riving back from Asheville on one of those robin’s-egg-blue-sky spring days and not quite ready to go home, I called an old friend in Asheboro, who told me to detour down to her house.
She had a convertible, a little white VW Cabriolet — they don’t make those anymore — and when I got there, she’d already folded the top down and was waiting for me to hop in.
Angela and I have been doing this for more than 30 years, since high school. “Riding the back roads,” we called it back then — going nowhere in particular, just going, piling into friends’ Mustangs, Firebirds, Trans-Ams, Camaros.
I got in the car, and we set off on our old route, heading down Highway 42 — does anybody actually say “highway?” No. Roads here are 42, 220, 64, Old 49 — past the mall and the old Jones Skating Rink, where we hung out years ago, before we finally got real wheels, and as we drove, the town fell away and the landscape widened, old wooden fences leaning along the side of the road, mailboxes set in gravel by long driveways, long-abandoned tobacco barns — seems they don’t make those anymore, either — caving in at the sides, cows grazing in pastures, no stoplights to interrupt our ride. For the next few hours, she and I just meandered, drifting along on those curving country roads, our conversation familiar and easy, too, after all these years, the way it is with a friend who knows you well.
We rode out by the zoo — my first job was at the zoo, 30 years ago; of all things, I drove a tram — and eventually, we hit 705, the Pottery Highway, to Seagrove. I love this route — it was designated a North Carolina Scenic Byway in the spring of 1990, one of the first of 51 roads in the state to be recognized for its rural beauty and cultural significance. As we passed by the colorfully painted wooden signs nailed to trees for Cagle Road Pottery, McCanless, Old Hard Times, Angela and I fell silent, the radio turned off, lulled by the sun on our shoulders and the pleasure of driving these bucolic roads.
For so long, this part of Randolph County was, for me, the hub from which everything radiated. I learned to drive on these roads, gripping the steering wheel when the drivers’ ed teacher, who was also the girls’ basketball coach, would open the passenger door to spit out his tobacco juice; I burned up these roads driving back and forth to friends’ houses in Farmer and Back Creek; I eased my car down many dirt roads in pursuit of some weekend field party or bonfire, entertainment in another era, before Netflix kept us all home on Saturday nights.
We looped around to 220, past Pinewood Country Club, where I rode with my grandparents to the pool every summer, and past Henry James Bar-B-Que, where I’d stop for dinner after night classes at Randolph Community College, never dreaming that one day I’d be lucky enough to travel all over this state, logging miles in every town in North Carolina. I’m grateful for all those journeys, but on days like this, in a car with an old friend, I’m happy to retrace familiar paths from home, the well-traveled ones that I carry with me wherever I go.
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