Opinion – 6/17/2003

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 17, 2003

The Panolian – "Big Easy" by John Howell Sr.

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pick up the 6/17/03  issue of The Panolian

Time Out for Scenic Route

The old car was intended to ride on after the monthly payments ended, but it didn’t happen. It dawned on me that once the bank note was satisfied, I’d still be averaging a monthly payment to the repair shop. So I traded.

Those few blissful car-payment-free months that I had envisioned in the near future flew out the window as I succumbed to the current barrage of interest-free hype in newspapers and on TV. I went down to the new car dealer one day late in the last week of the month. That’s when you can make your best deal with the salesman because the dealer is desperately trying to meet his monthly quota, right? Down to the dealership I drove, determined to drive in with a hard bargain and out with a new car.

A salesman and I negotiated, estimated, exaggerated, and expectorated, and then consulted with some guy whose last name was the same as the dealership. About two hours later, considerably dazed and confused, I drove out in a new car alright. I wasn’t sure how much I had paid for it, what it was equipped with, nor how much I’d gotten in trade for my old car. I could only empathize with the unwitting customer of "El Monte Slim," the fictional used car salesman portrayed on an old Cheech and Chong recording whose come-on was "Feefty dollars down and feefty dollars a week … for FEEFTY YEARS!"

One should never enter so lightly armed into a battle of wits.

Still, the prospect of having a new car for my next drive to Batesville would make the miles seem shorter. Even when I found instructions for "breaking in" the vehicle that countered driving it at sustained interstate speeds for the first several hundred miles, my enthusiasm was little dampened. I’d drive up Highway 35 instead.

It begins in Louisiana as Highway 21 in Mandeville just north of Lake Pontchartrain and follows terrain that quickly rises from coastal flat to low, rolling hills overgrown by pine trees and Gulf growth. The route soon parallels the Pearl River’s west side, passing through tiny communities: Bush, Sun, Varnado and Angie.

Bogalusa is the largest town before the Mississippi line. "Jesus is Lord in Bogalusa," a sign informs passersby.

On to the state line where the route becomes Highway 35 and soon leads to Columbia, straddling the Pearl River. My circuitous route through the place ? I missed the turn of Highway 35 on my first try ? reminds me that roadside homogenization takes a little longer to find these small cities not located along interstate highways. The individual identities of towns last a little longer.

The route crosses the Pearl at Columbia and then eases northeastward into terrain with small hills more numerous and defined, lush in the late Mississippi spring. Through Bassfield, crossing U.S. 49 at Mount Olive and on to Mize, whose population of people (312) on the day of this trip is rivaled by the number of horses. For some miles, I have to travel in an irregular caravan of trucks pulling horse trailers. They all converge in Mize where the truck/trailer combinations have filled several acres and unloaded their human and equine cargo.

Looks interesting, but my schedule dictates no stopping here nor further north where they are having a roadside car and truck show at Raleigh. Though it’s the seat of Smith County, Raleigh is small enough not to have attracted franchised homogeny and also retains its local, individual identity.

Crossing I-20 at Forrest, I find a sign warning that Highway 35 is closed some 15 miles ahead. My route is altered westward to Morton, then to Route 481 which reconnects me to the Pearl since it crosses the backwaters of Ross Barnett Reservoir and into Madison County, though from the looks of the upscale development along near the reservoir I expect the residents resent the use of "backwaters" to describe their environs.

Newly-planted crops and volunteer wildflowers flourish in the rich Madison County soil between the Pearl and Canton. Attractive banners hanging from streetlight posts proclaim that city’s celebration of the Nissan plant opening, and remind about the forces of change swirling about in that county. Rapid recent suburbanization flooded into the Madison and Ridgeland areas and now this automotive giant is poised to produce 400,000 vehicles annually there.

At Canton it’s on to I-55, for the same-old, same-old route until it intersects Highway 35 at Vaiden where I leave the interstate for the slower, unfamiliar road. Crossing 82, Highway 35 passes through Carrollton and then North Carrollton, probably the most picturesque villages along the way.

By the time I pass through Holcomb and head north for Charleston, the sun has set and Mississippi Public Radio’s Sunday evening program "Echoes" is broadcasting. It becomes perfect background music. The sun’s light from somewhere over the western horizon lights a panoramic Delta sky. White-gray clouds turn pink in the ebbing sunlight. A sliver of a new moon appears from among those clouds and keeps me company through the length of Tallahatchie County, and Highway 35 turns into a familiar route, leading into Batesville. I am now behind schedule, but that is forgotten since it was only in my mind and had long since been overshadowed by the vivid visual and musical imagery of the travel.

Meanwhile, that car salesman told me about a survey I would receive. He said he hoped I was satisfied with my car-buying experience. And I’m thinking: What good is a survey right after you buy a car; it’s still new? If you really want to know something worthwhile about the car you sold me, send me a survey when the payments are almost over. I won’t really know how I like the car until then. If I live that long.