Three Miles of Bad Road
Photo: Valerie MacEwan
No matter that the coast is a mosquito-infested swampland and the region a well-worn corridor for house-destroying hurricanes, newly-created communities along this strip of eastern North Carolina attract wealthy retirees from the northern states. They come with their large sailboats, Lincoln Towncars, and an insatiable desire for golf. But when they emerge from their gated communities they rub elbows, so to speak, with the people who have lived here for generations; many accustomed to working 12 hours a day for minimum wage and no benefits.
A tobacco barn, built before the Depression and covered with political signs hawking candidates from the 1980s, leans precariously toward the highway at the turn-off to Dinah's Landing Road. The three mile stretch of road is barely visible from the highway. It's just a narrow slice cut through tobacco and corn fields. Most of the people traveling over NC Hwy 264E to Cape Hatteras will drive right by and never see the turn-off. Few will feel the urge to turn down this North Carolina farm road. It ends abruptly at a small public access boat landing which gives the road its name, Dinah's Landing Road. This is where the locals launch small, pretty sunfish sailboats and modest fishermans' jon boats. Three miles of unpaved incongruous lifestyles; where agriculture concerns co-exist in fragile harmony with upper middle-class urbanites that are hell bent to retire amid Loblolly pine and cypress on the banks of the tan colored water of the Pamlico River.
Most of this area is swampland covered with peat bogs. The air is filled with mosquitoes and no-see-ums, the insidious little gnats that circle your head and fly into your mouth when you open it to speak. Once occupied by the Tuscarora, the natives were pushed out by the English and Scotch-Irish, who either fished and crabbed the Pamlico Sound or farmed the acreage alongside it. Deeded acreage on either side of this road can be traced back to the original land grants to the Lords Proprietors. Everyone knows everyone on this road. They've kept up with each other's families, their business and politics for literally hundreds of years. It's a proud little road; it takes care of its own, a community unto itself.
On Dinah's Landing Road, most drivers know to go slow so as to not stir up a conspicuous amount of dust and reject, which will cover the slingblade-dirt farmer's crops that line the right-of-way. Reject, the crushed inner-earth from the phosphate mine across the Pamlico River, is made of fossils; shark's teeth, whale bones, dolphin vertebrae. In eastern North Carolina, we recycle the ancient world that lies beneath us. The sad thing is, we can't seem to do the same with modern materials. Shimmering in the sun like Mardi Gras beads, green plastic Mountain Dew bottles are scattered about the highway medians alongside an amazing proliferation of McDonald's bags, Bojangles iced tea cups, and Taco Bell wrappers.
This is Beaufort and Hyde Counties, eastern North Carolina. This region is referred to by its county names rather than its cities and town names, because few such municipalities exist. We're standing right at the Atlantic coastline, almost falling off edge of the US. Well, it's rather hard to stand at the line between land and sea, because most of the coast is uninhabitable swampland, which doubles as a corridor for seasonal hurricanes. This is an area so remote that national wildlife refuges cover over 115,000 acres and there is not one stop light in the entire county. One local Chamber of Commerce slogan entices visitors with signs announcing that coming to this region is coming along the "The Road Less Traveled", and they're not really making a joke. Hyde County has no incorporated municipalities and a population of less than 6,000. Beaufort County has under 40,000 residents. The largest town in this region? Washington: population less than 10,000.
Take every mosquito joke you've ever heard and rest assured, it originated in eastern North Carolina. There are two kinds of mosquitoes: the ones that are small enough to fit through the holes in screen doors and the big ones those that open the door and step on in. This is a place where men leave their NASCAR caps on during a funeral service, women frequently sport prison tattoos, and the illiteracy rate is 60 percent. Unemployment rates are among the highest in the state.
Despite its drawbacks, the area creeps into one's veins, insidiously, becoming a habit one cannot kick. Like a dream of yesterday's neighborhoods, here doors are left unlocked, children run through yards at night catching fireflies and playing flashlight tag, and friendly front porch conversations are held nightly. Someone once told me there's a magnet under the middle of the intersection of Main and Market Streets in downtown Washington, the nearest municipality. The magnet holds us of all here against our will. We are powerless against it. My neighbor says it's a vortex, sucking us into a black hole of humidity and heat from which we cannot escape. Whatever it is, everyone complains about Beaufort County, North Carolina, but few will leave.
