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Dirty driving

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One of the first things I learned when I moved to Raleigh was the pleasure of the dust plume. When I drive my pickup along a dirt or gravel road, it raises a plume of grit that sails behind me like a pennant. One afternoon I went to a house party west of the city. Driving home along the gravel road, I noticed in my rearview mirror a plume of brownish-gray dust that looked like it came out of the chimney a child would draw. It was near sunset, and in the mirror I could see the red sun drifting into and out of the clouds I generated.

It felt like the right way to live.

I worked for The News & Observer then, and my stories commonly took me into rural areas. So at least once a week, I could plan on encountering the washboard bumps of a barely maintained country road or the satisfying crunch of my tires up some farmer's cleanly bulldozed gravel drive. I began to look forward to those rides, to judge my days: Any day I drove on gravel, I said, was a good day. My own driveway was rutted dirt that had been graveled long ago, but that felt somehow like cheating. I was looking for the real experience.

When I got down in the dumps, I would jump into my truck and drive a county away to my friend's glassblowing studio, located on a gravel drive off a dirt road. It never failed to cheer me. Best of all, not half a mile from my home in central Raleigh, I found a tiny street--a forgotten, industrial road by the railyards--with a welding shop, a boiler-repair company and Dan and Bill's Automotive. Their sign said: "Use second gate. If second gate is closed, so is Dan and Bill's Automotive."

It's an unfinished road, somewhere between dirt and gravel. If I'm feeling weary or tired, I can walk or ride my bike over to it. I don't even need the truck; I can raise dust just walking.

When the road to my friend's studio was paved, I got over it. But in my time here, road after road has been covered, making the awful shift from forgiving, charming gravel to hot, oily asphalt. This is North Carolina, after all, where the state motto is, "If it's not moving, pave it." Disappointed as I always am, a little walk to Dan and Bill's Automotive cures me.

Until last time. The downhill slope towards the railyards was as charming as ever. But there at the bottom--curb. A dead giveaway. And along the railyards, the curve of the road has been completely paved. It'll reach Dan and Bill's. It's only a matter of time.

It's progress, I guess--but for peace of mind, I'm going to be driving farther and farther out in the afternoons to hear those tires pop and crunch on the right sort of road.

If you want to take a last look at a nice gravel road, disappearing like the wooden screen door, drive to Raleigh--quick--and look for Dan and Bill's Automotive. If you want to, stop by and I'll walk over with you.

Mine is the house with the new gravel in the drive.

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