The trip to Richard's parents-in-law is a holiday event in and of itself.
Wilmington NC – [Click the LISTEN button to hear Richard's commentary.]
It takes about five hours to drive northwest across the state to my wife?s hometown ? depending upon how many transfer trucks, cotton bailers, chicken haulers and older country folk driving home from church we get stuck behind. But we?re in no hurry ? we always forego the monotonous speed of I-40 for the infinitely more interesting holiday moments along the back roads. Heading west on 74/76, we soon curve off on Route 87 toward Reigelwood.
Some of the mileposts are moments of small pleasure. The first one comes on 87 near Carvers. On the left side of the road, the five older model tractors a farmer has lined up along his property as a sort of agricultural decoration throughout the year are now outlined in white lights. That moment?s a quiet sigh. Next, of course, is the requisite stop at Houston?s Peanuts in Dublin for a can of spicy Cajun, some peanut brittle and maybe a few bags of the roasted and salted in the shell.
Cutting west onto Route 20, we soon are greeted by the beautiful small towns of St. Paul?s and Raeford. Gone recently from the main streets of these town are the Western Autos, still clinging are the family apparel stores intermixed with bodegas and tiendas. The holiday decorations on the lamp poles are the same simple and well-worn plastic candy canes and green wreaths that so remind me of the small town in western Pennsylvania where I was raised. In between St. Paul?s and Raeford is the cotton mill cross-roads of Dundarrach ? and we then say in our deepest brogue, Dundarrachhhh. Along this section, when you squint through the car window under a bright moon, the cotton fields look like Pennsylvania snow, which always begins falling the week before Thanksgiving.
It?s usually along this part of the trip where the shriek and ahhh moments occur. Long miles of fields, and run-down trailer rows and simple farmhouses suddenly punctuated by the family who takes the whole season very earnestly and exuberantly to heart. You see the glow as you approach and then my wife shrieks and I ahhh at the explosive sight of what must be ten thousand bulbs lighting the night sky. Christmas becomes festooned in bright lights, gaudy decorations and the always interesting ? and I wonder if uniquely American ? intermixing on rooftops and in front yards of glowing plastic secular and religious figures. Frosty and Santa side-by-side with the angels, all surrounding the Christ child in the Nativity scene. All tucked between the ?87 Camaro that no longer runs, the above-ground pool and the satellite dish receiver.
In Aberdeen, as Route 211 becomes Route 5, there is a small coffeehouse that for years we?ve driven by and thought about stopping there, only to find it closed. It?s always been closed, until last year when we happened to hit it around noon and so we stopped and had some homemade soup. It?s called The Potter?s Caf? and it?s a Christian kind of joint and the woman behind the counter wished us a blessed Christmas, and then we moved on. After Pinehurst and Southern Pines, on Route 220, are my favorite two exit signs in the state, each announcing two different towns ? the first is ?Star/Robbins,? the next ?Ether/Steeds.?
I have now made the journey to my wife?s home enough times in our marriage to recognize the markers and signposts along the way well enough to take the turns almost by rote. Moving through the countryside warm and cozy in the Jeep, listening to our favorite music, we rush quickly and silently past the many households along the way about whom we maintain a curious, passing familiarity -- the inhabitants of which we know we will never meet.
Sometimes, a once-favorite house is dark, with no decorations at all and we wonder what might have happened this past year to make that so. But it?s the holidays and if things are right the country folk and towns people of North Carolina are with friends and family. Through Lexington and Mocksville on 64 we finally arrive at our destination ? greeting us is the single flashing yellow light, a large plastic Santa and, across the square, a Nativity scene. We?ve reached the little town of Harmony, just north of Statesville and southwest of Winston-Salem.