I’ve driven through rain many times before, but nothing quite like this. It’s the second to last day of March, almost April, the time of year when the weather in North Carolina can either be cool or warm, swinging back and forth without holding as one or the other. The dueling positions of the seasons, the winter that was and the spring that wants to be, today has provoked a heavy rainstorm.
Already, it’s been a difficult month. My dad, who taught me how to catch a fish and drive a car and hit a baseball and pick a crab and spot a pretty girl, lost all of those memories and many more during a weeklong hailstorm of strokes that started early in the month. He’d been bad off many times before, but nothing quite like this.
I need a good drive. U.S. Highway 64 to the east has always been my favorite haul. It’s flat and orderly, a road for thinking and going straight toward something. So I decide to take my truck and head that way, to take the straight road to its end. As I cross Interstate 95 near Rocky Mount, I pass a sign for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, 148 miles ahead. I go on, toward the water, with water falling all around me.
The radio says the storm’s center is a little ways ahead, traveling east, too, along the same path.
I’ve never been an adventurer. I’ve never taken to the idea that the journey is more important than the destination. Maybe that’s why I’ve always enjoyed the coast more than the mountains, and maybe that’s why I’ve always loved driving east instead of west, right instead of left, toward sunrise instead of sunset. As 64 winds into the mountains, the road becomes a place for people who don’t mind blindly passing over hills and around turns without knowing what’s on the other side. I’d rather see clearly, know the terrain, and have a sure sight line to where I’m going. The ocean is that destination for 64, the place where water takes over and we can’t go any farther, the place where we can put the rest of the country at our back and pause. The road is really a means to an end.
But in the rain, Highway 64 is a chore. Water pools on the flat road and the flat land, forcing me to slow down, forcing me to focus on sights that are closer in view, one puddle at a time.
My truck is a blue Ford F-150 with two seats and two crank windows and two manual locks and two-wheel drive. Everything, it seems, comes in twos — symmetrical — except the driver’s seat. There’s only one of those. When I bought it in 2006, it was the first new vehicle I’d ever purchased. It had 47 miles on it. It now has about 70,000.
We’ve gone places together, most of them within the boundaries of North Carolina. The truck waited for me outside of Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Dean Dome when I was a sportswriter; it got an underbelly inspection when I drove onto Fort Bragg to cover the president’s pass and review of his 82nd Airborne; it hauled all of my belongings when I moved into my home in Winston-Salem; it has gone to cities from Cherokee to Wilmington. When we were on the ferry to Ocracoke Island last year, I took a picture of it. A truck on water! We have that kind of bond.
Just before heading east, I bought four new tires for the truck, with well-defined treads designed to whisk away water and make the ride smoother in any weather. So, although I’m in the rain, I have support — from the truck that carries me, on the tires that carry the truck, on the road that carries the tires, on land that carries it all.
Dad also has an F-150. His is gray and has about 200,000 miles on it. For years, it carried him to his boat, the Nevitt, back when he was a modest charter-boat captain and fisherman. That was his retirement hobby, something that kept his mind working after years plugging away at government jobs, which came after years plugging away as an electrician and carpenter, which came after years plugging away in a tire shop putting new treads on old tires.
Dad had a remarkable brain for fixing things, one I always admired. But strokes hit the brain hard, stealing valuable pieces of it. He had his first stroke three years ago, a mild one. Then another in November of last year. And then another in early March of this year. And then, during surgery to clean a blocked artery, three more. It seemed they would never stop. There was one point when he closed his eyes, and doctors wondered if it was another one, and they pulled us in the hall and prepared us for the worst. For one night in early March, we thought we were at the end.
Eventually, though, the attacks stopped, and he opened his eyes. My dad, who turns 67 years old on July 20 — “the same day we landed on the moon,” he always told me — was left without most of his memory and without use of his right arm.
On the drive, the rain picks up around Williamston, closer to the end, about where 64 becomes a true eastern road. Fields open up like plains. The only things that prohibit vision to the horizon are trees, lined neatly, providing square corners for the fields. The trees make the land seem orderly, giving it borders.
