Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Strange But Familiar

I headed out on unfamiliar roads. A change is as good as a rest, some say. So this should make for a nice adventure.

But let me back up a little first. 

I'm a little removed from my usual stomping grounds here. My father moved to a retirement community in Durham a few months ago, and the only riding I have done here so far is to and from his old home in Sanford. Not needing to ride to Sanford on this day, I decided to look for some new roads in a different direction. I looked around on various online bike route mapping sites trying to find a good route. I wanted something relatively rural and quiet and rolling, maybe about 60 miles.

A few years back, as my parents' health declined and I started making more frequent trips to North Carolina, I bought an inexpensive fixie to keep at their house. It's been great to have a bike I can just hop on and go for a quick spin, without having to deal with packing and flying it there. I love that the whole hipster, single-speed fascination has made bikes like these more readily available and inexpensive. I've had a great time slipping out for rides around Sanford when I have been down and have mapped out a few regular routes in that area.

But now that my father has moved to Durham, I have a whole new region to explore. Despite having been born nearby and growing up only 50 miles away, I shamefully have never explored this area on a bike. I looked around briefly for a club to ride with, but it can be hard mixing fixie dynamics with geared riders. And I also wasn't sure what time I might be able to head out and how much time I might really have, so a solo ride was in the cards on this day.

I found a 60 mile ride, with rolling terrain, that started not too far from my father's new place. As it turned out, I paid much more attention to the route profile than the actual map. I saw that it went north, but didn't zoom in to look at details, just that the elevation never varied by more than 200 feet, and nothing looked steep. I figured I should be okay with my 72 inch fixed gear.

When I headed out, it wasn't Boston-cold, but was still a bit chillier than I had packed for on this trip. I did at least have arm and leg warmers, light gloves and a vest with me. So I bundled up as best I could. While I never took anything off during the ride, it wasn't as cold as I had feared and my clothing choice was perfect. I managed to warm up nicely on the first few hills, and the sunshine worked some magic too. I was surprised to spot a few folks out in shorts. What do these people wear when it gets hot?

BTW, my GPS is my best-friend. I call her Gigi, a name I stole from friends, who named their unit "Gravel Garmin," for its tendency to route them down gravel roads. Gigi is my constant companion on bike rides, especially in unfamiliar places. Thanks to Gigi and ridewithgps.com, and the kindness of strangers who post their rides there, along with the ability to pick out some good roads on a map myself, I am able to explore new places on small quiet roads. I admit that I don't just take any routes off the site. I do look around for hints that the route is one I'll like (very few number roads, more small than large roads, etc). The route I found had actually been uploaded by a few different people. It turned out it had been an organized ride last fall, put on for the benefit of Habitat for Humanity in Durham. So that gave me even more confidence that it would be a nice route.

I'd not been out for a few days, and it felt so good to have wind in my face, and sunshine on my back. I rolled out of town and onto some lovely quiet back roads. As I mentioned, I hadn't ridden a bike around this area before, but as a child, I had been a passenger traveling to my grandparents' homes, north of Durham, many, many times. As I rode along, I recognized a few road names, either as those that crossed the highway we took to Grandma's house, or as some shortcut my dad would take, or an aunt or uncle's street address.  So while riding on these roads was mostly new for me, in someways it was vaguely familiar.

As I kept recognizing road names, I began to wonder why I hadn't looked closer at where I would be riding that day. Then I spotted Rougemont Road on a street sign and began to think I might actually end up in very familiar territory, since both sets of grandparents had lived in Rougemont. But it has been almost 30 years since I'd been at either place. The homes had been sold long ago, as grandparents and aunts and uncles passed away over time. I really had not been back to the area as an adult, so the scale, if you will, was all wrong! I had also noticed this when I first started going back to Sanford a few years ago. Hills that seemed steep as a child, really weren't. Places that seemed a million miles away as a youngster ... well they were actually just a few miles away.
I'm not the sentimental type, but I did find myself a little whimsical as I started to recognize not just street names, but actual places from my childhood, and then there it was: Grandma's house. I'd heard from a cousin that there was a fire a few months ago. The windows were now boarded up, and it was obviously vacant, but the house was still standing and from the road it looked the same, well, except that Papa's car wasn't out front and neither were the rocking chairs on the porch or cousins and uncles sitting or standing on that big covered front porch. And there weren't a bunch of feral cats at the back door waiting for Grandma to toss out some scraps from the big Sunday dinner. And there wasn't the smell of homemade biscuits baking away. But for a brief moment, I was there, back in the pantry, helping mix the batter and roll out the dough, and Grandma was letting me make my own biscuit man. I could almost smell and taste her fried chicken and okra and corn and butterbeans. I rolled along another mile and spied Nanny and Granddaddy's house. As a kid the distance from one to the other seemed much longer. And I remember when I'd spend my two weeks up there every summer, that I was absolutely not allowed to walk down that busy road from one to the other. And there was a monster steep hill up to Granddaddy's place. But now the road wasn't busy and there wasn't much of a hill. The distances were shorter, the houses were smaller. It was all really still the same, but the perspective was so different, from a little girl to a grown woman.

