PATHWAYS by Don Miller

Excerpt from PATHWAYS

I have a habit of “woolgathering” when doing repetitive tasks. I have always allowed my mind to wander to wherever it might and today’s woolgathering session (insert weed eating) took me back to my childhood home. I have read so many stories by southern authors where hometowns are described as “sleepy, little southern towns.” I cannot describe mine that way. I did not live in a “sleepy, little southern town.” With no signal light or post office, I lived in a scattered, unincorporated rural area that was made up of even smaller, scattered unincorporated communities with the now socially unacceptable name of Indian Land, South Carolina. Home was a brick veneered single story home located on the corner of one of the many unnamed dirt “river roads” that followed a meandering path to the Catawba River and the Charlotte-Lancaster Highway. One of just a smattering of single family homes, with the exception my grandparents’ home and farm and two uncles’ homes and farms, we were the only ones living on the Catawba River side of the Charlotte-Lancaster Highway, on the mile long stretch between “the old cotton gin” and the Van Wyck highway.

Indian Land is located in what is called the “panhandle” of Lancaster County, which to the northwest, juts more like a small accusatory finger than a panhandle into North Carolina, with the “Queen City,” Charlotte to the north and the small railroad town of Waxhaw to the east. To the south, inside of the borders of South Carolina, you will find the city of Lancaster and to the west Rock Hill. To get to Rock Hill, some five miles away as the crow flies, you must cross the Catawba River which early in my life required a scary ride on a ferry. Today it is a congested eighteen-mile car ride that makes me wish for the ferry.

Many small communities were scattered along Highway 521, the Charlotte-Lancaster Highway, and Highway 160 which runs west of 521 to and through Fort Mill, SC and on to Rock Hill. Names like Osceola, Pleasant Hill, Pleasant Valley, Belair, Miller Bottoms, Possum Hollow (pronounced Holler), Yarborough Town and Camp Cox were just some of these small communities that populated the area. During my childhood, the population density became much sparser as you traveled away from these highways, with homes giving way to farms of varying sizes or large tracks of forested areas where wildlife outnumbered the people in the area, especially the area that bordered on the Catawba River. The now socially unacceptable yet historically accurate name of Indian Land comes from the fact that the area continued to be populated by Native Americans, mainly the Catawba and Waxhaw tribes, well after Europeans had arrived in the area. The Catawba Indian Reservation is still, to this day, located across the river from Indian Land but so thorough was their assimilation into the population, the most “Indian” sounding names might be Smith or Jones.

I would not characterize Indian Land as being “sleepy” either. Off of the main thoroughfare, 521, it was as slow and sleepy as a hibernating bear but the two-lane blacktop that connected the trade center of Charlotte, NC with the textile town of Lancaster, SC was always bustling with traffic, especially during those periods of time designated as “rush hour.” At the time there was no industry other than agriculture or a couple of general mercantile stores so people commuted to the larger cities. In addition to commuters, traffic included everything from John Deere tractors to tractor trailer trucks along with the Ashe Brick dump trucks that made their back and forth sojourn from the red clay dirt pit located a mile or so east of 521 to the brick-baking ovens located in the small town of Van Wyck to the south.

What I miss the most about my home, other than family who have passed away, are those dirt and gravel roads that cut through the area leading to the forests, fields or to farms, many on the river bottoms that lay near the muddy rock-strewn waters of the Catawba. Those roads were slow and easy on both the legs and eyes, leading me to adventure or work or sometimes both at the same time. Those dirt roads no longer exist anywhere other than my memory as Charlotte has sprawled across the state line, devouring farm and farm lands like a monster in an old Japanese horror movie. The house that I grew up in along with so many other familiar structures no longer exists and the land it sat on is now covered in condos belonging to an upscale retirement community. Most of the cotton fields that fed the area cotton mills are gone, as are the mills themselves. They are not only gone from my little part of the world but they are gone from the country itself and I feel great sorrow because of it. When I visit family there, if I close my eyes and concentrate enough, I can still see those dirt pathways and in my head, at least, feel the powdery dust between my toes. I now realize that no matter how far I have traveled, I have never been far from them and home.

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