Forty-eight years ago, U.S. 301 south of Statesboro was still a two-lane highway. Interstate 16 had not yet been completed, so there was no exit, no truck stops, certainly no tall water tower proclaiming the presence of an industrial park, just a long stretch of black-top punctuated by the occasional farmhouse and one country store.
Forty-eight years ago, the road on which Daddy took us to live did not have a name and our mail was left in a mailbox two miles away. There was no stop sign at the dirt crossroad (Though, to be honest, there was really no need for one — Daddy’s truck and Mama’s car were the only vehicles that traveled through the intersection with any regularity and they were always going in the same direction.).
Forty-eight years ago, we lived a long way from anything.
Earlier this year, the announcement was made that the newest truck stop to be planted at the interstate exit would have a Burger King. A Burger King? I gasped as I lifted my head from the newspaper and gazed skyward.
The thought of having a fast-food restaurant within five miles of my house left me a little discombobulated. Over a period of 48 years, a person becomes accustomed to isolation, habituated to the idea that being too tired to cook at the end of a long day necessitates a 20-minute drive to town, used to never knowing the ease of having a pizza delivered to one’s front door.
Daddy and I talked about the coming of Burger King — not exactly a sign of the apocalypse, but certainly an indication that civilization’s march toward us had picked up its pace. He was, I could tell, not particularly bothered, probably because his memories of U.S. 301 reach back to the days when it wasn’t even 301, when it was, like all the other roads around here, made not of asphalt, but dirt.
I, on the other hand, vacillated between being thrilled that I would be within 10 minutes of a fountain Diet Coke and horrified that the world was drawing ever closer to my untamed acres.
A few days ago, I was on my way to speak to a civic club about books and writing and had just topped one of the low hills that make our roads interesting in a rainstorm. In the shallow ditch to the left, I detected movement and glanced over to see two small creatures, one directly behind the other, running in perfect synchronicity. As I drew closer, they darted into the road and it was only then that I realized what they were — coyote pups.
The existence of coyotes in my corner of the county is, to use Mama’s phrase, a known fact. In early fall, when the sun has set and the sky is still light, I can stand in the front yard and listen to their long, plaintive cries float across the landscape like the sound of a distant train. Some of our neighbors, neighbors we didn’t have and never anticipated 48 years ago, have shared stories of chickens and pet goats being killed by coyotes brave enough to venture out of what we call Jackson Branch Swamp. Coyotes, though generally shyer than most, are as much my neighbors as deer and tortoises and red-tailed hawks.
Yet, I was surprised. As surprised as I had been about Burger King. And the juxtaposition of the two, the same emotion being experienced in such wildly different ways, gnawed at the edges of my thoughts for days.
One of the gifts of age is that your edges get softer. You learn to be careful using words like always and forever. You stop expecting consistency and dependability from things like cars and politics and people. You develop the ability to hold back the hordes of anger and frustration and envy by taking a deep breath. Or two. It makes you wonder if you’ve grown tired, that you have settled, that you are old.
And, then, something surprises you. Makes you sit up straight and hold your breath for a minute. Ignites the pilot light of your curiosity and launches your imagination, as Buzz Lightyear says, “to infinity and beyond.” Reminds you that as long as you remain curious, as long as you are willing to be surprised, you will never be old.