Note: Photos were not taken by me. I found them on Google Image.
There are many dangers in driving, but one no one ever talks about is the danger of the long, boring drive. If anything can put you to sleep, it’s the never-changing, flat as a board, monotonous landscape of Eastern North Carolina along US Route 40. It’s dangerous because the utter lack of any features of interest can make you fall asleep.
I enjoy driving. It relaxes me. Sometimes I just get tired of sitting around the house. I’m regularly afflicted with attacks of wanderlust. Sometimes I drive places — sometimes far away — not as a means to an end, but for the sheer joy of just driving. Sometimes I drive to faraway places just to be able to say I drove there, without having a plan once I get there.
I’ve lived in western North Carolina for 23 years but I have never driven across to the east coast and on a whim, I decided to do just that yesterday morning. Never mind that the drive there and back totals almost 700 miles. That’s farther than driving to my son’s place in Florida! Never mind that the weather forecast yesterday called for afternoon thunderstorms and it was a sweltering 90 degrees out at 9 AM. Never mind the fact that I had no plan and there would be no time to enjoy the beach even if that was my goal since, because I can’t see well at night, I’d have to turn right back around when I got there and head back. No, I just wanted to get out of the house and go somewhere I’d never been before. I’ve never driven clear across my state and decided it was time to check that off my bucket list.
I didn’t expect it to be the most exciting drive ever — remember, I do these drives to relax — but I wasn’t prepared for just how mind numbingly dull the ride would actually be. If you’ve ever driven across South Carolina (which I have), it’s like that, only without the palmetto trees and about four times as long (or at least it seems that way). Also, along I-26 (the route I take to drive through that state), South Carolina’s dull, flat terrain at least is peppered with interesting sights like ramshackle fireworks stands along the roadsides that are open all year long, ancient and abandoned I-houses sitting all alone in fields of tall weeds, sad trailer parks, and Confederate flags waving gaily in the hot breeze.
You also can’t get too bored in South Carolina because I-26 is scary as hell. Everyone seems to speed on it — the so-called slow pace of the South does not apply on South Carolina highways — and by speeding I mean roaring along at 100 mph when the speed limit is only 65. The lanes are too narrow and semis and 18-wheelers are all around you, sometimes with only two inches to spare on the passenger side. It’s common to be completely boxed in by semi-trucks, with a deep ditch on your left as your only escape should one of the truckers decide to switch into your lane suddenly without signaling (another thing drivers seem to do a lot of there). If you’re in one of the urban centers of Columbia, Greenville or Spartanburg when that happens, all you can do is pray since there isn’t even a ditch in some places, but a concrete wall.
And there are lots of cops there too. Cops who allow the speeders to keep on going if they have South Carolina tags, but will pull you over for doing 70 if they see you’re from out of state. They consider people from North Carolina to be Yankees and apparently hate us. I know, because I got pulled over in that state twice. And I’m not speeding type. In fact, I’m much more the hesitant type that other drivers get mad at for going below the speed limit. Both times I told the officer I was just trying to keep up with traffic (I was still going slower than almost everyone else), but he wasn’t buying it and still ticketed me. The first time it happened I had to drive all the way to Travelers Rest to appear in court (this was in the ’90s). The other time I was allowed to pay by mail.
So my point is, in South Carolina, you can’t nod off from boredom while driving. Nervous, angry, hyper-alert, or downright terrified, but I guarantee you won’t fall asleep at the wheel.
There’s none of that nail-gnawing, white-knuckling, tooth-grinding business along I-40 in North Carolina, at least not east of Raleigh. Sure, of course, for those not used the the mountains of the western end of the state, the many hairpin curves and steep grades there can cause a lot of gnashing of teeth, cursing, and white-knuckled steering-wheel gripping. And I do understand about those annoying and sudden telescoping lane changes and merges in the urban areas and during rush hour that can jangle anyone’s nerves, but on a weekend it’s not so bad. My GPS tells me when these lane changes are coming up, so it’s not really a nuisance or an issue for me. And once you finally navigate the hundred-plus mile stretch of asphalted urban sprawl with its bloated 6-to-8-lane interstates and all its feeder highways and roads that stretch from Statesville just east of the mountains and the Triad of Winston-Salem/High Point/Greensboro in the Peidmont all the way to the Tri-Cities of Chapel Hill (a charming college town), Raleigh and Durham (still part of the Peidmont), you can rest fairly easy that losing your life on the road is pretty remote (unless you nod off).