Anything that rises from these fields is noticeable. Around Williamston, a lone barn is crumbling; it seems to be falling back into the earth. Around Columbia, billboards rise from the ground — signs for Nags Head Hammocks, Owens’ Restaurant, Beach Mortgage, Outer Banks Rental, Comfort Inn. And in Roper, on the right, a lone tree remains planted in the soil, with acres upon acres of flat fields surrounding it.
The tree is striking and memorable, in its lonely position. So later, I look up the farmer who farms the land around the tree, Buck Spruill. I call, and his wife, Marlo, answers. She’s not sure why the tree is left standing, alone, but she did say it’s been a bad season for them, too. Last year, they grew cotton in that field. But this year, by the end of March, they still didn’t know what they’d grow. It had been too wet and too cold to determine which crop to plant.
Marlo is a friendly woman, a former English major herself, so she engages with me in my attempts to find poetry in her land. She’s a native of Perquimans County, the land of potato fields on the northern banks of the Albemarle Sound. After she graduated from North Carolina State University, she left Raleigh and later spent several years in Mount Gilead, in the Uwharrie Mountains, before deciding she needed to move back east. “I love my water,” she says.
She and her husband now live in a home on the southern banks of the Albemarle Sound, near 64 and a few miles from the land they farm. They inherited the property for their house from Buck’s father, who bought the land many years ago, back when the waterfront was considered poor man’s property. He passed it down to them. Every day, Marlo can stand at her back window and see water for miles. She rarely has the time to notice. It’s been a tough season, after all. But when we start talking about the simple beauty of everything in the east — the flat lands, the clear view, the answers on a horizon — she takes the phone to her back window and looks out. Her voice gears down.
“Sometimes,” she says, “it takes other people to remind us how fortunate we are.”
I’m glad she reminded me.
Perhaps my favorite and most lasting image I’ll always keep in my head of my dad is one of him up on the bridge of his boat, sitting in his captain’s chair, driving out into the water. His feet dangled from the seat, and I’d watch from below as he steered us into deeper waters.
My brother and I often worked as his first mate, and we learned how to make pretty good tips by pretending we knew the lay of the water for the people who came on board. We mostly made it up. We rarely knew the names of the places we were going or the points we were passing. But Dad did, and that’s all that mattered.
After we moved into a new home when I was a teenager, Dad built a back deck within a week, a shed within a month, and a front porch within a year. All by himself, with little help from us boys.
He had his first stroke three years ago, but it barely seemed to change him. The first time I noticed any difference was about a year ago, when he was showing me how to put a floodlight on the back of my house. He grabbed the hot wire, got a little shock, and said, “Damn!” I laughed at him, and he said, “OK, it just takes me a little longer these days.”
At about 5 p.m., the radio tells me that the center of the storm is right over the Croatan Sound, which is, coincidentally, right where I am.
The Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge, which crosses the Croatan, is the longest bridge in North Carolina, 5.2 miles long. It’s the second major point driving east on 64 where the land can no longer carry the road. The first is at the Alligator River Bridge, a drawbridge that pulls the road from Tyrrell County into Dare County. I remember some years ago being stopped on the bridge while the drawbridge opened for boats to pass under. I remember thinking it strange to stop on such a straight and smooth road. I also remember looking down and thinking the Alligator River is an angry little river, shallow and choppy.
Farther up the road, closer to the end, the Croatan Sound is wider and friendlier in appearance, even if its size is intimidating. It’s also the point of the greatest anticipation on a trip to the beach. After crossing the Virginia Dare, 64 makes a quick stop on the lily pad of Roanoke Island, and then it hops right over the Roanoke Sound and onto the Outer Banks. Once you’ve hit the Virginia Dare, I’ve always believed, you’re there in spirit; the rest is autopilot.
Not today. The rain pours in sheets. Seagulls, opening their wings to the wind, whip around the truck. At the point where the bridge rises, water pours down the slope, giving the impression that we’re driving up a waterfall, me and the truck. The entire trip, I’ve wondered if the rain would ever end. I’ve cursed it, wishing I’d chosen a different day to drive, wishing I’d chosen a day when I could see, wishing for better weather.
