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Destinations & Diversions: Chapter 1, Wanderlust; I came by it right

J. H. Osborne • Jul 9, 2016 at 5:30 PM

I inherited my wanderlust from my father, mostly, although my mother's side of the family, my Wallen aunts and uncles, shared a common characteristic of preferring to go and do, visit and see - to participate, rather than observe life from a distance. They embarked on journeys as frequently as possible, but mostly nearby and with a specific purpose: in other words, they had a destination; be it a church event, a family visit, or a social function, or a shopping run. I have a heavy dose of this in my spirit as well.

But the wanderlust in my soul I attribute to my father's sense of wonder, love of adventure, and easygoing nature when it came to trips, near and far.

"We'll just play it by ear," he'd say, routinely, when we discussed potential family road trips. For the most part, of course, when we headed out of the driveway in this or that car (and sometimes truck) we certainly had a destination. But diversions were not feared. In fact, they were embraced. I learned quickly that the distractions along the way were often more fun than the destination. Getting there, the old saying goes, is half the fun.

For me, it's more like three-quarters. At least it seems that way to me. Not so much, maybe, for anyone along for the ride - or, rather, the destination. My siblings, for example, especially as we grew older, were always a little more restless than I with what seemed like surreal travel times between some very typical points "A" and "B" for a Kingsport family in the 1970s.

Others, including friends, family and some of my father's co-workers at Mead Corporation, would marvel when told of 12-hour drive times to ... wait for it ... Myrtle Beach. Even back then - in the days of nothing but two-lane, winding roads: over the mountains separating Tennessee and North Carolina; at points between Asheville's then-famous-for-causing-missturns confluence of highways and Spartanburg, S.C.; and much of the last leg between Columbia, S.C, and Myrtle Beach - other families would claim to make the trip in half the time it took us.

They'd brag they left at 2 a.m. (perhaps after working the 3-11 shift) drove straight through stopping only for gas (and everyone "rested" during the gas stop, eliminating "rest area" stops). Sometimes it was mentioned snacks, drinks - a thermos of strong coffee - were packed at home to prevent stops for food. They'd arrive at the beach, get checked in and unpacked, and have a full day on the beach on day one.

Day one for us more typically started after breakfast at home. The tale of a 12-hour day was, even for us, a bit of a tall one. At that time in my young life, I wasn't taking notes. But as my brother Keith later recounted it, Captain Kangaroo was on television before we left the house, putting our Kingsport departure time around 8 a.m. And by the time we were unloading our weeks-worth of luggage, bedding, cookware and other household items (oh, did I mention we typically rented furnished beachfront houses - but mother always packed all of her own things?), it was after 8 p.m.

So, while other kids from Kingsport had spent time basking on The Grand Strand their first day of vacation, we did not.

But we saw a lot more along the way. And for that I am glad to this day. For one thing, we traveled during the daylight hours, and I enjoyed the view. If someone needed to "rest," we'd pull over at the next (clean-looking) spot. If a roadside attraction caught our eye, we'd stop. Hungry? Thirsty? We'd stop. My sister Pamela and I still joke that it isn't much of a trip until two things happen: "little orange crackers" (Lance Toast Chee) are consumed; and enough travel brochures are procured from state welcome centers to require a good-sized bag to hold them.

When we reached Columbia on the way down, we'd stop to visit my cousin Mae, her husband John Wayne (no, not that one) and their son Mike. Back then, if one passed through a town where one had relatives, one did not pass by without stopping. One simply didn't. At least not when one was on vacation, day one. Vacation's last day, when one must get home for work is another matter. And when one's relatives stop by your home when they pass through on vacation, one served them refreshments - and possibly a full meal. Well over 40 years later, I still remember meals at my cousin Mae's, and that during one such stop I for the first time was offered malt vinegar as a condiment for fried fish - cousin Mike, I was told, loved the malt vinegar on his fish. I did too. I later learned it helped my young tastebuds find broccoli and even the dreaded "greens" more palatable. I still like it on fried fish. And on hot French fries as well.

My mother, Wanda, was the youngest of 10 children. Mae is a daughter of Mom’s oldest brother, Jack.

In later years, my Osborne cousin Douglas, his wife Sue, and their daughters Karen and Amy settled in Spartanburg, S.C., which added another stop to our itinerary. I still stop in Spartanburg every chance I get (and there are moments I am tempted to drive there) just to visit the city’s famous Beacon Drive-in and have a “pimento cheeseburger aplenty.” That’s a burger, with pimento cheese — served with an absolute pile of french fries AND onion rings (thus, “aplenty”). 

