waiting train car, the foreman screaming his orders over the chaos. It’s probably just imagination, though, the need to feel some permanence in a world that can chew things up and leave them empty and hollow. Standing in the ruins of a town founded less than 200 years ago and abandoned in less than a generation can really bend your perspective. We’ve wandered through places that didn’t last as long as the Broadway run of The Phantom of the Opera. Gone now, nothing but ruins, probably didn’t last long enough to create any memories.
I worry it might happen to so many places, they build a freeway and slowly strangle a town. There is so much history, culture, beauty in these shrinking withering places, just off the beaten path. Someday we will drive from one giant grocery store to the next. If you’re in a hurry, duck into Dollar General. And all of the folklore and small-town uniqueness will be gone. Progress isn’t always a blessing.