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The distance from Meridian to Hot Coffee, Mississippi spans 80 miles. By the end of May, the boys in my family and I squeeze into dad’s 1983 Toyota Pickup, and we speed away to a grimy race track wedged in the midst a ghost town. As we careen down the kudzu-laden path of Okatibbee Ridge Lane, I fend off drowsiness by listening to the conversations that ensue. It’s never difficult. The drive is always more interesting than the destination.
I grew up in a family obsessed with racing motorcycles. My dad was unsure of how to raise a timid daughter, but he knew how to entrust the skills of a hobby he adored. He especially imparted wisdom through Mississippi miles.
He armed me with screwdrivers and a sound mind, radiator fluid and resilience, bolts and brilliance, until my arms overflowed with loose parts and my mind overflowed with ideas. I learned courage on the seat of a rumbling motorcycle at four. At six, I learned to solve complex problems by repairing a broken motorcycle on my own.
I stared into a gaping abyss of foreign parts, unsure of where or how to start. It took four weeks and hours of toiling incessantly at my project, but, finally, the machine roared to life once again. I understood, then, the importance of never giving up.
It is on the road to Hot Coffee that I learned to mediate conflicts. By the first county line crossed, I resolved arguments between my cousins. They would grapple over toys and debate football championships; I would be called to negotiate. I discovered how to remain a voice of reason in the midst of conflict, and this trait follows me in other aspects of my life.
Once the arguments turned and the boys taunted the ribbons in my hair or how slowly I raced, I learned to fight back. I remained composed and reasonable, but I also defended myself.
In the midst of calamity, I prioritize remaining a force of peace, but I understand the importance of standing up for what I believe in. I remember this skill anytime chaos ensues. Whether that involves arguing parents, conflicts with my school’s student government, or senators who disagree on the bills I advocate for, I refuse to back down for causes I care about.
When the boys fall asleep, I listen to the old men’s stories. My grandfather’s friend always reflected on the turmoil of the war he fought in. He urged me to find peace in society and stand with the oppressed and voiceless. I vow to do everything I can.
Nearing closer to our destination, they encourage me to tell them stories. I am too young to have experienced much, so I construct the wildest fantasies imaginable, relaying tales about princesses and fairies. In Dad’s Toyota, I cultivate a passion for storytelling. There, my creativity runs wild, and I learn to speak without fear of judgement for the first time.
Eventually, my stories follow an alternate path. I contemplate a future as a politician, attorney, journalist, world-traveler, or advocate.
My fellow passengers knew the turmoil of strenuous manual labor and poverty. They came from backgrounds like my own in rural towns laced in hopelessness, but they inspired me to be relentless in my quest to shatter the confines of seclusion. They were not the academic leaders of society, but their wisdom, cultivated from stubborn Southern roots, is enough to teach me everything.
As we reach Hot Coffee, I am always disheartened. The community of passengers in our 1983 Toyota raised me into who I am. Our road trips inspired the qualities I wield today: resilience, resistance, and hope. While I love arriving at our destination, I will always cherish those Mississippi miles. The lessons learned will follow me for thousands of miles to go.
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