Never in my house was it, “Let’s go for a ride.” Always — and impromptu, although ever-anticipated on those steamy, buggy late-summer nights or languorous Sunday afternoons of my youth — my father said, when he was ready to ramble about town and through countryside, “Let’s go to ride.”
It did not occur to me then to question his choice of preposition. I wasn’t studying linguistics in elementary school. How he happened to martial his troops was immaterial, for I’d been waiting all day — sometimes all weekend — to hear those strange but familiar words, to climb in that car with my parents and some or all of my siblings, and go for an aimless cruise.
I say aimless, but there was a pattern, faint and ever-shifting as it might have been. We’d head from our house two miles from the center of Clinton, up the Faircloth Freeway, the new stretch of four lane named for a local boy turned state senator, and hang a right on N.C. Highway 24 toward Fayetteville. A mile or so in, past what we called, for reasons I could only assume had to do with a preponderance of Johnsons, Johnsontown, we’d veer off into the back entrance of the Coharie Country Club. Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, sandy, cockleburred lots thick with pine trees that covered the soil year-round with pine straw were being snapped up by people who could afford to live on the seventh hole of the only golf course in the county. Roads — mostly cul-de-sacs — cropped up in a matter of weeks, flags marking property lines, cement mixers poised to lay the foundation of a French Provincial or Charleston Low Country-style cottage tucked up along a fairway. The country club, essentially a loop, was an easy cruise, and an obligatory one. The main road skirted the greens and fairways, the putting green and pro shop, then dumped us back out on 24.
Across the street from the country club was a newer development, named Fox Lake after the residents it displaced, although there were fox sightings as late as the mid-’70s. The road circled the man-made lake, and my father and mother studied the housing starts or already-completed brick ranchers and told stories about who lived there, where they had lived previously, how many children they had, what line of work they were in, sometimes what church they belonged to.
New neighborhoods were infinitely more explorable than the older and more familiar sections hugging the courthouse square, for they suggested growth in a town where the population — about 7,000 — had remained the same for some time. Progress and prosperity were important to my father, the editor of the local newspaper, and my mother, dean of students of the local community college. Even though they weren’t natives, they had an investment in the community, for they were the types to invest in the community.
But going to ride was not work; it was leisure. That was the point — to get out of the house, to open the car windows wide in those pre-air-conditioned days and whip up a summer breeze, to wander. Rides were also entertainment, fodder for stories. My father could not pass a house without doling out an anecdote about its inhabitants. My mother knew as much as he did about who lived where and did what, but she was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, so she was a little tighter with the reins of what her father might have deemed idle chatter. That so many of our rides took place on Sunday afternoon suggested to me, much later, that going to ride was a secular extension of the morning of worship. If true religion requires a vigilant attentiveness to the world around you, its changes and its failings, going to ride was a journey through examples — of the beauty of nature, of the occasional sign of greed, of the duty emphasized by more enlightened churches to the community.
We witnessed poverty, too, on those rides. My father took us through the backstreets — unpaved and potholed — of what was then called, by the white population, without the slightest awareness or shame, Colored Town. The divide between Main Street, with its regal Victorians and antebellum oaks, and the side streets off McKoy or Sampson streets — shotguns and unpainted mill shacks, weedy lots and abandoned vehicles — was obvious and instructive. So maybe those rides weren’t only leisure, or entertainment. Our parents taught by example, and they did not try to hide us from the world’s ills. They were not the type — and still aren’t — to lecture. They were the type to question the world around them and their children’s place in that world. Not having an answer to their question was not likely to draw a rebuke, for they realize that for most of society’s ills, there are no easy answers and the answers that come to you are often ephemeral. But the questions they plant are finally more powerful than any answer, for questions, unlike answers, are niggling — they remain within you, nagging, begging you to reconsider, to adapt, to accept and enact change.
But back then, I just knew that we were getting in a station wagon and going To Ride. Sometimes on summer nights, the city truck we called the Mosquito Man cruised the streets spraying a thick plume of DDT. We had the sense to roll up the windows, more because of the smell than the fact that we were breathing poison (although no one knew that then, as attested by the way that the Mosquito Man’s vehicle often looked like the fire truck in a downtown parade, a string of cars following along as if in celebration of homecoming or holiday). Sometimes you even saw neighborhood kids tailing the truck, as Rodney Crowell describes in his song “Telephone Road”: “Mosquito Trucks spraying DDT/Barefoot heathens running wild and free.”
