I always tell him, “Drive safe.” It’s not a long drive between our two houses, but I say it just the same. “Drive safe.”
I don’t say it to everyone. Some are cautious drivers, and I never worry about the roads playing tricks on them. But the road is a moody thing, and cars are simply subject to its whims and the weather. “Drive safe” is all I can say.
When I was almost 16, pretending to be far older than I was, my friend’s boyfriend died in a car accident. We were small town teenagers, often bored by our circumstances and geography, gathered at a friend’s house for an afternoon birthday party. If it were later at night, we would’ve been guzzling any alcohol we could steal from our parents or beg off an older friend, but it was just the middle of a September Sunday and we were eating cake and laughing in the kitchen.
Her boyfriend wasn’t a farm boy, and he wasn’t as familiar with the nature of a gravel road.
Gravel is tricky. It’s always changing. You never know if it’s going to support your wheels or slide them and jerk them around.
For her boyfriend, it was the latter. They were driving out to help another friend with a flat tire, and his car skidded on gravel. He didn’t know how to correct it, and the car flipped, sending the two of them flying out the windows. He died right there on that gravel road. I don’t really know exactly how, because we didn’t see it. But we ran out there as soon as we knew, as soon our friend with that flat tire came in with a white face to tell us what had happened. Her boyfriend died there, and every year on September 21 I think about it. I held her hand as she cried in the ditch and picked broken glass and gravel shards from her hands. His broken body, never to be able to vote or buy cigarettes or rent a car or get married or grow old, lay there crumpled on the gravel. We none of us thought that could ever happen to us, and now it had.
When you grow up on the gravel, you have to learn how to pilot your bike, your car, your bare feet on its grooves and ridges. It’s a lot harder to learn to ride without training wheels when you never know if the ground beneath you is going to cooperate. And later, when you’re older, you know just how fast you can drive, just how many beers you can drink. Country girls learn early how to hold their weight in beer – tip that cup empty, guzzle it down. And then you get in your car and you drive the two miles home from that old farmhouse you and your friends hang out at, throwing rocks into the bonfire while the radio plays from someone’s pickup. It’s just the way things are. You trust the road beneath you will keep.
Country roads like this will never get paved over with tar. They’ll stay the same forever. The old bridges might get rebuilt when they’re just too rickety and worn to stand alone, but then again, they might not. These roads are quiet, and I could drive them in my sleep.