The Highways That Carry Us Home

Kelli Jo Ford grew up traveling between Virginia and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. A key companion on the journey? Love’s Travel Stop, where they would stop for gas, snacks—and family reunions.

The Highways That Carry Us Home

Ever since she was a kid, author Kelli Jo Ford has had a special place in her heart for Love’s Travel Stop, the iconic rest stop chain in the American heartland.

Photo by Andriy Blokhin/Shutterstock

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It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood when I realized that people went on vacations, actual trips to Disney World or visits to the world’s largest rocking chair. Growing up (mostly) as at-large citizens of the Cherokee Nation, whenever we traveled, we went home.

That’s what my Auntmom and I are doing this morning, the sun just beginning to peek over our shoulders. It’s July of 2021, but my mom’s oldest sister has been Auntmom to me since I was a kid. Still is, even though I’m middle aged with a kid of my own. I grew up with an Uncledad and a bunch of powerful Aunties, cousins more like brothers and sisters. I guess it’s just our way.

Auntmom and I are headed east through the green peaks and valleys of Central Virginia to Interstate 40. COVID numbers around the country have improved. People are hugging loved ones again, and it’s past time we do the same. I-40 will take us all the way back home to the Cherokee Nation in Eastern Oklahoma. There, we’ll see my 87-year-old grandmother JoJo who lives in a care facility.

Auntmom and I leave early. Both vaccinated and caffeinated, we’re just happy to be in the same space, sharing the same air. She tells me all the family gossip, and, like always, I ask her for old stories about growing up Cherokee and very fundamentalist Christian, stories about what she left and where we’re going.

My parents are going to meet us in Oklahoma. They’ll drive up from their farm in Texas with my eight-year-old daughter, Cypress, who has been visiting them for the past two weeks. We’ll all converge at JoJo’s and spend a week together drinking cherry limeades from Sonic, gorging ourselves on Braum’s butter pecan ice cream, and taking JoJo on drives through her precious Cookson Hills. When the week is up, my parents will drive back home to Texas. Auntmom and I will load Cypress up with us and head east, back to Virginia where Cypress will start third grade in person.

Somewhere in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I see a familiar sign of four cascading hearts, red, yellow, and orange—the chain store rest stop of road trips past. “Let’s time our stops with Love’s,” I tell Auntmom.

“I love Love’s,” she says.

We pass through the pointy tip of Virginia into never-ending Tennessee. Each time we get down to a quarter of a tank, we find a Love’s. There have to be 50 or more Love’s between us and home spread out along I-40. Each store, pretty much the same inside. Bigger than I remember, but like any other travel stop: sweaty hot dogs rolling on stainless steel rods, coffee stations, phone cards, bins of stuffed animals wearing T-shirts embossed with whatever big university football team is nearby. Usually the only people in masks, we do our business quickly.

People are hugging loved ones again, and it’s past time we do the same.

We’ve made some version of this trip for decades. Three quarters of my grandmother JoJo’s daughters migrated to Virginia from Sequoyah County, Oklahoma. They came gradually, starting with Auntmom almost 50 years ago. When I had a daughter, I joined my aunties in Virginia. Mom migrated too, but only as far as Texas. When pressured over the years to move closer to one of her daughters, my grandmother JoJo always gives a familiar refrain: “I was born an Okie, and I’ll die an Okie.”

On cool mornings, you can see steam rising up from Sallisaw Creek from JoJo’s porch. The house is quiet now, still filled with all of her stuff that didn’t make it to the care facility. When Auntmom and I arrive, we’ll put our bags in the same closets, but it won’t really feel like home anymore. I remember that JoJo’s house always felt quiet, a little scary to me. A loving but stern woman, JoJo never wanted to be called “Grandma,” and she didn’t want kids running or yelling. I had to go to another house for that. My Grandma Longshore’s.

To get to Grandma Longshore’s house, you had to drive across Sallisaw Creek. Not across a bridge, but through the actual creek. If the creek was up, you had to make the haul all the way around past the town of Bunch, which as I recall consisted of a Baptist church, post office, and general store. That meant extra miles of washboard gravel road. It also deprived me of the creek crossing.

When I was a kid, crossing Sallisaw Creek with Grandma Longshore was crossing over into a whole different world. When the car edged into the water, I would roll down my window and stick my head out, watching the water cascade away from the tires. If nobody was looking, I’d hang my body half-way down the door and drag my fingertips through the water, like we were boat people and this was just another day on the lake. If anybody but Grandma Longshore was driving, they might steer off the big flat rocks where it was shallow and into the channel. The car might float a bit, catch traction, then be fine other than the floorboards that’d been transformed into double sinks, full of water. Or maybe the distributor cap would get wet, and the car would stall out. A terrible thing for the adults of the world. Delightful for a child. The grown-ups would roll up their jeans and push us to the far bank. I’d skip rocks or hunt crawdads while adults worried about adult things like drying out engine parts or getting a late start on dinner.

