Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Main Streets, Dirt Roads, and U.S. 1

During yet another of my recent wistfully nostalgic moments – a more and more frequent occurrence as I get older and older, thus accumulating additional years of memories to be wistfully nostalgic about – I was pondering the main streets and dirt roads of yesteryear.

We still have plenty of main streets and dirt roads, or course, but not like we used to.

I can still recall the Main Street of my hometown – Lexington, SC – from when I was a young’un. (It was a lot like the Main Street we all know from TV’s Mayberry.) Folks wandered from store to store, stopping along the way to visit acquaintances they bumped into. Shopkeepers occasionally spent the afternoons sitting on benches or stools out in front of their shops, usually with friends hanging around just to chat and pass the time. (This was before air-conditioning, so sitting in the shade outside was usually preferable to the fan-cooled inside. And, they had usually rolled out their canvas awnings in the morning to provide the shade.)

Once a week or so, at age nine or ten, I’d hop on my bike and pedal the mile or so from my home to the stores on Main Street (which in early ‘60s Lexington lingo was referred to as “going up the street”.) Sometimes I’d have a dime or so to spend, which worked out nicely, since I usually landed at Dodd’s Dime store. Sometimes I was penniless, which was also okay, cause it was fun just to look around.

After my weekly afternoon Cub Scout meetings, held a block away, I had another opportunity to just wander over to Main Street and hang around until Mom or Dad came to pick me up. There weren’t any cell phones back then, so you’d think that locating me would have been a problem. But it wasn’t. They would just come park somewhere on Main Street – which was really just a block or two – and somehow, we’d find each other pretty quickly.

There are still Main Streets in lots of towns. But I don’t think kids today have these kinds of Main Street experiences.

I doubt if many parents would consent to their nine-year-olds hopping on their bikes and pedaling “up the street” for a couple of hours.

I also think a lot of kids today probably aren’t familiar with dirt roads.

Not that dirt roads are anything special… but it seems a shame that you have to drive a good ways out of town to even see one any more. When I was a kid, half the people I knew lived on dirt roads.

Since the population is now centered in cities and towns, I’ll bet the majority of young kids have never even seen a dirt road, much less ridden their bikes or walked barefoot on one.

At a young age, we learned to keep your bike toward the middle of a dirt road. If you ventured over toward the edge, you would invariably bog down in the soft piles of sand that accumulated on the shoulders of most dirt roads. Also, there would be a little mound of soft dirt right in the middle. But, if you kept it in one of the two paths where the tires continually ran over it and kept the dirt packed and hard, you could do some good bike riding!

Walking barefoot was another matter. In that case, you might be perfectly willing to trod along the soft dirt on along the edge, because it felt a lot softer on your feet.

Back in the hot summertimes of the early 60s, kids quickly learned to walk in the light-colored sand instead of the hard, packed, dark-colored dirt. Hot! Hot! Hot!

I grew up living on a highway: US 1.

I assumed that, because it was numbered “1”, it was the best highway in America. Or the longest. Or the first.

I was never quite sure why it was named Highway One, but I figured there was some superlative significance to it.

Today, US 1 has changed drastically from what it used to be, just like Main Streets and dirt roads have changed. Once upon a time, it was a proud highway, a major artery stretching from the Maine to Key West, and people travelling from the big cities of the North to destinations in Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia or Florida often found themselves on U.S. Route 1. And the Mom and Pop restaurants, gas stations, motor lodges, fruit stands and truck stops along it thrived.

But no more. Now the mighty Interstates have taken over.

And the U.S. Route 1 I knew as a child is a thing of the past… just like Main Streets and dirt roads.

The kids of today are missing out.

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