A few times, we did leave Kingsport bound for Myrtle much earlier in the day. Once we made it to downtown Asheville to have breakfast at a diner highly recommended by one of dad's co-workers. It was good diner food. Downtown. We got lost. And I was scarred for life, learning for the first time ever of a so-called delicacy I remain sure not even malt vinegar could help me appreciate. My parents had allowed my brother and I each to bring a friend along on vacation. I can't remember which one of them started it, but they began daring each other to order "fried mountain oysters." No, that wasn't an offering on the menu. But they seemed to think it would be hysterically funny. My father did not and ended their plot with a quiet but stern "None of that boys." The pair explained mountain oysters to me in the car later, as we searched for the road out of Asheville.

Another time, we left Kingsport even earlier and made it all the way to Clinton, S.C. before we stopped for breakfast, this time blindly pulling into the first diner we saw. I can still remember staring sleepily around the smoke-filled (this was the early 1970s), noisy dining room as we waited for a hostess. My brother, known in his early childhood to have regularly asked in the evening what was breakfast the next morning, looked around, too - and announced he didn't want anything and was going back to the car.

The rest of us were seated and soon a waitress (think "Flo" from the television show "Alice," which would begin its run a few year's later) stopped by our table to pass out menus and nice,large paper napkins. She carried the menus in the crook of her left elbow, passing them to each of us around the Formica-topped table with her right hand. Then she started with the napkins, pulling the tightly folded stack from her left armpit. I noticed nothing. Not even when she waited with her pad open, using her pencil - eraser end, of course - to scratch down inside her bouffant hairdo. Mother said she'd just be having coffee, and inquired if the cold cereals were the kind in small individual boxes - and if milk was available in individual cartons. Yes. And Yes. It was then I felt like vacation had begun! Cereal! In little boxes! I always begged for the variety pack at the grocery store. Oh, happy day!

Dad, not so squeamish as Mom, ordered pretty much what my friend Vicki Cooper Trammell and I now call a "truck driver's breakfast." That's pretty much one or more of everything in the breakfast lineup. By the way, neither of us ever orders such a breakfast. We’ve just watched others.

Later, in the car as we headed back toward the main highway, my parents began talking about the napkins-in-the-armpit and that Mom had found it so unappetizing she barely drank the coffee and ordered just the cold cereal for the kids. And my brother laughed. And laughed. And said he'd not even gone to the table because he'd noticed the restaurants "D" health rating over the cash register. It was an early lesson in "if you see something, say something."

OK, I know this is getting long, but just one more 1970s Myrtle Beach trip memory. By this time, my sister was married. My parents again had allowed my brother and I each to bring a friend on vacation. We were in the family station wagon. As the youngest, my friend and I were in the rear section of the wagon, facing backward. All our luggage and all that stuff Mom would take to basically keep house all week (it took me years to realize these trips were no real break for her or Dad) was packed on the rooftop rack.

Somewhere in South Carolina on the way home I saw something flying through the air behind us. It appeared to be a set of electric hair rollers and burst into pieces when it hit the road. This was followed in quick succession by several other items, mainly linens, and then a laundry basket. Dad quickly pulled over, retrieved the debris, and retied everything on the roof.

It was the last time we took the station wagon, the last time we used a rooftop luggage rack, and the last time we rented a house at Myrtle. My byline first appeared in the Kingsport Times-News in early 1990. That same year I bought a 1983 Chrysler LeBaron Town and Country "woodie" station wagon, with a rooftop luggage rack. I lost track of how many times I drove it to Washington, D.C., often with my grandmother, then in her late 80s and early 90s riding shotgun. She would be going to visit my Uncle Harold, a career U.S. Army officer who spent most of his career working at Walter Reed, and later taught biology at a college in the D.C. area. For years, many of the staples of my grandmother’s wardrobe —especially shoes and matching purses I would describe as in the style of Queen Elizabeth — were picked up on visits to D.C., as Uncle Harold took her to department stores like Lord & Taylor, The Hecht Company (later just Hecht’s, then swallowed by Macy’s), Woodward & Lothrop, and Garfinkel’s. What I am saying is my grandmother would have a lot of luggage going up, and all that plus numerous boxes on the way back. I never pack light. I still have that station wagon. I have never, ever put anything in the luggage rack.

So, yes, my family could have reached our first-week-of-June-every-year destination much quicker, most of the time.

But I sure am thankful for the diversions, memories of which I treasure.

That's why we I was given the opportunity to contribute a new ongoing blog (online), which might be at times referred to as a personal column (in print), I decided to write about and call it Destination & Diversions.

Future entries will tell readers more about destinations and diversions here in our region - but I will continue to incorporate my past experiences and memories into these stories. I will be writing about my visits to attractions, events, and gatherings that I hope my readers will find useful in planning their own journeys.

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