Hit the Highway

An ode to the road

By Susan S. Kelly

It’s a universal truth of summer in North Carolina, when the beach and the mountains become our magnetic poles, that sooner or later you’re going to be traveling on Interstate 40. Or “Forty,” as its fans and its haters call it.

I’m a fan.

You can have your backroads. How can a pastoral scene compare with the racetrack of 423.6 miles that (somewhat) horizontally slices the state? Every mile is pure entertainment. Sure, the “Bridge Ices Before Road” signs get boring, but the stuff people are hauling more than compensates. Where else but on I-40 in North Carolina can you find Christmas trees and golf carts and watermelons and boats? Plus, skis, surfboards, bicycles, kayaks, coolers, tobacco, cotton, horses, coonhound cages, Airstreams, and the requisite pickup or two hauling a chest, a mattress, a La-Z-Boy, and a fake tree, tarp a’ flappin’. It must be admitted that when I pass one of those silver-slatted semis, I strain to see if there are hogs inside, just before I avert my eyes and try not to think about their ultimate destination. Same for the vanilla-colored school bus whose sides read “Department of Prisons.” Don’t tell me you haven’t tried to peer into those windows crisscrossed with wire. I grew up with a father who always pointed out the guy with the rifle on his shoulder while inmates worked on the roadsides. Don’t see that much anymore, or those silvery mud flaps sporting silhouettes of naked ladies. Now the rigs are hot pink, for breast cancer. Progress.

I’m not the slightest bit offended if a rig driver honks at me as I pass. If someone still finds my 63-year-old knees attractive, I ain’t complaining.

How does a town get a name like Icard?

I particularly like those lead drivers with flashing head and taillights that warn of “Wide Load.” What a cool job. Like Dorothy Parker, who famously said that she’d never been rich, but thought she’d “be darling at it,” so would I in one of those cars. Think of the books-on-tape you could finish.

The amazing variety of stuff dangling from rearview mirrors — sunglasses, leis, air fresheners, Mardi Gras beads — all give a glimpse into a driver’s personality, like bumper stickers. (Question: How did so many Steelers fans wind up in North Carolina?) And while Virginia holds an unofficial record for vanity tags, I-40 is no slouch in that department, either. PRAZGOD. KNEEDEEP. IAMAJEDI. JETANGEL. Hair seems to be an ongoing tag topic: HAIRLOOM. NOHAIR. And this: SPDGTKT. Seriously, why not just call the cops instead of advertising?

I do not understand convertibles on interstates.

Do not fret yourself over aliens and vampires: If I-40 traffic is any indication, white pickup trucks are far more likely to take over the world.

You can’t fail to notice, while the Athena cantaloupes you bought at the state farmers market are growing more and more fragrant in the backseat, that, let’s face it, the flowers and trees planted in medians around Raleigh are way more attractive than anywhere else in the state. Harrumph. Near Fayetteville, D.C. license tags get more numerous, just as around Asheville, the Tennessee tags multiply, and around Benson, the New Yorks and Floridas proliferate.

Granted, I’d swap a few Bojangles and Cracker Barrel signs for South of the Border and Pedro puns on I-95, but that Mobile Chapel — a permanent trailer in the parking lot of a truck stop near Burlington — never fails to intrigue. As does Tucker Lake, a Johnston County curiosity with a fake beach and so kitted out with rope swings, slides, ski jumps, cables and random docks that you can scarcely see the water. Moreover, a stretch of I-40 around Greensboro has its own ghoulish nickname — “Death Valley” — for its unfortunate statistic of wrecks. And how about those cell towers disguised as pine trees? Come on. The “trees” are so spindly that they look like they belong, well, somewhere near the actual Death Valley.

So much to see from mountains to coast. What you won’t see, though, is the sign where I-40 begins, in Wilmington, that reads “Barstow, California 2,554 miles.” It was stolen so often that the DOT got tired of replacing it. Meanwhile, if you happen to have a list of locations for the elusive Dairy Queens along I-40, please text me. Calories don’t count when you’re a friend of Forty.  OH

Susan Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and proud grandmother.

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