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Road Trip From Hell

By Maria Miller

Spelman College, '85

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My Story

It started out so well. I had just spent my entire summer working at BellLabs in New Jersey. It was the summer after my freshman year at Spelman and I was making $250 a week. I thought that if I could make this much after just one year of college, I was going to be rich after school! That, however, is a story for another day. I’d scrupulously saved all of my summer earnings for the big purchase - a car that was to dramatically change my student life! I wasn’t expecting a new car mind you, but something reliable that would allow me to get off campus whenever I wanted and not have to ride the dreadful MARTA - the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority - or what we students playfully referred to as “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta”.


With summer savings in hand, my father helped me to buy the perfect vehicle! It was an orange Toyota Corolla and no one could tell me anything! I’d never owned a car and had also never driven the distance from New Jersey to Atlanta. Two of my girls were happy to help with the drive. Stephanie flew in from Texas and June from Ohio. We crammed all of the clothes, shoes, and “stuff” that young college girls believe they need to be fashionable into the car. That meant there was little room left for us but we didn’t care. Armed with chicken sandwiches from my mom and my father’s change jar for the tolls, we headed out on Friday afternoon for what we just knew was going to be a fun adventure!


The first half of the trip was indeed awesome. We sang aloud to the cassette playlists we had earlier meticulously created and made our way to the nation’s capital. We, of course, had to make a stop at Howard spending a few hours checking out all of the fine brothers! Then back on the road, we went. We planned to take turns driving so that we wouldn’t need to stop before hitting the ATL. We passed through Virginia without issue and continued on our way with little care in the world. We were three young girls having the time of our lives! By early morning on Saturday, we were making fairly good time driving down US Interstate 85 and had reached somewhere in the middle of North Carolina. I was driving at the time and although I was only going slightly over the speed limit, the car suddenly began to lose power. My first thought was that we’d run out of gas, but a quick glance at the dash proved me wrong. I quickly steered the car to the shoulder as it came to a crawl and then with a thump, a full stop.


We tried desperately to restart my orange baby but he simply would not turn over! We flagged down a kind soul who offered us a jump. Stubbornly, however, the car refused to respond. We were in the middle of nowhere and had no idea what to do!


Eventually, “Officer Billy Bob” stopped by in his patrol car to see what we were doing. We nervously explained the issue and asked if there was a garage where we could get a tow. Accordingly to “Officer Billy Bob”, however, no garages in Henderson, NC were open on Saturday. What were we supposed to do now? In this pre-cell phone age, “Officer Billy Bob” used his radio dispatch to reach my parents letting them know we were okay. He also called a nearby motel annoyingly advising the person on the other end that “we got three little black girls here and it seems they gon haaave to spend the night”. I swear to this day that his voice had the heaviest Southern drawl I’d ever heard. We were terrified! We gathered the belongings we could carry - chicken and change jar included - and packed them into a taxi. We locked the rest of our things in the car trunk and nervously made our way to the hotel that had somehow been paid for by one of our parents. “Officer Billy Bob” stood by watching.


Once at the hotel, we tried to settle ourselves by going for a swim at the motel pool. Almost as soon as we dipped our toes in the water, however, out came this older white woman who nastily asked us why we were in the pool. We tried to explain we were guests. Her gaze however made us so uncomfortable that we just got out and decided to stay in our room for the rest of the night. We pushed our bags against the door in case there was going to be any trouble!


The hotel clerk had promised to wake us at 5:00 am so we could take a bus to Raleigh where plane tickets were supposedly waiting for us to get back to school. The wake-up call never came! June miraculously stirred at 5:30 am and we tried frantically to call a taxi from the hotel phone. It seems however that all calls needed to go through the hotel switchboard and at that hour, no one was working. We were scrambling! Foolishly dressed in my young girl attire (read mini skirt and midriff top), I made my way to the truck stop next door to use the pay phone. Suffering the inevitable catcalls, I tried to phone a taxi but got no response. We were desperate to get out of there! Seemingly out of nowhere appeared “Officer Billy Bob”! Not surprisingly, he was able to immediately find us a taxi and we thankfully made it on time to the Greyhound terminal. It was not clear who was happiest that day —us for finally making it to the bus or “Officer Billy Bob” for getting us out of his town.


We were once again on our way... or so we thought. We made it to Raleigh only to learn our plane tickets had not yet been paid. We missed the first of our intended flights while waiting for funds. When they finally arrived, we boarded a flight to Charlotte where we had a 3-hour layover before finally taking the last leg of our trip back to Atlanta. We were exhausted but thrilled to again be back on familiar ground!


While the car was ultimately dead — a bad alternator — our road trip bonded us for life! I also promised myself that I would never buy a used car!!!

Working draft, not a final edit.

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