US 301 in Sylvania, Georgia
On US 301 in Sylvania, Georgia

“There are places I remember…”

If you’re of a certain age, like I am, you can sing the rest of that lyric from the Beatles and you’ll know the melancholy I’m feeling today. We’re on the first leg of a multi-week trip and since we’re road tripping this part, I suggested to John we steer a course through some fond childhood memories of my road trips as a kid.

Every year, like clockwork, Mom & Dad would pack us in the car and head down the East Coast to Florida. In the early years, it was just me and them and US 301 most of the way. As our family grew, so did the interstate system and Dad switched to I-95 as pieces of it opened up.

I wanted to see what US 301 was still like. We’d gotten off course yesterday while visiting with friends, so I found us a backroads diagonal through much of Georgia. It was on state roads through working farms and tiny communities and was one of the prettiest trips through Georgia we’d ever taken.

Then we got to US 301 north of Claxton and headed north. I knew from a prior trip we’d see quite a few of the old businesses closed. In the 60s and much of the 70s, I-95 didn’t exist yet. Everyone took US 301. So there were lots of motels, restaurants, and old style gas stations all along the highway.

Downtown Statesboro
Downtown Statesboro

Not so much, anymore. We drove through the heart of Statesboro, still a nice historic college town, and through Sylvania, which has a pretty downtown decorated for Halloween.

As we continued north, we could see segments of old US 301 paralleling us to the east on narrow bridge sections over the floodplains. It was surprising to see that the old highway had been converted into a trail on the north shore of the Savannah River.

Old US 301 bridge over the Savannah River
Old US 301 bridge over the Savannah River

I was looking forward to seeing Allendale, SC again. This small town held nearly a decade’s worth of fond memories for me. We’d stop at the Howard Johnsons to stay on our family road trips. Us kids loved the rooms because they had a divider we could crawl under, plus a nice playground and pool and shuffleboard. Clam rolls and ice cream at the restaurant, too!

Mom and Dad became friends over the years with Mr. & Mrs. Walters, the on-site managers. Eventually, the motel closed and turned into a senior living facility. But we still stopped to visit with the Walters when we came through Allendale.

My last trip through with the family was in 1977. I drove through again in the 1990s, and things were essentially the same. But today, they weren’t. Our first clue was a blank spot where a building once stood at the south end of town. I looked for the old motor courts I remembered. They were there, all right – abandoned to the elements, roofs caved in. No “For Sale” signs. Just wreckage and ruin.

Allendale gas station in ruins
Allendale gas station in ruins

My heart sunk as we passed collapsed building after ruin. I finally spotted the distinctive Howard Johnson’s restaurant roof up ahead. It still stood. But the motel was gone. Thankfully, it was a blank spot. I think I’d have broken into tears if it, too, was a ruin. A college bought the grounds and made the old restaurant their student union. The rest was just a grassy lawn.

Old Howard Johnson's in Allendale
Old Howard Johnson’s in Allendale

How could so much change in 40 years? I knew that I-95 stole the steady stream of travelers away from US 301, but not a single city to the south of here looks so thoroughly devastated.

Allendale Howard Johnsons was leveled
Where the motel once stood

If I had ever in my dreams imagined a post-apocalypse South – which I haven’t – it would be the Allendale I saw today. Business after business, homes, gas stations, all shuttered and crumbling. Only the brand new Family Dollar gleamed, and the downtown intersection with US 278 still had its historic core. Even heading north, motels I remembered as a child were in ruins. All the way through Ulmer, to the north end of Allendale County.

How could so much change since the 1990s? I-95 redirected traffic well before then. My only guess is globalization. Textile mills were a major industry in rural South Carolina. When U.S. laws changed, allowing our corporations to move all the factories overseas, those moves had a massive toll on small town America.

Allendale ruined motel
A motel we once stayed at along US 301

Whichever the reason, the friendly, welcoming Allendale of my childhood is no more. As we continued north on U.S. 301 past more ruined buildings I remembered, I looked at John.

“We’re finding another route north.”