After we exhausted the town roads, we broke into the country. There wasn’t exactly a transition, for most roads out of town were overtaken immediately after the last house or country store by tobacco, corn, or produce fields. Country drives were slightly less interesting to me as a child; there seemed less to look at, for I had not yet cottoned to the barren beauty of field and pine forest that is eastern North Carolina. In time, however, they would come to fascinate and placate me. At some point in high school, my friend Sam and I took long drives, mostly through the southern end of the county. I’ve written in this magazine before of how Sampson County changes as you drive north to south down U.S. Highway 421 and of how it seems to contain at least two ecosystems. On my rides with Sam, I discovered the dilatory and slightly gothic Black River, fishing shacks tucked up along its banks. We’d drive to Ivanhoe and Harrell’s Store and Kerr Station on a rainy Sunday, and the muddy, stubbled cornfields and the line of pines ringing them, softened in the distance by steady drizzle, brought on a melancholy I mistook for profundity. It was then, and is now in memory, akin to some foreign explorer seeing for the first time the beauty of a region at first glance not particularly comely. Those rides with Sam, who passed away some years ago, taught me to see the place I grew up in, to understand its culture, to marvel at the old farmhouses wrestled to the ground by kudzu, the tobacco barns constructed of logs chinked with concrete idle now that farmers cure their crops in metal boxes.
But these being high school days, most of our rides stayed within the city limits. How many times have I heard, talking to others about their experience growing up in small North Carolina towns, that, “There wasn’t anything to do but ride around?” We got our driver’s licenses and joined the circuit of “cruisers” making their loops around town. These days, small towns are relished by those escaping suburbs or exurbs who complain about being too often stuck on freeways or spending hours planning routes designed to avoid getting stuck on freeways. Small towns feel idyllic because you can get away from car culture — you can walk to the grocery store, the farmers market, the drugstore, the diner. We could easily have walked to Butler’s drugstore for a cherry Coke, or to the Colonial or A&P or the Piggly Wiggly. But we spent nearly all our time in cars. I remember watching some television, and I remember listening to a lot of records, but what I mostly remember from my adolescence is the inordinate amount of time I spent “riding around.” If half your life is spent asleep, for rural North Carolinians of a certain age, the other half is spent in perpetual orbit designed by your particular clique. In Clinton, in the mid-1970s, a certain type of teen — girls with elaborate, shag haircuts; boys with blown-dry, unnaturally kempt hair, flowered, silk shirts, and platform shoes — halted their circling to hang out in the parking lot of Hardee’s. Another crowd broke their loop at McDonald’s. My crowd hung out, believe it or not, in the parking lot of a Laundromat called The Glam-O-Rama. This was around the time that David Bowie and T. Rex popularized the glitzy, theatrical brand of music called Glam Rock, but The Glam-O-Rama had nothing to do with glitz. It was open late, and drew tired-looking women who moved as if they had worked double shifts, their cars sunken with laundry and so many small kids that half of them had to have been cousins. We liked it because there were two pinball machines, and the management left us alone and most of our high school had too much respect to break their orbit in a sad Laundromat, thus allowing us a kind of refuge from which to judge those we called the Hardee Boys, who listened only to Boz Scaggs and drove Monte Carlos and Grand Prixs instead of the station wagons and pickups we borrowed from our parents.
Talk to any small town North Carolinian, however, and you get his own version of cruising. So many revolve around fast-food joints or their predecessors — where I live, in Greensboro, I have heard many a tale of the late, great Ham’s restaurant being the focal point of cruising. And even though there are far more diversions for the contemporary teen, I can still, on weekend nights, drive down High Point Road and spot among the thick traffic carloads of teenagers going exactly nowhere, for the sheer fun of it.
There is a photo, somewhere, of my mother and father on a back road of Chatham County. My father is standing on a rise above the car — which looks to be a station wagon from the early ’50s — taking a photo both of the landscape and of my mother, who, still seated in the passenger’s seat, is turned toward him with one of the most beatific smiles I’ve ever seen, on her face or anyone else’s. I can’t glance at that photo without tasting kicked-up dust — a briny flavor peculiar to the red clay of the Piedmont — and smell the metal of that part of station wagons we christened the Very Back, which oddly enough was coveted among the five of us, perhaps because you could see the world after it passed through the vision of those up front, allowing you time to savor the sky, like a pot of Brunswick stew that tastes better as a leftover.
I asked my father about that photo the other day, trying to determine where it was taken and why he was there. “I couldn’t tell you where, but I could take you there,” he said, which told me all I needed to know about the place: that he and my mother discovered it one afternoon while going to ride, and that the look on my mother’s face reflects the pleasure experienced when you find something beautiful made all the more mysterious by the fact that you weren’t looking for it.
Michael Parker is the author of two collections of short stories and five novels, including the recently published The Watery Part of the World, set on the Outer Banks. He is currently writing a sixth novel, Five Thousand Dollar Car. His articles have appeared in The New York Times and Oxford American. Michael teaches in the MFA creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His most recent story for Our State was “Southern Canopy” (August 2011).