Since moving to the apex of the Eastern Continental Divide, I’ve developed ambivalent feelings toward the formidable road that intersects it: N.C. Highway 9. No wheel goes unturned on this convoluted gateway to the area’s mushrooming gated communities and the pleasures of Lake Lure and Chimney Rock. There’s no lack of traffic, from the countless 10-speeds that quietly chug up the mountain to careen down the other side at a fair clip to the rolling thunder of Harley-Davidsons that have kindly (depending on how you look at it) adopted Highway 9. More obnoxious travelers include the gargantuan quarry dump trucks that barrel up and down the mountain in a constant stream, crossing the centerline with reckless abandon and zero concern for those they dwarf. This macho disregard for other travelers reaches its zenith when the occasional 16-wheel, 50-foot tractor-trailer somehow manages to overlook two 10-foot, flashing yellow signs warning them not to attempt to traverse the plethora of switchbacks on Highway 9. Once in, they have to find a way to turn around, enlist a police escort and get back out, meanwhile endangering everyone around them. And let’s not even talk about the approach road to Highway 9 and the fast-lane hogs on Interstate 40—another case of reckless vehicular arrogance and endangerment. Speeding, crossing double yellow lines and tailgating are all-too-common practices, and until recently, I, too, was guilty of them.
But after a year that entailed waiting in school lines, two weeks of study, tests and six hours of drivers education, my 15-year-old son was in the final stages of this vaunted rite of passage to adulthood. It took two long hours of waiting at the DMV for him to pass the test and be rewarded with permission to learn how to drive. Although I didn’t bring the camera, and there was no applause or marching band (which would have sent him scurrying red-faced out the door) to mark this momentous occasion, the shiny new learner’s permit and his big smile were enough to bring joy to the heart of any parent.
When we chose our home, the fact that the exit onto Highway 9 (shared by 50 other property owners) is nothing short of suicidal seemed negotiable in exchange for the privacy and beauty we would gain. In order to get onto Highway 9, one must enter the road in the wrong lane, peer through a row of mailboxes and then “shoot the gap,” so to speak, flooring the pedal before an unwary vehicle comes flying over the hill on a collision course. But it was just something we got used to.
Realizing that my son would now also have to learn to shoot the gap, I asked the postmaster to consider moving the mailboxes across the road, to reduce the chances of my son or any of the numerous pensioners who live here becoming a fatality. The postmaster was cordial, promptly offering to have a look and call me, but even though I went back a second time, I never heard from him again.
So, armed only with the learner’s permit, my son and I set out from school to home in the old Honda Accord inherited from my mother. Compared to my five-speed sport coupe, it should have been as easy as driving a golf cart—until we hit Highway 9, that is. After the first few bends, a monstrous four-wheel-drive pickup truck illegally overtook us despite the double yellow line. If this weren’t enough to fluster even a seasoned driver, as we approached the lower switchback, a motorcycle closely pursued by a car came up behind us so fast and so close that my son, distracted by the commotion in the rearview mirror, plowed our vehicle into the side of the road. To my astonishment, the speeding tailgaters totally ignored us, driving right around our ditched car and continuing out of sight. My son had successfully driven up this very same road with the teacher only a week before, but he and the other student had apparently had to pull over frequently to let people pass.
In the UK, new drivers are required to display what’s called an “L plate” to alert other drivers that they’re still learning. But since there’s no such provision here and no enforcement of the existing traffic laws, we’ll simply have to avoid Highway 9 for now.
And these days, when I find myself stuck behind a Lincoln Town Car or RV with Florida plates that’s crawling along at 20 mph, I remind myself that the life of the person behind the wheel is every bit as valuable as my son’s. Even if others haven’t learned how to drive courteously on roads like Highway 9, I certainly have—because my son’s life and those of other kids like him are at stake.
[Julia Brooke-Childs has a B.A. in literature and design from American University. A writer and graphic designer, she’s also co-owner of New Age Gardens in Swannanoa.]