Revisiting Henderson, N.C. — another meandering travel memoir

May 29, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 29, 2015

Earlier this year, I wrote about the first time I ever noticed a small Piedmont city called Henderson, N.C. My early impressions were unfavorable: I was driving north along U.S. 1 Bypass, an unlovely stretch of road bordered by an immense Wal-Mart distribution facility and large churches. In January 2004, about four months after that trip, I ended up living and working in Henderson.

I transferred to a new job in Durham in March 2008; I actually moved to Durham a few months after that. And yet I pass through Henderson fairly frequently.

That’s because at least four or five times a year, I make the round-trip drive from Durham to my childhood (and young adulthood) haunts in the New York metropolitan area. I don’t travel on U.S. 1, but I do take Interstate 85.

This 664-mile highway splits off from the mighty I-95 in Petersburg, Va., and veers southwest. It passes along Durham’s northern edge, skirts the eastern penumbra of Greensboro, N.C., slingshots past downtown Charlotte, N.C., plunges into the tangled heart of the Atlanta metroplex, and ends west of downtown Montgomery, Ala.

I-85 also brushes against Henderson’s northern flank, bypassing the small but charming downtown area. Southbound motorists don’t get to see much of the city until they reach Mile 213, where a retail complex (anchored by, yes, a Wal-Mart store) becomes visible. Several other businesses — restaurants, a hotel or two, a gas station, a sprawling car dealership — can be seen for the next mile before the forest reclaims the shoulders. Over the next several miles, the natural scenery is interrupted, briefly, only by Vance-Granville Community College (Exit 209, Poplar Creek Road), which I believe is outside of Henderson city limits, and by the N.C.-96 retail district in Oxford, which is the Granville County seat (Exit 204).

All of which is to say that, despite passing through Henderson many times a year, I never really see what the town is like any more. But that changed this week.

When I drive, I periodically grab my iPhone and check traffic on the Apple Maps and Google Maps apps. (I’m a poet, don’t you know it?!) As I approached Henderson, I noted redness signaling a traffic slowdown on I-85 (due, I think, to construction). I debated whether to take local roads, and if so, which ones to take.

I opted against exiting onto U.S. 1 at Mile 218 on the north side of town. But when I got to the city limits, right around Mile 215, the vehicles ahead of me seemed to be decelerating. I jumped into the exit lane.

Exit 215 is for Parham Road, which runs for maybe three-quarters of a mile. If, from southbound I-85, a motorist turns right at the end of the exit ramp, one enters a very rural road that quickly dead-ends. (This area is actually outside of the city.) I used to live on one of the side roads that branch from this part of Parham.

I wasn’t going to revisit my old home, however. I turned left, crossed over the interstate, and drove past a pair of hotels and the Freeze Maid, a seasonal ice cream business that seemed to be open. A short way further along, on the other side of the road, there was a diner that appeared to have been shuttered for several years. (I only remembered having eaten there once.)

And then I came to the intersection of Parham and U.S. 1-158. To my left was a Burger King; to my right, another motel. Across the five lanes of 1-158 was 220 Seafood, a ramshackle-looking popular local establishment where I’d never dined.

I turned right, passed some very familiar shopping complexes, and kept right where Chestnut Street split off from 1-158 (which is known as Garnett Street at that point). North Chestnut Street was never the prettiest part of town, and looking around as I drove, it seemed that little had changed. I noticed at least one boarded-up house. The economic revitalization that has gradually been gathering momentum in Durham over the past five or so years seemed nowhere in evidence here.

The neighborhood becomes more pleasant just south of N.C.-39, which is called Andrews Avenue locally. There was the Vance County Courthouse; there, the Presbyterian Church; and there, Perry Memorial Library, which had moved into a large new facility at some point during my residence in Henderson.

I noticed only one major change as I continued south on Chestnut. The theater that had long been intended to be built beside Perry Memorial was in fact approaching the final stages of construction.

I racked my brain, trying to remember the name of the project that encompassed the library, the theater and the new police station. It didn’t come to me, and it still hasn’t.

The newspaper office where I used to work still appeared to be used as a newspaper office. This surprised me a bit. When I was there, the building’s press printed many newspapers — the six-days-a-week paper itself along with weekly and semi-weekly publications from all around the region.

However, Henderson’s newspaper shifted actual printing operations to Durham some years ago. (Those operations have since moved to a facility in High Point, N.C.) I wonder if the massive printing machines are sitting there, unused, or if they’ve been sold, either for scrap or for installation somewhere else. (Perhaps they’ve simply been shipped to High Point?)

I didn’t pause to inspect the offices. Instead, I continued along Chestnut until it dead-ended at Corbitt Street, which is named for a defunct local truck manufacturer.

I’ve forgotten a lot of the street layouts in Henderson. I decided to turn right. A little ways down the road, I took the first left, onto Bane Avenue. That brought me almost immediately to Dabney Drive, a major commercial road in Henderson.

I considered turning right on Dabney, because I knew that would take me back to I-85. But it seemed that I’d be steering right onto the part of the interstate that was still suffering from a traffic slowdown.

Instead, I continued straight onto Bane. The character of the neighborhood changed tremendously: This is where some of Henderson’s nicest houses are.

I took a few turns on unfamiliar roads and found myself at the intersection of North Woodland Road and Country Club Drive. The entrance to Henderson Country Club was directly to my right.

Well, I wasn’t going there. I continued on North Woodland, not really sure where I was going. When the road came to an end, I turned right and then left. A minute or three later, I was at a fairly desolate spot. I turned right onto Fairway Drive. I could muster no memories whatsoever about where this road was or where it led.

Fairway topped a rise and came to an end at Graham Avenue. Where was I? I couldn’t remember anything about Graham, either.

I turned left. Moments later, I recognized my location: Here on my right was the old headquarters of a local textile company (Harriet & Henderson Yarns, I think), which was now the administrative headquarters of Vance County Schools.

And here was a steakhouse and here was Ruin Creek Road. I was by the Cracker Barrel and a Mexican restaurant where I’d had a few meals — some of which I remember fondly, others of which, well, not so much.

More importantly, I was by I-85 again, and, it seemed, past the point where traffic was slowed. I gratefully turned right onto Ruin Creek, moved into the left lane as I crossed over the highway and waited patiently at the light to make the turn onto southbound 85. I could see vehicles moving quickly in both directions on the interstate.

Ahead of me was Maria Parham Medical Center, the local hospital. But there wasn’t long to look around. The light changed and the cars ahead of me turned onto the entrance ramp, as did I.

And that’s how I endured the great highway construction detour of 2015!

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