Sewer Grates & Tobacco Sheds


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Published: October 23rd 2003
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As I rode south of Scotland Neck, North Carolina, I began seeing a new structure among the barns of many farms. Standing two stories tall and measuring perhaps 20x20 feet with no windows and a single door, I kept wondering to myself what they were. Many of these buildings were sided in wood, but some of them were covered in sheet metal. All of them though looked as though they hadn't been used in years. Doors and siding were falling off, and in some cases the roofs were rusting through.

I finally stopped and asked about them, and I was informed that the unusual buildings were tobacco drying sheds. In that context it made sense why they stood in disuse, for I had yet to see a single field planted with tobacco. In fact, I had stopped and photographed one barn that advertised, "Greenville, Best Tobacco Market In North Carolina- Five Different Agents!" The barn stood in the midst of cotton fields, and the only tobacco in sight was that tossed to the side of the road in cigarette butts.

As I rode across the river valleys, the cotton stretched for miles, and massive combines that resembled alien insects lumbered slowly across the fields as they harvested the cotton, kicking up clouds of dust that rolled across the roads as I was bicycling past. I would hold my breath and squint my eyes, but inevitably I would emerge on the other side with a fine layer of grey dust sticking to my skin. I tried not to think about the pesticides and defoliants I knew must be coating my skin and lungs, and tried to be grateful that I was only "passing through."

Overhead I began to see more and more hawks circling. After two weeks on the road, I had become quite accustomed to the sight of buzzards overhead, looking for roadkill, and so the darting hawks stood out in the sky in vivid distinction as they outpaced the buzzards by a factor of two or three. At one point a hawk flew low enough that I was able to make out his red tail, and another time I was sure I recognized a peregrine falcon, although I had only ever seen one above the caption, "endangered."

The raptors and tobacco sheds became more prevalent as I moved south towards Greenville, and so did a new breed of sewer grates. I doubt very many drivers take notice of sewer grates, but a bicyclist encounters them constantly, and so I was taken aback by the stunningly ill-designed sewer grates I encountered in Greenville. Instead of being a flat, square gridiron, these grates had a depression in the center, were rectangular in shape, and had slots running the length of them. Nine times out of ten the grates were placed lengthwise to the street, and the 2 inch wide slots were just wide enough to suck my bicycle wheels down into them.

I was riding into Greenville at rush hour on a 4-lane divided highway when I first encountered these new grates, and it was a miracle that I did not kill myself as my front wheel was sucked into the grate. If I had fallen to the left, I would surely have been run over by the cars next to me. I had been concentrating on the traffic a couple of feet to my left, and had obliviously ridden over the sewer grate, thinking that it would be no different from sewer grates elsewhere. It was only after I had crossed it that I looked back & realized the danger I had barely missed.

I spoke with another bicyclist in Greenville, and he told me that these hazardous sewer grates were supposed to have been modified with welded strips of metal across them. Many of the grates had been altered around Greenville, but there was still a sizable minority of grates that stood open, ready to trap and maim an unwary biker.

So now I wonder what other varieties of sewer grates, as well as barns and birds, I'll encounter as I work my way south.

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