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Rutledge: Christmas with cousins was worth riding the ‘Vomit Comet’


Saturday, December 24, 2016

When our daughters announced to their Tennessee cousins last year that we were going to become permanent neighbors, one of the cousins was a little sad. “We won’t get to look forward to seeing you anymore,” she said.

I understand. Looking forward to being with cousins is one of the great highlights of childhood, especially during Christmas. It’s a thrill even for the cousins who must avoid food before riding up and down a mountain in the backseat.

This Tennessee Christmas is a little sad for me, too. The second generation of our over-the-mountain-and-through-the-woods holiday family tradition is coming to an end. No more traversing the winding roads between Tennessee and North Carolina to be with cousins.

Raising our kids in North Carolina felt natural to me because I lived the earliest part of my life there. After opening gifts on Christmas morning, we would pile into the old Volvo, and later the new Chevy Impala. It was a long drive from Albemarle to LaFollotte, Tenn., where grandparents and cousins and M&Ms and six-and-a-half-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola awaited us.

These were the good old days when interstate travel was not an option and carsickness was an ever present passenger. Stopping for gas meant the service was full and the bathrooms filthy.

Some service station restrooms were worse than others, but when the key was wired to a flyswatter you just knew it was going to be awful. At least we could hang our heads out the pump-side window afterward and numb our little noses on leaded fumes.

Highway 441 through the Smoky Mountains was always exciting because we knew Dad would stop in Gatlinburg for white chocolate — which was saved for later when we were not so nauseated.

That same highway is much improved today, with guardrails of stone or heavy timbers. During the 1960s, however, cars negotiated its treacherous twists and turns between short, painted posts. A patch of missing posts meant that a vehicle had plowed through and plummeted down the mountain.

Processing such a tragic event during the delirium of carsickness was almost too much. “What if no one saw the crash? What if the poor souls are still down there, somewhere hidden in the undergrowth? What if tumbling down the side of a mountain were the only way to make nausea go away?”

Our daughters had similar experiences along N.C. Highway 181 crossing Jonas Ridge between Morganton and Newland. A particularly draining round of Christmas carsickness on that stretch prompted the girls to label it “the curvy way.” As in: “Please don’t go the curvy way! Please!”

Fortunately, there is an all-interstate route to North Carolina via Virginia. The alternate route is so smooth that we felt safe in starting a new tradition of sharing a big bag of Cajun trail mix from the Flying J at Wytheville.

Since we have Christmas cousins all year now, the girls and I are driving over after the holiday to visit friends in eastern North Carolina. The girls don’t know it yet, but Daddy has cooked up a little experiment to see if they’ve outgrown their aversion to winding mountain roads.

“But the curvy way has no Flying J,” the girls will protest.

Not to worry. I’ve already gotten us a jumbo bag of Cajun trail mix from Walmart. Daddy thinks of everything.

Contact Mark Rutledge at mrutledge@reflector.com.