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Labor Day is a welcome break, a holiday between July Fourth and Thanksgiving and a great time for a leisurely day trip through the countryside.
Since my husband Fred had not been to Henderson for about 30 years and since I had never been there, we decided to make the hourlong trip to connect with his Hight heritage and to visit the cemetery where seven of his relatives are buried.
The trip had two purposes: to ride down long country roads and see country sights and to document the family heritage.
The ride from Wilson down U.S. 264 was nothing new, yet when we turned down N.C. 39 near Five-County Stadium, we made our way to Henderson with no stops but with observations, reflections and conversation about sites, sights, crops and other vegetation, structures, bodies of water, small towns and a few animals in pastoral settings.
As always when we ride through the country, we observe crops and the lay of the land. We saw rolling green hills, bales of hay in the fields, soybeans, tobacco and sweet potatoes. We also noticed a lot of bamboo along the highway, but we saw no corn, cut or uncut.
We saw several old homeplaces, unpainted and falling apart, that families must have found difficult to destroy, since their own heritage rested on those sites.
We saw what must have been an old barn that was consumed by vines, leaving nothing visible except the unmistakable red roof.
We saw a large country estate, still in good repair and inhabited, with a vast, green lawn, a white fence all around the property, a pond and three white horses resting under a tree near the bank of the pond.
Other lovely estates caught our eye as we wended down Highway 39, and our curiosity about the owners and inhabitants was active.
A couple of times as we looked right and left on our way, Fred said, “I’ll bet there are arrowheads in that field,” the land being sandy, sloping toward the east and being near water.
On several sites we saw towering pecan trees laden with huge caterpillar sacs, a frequent sight this time of the year.
In the midst of all the pastoral beauty, we saw several solar farms that jolted us to 21st-century innovation.
We saw a family reunion park, an old country store that had been spruced up and painted and decorated and all, several modern and expansive schools, numerous country churches and adjoining cemeteries that reminded us of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” and, or course, the vast sky with only a cloud here and there. We drove through the community of Pilot, went past Bunn Lake and the town of Bunn. Down the road we passed through Raynor where we saw acres and acres of crepe myrtles growing in fields. The trees were white, pink and some that brilliant scarlet color planted in rows a stone’s throw from the highway. What a delight all those crepe myrtles were!
Then we passed Ingleside, Epsom, Gillsburg and finally arrived at our destination, Henderson, which is the county seat of Vance County.
As we drove into the town of Henderson, Fred began to notice a few landmarks that he remembered from his previous trips to the town. We saw the tall, skinny green water tower that reminded us of an old, country silo, except that it was skinnier, taller and greener. The water tower was just a few feet from the sidewalk. I wanted to stop the car, walk over to the tower and touch it for a minute, yet we continued on our quest without stopping.
Soon we were on the phone with our son, who had made the trip to join us in Henderson from Durham with our daughter-in-law and their youngest daughter. The older daughter, a junior at Furman University, could not make to trip up from Greenville, South Carolina, on Labor Day.
We found our way to one of the town cemeteries and began to look for the graves of the Hight relatives but could not find a single one. Fred kept saying that this place did not look like the cemetery he had visited years earlier.
To make a long story short, we realized that we were in the wrong cemetery, so we quickly sought out another one a few blocks away and found what we had been looking for: the family plot with the graves of seven relatives.
We recorded family history through photography and the written word, connected with the past, paid our respects and left, our quest complete.
After a light lunch at Uncle LLew’s Restaurant and Pub, we said our goodbyes and started back to Wilson, and our son and his family left for Durham, thankful for our time together and for our new knowledge of family history.
We drove back to Wilson by the same route that we had taken to Henderson, this time with sites and sights to revisit on the way back.
The white horses were on the opposite side of the pond on the way back, and the crepe myrtles were lovelier than they were at first sighting; the sky was even bluer, the old barn was still covered with vines and all the little towns were still sleepy.
We arrived at home with satisfaction of a Labor Day well spent and with our heads full of images of the countryside in Wilson, Nash, Franklin and Vance counties, as well as reflections on the lives of Fred’s grandfather, great-grandfather, uncles, aunts and other relatives.
I really want to make that trip again and ride one of those white horses, put a sprig of crepe myrtle in my hair and buy something in the old, redecorated country store.
And maybe I will try to climb a little way up that tall, skinny and green water tower in Henderson, just for fun.
Sanda Baucom Hight is retired from Wilson County Schools after serving as an English teacher and is currently a substitute teacher in Wilson County. Her column focuses on the charms of home, school and country life.