The Folklore Project
By Meredith McCarroll
There are stretches of road that feel like home. Spots of road you understand bodily. You lean into the curves; your car knows what gear to be in. Some of those roads for me are beautiful and curvy and lead to swimming holes in Cruso, North Carolina, and others cut through live oaks and open out to the sound on Topsail Island.
A stretch of road that won’t get photographed or written up for tourists is a certain bit of I-40, between Asheville and Raleigh. But that stretch always feels like home to me.
Childhood summers for me were days in the woods, building dams in the creek, afternoons at the pool, late dinners on the deck. But summer was also riding in the back seat of our station wagon singing along to the Tams, Quiet Riot, or the Jackson 5, depending on which family member got to pick the music. Long drives to the coast from our home in the mountains. Trees streaming by, changing from maples to pines as we headed east and the hot pavement tricked our eyes. I’d stare out the window, asking how much longer, but knowing from the mile markers and the town names when I’d start to smell the ocean if we were heading east, and when we could roll down the windows if we were heading west. There’s one stretch of 40 that I know so well I can still tell you which truck-stop restaurant makes biscuits from scratch, and which exits have diesel.
In some ways, I came of age on I-40. I gazed out the window of a church bus returning from Fort Caswell, replaying my first kiss in my head, looping for eight hours. I memorized the words to “Fool in the Rain” driving back to college with my best friend. I stopped somewhere near Sedalia to (illegally) pick daisies, which I wore in my hair to junior prom. I got a speeding ticket near Old Fort, which I fully deserved. I rolled down the windows and blasted the heat and the music as my brother and I drove around Maggie Valley. Many of my quiet moments of transition, in fact, took place on a nondescript road that has come to feel like home to me.
And there was the time I fell a little bit in love on a Greyhound bus headed east on 40.
In 1992, I was 16 and drove a 1976 Volvo. That Volvo was perfect for a drive around my small town of Waynesville, and could make the occasional trip to Asheville, but it had no business making a trip to Raleigh to go to the Lollapalooza tour on the day before I started 11th grade. But then, neither did I.
I did not have permission to go. Yet, when my friend asked me if I wanted to go, he knew how to read the grin that must have spread across my face. He ordered the tickets. (This was pre-internet; they came in the mail). When they arrived, I paid him in a summer’s worth of babysitting money, and we spread out what money was left on the table at the ice cream shop that doubled as the bus depot. We pooled our loose bills and found that we had just enough money for two one-way bus tickets.
Perhaps there was a conversation about our options. Perhaps we were torn about the difficulty of our dilemma. I don’t remember that part. What I remember is exhilaration as we bought two one-way tickets to Raleigh. I remember my alibi, and I remember my outfit. I have flashes of the concert. The mosh pit. The mud. Pearl Jam. Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Looking back, though, I mostly remember the drive east on 40. Jonathan and I sat, Discman in lap, sharing headphones. Knees propped up on the seat in front of us. Packages of crackers shoved in the pockets of my cut-off fatigues.
We were on the verge of something that day as we made our way up and down 40, but I don’t think either of us understood quite what it was. In another few years, we’d both head off to college and lose touch for years. Maybe we sensed that. I think we somehow knew, on that bus ride east and later as we caught a ride home headed west toward the mountains, we would always remember this stupid and risky thing we’d done together. We arrived back at my 1976 Volvo in the very early morning. We were caked in mud, our ears were ringing, and there was so much to say that we knew to say nothing.
Arriving at Tuscola High School in those dirty fatigues, my blood-red Doc Martens, and a concert tee, I felt changed. I had taken a Greyhound Bus down I-40 to Raleigh, with no return ticket. With a boy. Some part of me had grown up.
I lived most of my life in or near North Carolina. In early college, I would ride in the front seat of a pickup truck back and forth on that stretch of road as a homesick and lovesick freshman at NC State. The back of the truck was full of other homesick mountain kids, tucked into their sleeping bags, heading east as late as we could manage to leave on Sunday night. It was on those drives that I learned, as a passenger, all the good country stations between Asheville and Raleigh. It was on those drives that I learned to count the exits on the road that got me back home.
Late in college, after I’d transferred back to the mountains to Appalachian State, I met a boy from the Piedmont. One thing led to another, and eventually, I found myself driving down the mountain from Boone toward his hometown to meet his parents. I nervously pulled off exit 141, where I stopped to check my hair and brush my teeth in a gas-station bathroom. Driving home at the end of that weekend, I listened to the mix-tape he’d made me, and fell more in love with each song and each mile. A few years later, that boy and I took I-40 all the way out to California, and then all the way back. I still remember getting closer to that North Carolina stretch of 40 that we both knew so well.
Together, we travelled that stretch between our hometowns as the years passed, our families joined, and our lives intertwined. We hopped on 40 to visit our friends as they settled after college (exits 152 and 206), to spend holidays together with either set of parents (exits 27 and 141), to find a wedding venue (exit 53).
A few years later, we buckled our newborn in and drove more carefully, with lots of signaling, and a few stops for nursing and diaper changing, proud to introduce our son to his family up and down I-40. It’s become family lore that my husband and nursing infant stopped for lunch at Hooters at exit 125, where the nursing infant found himself the center of very confusing attention. And it was on this stretch of 40 that we drove our second son to meet those same folks, with a proud big brother looking on and checking in.
These boys of ours have come to love road trips. We live in Maine now, a long way from that stretch of 40. But they know when we get to the land of sweet tea, which exits have Bojangles (exits 24, 37, 119B, etc.) and where the best Biscuitville is (exit 141).
As our family has grown and our jobs have changed, our routes home are new. Always, though, the stretch between our hometowns, between our parents, between Asheville and Burlington feels like home.
My dad tells a story about getting leave from the Navy on Christmas Eve, and hitching home to Waynesville. He slept most of the drive, and woke as the truck crested Black Mountain at sunrise. His eyes filled with tears, and he felt home in a way that he never had before.
I know that spot he means, and it gets me, too. Suddenly, you’re in the mountains, and the air feels different, and even though you’re on an interstate, the beauty can almost knock you over.
It wasn’t until my mom drove me to college down that same stretch of 40 that I pulled out my list entitled “Things I’ll Tell You When You Are Older and More Mature,” which consisted of (nearly) everything I had done that she didn’t know. The one-way Greyhound to Lollapalooza topped the list. By the time we made our way through Statesville, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and High Point, I had mostly finished my list. And by the time we found our way to Friendly Drive, Mom figured that if I had survived all of that, a semester in a dorm with an RA would be no problem.
One day, I’ll tell my boys about that adventure. I’m sure I’ll turn it into a warning, but they’ll hear the delight in my voice. One day, we won’t have the same reasons to drive between Asheville and Burlington. That stretch of dull interstate will always be a place of coming of age for me, though, and I’ll always remember the feeling of upholstery against my knees, my leg against Jonathan’s, and my uncertainty and hope pulling me down I-40 — against my better senses.