Automobile touring on a lazy afternoon is a time-honored tradition, and Robeson County offers many worthwhile local road trips.
For instance, Chicken Road is a long, interesting outing that begins at N.C. 211 and ends at Happy Hill, outside Fairmont. Happy Hill was home to bootleggers and juke joints, all long gone (maybe).
A trip to Fair Bluff is also worthwhile, and the road there runs past the Marietta Daylily Garden. A stroll on Riverwalk will get everyone out of the car. Don’t count on lunch, because Hurricane Matthew has made a ghost town of the business district.
A ride to Princess Ann and the Lumber River State Park should be on everybody’s list. The countryside is interesting and a hike through the park offers a chance to stretch the legs. The park is located on one of Robeson County’s most beautiful sites.
Getting lost is another interesting way to take a drive in Robeson County. On an exploration of South Robeson, travelers might find the secret tunnel under Interstate 95 or the backdoor entrance to South of the Border, which is still worth a visit to watch the sun go down from Pedro’s Hat.
There are many trips worth the time when you have time to kill, but I have one clear favorite.
Like some of the best things in life, I found this one while I was looking for something else. On a quest to find the old wooden bridge over the Lumber River in Long Branch, I found its replacement.
Getting there from Lumberton is half the joy, by taking the route from Chippewa Street, which turns into Hestertown Road. Along the route, some history is on display, some not so happy.
The old Pepsi plant is still an empty shell, but Georgia Pacific, a Koch Brothers company, has taken over the old Alpha Cellulose space, although with a much smaller workforce.
Moving along Hestertown Road, there are woods and sand pits turned ponds. The former Cogentrix plant is still producing power and is a going concern. See if you can figure out what they are doing.
From N.C. 72, go four miles and take a left onto Matthew’s Bluff Road at the Long Branch Grill — their burgers reportedly are outstanding. Travel a half mile until literally falling off a cliff at the Drop-off.
The road is smooth except where water ran across it from recent flooding. It’s only a few feet above the Lumber River and runs along the river, with swamp on the other side until reaching the bridge.
But, the road has been impassible since Hurricane Florence and the rains that followed through the winter. Reports of road conditions in mid-February indicate improvement.
Approaching the bridge for the first time is a delight. It should be a movie set. The bridge is covered in multi-colored graffiti. This may be the last place in Robeson County that is a public canvas for old-school graffiti.
“If we scrub it off, it comes right back,” said Phillip Pittman, of the N.C. Department of Transportation.
Pittman has fond memories of the bridge because he grew up nearby.
It is a relatively modern bridge with low concrete sides. It was built in 1991 to replace the historic one-lane wooden bridge, Pittman said. It was undoubtedly covered by floodwater from both recent hurricanes, but no worries.
“It will survive the floods,” Pittman said. “The road runs parallel to the river, and the bridge is (somewhat) perpendicular to it, so the current flows out and around it.”
A bridge like this most likely has a name, or if it doesn’t, it should. The area is known by locals as the Drop-off and has a colorful past as a party spot.
“It’s heavily fished today,” Pittman said. “People lean their poles against the bridge and enjoy.”
There once was a country store where bait and tackle could be bought, he said. The store is long gone, and the former community hub is quiet.
After admiring the graffiti and the river view, which is beautiful in all four seasons, the journey continues through the spooky old woods. There is swamp on both sides.
Travelers are now at one of the most remote places in Robeson County that does not require a boat. If it’s not, it sure feels like it. During several trips, I have yet to see another human or animal.
One wonders what purpose this bridge serves. Is it a bridge to nowhere? Once a bridge, always a bridge?
As the only bridge over the Lumber River between Lumberton and U.S. 74, Pittman said it serves farmers’ needs to reach their fields on either side.
Moving away from the bridge, the dirt road continues another mile or so before climbing out of the swamp and giving way to several homesteads. At the stop sign is Beulah Church Road, which is a pleasant ride back to Lumberton.
The road heads back to the Old Whiteville Road and then Lumberton. The return of urban landscape is a reminder of why it is important to get lost in the countryside now and then.
There are more trips worth the ride. A North Carolina Atlas & Gazetteers is a good guide to back roads, but it won’t help you find the artesian well somewhere near Orrum, or Lennon’s Mill Pond, or Rhoda Strong’s burial site, or other legendary places you may have never seen before — right here in Robeson County, U.S.A.