Sometimes you've got to hop in a Chevy and get the heck out of Dodge
Rick Bragg in Car
Credit: John Cuneo

She does not burn up the roads anymore. We took a trip the other day—she, my mother, and I—and made it all the way to the Coosa backwater. Nothing was as we remembered. The old roads were overgrown or covered in four lanes, and we got lost going to places we did not even know we were going to. Still, it was a fine trip. We got an Icee and stayed out after dark. But once, long ago, you should have seen her go.

Because of her, I know what the squish of river mud feels like between my toes. Without her, I never would have walked through Little Jerusalem. I never would have seen Rome…Georgia. I never would have seen the blast furnaces set the sky ablaze over Birmingham, or had a Big Mac in the back seat just the other side of Montgomery. Oh, I would have seen it all, eventually, but it needed to happen to a boy; the world loses much of its wonder about the time you pay your first water bill.

I don't think I ever thanked my Aunt Juanita, for taking me along.

The first big trip was usually around the first of June, when hateful school came to a close. You watched the clock that last day, but even the hot air seemed stuck in place, composed mostly of chalk dust and floor wax, thick and still. Finally, after a math class so long it defied any numerical configuration, the last bell of the school year sent a stampede of cowlicks and brogans out into a brand-new summer, clean, fresh, and free. And there, behind the wheel of a beige Chevrolet Biscayne, clutch pushed down, patting the gas, was my Aunt Juanita.

With my mother riding shotgun, she would show us as much of the world as two tanks of regular would allow. I can still see her that way, in dime-store flip-flops and something called pedal pushers, one bony elbow out the open window. I do not recall a map.

"Don't no moss grow on that woman," the old men liked to say, and now that I am old and sophisticated, I know there is a word for the way she was. My Aunt Juanita was born with a case of wanderlust, a need to feel the blacktop whirring beneath those recapped tires.

We rode and rode, wedged in there with inner tubes and lapdogs and softly snoring grandmas, and dined on Grapico sodas and Golden Flake Cheese Curls and melting black walnut ice cream. On long trips, like the 300-mile exodus to the Gulf, we devoured fried chicken and cold biscuits from aluminum foil, four doors flung open under Spanish moss. On short trips, we stopped for tomato sandwiches and cans of Vienna sausages.

WATCH: Rick Bragg's Favorite Meal

We thought that was as good as life might ever be. It might have been.

She is 83 now. She wants to go up near Summerville, Georgia, soon to visit the graves of some kin. On the way, maybe I can get her a Grapico, and tell her what it all meant to me.