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Driving With Hope

How the power of negative thinking got us to Tennessee and back

Of all the millions of miles I’ve driven, including a few hundred thousand as a cabdriver, the most exciting can be traced in a more or less straight line from Lubbock, where I grew up, to Tennessee, where my parents were from. We drove this route almost every summer of my childhood. My dad was the primary driver.

Mama was the navigator and narrator. She filled those Texas-to-Tennessee trips with danger and intrigue for me, the only child and backseat passenger.

Mama’s narration began as soon as we started packing the car. Each comment started with “I hope.” As in, “I hope this trunk doesn’t fly open while we’re on the highway and all our stuff gets blown out and causes somebody to crash.” Her almost nonstop narration was, in fact, a litany of all the dangers that lurked every which way on America’s highways.

“I hope he doesn’t swerve over and hit us.”

“I hope that state trooper doesn’t stop us.”

“I hope nobody has to pee.” (As soon as I heard that, I always had to pee, so she lost that hope.)

The drive through Texas was usually uneventful, consisting mostly of Mama hoping against hope that we didn’t get a flat tire or the radiator didn’t boil over or the pimento cheese sandwiches didn’t make us all sick. Once, she hoped we didn’t hit a coyote outside Big Spring about an instant before we did.

“I was sure hoping that wouldn’t happen.”

In the early days, before Interstate 81 and other improved highways, we traveled the last leg of our trip to Kingsport, Tennessee, on U.S. Highway 11E. In what I perceived as solidarity among all worry-warts of the open road, about half the cars on this part of the trip featured a bumper sticker that read, “Pray For Me, I Travel Bloody 11-E.” The narrow two-lane highway cut through the southern Appalachians and was, as the locals put it, “crooked enough to break a snake’s back.”

My memory of that part of the trip emphasizes the big lumber trucks. We didn’t have a logging industry in Lubbock, and I never got over the novelty of seeing trucks hauling huge tree trunks. Mountains and sawmills were new to me as well. The combination of twisting mountain roads and the lumber trucks gave Mama a lot to hope for. Or against.

To begin with, the trucks were slightly wider than the lanes meant to contain them, or so it seemed from the backseat, and they raced at startling speed down one mountain to make it up the next one. If our car was in front of the truck as we came down the mountain, Mama could be counted on to look back and say, “I hope that truck doesn’t run over us!” If we were behind one of those trucks struggling up a mountain, she hoped the truck wouldn’t lose momentum, roll backward and crush us.

On the return trip, when we crossed back into Texas with the perils of the Smoky Mountains behind us for another year, Mama’s hopes turned toward home.

“I hope the house didn’t burn down while we were gone.”

“I hope we didn’t get burglarized.”

“I hope you still have a job.”

Mama was the most superstitious person I’ve ever known, and I figured out at some point that her worst-case scenarios were an extension of her many superstitions. She believed in the power of negative thinking, which postulates that if you spoke the terrible thing aloud, it wouldn’t happen. She rested her case on the fact that nothing terrible ever happened on our vacations.

My folks eventually left Lubbock and moved into their own Tennessee mountain home. I stayed in Texas and visited every year with my own family. We traveled many of the same roads we’d traveled when I was a kid—but without all the hoping. Though our trips were usually a tale of three bladders, I caught myself saying, “I hope we make it to a bathroom in time!” Most of the time we did.

My parents always planned a nice drive through the mountains when we visited. While Dad pointed out historical landmarks and other sites of interest, Mama stayed busy hoping.

“Oh Lord, I hope one of those big rocks doesn’t roll down that mountain and hit this car.”

“I hope we don’t drive off the side of this mountain.”

When we got home, Mama would breathe a big sigh of relief, flash her happiest smile and say, “Well, that sure was a pretty drive, wasn’t it? I hope you kids enjoyed it. Why, I don’t think there’s anything more relaxing than a nice drive through the mountains.”

Clay Coppedge, a member of Bartlett EC, lives near Walburg.