I’ve thought a lot about roads lately–especially the ones that seemingly end in the middle of nowhere. We call them dead ends.
One day, thirty-two years ago, I had a revelation on an old dead-end road. It was a moment that still guides me.
Everyone back home knows it as Highbanks Road. There are no directional signs that point you there. None that identify it by name for that matter. But it’s a two-mile east-to-west passage “out in the country” as we say, between Arkansas Highway 139 and the St. Francis River dead ending into the muddy waters flowing along the western edge of the heart of the old Macey Community. It’s unremarkable and undistinguished, a few homesteads along the way, most dotting the corners of 40-acre cotton fields, and each with a signature name like Tiny’s Forty, Turkey Run, or Bobby Joe’s down on the corner. When two vehicles meet on Highbanks Road the drivers wave to one another. It’s the code of the community.
It’s also the road where I grew up my first twenty years, and it taught me a lot about life.
County Road 514 as it became known in the progressive 90s was a simple gravel thoroughfare maintained by the county road department. What that really meant was a monthly pass with a road grader, and you were sure-as-the-world bound to get a nail in your tire next trip to town, so you cussed every time the grader appeared knowing you’d have to spend money at Dean’s Tire Store. The grader driver had a big mustache and kept a big coffee Thermos in the cab. I remember that. He looked so comfortable in the air-conditioned cab on those oppressive July days when I chopped cotton on our home place and he’d creep by with the cringing noise of blade against rock. But he always waved. So I waved, too, but couldn’t stop thinking about how hot I was and how cool he must feel. Youth on the farm was so unfair.
Each winter season for two months sportsmen from across the countryside pulled camouflaged boats and motors with pickup trucks to Highbanks Landing lickety-split before sunup every morning. They were in search of mallard ducks from the surprisingly cozy confines of their heated duck blinds. Some loved the hunting, others were just along for the fellowship and tall tales. A few sought undeserved respite from their wives who wished their husbands would do more productive things than hunt ducks, drink beer, and fall asleep on the couch.
The town drunk, Oscar Wiles frequented Highbanks Road in an old brown Ford Maverick. Old Oscar got drunk three times a week on whatever he could find and you’d often find him passed out in a ditch snoring, tobacco juice running down his chin and onto his shirt. Depending on the angle Oscar hit the ditch at least one of the Maverick’s wheels revealing balding tires was always suspended mid-air. People said Oscar never broke a bone because the booze loosened him up so much.
“Having trouble?” my dad would ask as we pulled up on the scene. Oscar growled unintelligibly. “I’ll be fine. Go on,” he’d eventually say.
We pulled him out from road ditches a hundred times if one. Oscar eventually died in one of those accidents when he crashed into a ditch and the car went ablaze. People secretly swore a local troublemaker killed Oscar for sport. He was surely mean enough the story was credible.
Someone gave me a pair of roller skates for Christmas the year I was eight and I wondered how in the heck they expected me to learn skating on a gravel road. Might have been the most disappointing gift I ever got. Funny thing is, I actually tried. You got really bored sometimes on Highbanks Road.
A few years later, daddy thrilled me when he bought an old rusty go-cart frame and a brand new four horsepower motor to drive it. I recall it as the most adventurous summer of my life loading up bait and fishing pole each afternoon heading to the ditches toward the river and pulling in endless stringers of bream, goggle-eye and perch. Going fishing alone on that old rickety four-wheeled-bucket-of-bolts contraption made me feel like the king of the world, the captain of my soul. Remembering it makes me so happy for how that young boy felt. It was pure liberation.
The summer of my eighteenth year is a time I still recall as critical in shaping a personal life view. It seemed abrupt that summer season that I had no girlfriends to date, no buddies with whom I could spend time, and it was the first time I remember feeling truly lonely. It may have been my first introduction to depression. But it was a time of extended contemplation for a young man beginning to think about things in a deeper way.
I spent a lot of time reading the bible that summer and also fighting the anxiety that comes with a personality always looking for the next thing. Waiting has always been so hard. I also spent considerable time each evening around sunset riding a bike or just walking along Highbanks Road. As the sun would slip past the treeline marking the river and setting the sky ablaze as red fire, I’d wonder about the other side of the world where the sun now rose. People of different skin color, languages, customs, things I’d only read about in the leather-bound Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias. Big dreams of faraway places were born on Highbanks Road that summer.
One especially tranquil sunset that summer brought the most peaceful hope when it made me think about the rural, isolated dead-end road, and how it lead out on its other end to Highway 139. From there, it lead everywhere. You could go north to St. Louis or south to Memphis and from there, well, nothing stopped you from there.
In that moment, everything changed. The epiphany was almost spiritual.
Highbanks Road wasn’t a dead-end at all. It was just a starting point to all other destinations. It would take you every other place in the world if you’d let it.
But getting those places was my responsibility. No one else would take me there.
From a dead end, all you have to do is turn around and go the other way. And from Highbanks Road, all things were possible.