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This must be the place: ‘Scarecrow and a yellow moon and pretty soon a carnival on the edge of town’

Mailbox 278.  Garret K. Woodward photo Mailbox 278. Garret K. Woodward photo

Mailbox 278 (pictured) along Route 581 in the unincorporated community of Nahunta, North Carolina. In the rural depths of Wayne County on the outskirts of the small city of Goldsboro. 

Way east of the bustling Interstate 95 corridor. Way west of the soothing breeze of the Atlantic Ocean. Heat and humidity. Poverty and pessimism. The middle of nowhere. I found myself standing in front of mailbox 278 yesterday morning.

This was the exact mailbox of a once-inhabited home by my girlfriend, Sarah, when she was a young child in an often-tumultuous family dynamic, many-a-time ending up alone and far from her parents.

Back then, in 1990, Sarah lived at mailbox 278, a quaint home down a long dirt driveway to a humble abode tucked back in the woods, next to a pond and filled with all kinds of adventure opportunities for a kid chock-full of wanderlust and curiosity. It was a very lonely place for her, too.

The house was also less than a mile from her elementary school, surrounded by endless farm fields, mostly raising tobacco, soybean and corn crops. Pork is big here, as well. The reason we ended up in front of mailbox 278 was due to Sarah and I heading to Wayne County to see her sickly father, a stoic Navy veteran in dire health these days of old age amid fading hope for a positive outcome. 

Before we went to see him, Sarah wanted to track down her old house. So, we meandered the backroads of Wayne County in search of Nahunta and of mailbox 278. It took about three back-and-forth attempts along Route 581 before we figured out 278 was the correct address (based on her dusty memories), but where was the driveway? It was at that moment when I noticed a small walking path behind the mailbox.

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Upon closer inspection, it wasn’t a path, but an old dirt driveway now overgrown with brush. We pulled the truck off Route 581 and parked it. Emerging from the vehicle, Sarah made a deep sigh as we ventured down the path and back into the damp woods from a storm earlier in the day.

A couple hundred yards down the path, we could see a small portion of a roof behind the sprawling brush. “There it is,” Sarah said. Yep, there it was. Her childhood home. You could barely see the structure, the only exposed area being the side garage due to the ground there being the only paved part of the driveway. We stood there and took it all in. 

Sarah pointed out several key fixtures of the property and told stories of her childhood adventures in the surrounding forest, around the house and over the now collapsed bridge across a small nearby creek. Eventually, we said goodbye to the property and headed back through the woods and to the truck. 

Before we left Nahunta, Sarah pointed to a large brick building just south of her home. It was the old elementary school. Abandoned. Broken windows and rotting wood. The whole back of the building had falling into itself many years ago, same went for the gymnasium in the backyard.

Sarah wandered around and talked about getting her picture taking as a little girl on the front steps. I told her to sit on the steps, and that I’d like to take her picture now as a beautiful, intelligent and ambitious 38-year-old woman.

And it was in that moment where she seemingly found a deep, perhaps lost, sense of peace and of self: of her past, of the present, and of the unknown future.

The next morning, before hitting the road for the almost six-hour journey along I-40 to Haywood County, Sarah and I motored from the hotel in Goldsboro to her late grandparents’ home in the rural outpost of Grantham. Wide-open fields. Sharecropper shacks. Newly renovated country homes. Big diesel trucks blasting down the backroads.

Pulling up to the 80-acre property, there was a for sale sign in the driveway. With her grandfather gone over a decade and a half ago and her grandmother passing away in 2021, Sarah and her little brother inherited the place, with neither wanting to — or able to run — the large tract of land in the heart of the Carolina countryside.

Throwing the truck into park in front of the brick ranch house her grandfather built himself in the 1960s, we left the comforts of air-conditioning and were quickly immersed in the hot sun of August in Eastern Carolina. Beads of sweat soon formed on my forehead as we walked around the perimeter of the silent, vacant house.

With her father deployed overseas and her mother living elsewhere, most of Sarah’s formative years were spent living with her generous and loving grandparents. We entered the house. The electricity had been cut off recently. There was that familiar musty smell of old memories and left behind trinkets.

Walking down the back hallway, she opened the last door on the left. It was her old bedroom. Bright red shag carpeting. Two windows and a small closet. A lone overhead light. She stood in the room and scanned it in a 360-degree motion.

Right next to her, I looked out the window and wondered how many times she did the same thing as a teenager and what she was thinking about back then, perhaps wishing would happen in her impending adulthood. 

Outside, we walked along the tobacco fields bordering the ranch house. For many years now, tenant farmers have overtaken the backfields and cultivated it. The sounds of doves in the tree line and insects all throughout the endless rows of soon-to-be-harvested tobacco.

Bending down to pick through some of the dirt in the rows, Sarah was looking for arrowheads, something she’d find often on the property many moons ago. Within a few minutes, she found one, a quartz with sharp, chiseled edges. Not much later, I found one myself.

Heading back to the truck, Sarah and I found ourselves in a conversation of sincerity and introspective purpose, me asking question after question about the property and her time there — what her life was like, what she experienced, what her hopes and dreams were.

With the ranch house and the 80 acres now in the rearview mirror, it was time to head back to Western North Carolina. But, not before Sarah gave the place one last look, her voice saying softly, “It’s good to be back here.” 

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

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