The Back Lot of North Carolina

In this age of COVID, meeting up with a friend has become an adventure in itself. We decided to meet half way between our houses, a three hour drive for both of us. Our socially distant gathering would take place outside; we would only enter buildings while masked for take away and bathrooming. Our meeting place was a small North Carolinian town on the bay. I had never been there. I planned it out as best I could with Google Maps street view with shots from 2014.

I got on the road early, an hour or so after sunrise. Once I got off the interstate, it felt like I was back in the Thumb area of Michigan – as rural as rural gets – and it made me nostalgic for days gone by. Between the farm fields, the small towns called to me. I daydreamed about renting a room in Beulaville, settling in for a week to write a novel. I’d walk to get my coffee at Duff’s Cafe, have dinner at Ann’s Thai Kitchen, followed by ice cream from IGA. I’d finish up the day writing, sipping a double shot’s worth of Deep Eddy Ruby Red vodka. A writer can dream. Maybe someday.

With my midwestern background, surrounded with only soybeans and corn, the tobacco fields always interest me the most. I’ve been here fourteen years and the novelty hasn’t worn off. The first time I saw a tobacco field, I didn’t know what it was. My friend, with southern roots a mile deep, looked at me like I was nuts. We were on the way to a funeral, but I made her pull off to the side of the road so I could get a closer view of these exotic plants growing in the middle of absolute nowhere. I marveled at how these plants could cause so much damage to a human, as someone who has a thing for distillates of potatoes and sugarcane.

The small towns – some disappeared within a blink of an eye as the cruise was set at 75mph on a byway – gave way to larger towns. I imagine people in the one horse towns would call these large cities. It took me a moment to adjust, too.

I didn’t expect towns this large to be in the back lot of North Carolina.

I didn’t expect them to be as nice as they were either. I have a few on my “must revisit” list.

The drive was easy, scenic, and before I knew it, I arrived at my destination.

It was more beautiful than the pictures and I was sad I didn’t investigate more of its historical significance until after I had left. My heart was singing as I drove through the quintessential downtown that hadn’t changed much from the early 1900’s, never mind the 2014 view. My friend had gotten delayed, so I had some time to explore and get the place wired. I parked right by the water and judging from the morning sky, it was going to be a beautiful day.

As it turns out, the visitor’s center had a large back porch, complete with rocking chairs and a postcard worthy view of the water out of the sun. I couldn’t have found a better place to enjoy the company of an old friend!

As I sauntered through downtown, where everything was clean, friendly, and the ambience made it feel like I wasn’t in 2020. I realized I had forgotten to bring deodorant on this adventure (of all days!), so I stopped in at the local pharmacy. The decor was straight out of 1978, but I found some Old Spice at a very reasonable price (I refuse to smell like flowers or baby powder, I prefer masculine scents). I made a mental note to remember this pharmacy also had an ice cream counter. Sears was going out of business and the sales I saw from the window were difficult to pass up as a bargain hunter, but I truly didn’t need anything, so I kept walking. This town felt like I was lucid dreaming. I also noticed my Great Lakes accent disappeared here. I usually save my southern lilt for patients at work, but it came out naturally in this town.

I walked back down to the water, just as my friend appeared.

I could write a novel in this town too, except I would require a kayak.


As Godsmack once so eloquently said, “Never did I want to be here again and I don’t remember why I came.” It was Summer 2019.

I’m a sucker for strolling down Memory Lane and Decatur, Illinois is a treasure map.

I resisted the urge to turn down Foresyth Blacktop and test my memory of getting to Latham from the backroads – I doubt I could navigate it anymore. Was it Beardstown Road? Bearstown Road? Instead, I turned down the road I knew like the back of my hand.

I can’t come to Decatur without driving past the house.

I turned into the upper middle class neighborhood – by Decaturian standards – and stopped in front of it. It hadn’t changed an iota in all these years. This was his house, he who’s name I’ve successfully forgotten. So many things happened here: I met a best friend, first sip of alcohol and hangover, learned to shoot pool, an invalid pregnancy test. The basement had a false wall in it too, with a secret passage. But like me, he’s long gone. I managed to get myself lost in the neighborhood trying to get back to the main road, much like I used to do when I would jog these streets all those years ago.

Somethings never change, I suppose.

My next stop was Millikin University. It looked the same too. I tried to find his old apartment, but I couldn’t find it. I remember railroad tracks, but there were no buildings by it. Was it razed? Was my memory wrong? It was all a bit hazy. The old bars were right where I left them, seemingly untouched by time. The gas station by campus is where I stopped on my first roadtrip, twenty years previous, nostalgia filled the air. My windshield survey was enough: it was time for lunch.

I found a darling little bistro on Prairie Street and parked my car at the intersection of Main and Main – quite possibly the most Decaturian thing ever. I ordered French onion soup, a sandwich, and treated myself to a martini that was basically summertime in a glass. I slowly sipped the martini and ate every bite of lunch, a perfect end to my Decatur foray.

As I left the bistro, with plans to keep driving south, I noticed my lips had gone numb.

The eight mile run that morning had caught up with me, the only explanation for getting a buzz off a drink with a meal. I logged too many hours working in the Emergency Room to even think about getting in the car, so I walked a mile back to Millikin to sober up.

What else could one do on a hot summer day?

I walked down Main Street – I know what you’re thinking and I was fine – my only encounter was a gentleman who made it known he approved of my curves. I ignored him and kept going as if Jim Millikin was my great-grandfather.

Oh, Decatur.

I cooled off in the main building, Schilling Hall. I forgot a small theatre was here. I paced the hallway, looking at stills from student plays gone by. I missed my theatre days and suddenly had a longing for a matinee. I strode around the “quad” if it can even be called that and sat down next to my favorite Millikin guy: the bronze man on campus, a statue. He was still here, reading the same book.

I thought of my other favorite Millikin guy – the one who’s old apartment I couldn’t find – and if I still had his phone number, I would have sent him a picture of me sitting outside Schilling Hall. “Guess where I am.” But that contact had been deleted a long time ago. I sighed. I hoped life was treating him well, wherever he was.

With my liver downshifting into second gear and my parking meter running out, I made it back to the car, completely sober.

I sauntered through Fairview Park by the Pavilion until bugs got too buggy. A cop pulled me over as I was exiting, apparently I was going the wrong way. He spent five minutes yelling at me about it, but didn’t cite me. He didn’t notice my North Carolina plates or listen to the fact I had only been here with a native son years ago.

And with that, I drove straight to Amish country, too annoyed to stop for custard at Krekel’s.

Oh, Decatur!