Once across the creek, we’d pass the Big Feathers’ house, the closest neighbors, and make the hairpin turn down a steep hill where we’d cross another creek, this one just a trickle of water. We’d pass the dump where they tossed household trash and stiff, dead chickens with straight scaly legs. I’d lean my head out the window now, ready for the last downhill curve that brought us to the two-story farmhouse with a sleeping porch and a weiner dog named Pepper.

Unlike JoJo’s quiet place, Grandma Longshore’s house was always busy. She cooked feasts that we ate around a full table in the cramped kitchen. The well was bad, so we hauled drinking water from town in white gallon bleach jugs. Her four grown or nearly grown children were in and out, loud with their coming together and apart. They had a party line where us kids would sneak and listen to the Big Feathers’ phone conversations.

A terrible thing for the adults of the world. Delightful for a child.

Mom and I moved to Texas when I was eight. It was Grandma Longshore who would meet Mom halfway—at a Love’s Country Store in Atoka, Oklahoma—to pick me up and take me back to home during summer break. Waiting for Grandma Longshore there at that Love’s, a big bag of Funyons and a Slush Puppie in hand, I felt like I might burst with the anticipation of getting back across that creek and everything that came with. She never let me drift away, no matter how far away I moved.

Summers or graduations or weddings: It didn’t matter. Grandma Longshore got in her dusty car and traveled to where I was. She had a fiery temper for those who wronged her family, short, permed hair and false teeth, and the best arms for hugging ever to exist. Grandma Longshore had many grandkids of her own, some by blood and others like me. I wasn’t Grandma Longshore’s grandbaby by blood, but I was her first grandbaby. She never let me forget it. She put up wild onions, a Cherokee staple, every spring. She’d save a batch for me and cook them up with scrambled eggs and brown beans then send me back to Texas with strawberry jam in old margarine containers. That is the kind of woman she was.

As Auntmom and I bounce along I-40, each Love’s draws us closer to Oklahoma - but not the one of my memory. Nobody gathers wild onions and labels them Kelli Jo. I’m of the age that I should be passing the tradition on to my daughter, Cypress, but I wouldn’t know where to look. I don’t cross Sallisaw Creek anymore, unless it’s over a highway bridge, miles away. Grandma Longshore passed years ago. I don’t even know if the old farmhouse is still standing. JoJo, who suffered through a lifetime of poor health, is the only one of my grandmothers who is still alive.

When we get JoJo’s, it’s startling how frail she seems sitting up in her hospital bed, wrapped in a pink Pendleton blanket. She squeezes us so long it feels like she might not let go. But then we offer to take her to Sonic and then over by Brushy Mountain. The promise of a little something sweet and a pretty view loosens her grip. Every time we come home now, I better understand that it may be the last time. Because home is only partly place.

Cypress doesn’t know JoJo as someone to tiptoe around. She knows her as someone who needs extra help, an elder who needs care and love. She offers to refill her drink, proudly pushes her wheelchair. When it’s time to go back to Virginia, Cypress is sad to leave JoJo, broken-hearted to soon be separated from my parents by half a country. But she’s got friends to look forward to. In person school starts for the first time in a year and a half when we get back.

Once we’ve said our goodbyes and cried out all our tears, Cypress, Auntmom, and I drive to the rhythm of our own voices. Every time I see the Love’s logo, its four stacked hearts, I feel the stretch of time and the reach of love, of our ancestors. A cynical part of me wants to roll my eyes at such successful marketing. Really? But yes, that is the story I’m telling.

And this glorious eight-year-old kid, Cypress, can’t stop talking because she’s been in Texas with my parents, her Granny and Poppy. Gathering eggs in my mom’s little chicken house, driving the Mule through mesquite-dotted pastures to have picnics surrounded by the swishes of horse tails and cats who think they are dogs. Mom and Pop put up salsa. They saved a few of last year’s jars to send home with Cypress, just like Grandma Longshore did for me.

On our long trip back home to Virginia, we’ll stop at every Love’s we can hit. I’ll say yes to more sweets than I want to and buy her a bag of Funyons that’ll cause her to fake gag in the back seat. When we get back to Virginia, Cypress will start making plans for her next trip to my parents’, mapping out their agenda of chicken feeding and cat wrangling. She’ll ask when we can move to the Cherokee Nation where she can be close to JoJo and learn our language.

I have more questions than answers, more memories than plans. But I am grateful for what we have right now: a heart full of family and a bumpy highway back to our home in Virginia. When my daughter looks back, I wonder what she will see in our shuffling back and forth? What will she think of the time she spent in the middle of a pandemic, flying down the interstate, hanging a hand out the window hunting Love’s Country Stores with her great aunt and mom?

If we are lucky, we come from a family, or maybe family chooses us, actively again and again. And home, maybe it can be a place both at the beginning and the ending of our journey.

>>Next: In Ghana, a Chef Searching for Her Roots Finds Open Arms—and Open Kitchens

Kelli Jo Ford is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Her debut novel-in-stories Crooked Hallelujah was longlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel, The Story Prize, the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, The Dublin Literary Award, and The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. She is the recipient of an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship, The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize, a Native Arts & Cultures Foundation National Artist Fellowship, an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant, and a Dobie Paisano Fellowship. She teaches writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts.