Friday, March 30, 2012

The Carolina Way

I always thought I'd end up somewhere else.
As a kid, I developed a relatively keen sense of wanderlust, despite--or maybe because of--the fact that we hardly ever went anywhere. My dad's pharmacy business kept us pretty close to home most of the time, but the few trips we did make filled me with a sense of excitement and wonder that never left me. Eventually, I went away to college, but just to Iowa, which meant I could catch a train or hitchhike home whenever the spirit or a pressing need for my mom's meatloaf moved me. After we were married, we lived in Michigan for a couple of years. But my parents' failing health drew us back to my hometown where, despite off-and-on plans and dreams to the contrary, we stayed, raised children and enjoyed the good, true benefits of small-town living.
And it has been good. Very good, with friends we love, a home we enjoy and careers we found interesting and fulfilling.
But I never stopped thinking what it might be like to live somewhere else.
We're now in the second year of a bi-coastal living experiment that finds us splitting time between our Galva home and a slightly-shabby shoreline house on North Carolina's Topsail Island.
It, too, has been very good, with an opportunity to be a part of our youngest grandsons' lives, while enjoying an extended stay at our always-ultimate destination--the beach.
And while we've surely made ourselves at home, certain differences do crop up now and then.
I call it the Carolina Way.
It manifests itself in a number of ways, including how folks talk (I've never been called "sir" so many times in my life) and eat (a lot of the really good stuff is a crisp, uniform, deep-fried brown.)
But most noticeable to even the most casual observer has gotta be the way folks travel around here.
Unlike, say, Chicago, where the prevalent driving habits often seem reckless or overly aggressive to us country mice, the style around might best be described as, uh, casual.
Even pedestrians get into the act.
Imagine you're heading over to, say, Aunt Bea's house. It's a beautiful spring afternoon, so, rather than driving, you take off on foot or via your trusty bicycle down the quiet country road that leads from your house to hers.
Now, transfer that same activity to the dark of night on an extra-busy 4-lane highway.
Because that's what a surprising number of people do, blithely walking or pedaling their way along the edge of a major thoroughfare in pitch-dark conditions, without even the benefit of a bike headlight, a flashlight or reflective clothing.
We've started calling it "the nighttime tightrope of death." And it's taught us to keep our eyes open when traveling after dark.
Part of it is, I think, thanks to a topography that includes an abundance of rivers, creeks, sounds, marshes, heavy woods, a huge, fenced-off military base and that pesky old Atlantic Ocean. it's not always easy to get from point "A" to point "B." Or at least not as easy as in Central Illinois, where there's always a shortcut country road ahead for a guy with a good map and a slight sense of adventure.
There just aren't as many roads, or at least ones that actually go somewhere, so walkers and bikers sometimes find themselves where they really shouldn't be, and traffic can get a little dicy, especially with a risky little maneuver we call "the Carolina cut-off."
She: Why are you slowing down?
Me: There's a car at that corner up ahead.
She: Yeah, but he's got a stop sign, He's not gonna...AAAAHHHHH (sound of roaring engines and squealing brakes.)
Apparently, many Carolina drivers subscribe to the theory that you might as well go while the going's good, whether it really is or not.
Getting there is also somewhat complicated by the fact that the guys installing highway distance signs either don't talk to each other or don't really care all that much.
Me: Did that sign say "Jacksonville 27 Miles?"
She: Sure did.
Me: But it said Jacksonville was 23 miles away back at that last intersection!
She: Hmmm. I hope this blip in the time-space continuum doesn't make us late for the kids' soccer games.
Those dueling distance signs are a disorienting phenomenon we've seen all over Eastern Carolina. Could be it's their way of telling us that we really oughta to know where we're going and how long it's going to take, anyway.
That is, after all, The Carolina Way.

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