I spend a lot of time running, walking and biking around this town and not much time in church. As a result, I’ve always identified more with the “Hill” than the “Chapel.”
This is partly because I grew up off Ephesus Church Road in the Briarcliff neighborhood, which is situated at an altitude more than 200 feet below the apex of downtown Chapel Hill. You couldn’t really get around making an uphill slog to go anywhere farther afield than University Mall. The calf burn was omnipresent, even on my daily treks to Ephesus Elementary as a kid.
When I got a bike, Eastgate Shopping Center and the mall remained more or less the outer limits of my wanderings. The Franklin Street hill represented a nearly mile-long stretch of pain standing between myself and downtown’s more gently rolling landscape, from which I knew Carrboro could be easily accessed. Carrboro was where all my friends were hanging out.
One day, as a 14-year-old eager for independence, I decided to take action.
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I was a reasonably athletic kid, but did little for exercise at that time in my life. My rapidly growing legs were scrawny and shook before the challenge. But I took to the left-hand sidewalk and started pedaling.
To my credit, I made it a little more than halfway up before peeling off onto Howell Lane and vomiting profusely into a ditch. I still smile through a sweaty grimace every time I cycle past that point these days, proud of myself for at least making it that far without losing my lunch.
My junior year of high school, I joined East Chapel Hill’s cross country team, where I gained a more sophisticated knowledge of the town’s topography. I learned which hills drove knives into the quadriceps and which hills allowed for the maintenance of a conversation along their leisurely ascents.
I learned to ascribe a grave significance to street names like Glendale, Tadley and Kenmore. I learned to never go up the northern slope of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, to take the Battle Park trails rather than Franklin Street to get to campus, and that North Elliot Road was a safer, milder substitute for Estes Drive.
Shortly after, I began biking to school occasionally, wheeling my way up Weaver Dairy Road in the morning and running up it repeatedly at practice in the afternoon. My conquest of the hills that had so limited me as a child was nearly complete. Being now of sturdier stuff and having seen something of mountains, the hills of Chapel Hill no longer seemed as imposing as they once had.
Then, as a freshman living in Horton Residence Hall at UNC, I once again found myself at the bottom of a hill and with a familiar burning sensation in my calves.
These days, I live atop the hill in Carrboro, and as I prepare to graduate and start over again at the bottom of, well, something, it’s tempting to harness the hill as a metaphor for life’s ups and downs. But let’s not lose sight of their persistently important physicality, which, despite our best efforts, still determines whose apartments and stores flood when the summer rains come and where my cell phone can hang on to a signal.
There are so many things I love about Chapel Hill – its restaurants, its people, the university. But when I think about which of my ties to this place will endure, the ones that transcend the pizza joints that come and go on Franklin Street, it is knowledge of the landscape, and perhaps the landscape alone, that I share with Chapel Hill’s once and future stewards.
Henry Gargan is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill and opinion editor of The Daily Tar Heel. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org address.