The landscape and residents of Dinah's Landing Road illustrate how a narrow slice of geography can reflect the cultural ideology of a larger community, whether it's all of eastern North Carolina or the entire southern US. This little slice of road also represents the unique characteristics of each piece of the whole; one neighborhood, one condensed community, defined by three miles of road. This sense of place keeps people here. I came here years ago, the result of relocating to a Weyerhaeuser pine seedling nursery situated almost at the end of this road. Within a few weeks of my arrival, more than two-thirds of the neighbors introduced themselves. Necessity creates neighbors in remote areas. Transportation is a community thing, given that our children travel over 10 miles to school, and the nearest grocery store is a 20-minute drive away.
Turning off the highway, the first house on Dinah's Landing Road is a comparatively new one, a Jim Walter home occupied by the family of the daughter of a local pharmacist. Her husband works for the state Department of Transportation, but no one calls it that, it's just "the D-O-T". Around here, working for the State is considered a plum job, no matter what one has to do. Even the men who drive a DOT truck all over the county, shoveling up road kill, day in and day out, have good jobs because the benefits and the state retirement plan beats anything else around here. Next house belongs to Noe and Maggie, a husband and wife team who farm the "right-of-way", the state-owned, narrow strip of land alongside the road. The couple sells produce to those of us who drive this road each day. Theirs is a pieced-together house. It started as a '50s mobile home, and over the years lean-to's and porches have been attached to it, according to, I think, Noe's whim. Noe's older than dirt. He's on disability. Maggie told me it's because he's crazy. He retorted, "No, ma'am, she's the one that's crazy. She takes the dog to the vet but only gives me an aspirin when I'm sick." He usually waters the okra, tomatoes, collards, and crookneck squash by hand, using gallon milk jugs, walking as much as a quarter mile, carrying those jugs. In August, when eastern North Carolina reaches critical mass in levels of humidity and heat, Noe will pull a hose out of the pump house and run it across the road to the cantaloupe and zucchini vines, but it takes a lot to make him use his own well. He doesn't want to run it dry. Noe always waves to me as I drive by slowly, watching his dog, Beagle Bailey, and Brewster, his 3-legged cat, trailing behind him as he makes his way down the road.
Francis Dee, Lester, and their three children live in the next house about 100 yards from Noe and Maggie. Lester's mama's house is right across the road from his. A close study of his family and their lives illustrate the "New South": an agricultural past they never quite left behind as they live on the family farm land, but their modern-day living is derived from urban settings. Lester is a North Carolina State University graduate and a computer programmer for a pharmaceutical company located 40 miles away in Pitt County. He's given up the pickup truck and commutes in a Honda Accord. His wife is a nurse for a plastic surgeon. Their children attend good colleges, and their swimming pool is in-ground. That's a major distinction here, in-ground from above-ground pools. Think of it as 2004 Lexus or 1968 Dodge Dart; an implied sophistication by default. Their house is made of brick, has central air conditioning, and three bathrooms, all indoors. Lester's mama, Miss Alma, lives across the street in the small white clapboard farmhouse he grew up in. It has space heaters and window fans. She and her house belong to a time when women woke up at dawn and made breakfast for all the field hands.
I visit Miss Alma whenever possible, stopping by on my way home from taking the girls to school. She'll talk as long as I can listen. "I'd start before five, be done by seven. After the men ate, I'd feed the boys. Get Lester and the rest of them out the door, onto the school bus . . . then I'd have my first cup of coffee. Allow myself a full half an hour before I really began my day," she told me one day when I stopped by for the pail of muscadine grapes she'd offered me earlier in the week. Muscadines are delicious. They're used for jelly and jam, and usually cooked down for their juice. They take some work to just plain eat like a snack. You have to peel a muscadine with your teeth, suck on the juicy inside, work it around in your mouth and then spit out the seed and pulp when you're done. But each grape is worth the work. A bite of muscadine is a taste of fresh grape juice, not a bit like the red or green seedless grapes you buy at the market. We sat on her front porch for a while, two women in rocking chairs. She talked about the past while shelling butter beans into a chipped porcelain pan in her lap. Miss Alma looked worn out, wrinkled and tanned, but her smile never left her face for a second.
Next, just up the road, is Perry's Auto Salvage. The Perry boys stack the wrecked cars like Leggo's, sorted according to maker. They paint numbers on the doors, an inventory control method that allows easy access for those needing to purchase a car door, a bumper, or some other such part. A couple of shaggy Welsh ponies wander through the cars along with a small herd of pygmy goats. The animals keep the grass and weeds down to about hubcap level and provide a vision of typical Southern pastoral splendor: abandoned cars and goats.
