I-40 is faster and in North Carolina fairly beautiful a lot of the way, but I always feel the tension in my neck and shoulders, like I'm on a speedway with a bunch of other fast-moving metal boxes on wheels, going nowhere. There is no sense of journey on the interstate for me.
64 took us through many small towns: Statesville, Mocksville, Lexington, Asheboro, Ramseur, and Siler City. Officially Highway 64 runs from the TN border all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and maybe one day I'll drive its entire 604 miles, but on Saturday I enjoyed a much shorter section.
There are stretches along the part we took that are for me some of the most beautiful parts of the country I have ever seen. Along one stretch there is nothing for miles and miles but rolling land, grassy fields and forests, not a house or even a barn in sight, no cars, no fences. The road curves through this seemingly empty land like a ribbon, and it felt as if I should be not in a car but maybe simply on foot or on horseback.
Some sections seem like the proverbial country road, with houses on either side, and this time of year there were clouds of dogwood trees in full bloom, redbuds at their peak, banks of phlox so thick it seemed someone had come through and painted swaths of purple and fuchsia across the countryside.
I saw mailboxes that triggered questions: who might have gotten letters that morning? How many feet had walked out to those mailboxes over the past 25 years? What kinds of news had they gotten?
A woman walked through a paddock with a grooming pail to do what many of us are doing this week: helping our horses shed their winter coats. That her horse was also a big bay made me smile.
There was a long fence that had a different colored birdhouse on each post, a billboard that offered "cash paid on spot" for WWII memorabilia (American and German) with a phone number. Twenty or so miles further there was a big army surplus store and I had to wonder if the person looking for memorabilia knew about that surplus store or perhaps owned it.
I saw dogs and cats and horses and cows and chicken coops and birds of many species.
It was a Saturday afternoon and a lot of people were out mowing lawns. With the car windows down the smell of newly-mown spring grass was like a tonic.
It still seems remarkable to me that on I-40 I was one of many cars and on Highway 64, for much of the way home, I was the only vehicle on the road. It took longer. The speed limit on I-40 is 70 mph and on 64 it ranges from 35 mph as you pass through the small towns up to 45 and 55 along the country stretches. I prefer the slower pace, the absence of traffic, and the journey.
That is the main difference for me. The longer way home feels more like a journey, with stories and people and real life going on along the way.
It also reminds me that in North Carolina there are still many many acres of rural countryside and farmland, not big farming, but small family farms. There is some development, patches of new houses with little manicured yards and signs marking the names of the subdivisions, most of which seem to be named after the natural features of the countryside that were destroyed to build those very houses.
But for the most part, there is land and hills and trees and people stretched out from one another, and that makes me breathe easier, like a long-held yoga pose or good old-fashioned stretch.
For me the best way to come back home after time away is to take the back roads, the long way, the scenic route. And yes, as Robert Frost said, the road less traveled. It does make all the difference.