When I was in kindergarten, the school bus didn’t go where I lived. It would stop in the curve on the red dirt road where the massive old cedar tree stood. My brother and I would get off the bus and start walking the quarter mile white dirt road to Nanny and Granddaddy’s. Their small brick house stood at the end of the white dirt road, hidden by a thick screen of trees that bordered broad fields of tall tobacco.
I liked to take my shoes off as long as the weather was warm enough. In the first few weeks of the school year, it was still the tail end of summer, and more than warm enough to walk barefooted through the sand. The bottom half of the tobacco stalks were stripped bare, and the top leaves were beginning to show yellow around the edges in the late August sunshine. They’d be ready to prime soon, and that meant the first barns would be coming out to go to market and make room.
Granddaddy was always a little on edge when those first barns came out. A lot of the season would depend on just how well and how evenly the tobacco had cured, and that would dictate what kind of bids came in at the market. Usually he was worried about nothing, though, since his tobacco was routinely some of the best offered. He was an old-school type who believed no matter what you were doing, you did it to the best of your ability. And it showed in every single thing he did.
Sometimes we’d be almost home and hear the puttering sound of the old Massey Ferguson tractor behind us. Granddaddy would slow enough for us to climb on the back and hold onto the swing arms. Sometimes, though, I would jump off just to get to finish the walk.
I always enjoyed those few minutes on the road alone. I got to see so much and learn so much. I got to know the tracks of all the animals that used the road, from the deer to the dogs to the rabbits and bobcats. I could even tell the difference in the tracks of a beetle and a lizard, which are closer to each other than you might think in loose sand.
But the most exciting ones were the tracks of the snakes. I don’t know why, really, but I was fascinated with snakes, even then. And I used to love picking out the faint, difficult to decipher S-shaped tracks whenever I could. It was typically only the largest snakes that would make tracks clear enough to see, and we had some huge snakes on our land. Black rat snakes routinely reached six or seven feet.
On those walks, I found four wild plum trees that bear some of the sweetest fruit I’ve ever tasted. Three of the trees have red plums and one has golden ones, and the taste is just a touch different between the two varieties. They are small, about the size of large grapes, and the fruit doesn’t last long once it’s ripe. But it is delicious during that brief window before it sours.
I looked forward to walking that road every day, and hated to see it rain. As I got older, we moved away from Nanny and Granddaddy’s. There were still some times that I would ride the bus to their house for a few years after the move, but pretty soon that stopped as well. Once I was able to drive, I didn’t have much need to walk the road anymore, and I think I slowly forgot what it felt like to have that sand between my toes.
We all have that one place in our lives that as soon as we see it, we feel at peace. That deep and abiding sense of belonging comes over us that only exists when we are in direct contact with our roots. A thousand other places may be our home before we die, but that’s the one place that will always be where we came from.
And for me, there will always be a dirt road home.