Most of the families that fish on this road sell flounder, mullet, and spots to local fish markets. The enterprise, which was once profitable enough to be a source of significant income, has become more of a hobby than a way to earn a living. Most of the decent sized fish are gone from the Pamlico River and Sound, victims of farm run-off and the pollutants from upriver in towns like Rocky Mount and Tarboro. Pamlico River crabs once dominated the market but now are often malformed due to the nutrient sensitivity of the river. Most of the crabs processed in local crab houses and fisheries come from other areas of the country, now, like Chesapeake Bay. The crab pickers are Mexican migrant workers who come in by the bus loads and live in dormitories owned by the processing plants.
Crab pickers "pick" the meat out of the crab shells. Eastern North Carolina locals love the word "pick", and use it to also describe barbecue, as in a "pig pickin", which means to barbecue an entire hog at once and then stand around the pig cooker and pick the meat off the hog. The fishing improves in small doses as some polluters are identified by local river watch groups like the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation. These groups constantly face new challenges. A large poultry processing plant is seeking permission to build in nearby Hyde County and area hog farms are desperately trying to end the state moratorium on expansion. The hog waste, kept in large ponds and sprayed over fields, enters the water table as well as the river. The stench of the hog farms alone will make you think twice about eating bacon.
Unemployment rates around here are the highest in the state and no one wants to say "no" to any new jobs, no matter what the repercussions are. So it's two steps forward and one step back. It's a prime example of the new paradigm: agricultural endeavors replaced by high-end retirement subdivisions; manual labor needs staffed by immigrant workers paid minimum wage; and a constant trade-off of employment for pollutants. This is echoed on Dinah's Landing Road as the pine seedlings at the Weyerhaeuser nursery are now harvested by Mexican migrant crews. Companies don't "outsource" here; most of them just close shop and either cease operations, go bankrupt, or move to Mexico. Even tobacco is warehoused somewhere else and textile mills are things of the past.
Weyerhaeuser bought out the smaller lumber companies in the area and, in the process, acquired huge tracts of land on which they build the planned communities that now define the coastline. With names like Cypress Landing, Pamlico Plantation, and Taberna, these communities draw retirees from the north that move here with large sailboats, Lincoln Towncars, and a need to play golf at least five times a week. It's a stark contrast to the people who have lived here for generations, working 12 hours a day for minimum wage, no benefits. It's as true on Dinah's Landing Road as it is anywhere else in the county. At one end there's Pamlico Plantation with its million dollar homes and at the other? Noe and Maggie farming the right-of-way.
Traveling on down the road for about half a mile, there are four more houses, two on each side of the road, side by side. Modest ranch style homes covered with pale clapboard siding, each house has a carport to the side and hunting dog pens in the backyard. Just past the houses there's a double-wide trailer, neat and tidy with underpinning so precise the place looks stick built. There live Lester's second cousins, twice-removed. Free-range chickens populate the cluster of yards and run out into the road, creating a macabre vehicular PacMan game as I drive my 4x4 down the road toward my pre-fab 1970s house, smack in the middle of a Weyerhaeuser pine seedling nursery.
Lester's "people" are right-wing religious conservatives to the nth degree. They paint "pro-life" slogans on the sides of barns and write long letters to the editor of the local paper. Their arguments always contain at least one of the following: an angry God, love of America, life beginning at the point of conception, the sanctity of their mamas, or the second amendment. One side of a barn has a large rebel flag painted on it. Just this past week, a local television station interviewed people as they left the voting booth during our local school bond referendum polling. I recognized John Junior, one of Lester's relatives, coming up to the announcer. "Why do you think it's important to be here today?" the reporter queried. John Junior replied, "I'm exercising my God given right to vote."
The Van Dorp's organic farm, owned by a man whose Dutch descendants came to the area in the early 1900s to grow tulip bulbs and peonies, is the last inhabited place before the nursery and my house. Hank, the owner, tries to grow organic tobacco and garlic to sell in markets far north of here, in cities like Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, DC, or even as far away as Boston, Massachusetts. The farm is, for the most part, a pleasure to pass through as Dinah's Landing Road cuts between the acres of peonies, corn, and tobacco. The only drawback to driving between the fields is the smell when the sun comes out just after a summer thunderstorm: huge mounds of crab shells, used for fertilizer, are dumped weekly onto a back field. Driving downwind of that crab shell pile is like being in a porta-potty in August after it's been sitting in a Savannah parking lot for three days. Whew!
The nursery is on the left, about a half mile down from the Van Dorp's. A huge yellow gate restricts entry. The gate is locked at night and on the weekends. The girls get out our truck and unlock the gate each time we leave and return. I know they will never forget me driving off and leaving them standing at the gate after they've locked it behind me. The trick is to only do it every 7th or 8th time, and catch them off guard.
