Almost 200 miles east of my home in Durham is a section of North Carolina few people drive to. My grandparents live there. It is a low-lying place made livable by canals, some dug well over a century ago. Red wolves have been introduced into a federal wildlife refuge nearby, and several of the roads are called landings because they stop at the water. Going fishing in the summer with my granddad, a retired Army sergeant and full-time handyman, was how I got to know this end of the world.
At 9 years old, a drive on a dirt road in my granddad’s car was enough of a scenery change that I had a hard time paying attention to the view past the roadside ditches. Three or four packs of Beechnut chewing tobacco floated beside my un-seatbelted lap. The radio would be off. I could eventually strain my eyes to look for black bears smudged along the blurry ends of expansive soybean, corn and potato fields as we turned past my great-grandma’s abandoned homeplace on our way to buy chocolate candy at a gas station turned community store. We dug worms in my Great-uncle John’s yard. Near his front stoop, I would feed pinches of balled-up white bread to an alligator snapping turtle he kept in an old bathtub full of rainwater. This place was a weird reward after waiting inside with my grandmother all day. No cable television and her fear of snakes sometimes made it a long wait.
Leaving John’s, we would climb back onto the Cheerwine-colored vinyl seats of the Skylark and drive past a pumping station and three churches. The roads make right angles with each other because so much of the land is flat, open and farmed. You can see my grandparents’ home from far away, beyond an aqua-marine-colored Victorian farmhouse that my granddad painted. The canals we fished in held perch; we called them “sunfish.” My granddad would unhook each catch without making me feel ashamed that I did not want to do it. Pesticide runoff kept us from eating them.
Last fall, we drove down to my grandparents’ place to pay a visit and show off our 5-month-old baby girl. Highway 64 East from Raleigh to Columbia is a lot faster than it used to be, but as my wife and I packed our minivan and I plugged in the DVD player for my 2½-year-old, I kind of wished that my grandfather was with us for the long ride, spitting Beechnut juice into an empty 2-liter Pepsi bottle, priming us for the destination, and telling of when he had to suck venom from a water moccasin bite out of my Uncle Buzzy’s arm.
It is not convenient to get to that part of Tyrrell County, but it’s always worth it. When my son and daughter are a little older, I will unplug the AV setup on the back of the headrests and tell them why.