Roads less traveled

The back roads called today.

There’s something about them that appeals to me. Not sure what, but time slows down, stress drops off, you see interesting stuff. Smell the roses and all that.

I was going from Raleigh to Wilmington to check out UNCW with my middle daughter; she’s starting there in January. About halfway down on I-40, I saw a sign for Route 117, the two-lane country road that predates the interstate and meanders through sleepy little NC towns. I had to check it out.

For 114 miles, it runs through interesting farmland, fields and woods, virtually no other cars in sight. You cross creeks and it’s required to slow down to 10 mph to check things out. Maybe stop for a pic or two, look for animals, drop a rock off the bridge.

A creek outside Rose Hill. High in a dead tree behind me, a red tailed hawk screeched.

Here and there are crumbling barns and farmhouses, their former owners at rest in the local church cemetery since the Bush Administration. Little one-light towns that usually have a Dollar General, a Piggly Wiggly, a gas station or two, a few restaurants.

I pass a sign for Rose Hill city limits. 40 mph, please. Oh, and our unassuming town is home of the world’s largest frying pan.

Rose Hill and its claim to fame.

You can’t miss it, it’s on the main drag under a gazebo. We stop, take a few pix, read the factoids: Built in 1963, it holds 200 gal of oil, and can cook 365 chickens at the same time.

The Rose Hill frying pan weighs two tons

On the side is a display showing how the pan, cookouts and the town have been connected for 58 years. This to me is fascinating.

It’s the scene from Dead Poet’s Society, pictures of faces from decades ago with the light breeze sighing Carpe Diem. What happened to these folks? Did they have good lives? Did they like Rose Hill, stay and raise families…or could they not wait to get away? Beauty contests, fund raisers, speeches, the annual Poultry Jubilee. People from era when astronauts walked on the moon sitting at picnic tables, smiling, eating fried chicken.

The frying pan and the town are intricately linked

Across the street is the Rose Hill motel, which looks abandoned. It’s a long, low, single story affair, about 20 rooms, with junk piled here and there. Longleaf pines shade the dirt parking lot. I stop to check it out.

I’m not out of the car two minutes when another car comes slowly pulling in and the driver taps the horn. It’s a lady, probably early 80s, wearing a gray sweatshirt. “Can I help you?” she drawls.

I said I was just interested in abandoned things and wanted to see if the hotel was open. Did she know what they were planning to do with it?

She grins and says “Well, I’m the owner.”

She pronounced it OWN-nah. She went on to say she had been remodeling it, she wasn’t sure what she was gonna do with it. She tells me when she was just a girl, her father took her to NYC on Christmas Day so she could see what a big city looked like. Coming home, he was intrigued by all the mom-and-pop hotels they passed and impulsively decided to jump into the business.

The Rose Hill Hotel once hosted famous performers

“Daddy didn’t know a THING about hotels,” she laughed. “But it worked out fine. Put me through college and graduate school.” She told me about the Glory Years, the celebrities who had stayed there: Tennessee Ernie Ford, Pat Boone, some others now mostly forgotten. She wished me well at UNCW and told me to have a blessed day. It’s a Southern thing.

As I drove out of town, I had a lot to ponder. How in the swirling, dizzying dance of life, synchronicity intervenes when least expected; an impromptu road trip one Christmas that affected a lifetime. How a giant frying pan brought a town together, and me and my daughter a little closer. How there are some things that progress can’t touch.

And how glad I am that back roads still call to me.

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