Late at night, the empty highways of central North Carolina achieve an oceanic placidity. Padded by vast swaths of pine forests and illuminated by the diffuse glow of light pollution from the sprawl, a kind of privacy, a stillness descends on the landscape. A strip mall parking lot, a pharmaceutical campus in the woods, the lights of the big stores glowing after the employees have gone home for the night, squares of illuminated blues, pinks, yellows, like a Mondrian painting. The road is empty, punctuated only by the occasional headlights of another car, the driver turning to stare as they glide past, both of you alone in the pines. A thick matte of kudzu engulfs the power lines. Civilization and nature come together like an old married couple, slowly approximating each other’s natures.
North Carolina has long been wedged between competing spheres of influence, almost like a Eurasian country in the way it is trapped between the South and the North, trying to plod some middle path. In keeping, the North Carolinians of my generation exhibit a certain bipolarity, an ambivalence and discontent, somehow always geographically and culturally in-between, always seeking and never satisfied. Of course, some stuck around, had kids and bought houses. And some moved away and never came back. But the vast majority of people I have known have boomeranged back and forth, moving away to Baltimore, DC, to New York to Portland then coming back to Raleigh, returning, always returning exhausted to catch their breath, to recover their finances, to reconnect with some aspect of themselves that they felt was neglected in other places.
I think of my old friend Doug back in Raleigh saying, “Every time you come back home to visit I realize how badly I need to get out of here.” I think of Katherine, moving back to Durham from Asheville to attend grad school saying, “It’s so different here now.” I think of my old friend Little Bear, moving back into the split-level house to take care of her dad, making chain mail jewelry on the faded carpet of her childhood bedroom, and riding her bike with the little blinking red light alone down those empty streets at night. Even those who you thought had experienced some degree of success and made a new life elsewhere sometimes surprise you. Like my old friend Walt, who after a couple of beers one night on some yellow bulb-lit front porch said, one day maybe, in that nebulous future when all is settled, then he would move back. I think of the lyrics to his haunting accordion song: I drove up in May…all the roads were clear…and my eyes seem so aware…The buildings they change, like they always change, but only enough to make me feel not quite at home.