Once you pass the massive urban sprawl in the center of the state, which is pretty boring itself (not to mention ugly), you emerge into the Atlantic Coastal Plain, an area that sounds like it could be peaceful and pretty, and to be fair, it is that. But its prettiness is marred by its devastating sameness. A long stretch of flat two-lane highway flanked on both sides by endless short pine trees, all of the same size and width, interspersed only occasionally by the odd water tower and farmland as flat as a table, not even broken up by tacky billboards or other jarring sights, can send you into a hypnotic trance. The various towns are well-hidden along this stretch of I-40, so you don’t even see any tall signs advertising gas stations or fast food places. It goes on like this for at least a hundred miles, before the landscape changes to a somewhat more coastal-looking one, with even scrubbier, shorter trees and grasslands — but oddly, no visible water.
Granted, the landscape of eastern North Carolina isn’t as jaw droppingly ugly as the New Jersey Turnpike or as delightfully tacky as US-Route 19 that runs roughly parallel to the west coast of the Florida Gulf, but at least those things add some interest to the landscape in a kitschy, schadenfreude-ish, thank-God-I-don’t-live here sort of way. The landscape along I-40 east of the Blue Ridge and the vast urban metropolis that marks the state’s central region lacks any memorable features at all, and all that sameness gives way only to the sad, stunted trees and swampy grasslands of the coastal plain.
As I drew within 35 miles of the coast, I still didn’t see any evidence of the ocean other than sandy-looking soil along the side of the road and sometimes blowing onto it. I kept driving, looking for telltale inlets, rivers, or boats, or something indicating the presence of the nearby Atlantic, but nope, nothing. The stunted trees and sandy soil just got more stunted and sandier, and the land remained as dry as the Sahara. I kept driving. 25 miles, 20 miles, 15 miles from the coast, but still no water. Yet I knew I was near the ocean because I began to see fishing tackle places and beach shops here and there. Here, the lack of trees failed to hide any commercialism lurking behind the exits, and it was hot. Hellishly hot.
I drove into a gas station and got out of the car to stretch my stiff legs, get a drink and a candy bar, use the bathroom, and fill my tank, and I felt like I was inside a pizza oven. Where was the sea breeze? There wasn’t any. The heat was oppressive, sweltering, almost painful. My brain wasn’t working correctly. My thoughts limped along like 90-year old men. I finished my business and got back in the car, immediately blasting the air conditioning. I noticed the sky was beginning to cloud up pretty badly and I remembered the forecast about thunderstorms. I don’t like driving in thunderstorms, and it was also getting pretty late, so I decided right then and there to turn around and head back home — all 350 miles of long, boring drive. I groaned at the thought of that but what other choice did I have?
The ride home was slightly more interesting. I got to watch the development of two storms ahead and to the south of me. I watched the towering cumulonimbus clouds spread out and turn grey-black. Lightning flashed in the near-distance. I would have taken pictures except for the fact I was driving. Fortunately, neither storm hit directly, and the drive back was marred only by a a little rain, not a downpour or a hailstorm. The storms also cooled things off, and I was finally able to turn off the air and open the windows to let in some fresh air.
I finally passed the storms, and saw nothing but blue sky and the golden light of the late afternoon sun ahead of me. In my rearview mirror, I saw the most gorgeous rainbow I’ve ever seen. I wanted to pull over and get a picture of that too, but unfortunately such a thing wasn’t possible in the middle of the interstate. But I felt like my drive had been worth it, even though I’d never actually made it to the coast. I took the rainbow behind me and the coppery rain-drenched sunshine ahead of me as validations that my decision to drive hundreds of miles to nowhere in particular for no particular reason had been the correct one. Besides, people who have driven across the Great Plains tell me that’s even more boring — and there you get tornadoes too.