Highway 11 runs through the heart of Pitt County, southward through fields still white with cotton, past homes where worry fills the air like humidity. Tractor-trailers rumble by, or they stop at the Country Mart for $3.99 diesel.
The four-lane road links countless economic stories: of the cafe supervisor who must pay for a ride to work, the trucker who may soon file for bankruptcy, the unemployed woman whose mobile home hasn't had electricity for a year.
Josie Briley, 51, knows there's a presidential election this year, but she couldn't tell you who's running.
“We don't have no current,” she said, “so I don't watch no TV.”
On television this week, Barack Obama and John McCain couldn't say in their debate whether the economy will get worse before it gets better. They could take a drive down Highway 11.
The farmer knows about the economy. The barber, too. His business is down 20 percent over the past six months.
“And it's not just me,” said Steve Roebuck, 69, as he ran a comb around a client's balding head in the near-empty downtown of Bethel.
A McCain sticker was pasted on the wall next to the Ten Commandments. “We lost 159,000 jobs in the United States in the month of September. The whole world is suffering now.”
In many ways, the communities along Pitt County's main north-south highway reflect the rest of North Carolina – a dichotomy between the old farming economy and the new industries stemming from technology.
Strung along N.C. 11 are small towns with empty storefronts, mobile-home parks where children's togs wave from clotheslines, farmlands sown with peanuts. There's also the city of Greenville, about 250 miles east of Charlotte, where jets fly over the new hospital wing and East Carolina University's Pirates are 3-2 heading into today.
The unemployment rate in Pitt County was 7.5 percent in August, slightly above the statewide rate of 6.9 percent. The median household income is $33,000.
This could be McCain country, with the tradition of Southern Democrats who vote Republican in presidential races. More than 8,000 McCain supporters showed up at a Sarah Palin rally Tuesday. But Obama has opened an office here, too, and folks who might normally swing toward McCain say now they're not so sure.
North Carolina hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter and was on few lists of battleground states a year ago. But now, public polls and a surge of Democratic voter registrations indicate it's no longer a safe Republican state. Last week, Obama outspent McCain 8-to-1 on television advertising in N.C. markets – by far the biggest disparity among the battleground states, according to an analysis by the Wisconsin Advertising Project.
The town of Bethel, population 1,774, sits on the northern tip of N.C. 11. Stores are boarded up, the streets feel deserted. The Piggly Wiggly closed a few months ago, and now folks must drive 14 miles to the nearest grocery store. Outside a local bank, new teller Carrie Graham-Brown stands on a step ladder and adjusts the marquee to remind customers that their last Christmas Club payments are due.
She's overqualified for this job – she's a paralegal who works in real estate – but her business wasn't doing well, and she was living on credit cards.
A Republican by nature, she doesn't know how she'll vote. She just knows she's angry.
“Why is it that I'm up here with this sign and I can't keep my business afloat?” Graham-Brown asked.
A few miles south, W.C. Moore, 65, oversees the first day of cotton harvest on his 2,500-acre farm. He figures the crisis will hit him this winter, when it comes time to take out new loans for next year's seed. The bank will want more collateral – land, equipment.
His wife is incredulous. “We don't have anything else to give them,” she said. The couple are in the middle of a renovation – ceilings, walls knocked out. They saved years for it.
She hopes McCain will protect the country from the immigrants she says are taking jobs. Her husband thinks McCain will protect farms and industry. Also, Obama makes the Moores nervous.
“First, look at his name,” W.C. Moore said. “Does that sound like an American name to you?”
Keep driving. There's the Country Mart truck stop on the right, where Miriam Jenkins, the cafe's night supervisor, denies a customer who wants a free slice of pie.
“Uh-uh, baby. It ain't my restaurant. We just run it for the Man.”
Jenkins, 40, loves this job, enough to pay someone $15 each way to drive her here six days a week. Her transmission went out, but she has to work to help her in-laws pay the $1,200 mortgage on the house they bought in 2005.
The payments had been $900, but the rate adjusted upward. Her mother-in-law gathers the family to go over the bills, to decide which will go unpaid, to figure out who can go find extra work.
She's definitely voting. “Obama,” she said. “I hope he ain't making no promises he can't keep. We need someone who can fix this.”
Down in Greenville, Jim Moye, 64, pulls his golf clubs from his trunk and hollers to a friend at the Greenville Country Club.
“Want to play a hole or two?”
Moye is voting for Obama. His small businesses can't get credit right now.
Nearby, insurance agency owner Chris Challender, 51, hands a bucket of balls to the high school girls he coaches. He doesn't even look at his investments these days – let his broker have the stomachaches.
“Probably McCain,” he said. “I think it's going to be less impact on my business.”
Farther south, in Grifton, Misty Moye, 33, sees gas prices going up, and then everything else, including the goods in the discount store where she works. A gallon of milk is four bucks. Customers tell her: “Y'all need to change the name, because it's not the Dollar General anymore.”
Moye's mother opens her storm door, leans outside to see what's going on.
“We need help,” Louise Moye said. “And Barack is the man.”
She shuts the door.
Misty Moye nods.
“Whoever gets into office,” she said, “they got a lot of cleaning up to do.”
And Highway 11 goes on southward.