I've returned to other places from earlier days and barely recognized them. When I bought my first house years ago, it was on a dirt road. When I tried to find it recently, that dirt road had been transformed into a major highway, and it was not recognizable. But this area was almost exactly the same. Sure a few newer houses could be found here and there, but it really hadn't changed much from my childhood days. Well except for the family being gone and the scale - everything was just smaller and closer together.

I continued riding, now hungry for Grandma's home cooking, but having to make do with whatever I had in my pockets. There were no cafes or diners to be found out here. Again I passed through more familiar places, past the home of an aunt who was long gone and another home that had belonged to a cousin.

Suddenly I was surprised by the sight of a couple of very big ostriches, behind a tall wire fence. Those weren't Grandma's chickens! Dorothy and Toto were clearly not in Kansas anymore.

Then I spotted a tattered rebel flag flying on a pole in front of an old country store, a flag that once may have represented southern pride, and now may or may not have been intended to offend, but surely today sends a signal to a large part of the local population that you are just not welcome here. But I reminded myself that bigotry exists everywhere, not just here. And that southern hospitality is real and genuine. Boston can be a cold place. People stand inches apart on a crowded bus and never speak to each other. But everywhere I go around here, I am met with warm friendly greetings. Complete strangers strike up conversation in the line at the grocery. It is strange, but familiar.

I continued along these lovely quiet roads. Although there was no spectacular scenery. In fact, it was a bit drab, and brown. Most folks seem to have summer grass, the kind that is pretty and green in the summer, but very brown in the winter. With no snow on the ground, even on a bright sunny day, it just seems a bit drab. But at the same time, there were pansies blooming and I even spied some daffodils despite it being January. Dashes of color in the midst of the drabness. Daffodils in the Boston area, to me mean that the days are stretching out longer, and rides are too, but that it can still snow at anytime and don't get your hopes up. It's not summer after-all! Daffodils are bittersweet for me!

There was very little traffic and what I did see was polite. When I've been driving, I have observed that folks seem to drive really fast around here. New England back roads are twisty and tree-lined and the limited visibility almost acts as a natural speed deterrent. But here many of the small roads are pretty straight and wide, and the trees aren't right up next to the road, and people just drive much faster than the posted speeds. I've noticed this far more when I'm driving though, where I get tailgaters if I obey the speed limit. But I didn't get the same feeling on the bike! Odd that.

Soon I found myself back at the start, having passed a few familiar shops. There are so many chain stores these days, that one can be plopped down into any American city and not be able to tell it apart from any other American city, with a few subtle outliers, again to make it strange, but familiar.

Finally, I am happy to report that the route for the Habitat for Humanity Halloween ride was indeed quite nice. If in the area next fall, I'll have to try the organized event.


Sorry for such a long dry spell with the blog. I've been in NC a lot recently, and other things have just taken priority. There are more posts backing up in the queue though and hopefully I can return to the regular more frequent posting schedule. 


  1. Great post, Pamela.

    You say you're not sentimental, but this post would fool me on that front.


  2. I could totally picture my own grandparents' home and taste Grandma's chicken and biscuits. Nothing can compare. Thank you for that trip back, but 100's of miles away!

  3. GiGi wasn't stolen, it was coined for all those like minded to use, free of charge, but not free of dirt!

    Great post, I think it reflects the experiences all of us have when we ride areas once traveled as children.