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My first foray into the North Carolina I was born to was in the late Fall of my sophomore year in High School. Adolescence is a time made for rebellion, and since my whole existence had been a middle class suburban one, that was what I rebelled against. My taste for the backroads of my home began when my friend Drew and I stopped to examine a giant glossy black and white print on the wall of our school newspaper class.
“Just look at them,” Drew exclaimed. “Just look at them for a bit.” I did look, studying the subjects of the picture with rapt attention. It was a depression era piece, taken of the front of a country store. Inside the doorframe leaned a white man, grinning at five seated black men. One is visibly laughing, one smoking, one drinking, and two sitting silently on the right, taking in the scene. It’s the type of picture that provides a temporary illusion that race relations might have had glimmers of hope back then, before reality roughly drops you off at the conclusion that the store owner is probably not as egalitarian as he appears. But for a bit…
The picture was taken by Dorothea Lange, a photographer who permanently shaped our view of the Depression with her portrait of a poor mother. This picture was richer in detail and life, if less iconic. Titled Country Store on a Dirt Road, it is a lesson in storytelling through a lens. When we found it lay within our grasp, only 45 minutes north of my house, we smiled widely.
We rolled into Gordonton North Carolina quieter than any automobile had rolled into it before, most likely because we were the only non-pick-up truck or eighteen wheeler for miles around. We made up the entirety of visible life forms, due partially to the fact that Gordonton is not a town but an intersection. Wheelers Church meets an untimely demise, crossing Burlington Road and becoming Gordonton Road, and giving this handful of buildings a name.
The store stood so bashfully on the side of the road we almost missed it. But we would not be denied, and we found the slumbering beauty standing in the same spot she did decades ago. Although her age was visible, sagging porch and boarded windows did not inhibit her charm. On the front wall there were still two signs rusting their lives away. One was for Cherry Coke, the other was for Dental Snuff. The smell of tobacco and diesel mixed into some sort of geographical aphrodisiac, and the sky had never seemed more Tar Heel blue.
And it was beneath the Dental Snuff and bygone store I think I finally appreciated North Carolina. The plastic uniformity of a suburb could never give you what Yi-Fu Tuan called topophilia, love of place. A place by definition cannot be another place, the way suburbs are. Only in places like this, beneath a drooping porch and limitless sky, does the beauty of what Kerouac captured sink in. Freedom is not a lofty ideal, enshrined in marble monuments. Freedom is what you find driving around.