The nursery is a 250+ acre farm where millions of Loblolly pine seedlings are grown every year. The other side of the road is the border, the ass-end, of the planned community "Pamlico Plantation", which is developed by Weyerhaeuser. Huge houses, the majority owned by retirees from all over the US, line the river's edge sporting huge piers docking sailboats, and deep sea fishing rigs, Hatteras yachts, Fountain powerboats and more. The residents are safely tucked away behind a gate manned 24/7 by a security guard.
Between the edge of Pamlico Plantation and Dinah's Landing lies a thick swampy forest area that is leased to hunting clubs each winter during deer season. It's legal to hunt from the side of the road in this county. Hunters stand beside their trucks, rifles loaded, waiting for deer to come out of the woods. Deer dogs run through the woods, baying and moaning, their owners using electronic collars to track them and follow the deer. It's southern tradition, running dogs. The tracking collars are another component of the New South. Backyards here are dotted with dog pens housing dozens of dogs for deer and coon hunting. Most hunts occur on Saturdays and are father and son/daughter outings that eventually end with the fathers in a late evening poker game with other members of the hunting club.
That was the Old South, This is the New
That was Dinah's Landing Road when I knew it back in the '80s. In 2004, it's no longer the road where chickens run loose and crab guts stink up the area for miles around. Nowadays, the reject, the very stuff of ancient history, has been paved over with macadam. Noe died and Maggie went to live with her daughter in town. What was left of their vegetable stand got knocked over by Hurricane Dennis then carried away by Hurricane Floyd. Lester and his wife retired early and his pharmaceutical company's factory changed hands three times. His mama died and now his daughter lives in Miss Alma's farmhouse with her husband and children and she's a teacher in Hyde County. The "pro-life" contingent now use the Internet instead of barn paint to get their message out there. The organic farm went bankrupt, the couple got divorced, and Hank works at the Weyerhaeuser nursery and lives in town. The thick pine forest surrounding the nursery was clear cut and replanted in long straight rows with two foot high seedlings. Rumor has it that the forest was harvested to keep away the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species.
Dinah's Landing, at the end of the road, is part of Goose Creek State Park. The hurricanes of the '90s necessitated building a new pier. Now there's a picnic table under the magnificent live oak. The rangers are trying to keep up with the trash cans but between foraging raccoons and delinquent kids, it's an uphill battle. The small area only hosts the boat ramp and a 25-foot pier, marsh grass, and a live oak tree. Nothing else goes on here, anymore. Occasionally someone will launch their boat, secure it to the pier, and then park their car and trailer in the gravel lot, taking off for an afternoon on the Pamlico River. It's beautiful and serene. The river otters pop out from under half-submerged tree trunks near the shore line. Osprey nest in 100-year-old cypress. Mullet leap out of the water and bounce across the surface like skipping rocks, their shiny skin flashing in the sunlight. Dragonflies hover, then stop and sunbathe on the rocks lining the parking lot, and mosquitoes zip by your head.
My life's changed like everyone else's on this road. My children grew up, I remarried, and there's even a grandbaby on the way. We live in town now, but I go to Dinah's Landing whenever possible, taking my birding telescope to check out the osprey nests and try to catch a glimpse of a kinglet or a godwit. A couple weeks ago, I noticed a young Whistling Swan had taken up residence there and it looks as if he'll stay for the winter. The area fishermen and the rangers from Goose Creek State Park tell me they're worried about the swan. Poachers lurk nearby, slinking along old logging trails, staying just clear of the ranger's eye. There aren't many who hunt illegally, but it only takes a few. While it's deer they want, there's a chance a poorly aimed bullet will find that bird. Hopefully, after a season of bread handed out by fishermen and people like me and the steady supply of menhaden (small bait fish in the river), the bird will survive the winter alone and eventually find his way to Lake Mattamuskeet or even all the way to Canada. He'll want a girlfriend in the spring. He'll want to start a family.
Sitting here on the picnic table under the live oak, watching the swan weave a delicate pattern through the water, I think back to one of my first days on Dinah's Landing Road, almost 25 years ago. I remember the house at the Weyerhaeuser nursery. We needed to have the kitchen/dining room floor replaced before we could move in there. I called Hilton Alligood, an 80-something entrepreneur who'd owned everything from a propane gas company to a carpet store. I'd heard he had a barn full of new linoleum and had someone working for him who could install a floor on a next-day basis.
