A stretch of good road

There were three ways to get in and out of Tull, and in the grand scheme of twentieth-century road construction and enforced commuting, none of them were exactly optimal.

Of the three, only one was used much. Tull was to the south of Benton, otherwise known as ‘town,’ best described in short phone calls to family whose conversation consisted of, “We’re goin’ to town—you need anything?”If you followed Cherry Street away from the main road, the one-lane pea-gravel-and-asphalt road grew narrower and narrower until it reached its apex—the one-lane bridge crossing the Saline River. To my knowledge, the bridge never had a name. If you knew where you were, it felt like home; otherwise, its situation in the middle of the forest probably indicated that you were lost far beyond repair.

Everyone with any sense—that, of course, being the locals—knew to take the bridge slowly; the east end of the bridge had a sharp curve on its way up. It was a real one-lane bridge; none of this “we’ll call it one but you can squeeze two cars on it” nonsense. If you met someone coming across the bridge, one of you had to put your car in reverse and back up, off the bridge, to let the other pass.

It was a wooden bridge. As a child I always wondered if a car had ever fallen through, but seeing as how I occasionally had to go across that bridge, I thought it wisest not to ask.

But that road led southwest, and there wasn’t much to the southwest except more pine trees. It was pretty rare that anyone ever went back that way, except in deer season.

That left two roads: the ‘bottoms’ and ‘the holler.’ Both, eventually, caught up with highway 35, which (eventually) took you to ‘town.’ The road through ‘the bottoms’ curved east a bit before snaking north to catch highway 35. It wound through a set of slight valleys and crossed a couple of small creeks, which more often than not flooded after every good rain. It was the long way out to 35, but it was flatter, and every now and then it was our only way into town to get groceries and supplies during ice storms.

The holler’ was what we took most often to get into town. This road, at least, was two-lane and had stripes on it—a rarity for this part of the county. Most roads didn’t see enough traffic to merit actual spending and upkeep. In its own winding way, it was the most direct road going into town when I was growing up.

Highway 190 it was officially called; a numbered road whose number was always slurred into a single word resembling “one-nine-ee.” Most people called it ‘the holler’ and left it at that; no more needed to be said.

The holler was treacherous in winter ice storms; the road wound in and out of hills and had one-lane bridges at the most inopportune of places. The bridge out by my grandmother’s was nestled square in the valley between two steep hills; the second of which, during ice storms, had the notorious habit of throwing trucks back down at a much faster rate of speed than they managed on the uptake.

The second bridge wasn’t much when you were headed to town, but on the way back it was an accident waiting to happen: an over 90-degree hairpin, blind turn immediately followed by a one-lane bridge.

Learning to take that bridge was part of learning to drive, out where I lived. You learned to take your foot off the accelerator and not watch the bridge, but the trees past the bridge. If you saw movement or a flash of color that plainly wasn’t ‘tree,’ you trusted your instincts and stopped.

To my knowledge, there was never a wreck on that bridge. We knew the rules. Accelerate into the curve and then let off. Nobody played stupid; the people you met on this road were either family or friends. You knew the cars, you knew the drivers, and you knew better than to be stupid.

In those days, it took twenty-five minutes to get to town, and before there were cell phones, there were CBs. Truckers used them for cop-spotting; we used them to keep in touch. Everyone—and everything—had handles, and I can’t imagine how confusing it must’ve been to outsiders to hear,

Breaker, breaker—what’s your twenty?”
“Just passed Hood Manor, passing Too-Tall’s now, headed through the holler.”

Houses were sometimes identified by not just the name of the owner, but by the owner’s personality. To get to 190, you had to drive down 35, past the enormous house someone once nicknamed “Paranoid Palace” because it was so overlit. After that was the Cutoff (the shortcut to Bauxite), then Jensen’s—the last store of any kind before getting to Tull.

At this point, you were still ten minutes away.

There was ‘Hood Manor,’ the trashed-out trailer in the middle of an impromptu junkyard; go up the hill and you’d pass the house that ‘Too-Tall’ Parsons had been building for something like seven years and still hadn’t finished. Keep going, and you’d hit the holler, and come out on the far side over by the Bryants’ and the Raffertys’. Soon enough you’d pass my grandmother’s, the churches, the fire station, and then you’d finally come to the road that we lived on.

We’d heard for years that they’d planned on straightening 190, to iron out the curves in the holler. Most of the locals welcomed it; it would make their commutes shorter and less hazardous in the wintertime, but there was something about getting a slicked-up two-lane highway with shoulders and reflective lines that just didn’t quite mesh with the town that I remembered.

It took years to do the job right; they filled in valleys with rocks and gravel and built entirely new roadbeds. Most of the locals ended up taking the bottoms out to 35 just to avoid tearing up their cars, but the complaining stopped once the road was done and everyone realized you could get to town about ten minutes faster than you could before.

Put in a stretch of good road, and a formerly-isolated community starts to become absorbed in the daily life of the communities around it. Suddenly it’s easier to go out in the evenings after work; you don’t depend on your neighbors quite so much as you used to, and the “we-can-handle-anything” bonhomie gets replaced by something duller, more suburbanite, like what I am now.

I remember moving out here and being horrified at the realization that I didn’t know any of my neighbors—and probably couldn’t recognize them if I tried. In comparison to my previous life, it seemed sterile, inhospitable. But times change, and roads change, even in Tull.