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The Freedom Ride: On the Road with a Restless Woman and Her Son

By Dehryl Mason

Leaving Birmingham, I drive west toward Route 66. A road trip like this had been my dream for years. I’d always imagined Joni Mitchell serenading me from the car stereo, driving until I ran out of money and had to stop and waitress for a while, flirting with long-distance truck drivers. In my mind, I’d save some money, live on the cheap, and then take up the road again.

On this trip, however, the car stereo twangs with Hank Williams’s “I’m a Ramblin’ Man.” It gives voice to the surge of freedom I’m finally beginning to feel, with the warmth of the sun on my arm out the window and the bright blue sky ahead. I can hardly believe that I’m really doing this thing I’ve yearned to do for so long. Yes, I agree with Hank, I am a restless woman.

“Mommy?” my son’s voice echoes from the back seat, snapping me back to reality.

“Yes, Sweetie?”

“How much longer?”

This is not quite the solo freedom ride I’d envisioned when I was 26. My companion for this “westward ho” is my 8-year-old son, Mason. I’m 42, and instead of no plan other than packing good music to play, the freedom ride has had to be recast to include juice boxes, apples, and granola bars to assuage little-boy hunger attacks between stops.

“How much longer until what, Mason?” I study him in the rearview mirror. His piercing, nearly black eyes reflect back to me.

“Till we see Daddy.”

How much longer? It’ll seem an eternity to him. For me, however, the two weeks before we meet Sonny at the Grand Canyon won’t seem long enough, given the cold, discomforting distance that’s been creeping in between us over the last few years.

“Well, it’ll be a while. First, we’re going to the Buffalo National River. That‘ll be fun, huh?”

“Yeah,” Mason concedes.

Thirty-two hours into the trip, I drive into Arkansas, into the forested hills of the Ozarks. The narrow roads slither through mountain vistas as we make our way toward Bald Knob and the riverbank where we’ll set up our tent. Camping is an activity Sonny introduced me to when we were dating, and I’ve never done it without him. Despite uncertainty percolating in my chest, I’m determined to make this journey in the same way we’d always traveled as a family: without spending money on plush hotel rooms.

“Do you even know how you’ll pay for everything you need?” Sonny had asked tersely before Mason and I left.

The answer was death money. In three short years, I’d buried all my relatives: first my mother, followed shortly thereafter by my father. Then my maternal grandmother, who’d helped raise me, died just months before this trip. I had a bit of money left from my small inheritance. Mostly, though, their deaths left me with a different perspective on life. Now, it seemed, there was no more doing something tomorrow. Tomorrows, at some time, at some point, cease to arrive.

“Hey, look! Is that the Animal River?” Mason is excited, jerking me into the present.

“The Buffalo National River. Yep. I think it is. Let’s get out and say hello to the river.”

We exit the car at the beachhead, only to be greeted by a woman’s frantic screams.

“Help!” she pleads. “I must’ve dropped my keys in the river!”

Desperate, she’s banging on the window of her rusted Chevy Impala, as if breaking the glass might somehow help her drive it.

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