With a moving van coming in two days and three children under the age of 10 to cook for and take care of I wasn't picky about patterns or color. After meeting Hilton at his barn and picking out the linoleum, I offered to drive us out to the house so he could measure my floor. On the way out there, he asked me to turn off down a dirt road, said he wanted to show me something. "You're new to the area, I want to help you adjust. Show you what it's really like here." I drove alongside a cypress-lined creek, twisting and turning down the road for about two miles. A wild turkey ran across the road and I almost swerved into the creek. Hilton laughed.
Back in the woods, facing Blount's Creek, stood an A-frame cabin. Hilton built it in the '50s as a hide-away fishing lodge for his family. He moved a log tobacco barn from his farm, placed it next to the cabin, and made it into a separate dining hall. Inside the barn, he placed picnic tables and covered them with red and white checkered tablecloths and put gingham curtains on the small windows. The room looked as if it were waiting for someone, ready for the next pig pickin' or family reunion. In front of the cabin, a long pier stretched out over Blount's Creek and a couple ducks sat on the end, barely noting our arrival. We walked to the end of the pier and sat down, our feet dangling in the water as we sipped from large cups of Bojangles sweet tea.
Hilton told me about growing up at "The Landing". He remembered an old woman who would give him "the Salve" when his feet split from running through the swamp barefoot for too long a time. He and his brothers didn't wear shoes in the summer, he said, "Not because we didn't have shoes, no, it was because being barefoot was the way it was then. Believe me, our mama tried to make us put on our shoes. We hated wearing them." He told me he used to hunt down at the landing with his brothers during the Depression "When it mattered . . . hunting, I mean . . . it mattered because it meant whether or not we would eat meat that week," he said. "I loved living near the landing."
"Want to know how to make everyone think you're a native?" he asked.
"course," I answered.
"Folks from somewheres else do this," he waved his hands in front of his face, "to get rid of the gnats. If you're from here, you do this..." and he raspberried his lips, brrrrrrppppp "if you're from here, you just keep talking and spitting 'em out at the same time."
A few days later, after writing a check to pay for groceries at the local Piggly Wiggly, the clerk asked the name of the road I lived on, not just the rural route number. A middle-aged woman, she looked at me and said, "It ain't that I don't trust you. I just don't know you yet. You must be new here." I answered "Dinah's Landing, but I don't know if it has a number." The bagger, an elderly man, looked up at me.
"Ahhhh, Dinah's Landing. You live there?" he said, "Ahhhhh . . . there used to be an iron pipe at the end of that road, down by where the homestead was, Alligood's place. Came straight up out of the ground, made a waterfall. It was an artesian well and when I was a kid, I'd go down there and play in the water. Coldest water you ever felt. Is it still there?"
Before I could answer, another older man, a customer, standing behind me in line, joined our conversation, "Aren't you one of them Silverthorne girls? Nope? I used to court a Silverthorne girl down there when I was younger. She lived near the landing. I haven't been down that road in years. I get my granddaughter to drive me down there sometimes, just so's I can sit at the Landing and fish for a bit. I don't catch much these days, though. We used to catch grouper down there. Not any more."
Months after that shopping trip, I needed to have the wheels aligned on my truck. The Firestone store, where I purchased my tires, is more than 20 miles away in Greenville, over in the next county. When they'd finished the work, I went inside to pay my bill and the manager came out to ask me if the work had been done properly. He wanted to know if everything was all right. Then he asked me why I drove a four-wheel drive vehicle (this was before the days of the soccer mom Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs). Trucks like mine, called "4x4s" were a rarity in the mid-80s.) I told him I lived at Dinah's Landing, a little reject road in the next county, that he'd probably never heard of it. He grabbed my arm.
"I grew up there, right at Camp Leach. My father was caretaker of the camp." The camp is next to Goose Creek State Park, a couple miles from Dinah's Landing. He wanted to know what the landing was like nowadays, were there still deer down there? "I just built a six-bedroom house, right on the 15th green of the country club here and that house is my pride and joy," he said, "But I'd sell it in a minute if I could live near Dinah's Landing again."
Things have changed since I first introduced myself to Dinah's Landing, and still she welcomes me home. I adjust my telescope, thinking back on Hilton and the others as I watch the whistling swan glide back and forth. A river otter peeks out from between the marsh grass and quickly darts away. I know what's constant and I wonder what will change. The river will always be here. Hopefully, other things will remain the same; the osprey returning to their nests each spring, the harrier hawks hovering low in the clear cuts, the deer munching on landscaped yards and forest floor, and the foxes living in the sorghum fields. And, with a little luck, this whistling swan will make it until spring.