The legendary Bill Brown once defined the modern frontier as any place more than two hours from the interstate. If you look at a map of the US, there’s still a lot of frontier to conquer.
Crossing Mississippi on US 49, I saw gas prices as low as $2.11. To my dismay, the tank was full when I saw that price, and by the time it was getting low, gas was over $2.35. So when I saw $2.24 at a nondescript gas station, I decided to make a U-turn.
I filled the tank and washed the windshield, but I still needed a restroom and a receipt, so I stepped into the mini-mart, where the woman behind the counter greeted me with, “If you ever decide to sell that van, you should let me know!” I admitted that I’d only had it for two days, so she was going to have to wait a while.
There was something unexpected about finding Janet at Fastmart #09 in Magee, Mississippi. She didn’t have a local accent, so I asked where she was from. The list included New York, the Carolinas, and Tennessee, but she dreamed of traveling in a rig like mine, a follower of the #vanlife movement.
At one point in our lively conversation, I mentioned Strangers Have the Best Candy, and her eyes widened. She reached across the counter, grabbed a big bunch of candy, and pressed it into my hand. “Here you go!” she said, laughing.
Janet had the look of “what am I doing here, of all places?” that I see when I look into the mirror in Dunedin, Florida. Her husband’s family ties had led them there in that flow of life that picks us up, swirls us around, and drops us off in unexpected frontiers, like Magee and Wichita Falls, Texas.
After I passed through Dallas on a Sunday morning, I started a long northwest trek on US 287, with fields and ranchlands on either side. I had passed through Wichita Falls when I realized it was time to stop for the day, but there was nothing ahead for hours. So I turned around, returning to the KOA north of town.
The place was tidy and well-appointed, but the woman running it apologized for its condition. It was under new ownership, and they were working the kinks out.
There was something about Tina that spoke of a broader experience, so I inquired about where she was from. It turned out she was from my old neighborhood, between Havelock and Beaufort, North Carolina!
We had another interesting trait in common: We both had retired too young. She and her husband retired and built their dream house, but sitting and drinking coffee as they gazed at the water wasn’t as fulfilling as they expected. The retired folks in their community were much older than they were, and it was hard to connect. They decided to try full-time RVing instead and set off across the country.
Then the opportunity to rebuild this business turned up, and all of a sudden, they were living on the frontier in Wichita Falls, Texas. Running a KOA campground, rebuilding and expanding it will provide lots of interesting challenges. But six months had barely given them a taste of the traveling life, and I wondered if Tina, like Janet and I, asks herself, “what am I doing here, of all places?”
There’s a story in Strangers Have the Best Candy about a lady who lived literally just up the road from Tina’s dream house in North Carolina. Belle had never driven outside her own county, but she ran a farm stand and strawberry farm on Highway 101. She taught me the important lesson that you don’t have to travel to meet interesting strangers. They will come to you, even on the frontier.
When I look into the mirror and ask, “What am I doing here, of all places?” I’ll remember that.