During the 1950s, there was so much I wanted to do that I hated to waste daylight. So I did my traveling at night, in vehicles with little future, and no means of communication, no AAA to call if I could, a few dollars and no credit card for backup, and road maps for guidance. With a tank of gas, a quart of cold milk and a large package of cookies shaped like maple leaves and stuffed with maple-flavored icing, I could go all night. The AM radio picked up stations as we passed, then faded to static until I found another. WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia, however, broadcast with 50,000 watts, and kept the country music coming all night.
Those were hardly the good old days. “Desperate” would be a better word to describe them. My mantra, every time I took off on an all-night run, was a line from the song, “Black Denim Trousers” — “He said, ‘I’ll go a thousand miles before the sun can rise.’” The sun always won.
I thought of those days as I planned this last weekend’s itinerary: a Saturday visit with a high school chum of my late wife near Albany; a get-together of the blended clans of my cousins a few miles from there; a run north to visit old teaching colleagues on the New York shore of Lake Champlain; and on Sunday afternoon, a ride across the lake on the ferry and an easy hour home — a lot like the desperate old days.
Except that the car this time — Hagar — was practically new, hybrid and rock-solid. In anticipation of hosting a lady, I’d had him detailed; my son had suggested he smelled sort of like a wet dog. Then, there was no way I was going to Albany through Lake George again on a holiday. I’d go down Route 7 and cross the river at Troy, something I hadn’t done in over 60 years. But I’ve managed to come to an understanding with my iPhone’s GPS, and she promised to get me to the exact address. Still, I slipped a New York State map under a towel in the back seat, just in case.
It was daytime driving this time, too. Although automotive headlights have marvelously improved, I have not. Instead, Hagar, Kiki and I trundled down the driveway just past 6:30 Saturday morning, with the GPS predicting our arrival at my friend’s house at 9:54, 6 minutes before my proposed time. My kids in Arkansas have kindly loaded my Spotify with some of my favorite music, so I fired that up, too — Country Hits of the ’50s — and went bopping down the interstate and up the White River valley toward Killington, past dozens of reminders of Tropical Storm Irene’s unbelievable devastation of Vermont’s steep, narrow valleys just 10 years ago.
Folks who commute on Route 7 south from Rutland once sported bumper stickers: “Pray for me. I drive VT 7.” But the road’s been straightened and widened, with passing lanes, and is now a real pleasure. It’s hard not to notice the dark, beetling mountains on both sides — late sunrise, early sunset in the Otter Creek valley — but they made it easier to notice something else.
It was the country music: an almost solid run of calamity, disaster and heartbreak. “The news is out, all over town, that you’ve been seen a-runnin’ ’round’ — “There was whiskey and blood run together, mixed with glass where they lay” — “In the twilight glow I see them, blue eyes crying in the rain. When we kissed goodbye and parted, I knew we’d never meet again.” Holy, Toledo!
Yet they topped the charts in their day; I remember all the lyrics still. But now, as I didn’t before, I wonder why they were so popular. Was it pining for lost homelands, or the poverty of Appalachia that led to the embrace of disappointment and personal tragedy? Was it exploitation by owners (“I owe my soul to the company store.”) or the rape of their mountains? Was it the same sense of victimhood that’s been cropping out lately among evangelicals and vanishing white folks?
I turned ’em off as the route got complicated, and the GPS guidance more important. I had lovely visits, and the potluck was large and welcoming. Later, emulating the wise men to whom God spoke in a dream, I decided not to drive north on a wet, dark Saturday night, but on an empty Sunday-morning interstate, instead. Hours later, halfway across the lake, the ferry shuddered as it hit a big wave. Kiki looked up, alarmed. That was the Vermont border, I assured her. We’re home.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.