The challenge this time was the wind. Sometimes the wind blows sideways, and you slide across your lane with a worry that you'll slide off the road. But today's wind was more head-on, pushing my chest back, causing me to hold tight to the handlebars just to stay on the bike. I had a vision of myself holding on tight with my hands, my feet flying behind me, semi-Superman style. This of course would never work in real life, but I did enjoy the image.
Large trucks would come from the opposite direction, and the wind, already a challenge, would become a wall of air, with surprising cohesion, and smack me in the head and chest. Turns out the worst offender, the sensation of which I can still feel when I think if it, was a sweet potato truck. Who would have imagined a sweet potato truck could pack such a wallop? But it rounded the curve ahead of us, in a particularly open area, with no trees or buildings to create wind breaks, and its square load and large cab created a particularly vicious air pattern that hit like a medicine ball. I had seen it coming and gripped the handle bars with both hands (not a given on a long ride) and was grateful to find myself still in my seat a second later.
But these challenges just made the ride interesting, if not exhausting. We were riding down 55 again, a path that is now wonderfully familiar, as it's one we take often. The Pope & Pope law firm, the Cowboy Limo, and the various churches, cemeteries and collapsed barns now have a rhythm as we slide past. This trip saw the addition of "Pray for Baby Layla" signs peppering a long stretch of road, placed quite purposefully in people's yards and in one church. I can only imagine Baby Layla's need, but I am humbled by it and hope there is recovery for her and relief and peace for her family.
Perhaps because of her signs, I became aware of the various communities along the way, and how they are bound together. The churches are an obvious gathering place, but I also started to notice more subtle things--a hand-lettered sign announcing a neighbor's unexpected bumper crop of vegetables to be shared, the pink ribbon and "it's a girl!" sign decorating the mail box, the fresh flowers on the graves in the tiny cemetery tucked between tobacco fields.
This was the first time I had passed tobacco fields that were already harvested. The tall center stalks remain, and the wide, iconic leaves had been stripped off. We passed acres of land with row after row of bald stalks sticking up like soldiers. Soldiers for cancer, I suppose, but when I see the plants, I don't think of that. They are a crop like any other at that stage.
We also passed fields and fields of cotton. I love cotton plants always, but this time of year they are magical. They don't yet have that post-apocalyptic burned look they get at the very end of the season, but they are not lush either. Their lower halves are full with fluffy white bolls, the top halves still leafy and dark. Riding past vast fields created a rippling effect of the white puffs shimmering into view beneath a blanket of green-brown leaves.
I also found myself face-to-face with one of the nation's tough commercial battles as we passed field after field marked with GMO designation numbers and the Monsanto buildings that are essentially small outposts compared to the enormous and unearthly-lit buildings closer to home in RTP. Here the esoteric debates have life and essence in the form of completely normal-looking bean crops, with nothing but a round sign to differentiate them from every other bean field I have ever seen.
We rode through Mt. Olive, which announced itself as the largest town in the County of Wayne, which is hilarious to me, since Wayne County also includes Goldsboro, which is a fairly large city in North Carolina. But you go for it, Mt. Olive. Claim your title! Mt. Olive is also home to a large pickle company you may have heard of, sparking a recent conversation about buying locally. If Mt. Olive pickles are produced in large quantities, packaged for national sale and distributed widely, are they still local pickles? North Carolina is home to many nationally known treasures and the source of a sense of state --what? Pride isn't quite the right word... But whatever the feeling, my home state has brought you many lovable things, from Michael Jordan to the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mt. Olive pickles to Burt's Bees and This End Up furniture. We SUCK at public policy but we make great entrepreneurs and amazing artists. (Seriously, the list of North Carolina musicians, artists and authors is truly impressive.)
We rode through Seven Springs, which is also in Wayne County. Seven Springs, by contrast, has a population of 85. A population of 85. If you were at my wedding, you spent an afternoon with half again as many people as live in Seven Springs. Now THAT is a small town. Seven Springs, though, is home to Billy Bobs, the hotdog place I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, which was the setting for one of our many fascinating forays into a few minutes of Carolina life.
We rode on through the small towns lining Hwy 55, and turned on 58 toward the coast. We watched the trees grow taller on the side of the road, creating a green tunnel. Soon enough we saw the metal telephone polls that signal proximity to the hurricane-ridden coast. I wondered idly, as one does on a bike, how much longer we would call them telephone polls, since I doubt many of them carry phone lines any more.
Our friends would be joining us much later and they had the keys to the home where we would be staying, so we popped in on other friends--VERY good friends who were not home but told us where the keys were, and we went in for naps and a bathroom break. Then we got out the shrimping nets and went down to the dock, with visions of cooking fresh shrimp as a thank you to the friends we were meeting. Bill diligently shrimped, tossing the net into the water again and again. Each time he pulled out one or two fat, sassy shrimp, and visions of a delicious meal danced in his mind. I had gone down to the edge of the dock and filled a bucket with water, and he dropped the shrimp in one by one. I stretched out to feel the sun on my face and was greeted by the sound of an insistent and bossy sea gull demanding to be fed. When Bill accidentally caught little fish in the net, he tossed them to the bossy bird, who skedaddled to where they each landed and ate. After the first few, though, he became a lazy and bossy bird, screeching and chattering, sometimes tilting his head skyward, invoking God's sweet mercy to please have these humans send him fish directly to his mouth. Directly. To. His mouth.
Eventually we headed out to the restaurant where we would meet our friends, and then discovered the house where we would be staying. For the first time ever, I could imagine living at the beach. In a cute little bungalow just like this one!