My sister and I sat in the back seat of our giant boat of a car, our mom at the wheel.
This was before shoulder belts. All we had were lap belts and if we loosened them just enough, we could turn and face each other, our backs against the doors, feet sneaking their way, inch by inch, to the other person’s side of the seat.
“Mom,” one of us would yell. “She’s touching me! Her feet are touching me!” Our legs flew in kicks and shoves. Luckily, there was an unspoken rule that no shoes would be worn in such conflicts as this truly could have done damage to one’s shins.
This was also before all cars had air conditioning and it was the middle of a Georgia July. We were driving to the beach, to a little old house on Hunting Island, South Carolina called Mosquito Haven.
It was hot and we were cranky.
A hand reached around from the front seat, waving wildly in search of legs to smack. “Stop it, girls! Leave each other alone and stop complaining! I don’t want to hear another word. Look out the window!”
This was always Mom’s answer to any car ride dispute. “Look out the window.” As if what was out the window was so fascinating, it would instantly distract us from whatever perceived slight had begun the melee.
I looked out the window at the highway passing by. The grass on the strip of land between the two sides of the road was brown and dry. Little patches of red Georgia clay peeked through, cracked and yearning for rain.
Trucks zoomed by; big freight trucks carrying heavy loads, creating a wind tunnel effect, pulling our car to one side as they passed, always with a “How’s my driving” sticker on the back; little pickup trucks, invariably with a hound dog hanging out one side, catching the breeze in its jowls; caravans of military trucks, their passengers in full fatigues, windows down, looking very serious on their way to somewhere important.
The sides of the road held patches of dappled shade, respite for birds and other critters seeking refuge from the heat. The trees were overrun by kudzu which was slowly but surely conquering the plants and buildings of the South. I imagine the war may have taken a different turn if General Pickett’s Charge had been as persistent and driven as that of kudzu.
At spots along the road, little stands of peaches and corn and other summer crops could be found. If we were lucky, we would happen upon vats of boiling peanuts, their salty brine permeating the air.
When we passed the giant peach, a water tower painted up to look exactly like a giant peach, we knew we were a little over halfway there.
As looking out the window slowly lost its interest, the hot wind coming through the open windows would lull me to sleep. I slept fitfully, awoken periodically by the sun pouring in the window, making me too hot and causing little rivers of perspiration to run down my back. I drifted in and out, catching the occasional view of bugs that had the misfortune of getting caught up in our travels; spiders climbing along the half open window until swept away on a highway breeze; bees and gnats and other bugs splattered in all their gutsy glory against our front windshield, their innards making a smear as the windshield wipers tried to wash them away.
Eventually, the smells coming through the window would change. A dank, marshy smell – a mixture of fish and sulfur – would waft in, burning the nostrils awake. The ground changed, red clay giving over to sandier soil, blown in little drifts onto the highway. The trees were smaller, scrubbier; more shrubs than trees. Seagulls would appear on the breeze.
We were close.
Looking out the window resumed. Sometimes, on these trips, my sister and I would play games of “That’s my horse.” (But you could substitute “horse” with any other object of desire – house, boat, car). “Horse” was more often reserved for trips to visit our friends who lived in the country. We would keep a keen eye out for anything appealing and try to lay claim to it before the other one did. I’m not sure why this was such a fun game but it sure kept us occupied for a while.
Soon, we passed over long bridges, with salty waterways below. We saw fathers and children hanging fishing lines over the edge, if the water was close. If we were higher up, we would sometimes pass over draw bridges, smaller sailboats and fishing boats passing beneath. If we were unlucky, we would get stuck on one side of a drawn draw bridge, waiting in the stifling heat for a large ship to make its way through.
As we crossed over each little island in the chain, stopping briefly at the Piggly Wiggly and the fish shop to pick up provisions for our week at Mosquito Haven, excitement grew. Passing onto Hunting Island, we would see the lighthouse in the distance and catch glimpses of the ocean through the heavy foliage.
Finally, we would pull into the long sandy drive of Mosquito Haven, a little house on stilts, just steps from the ocean and I would jump out of the car and run to the beach to get the first feel of sand between my toes. The house wasn’t fancy, and it unfortunately lived up to its buggy name, but it was our escape for the summer. It was a place where life was simple and still. It was a place where we would read to pass the time, and then read some more. We would hunt for sand dollars and sharks’ teeth on the beach at low tide. We would play cards and listen to music on the radio. We would collect driftwood. We would eat fresh fish and drink iced tea and would sit outside on the screened porch at night, listening to the hum of the insects.
I don’t think I truly appreciated these summers until later. As kids, we take such things for granted. As a pre-teen, I felt I was being dragged away from more exciting pursuits and would rather have spent time with my friends. But, like my own teen and pre-teen children, though initially feeling captive to these family activities, I ultimately truly enjoyed the adventure. Mosquito Haven is gone now, victim to the swells of the ocean. I am able to revisit her only through the lens of memory and of yellowed photographs in an album. We made our pilgrimage there every summer for many years and, though the journey was long and hot, I took comfort in its familiarity. Now, when life gets hectic, I think back on our travels and I genuinely miss those times – unencumbered by the responsibilities and details of daily life – looking out the window and watching the world go by.