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The Carolinian 

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After spending Thanksgiving with my family in Chapel Hill this November, I took Amtrak's Carolinian back to Washington, D.C., for the first time. I was expecting a smooth, faceless return to the big city. Instead, the ride felt like being on a tram that runs through a game park—full of adventures and sights and surprises.

The Carolinian goes daily from Charlotte to New York City. It winds east through North Carolina, arriving in downtown Durham, where I boarded, through Cary, Raleigh, Selma, Wilson and Rocky Mount, before finally turning north into Virginia. Glued to my window, I saw a bit of the state roll past.

The day was gleaming with a variety of sunlights—slanting, butter-colored, playing up the starkness of newly leafless trees. Those rays seem indigenous and isolated to early winter in North Carolina. But what made the view remarkable wasn't just its beauty. Rather, it was the realization that the landscapes, buildings and communities that have long symbolized North Carolina for me are still there—that is, despite everything that's changed in this country over the past decade, all the new gadgets and gizmos and growth, some things remain. It's as if this state is a brand, with the core of its being preserved like a trade secret.

I admit I'd forgotten those scenes existed. There were fields of corn stubble and dappled dead cotton plants, weathered barns still standing tall in the middle of nowhere. We rolled past flat pine forests and slopes of withering kudzu, long swamps and rivers whose names I wished I knew. In the distance were spindly water towers painted with town names, and next to the tracks stood cheap corrugated metal warehouses and simple churches in practical brick, white steeples rising into the sky. The houses were the same, too—white clapboard with green roofs and screened porches, a few done up in colorful bric-a-brac trim or framed by cheesy lawn decorations or folk art statues.

With their diagonal on-street parking, the downtowns we passed seemed more lively than those I remembered from days of doing nonprofit work in the area or driving through on the way to the beach. It's not that there wasn't new development along the route. It just didn't feel as jarring to me as it often does in the places I've been more recently, like Washington or even the Triangle. What I saw was the North Carolina of my childhood. It hadn't been swallowed up by whatever it is that makes me feel like I don't entirely know this country anymore.

Down one street I saw boards nailed to a tree trunk, inviting someone small to climb high into its branches. So kids can still take some risks here, I thought with satisfaction, smiling. And I kept on looking until I knew we were finally in Virginia.

  • After spending Thanksgiving with my family in Chapel Hill, I took Amtrak's Carolinian back to Washington, D.C.

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