But going up the waterfall on concrete, with everything else happening, it occurs to me this is the perfect day to drive the road. The rain has overwhelmed me, from the first mile. And now, there’s water all around. It’s pouring from up above, and it’s chopping down below. And 64 holds me up.
If there’s one thing I inherited from my dad, it’s his ability to remember things.
Long before he drove 200,000 miles in the gray F-150, he had another truck, a Chevrolet. This was about when I was 4. He sometimes put me in his lap and let me steer on our dirt road. One Halloween evening, I jerked the wheel toward the woods, and we actually ran off the road before he corrected me. I remember him coming home and telling my mom about it, laughing. And I remember, still, standing in a Superman cape with my brother beside me in a sewn pumpkin outfit, waiting for them to drive us to the nearest neighborhood to collect candy, while my mom got on my dad for letting me drive. He just laughed and told her not to worry. She couldn’t help it; he couldn’t, either. Moms are like that; dads are, too.
I remember, also, riding in the truck on that dirt road one day and asking, “Dad, when are you going to die?” And I remember him, matching my childishly flippant tone, saying, “Well, ain’t gonna be long, partner.” And I looked ahead and said, “Hmm,” and moved on to another subject.
That was nearly 30 years ago. Dad may never remember those conversations again. But he’s trying.
He spent three weeks in the hospital in March and then went into a rehabilitation center, where they began working on his memory and arm. He started to relearn things, started to find some pieces of his past again. He went back home a month after the strokes, and he’s still learning something new every day. The first time I knew there was real progress was a few days before my drive east on 64, when my brother sent me a picture of him and my dad. In the photo, they both held up fists with their right hands.
Leaving Roanoke Island, closer to the end, I roll through the rain, over the Washington Baum Bridge, closer to the end, approaching the marshlands near Whalebone Junction, closer to the end, where U.S. 64 turns into the Virginia Dare Trail, named for the first English child born in the United States, way back at the start of this country, a country I’m about to have all but behind me, once I get to the end.
As Americans, we are all situated in the West. The country is here because Europeans sailed west and didn’t fall off. And when they got here, they continued to move farther west. The hardiest of souls built our roads and our railroads over and through the mountains. We made movies about them, these frontiersmen with their horses and wagons and children. They’re heroes, free-spirited explorers and settlers. They went out West.
As people, we are all a product of a home. For me, and for people like the Spruills, and for all of those on U.S. Highway 64 East, home has a lot of water in it. No matter how far west we may go, we always seem to stay close to the places back east.
When I started the drive in the rain, I thought I was going solely to reach a destination — forget the journey — to the ocean, at the end of U.S. Highway 64. The road has a western end point, in Arizona. From there to here, 64 is held up by land in dry desert, land in open plains, land in close-quartered cities, land in rugged mountains, and land that isn’t even land but water.
As I reach Nags Head, the rain turns into a drizzle. I’ve pulled ahead of the storm. I know the rest is on its way at some point. But it ain’t here yet.
Sometime around 6 p.m., I reach the eastern terminus of U.S. Highway 64, only to find that the road doesn’t end. It splits into two different highways, N.C. Highway 12 and U.S. Highway 158. We can go north or south from here, but we can’t go east anymore. And so, the great horizontal road, the trusted belt that holds our state together, doesn’t actually stop. It just becomes something else.
So I veer left at the fork and drive up.
Michael Graff is the associate editor of Our State magazine.
East or West: Where do you stand?
These stories appeared as part of the feature exploring eastern and western North Carolina:
The Town: Murphy
The Town: Manteo
The Grape: Yadkin Valley
The Grape: Duplin Winery
The Catch: Brook Trout
The Catch: Shrimp
The Legend: Eustace Conway
The Legend: Fort Fisher Hermit
The Road: U.S. Highway 64 West
The Road: U.S. Highway 64 East
The Farm: Apple Brandy Beef
The Farm: Grassroots Pork Co.
The BBQ: N.C. Barbecue Company