Outside the southwest city limits of Asheboro, N.C. Highway 49 — a connector between Raleigh and Charlotte — splits. Veer off to the right, past the old Yates Country Ham building and the Asheboro Animal Hospital, and you’re traveling on Old N.C. Highway 49.
It’s a nice drive. Old 49 is still a quiet, country road with plain-built houses and pine trees, and open fields spotted with baled hay and horses. About a mile into the drive, you see the gentle rise of the Uwharries. I grew up on this road, in a house on a hill.
After I got my driver’s license, I burned up this road and all its offshoots. I drove it back and forth to school, high school first, then later, when I went west to Appalachian State University. On weekend nights, I shuttled my friends from Farmer and Denton and Jackson Creek, all of us piling into my car to go to town and drive some more.
Back then, everyone in the country went to the city to cruise Fayetteville Street. “Town,” as we called Asheboro proper, was a good 20-minute drive from wherever you happened to be on Old Highway 49.
When we got to town, we followed the cruising etiquette established decades before we got to this road: Start out on the south end and fall into the line of traffic, a teenage-led procession of Camaros and Mustangs and pickup trucks. Drive north, past Hardee’s, past the bowling alley on the hill, past Sir Pizza, past McDonald’s, to the shopping center anchored by Roses’, then loop around in the parking lot and start all over. The point of cruising was to keep moving.
At the end of an evening cruising, I took my friends home, back down Old 49 toward Farmer and Denton and Jackson Creek. I had this road all to myself again.
I loved driving Old 49 at night. The periphery disappeared into the darkness. You didn’t see the trees anymore, or the power lines, or the fields or the houses. You saw only the road, a black asphalt river stretching in front of the car no farther than headlights and the stars overhead allowed. The shortened sight distance made driving intimate; it connected you to the road in a way that driving in the daytime can’t, where there are other distractions, other things to pull your attention away from what is laid out right in front of you.
It’s funny how you get to know something so well that you know every detail about it. I’ve driven Old 49 so often in my life, I could navigate it blindfolded. I know its smooth, straight stretches and its ruts and how much to ease off the gas around its sharpest turns. I know where to watch for deer that could come bounding out of the darkness.
One day, I know I won’t drive this road anymore.
My friends all live elsewhere now, and when the day comes and my parents are gone, there’ll be no reason for me to come back.
There’s talk of a major highway coming through a hundred yards from my parents’ house, bisecting Old 49 at the top of the hill. That’ll surely change the road I know. We have more than 100,000 miles of public roads in North Carolina, with more constructed each year. It’s a good thing, I suppose. It keeps us moving. There are places I remember that don’t exist anymore, places that have been completely rerouted. U.S. Highway 220 South going to Asheboro has expanded. There’s a lake under the bridge at Randleman. So many of the old roads I knew are different now.
At night in the dark, though, they still look the same, black asphalt rivers that stretch endlessly into a distance that you can’t see.