By Alex Linder
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer
Back during the Jazz Age in New York City, you took the A Train to get to Harlem. But to get most everywhere in Carrboro, you take the J Bus. In the spirit of Charles Kuralt’s dictum that everyone has a story, Commons reporter Alex Linder jumped on the J Bus and selected a rider to interview at random.
Mark Quattlebaum’s truck broke down for the last time on the side of N.C. 54 in 1993. The mechanic was not optimistic about its future, so Quattlebaum had it scrapped. He has not needed a replacement since.
Instead he gets around town in the oldest fashion way – by walking. Quattlebaum, 51, may not be famous in town, but his figure striding up the road with a couple of bags slung across his shoulders certainly has become a familiar sight in the community.
“I’ve built up a reputation,” he said. “People will see me on the side of the road coming into town and sometimes they’ll pick me up and give me a ride, but it’s okay if they don’t.”
Jeff Griggs, 54, of Pittsboro, remembered seeing Quattlebaum plenty of times before deciding to stop and see if he wanted a ride. “He kind of reminded me of Forrest Gump,” he said. “Just more localized.”
If Quattlebaum had an eHarmony account it would begin with, “Enjoys long walks… anywhere.” He estimates that he walks nine miles a day. On a good day his total can easily go up to 12 or 15 miles. “I’ve done it for so long, I don’t even mind it anymore,” he said.
Quattlebaum said that his hobby started less as walking and more as being dragged along his old dog, Noodle. The dog was a samoyed, a breed from Siberia used to pull sleds and herd reindeer. With little snow and few pack animals in Orange County, Quattlebaum ended up being the one pulled and pushed along.
“Most people probably wouldn’t want to walk as far as I have, but most people haven’t had a sled dog,” he said. “He really made it more fun.”
Though Noodle died more than a decade ago, Quattlebaum has not stopped walking. He said it eventually became a habit too stubborn to break and always the best way to clear his head.
On Sept. 7, 2009, Quattlebaum did have to temporarily stop putting one foot in front of the other when he experienced a stroke.
With the help of doctors, he made a quick recovery, using a cane to get around for some months, until he felt well enough to stand on his own again. The experience gave Quattlebaum more than just a cane; it gave him a new outlook on life.
“After the stroke, I thought, ‘I’ve spent 51 years of my life doing not too much,’” he said. “Now, I’m trying to change that.”
For the last 31 years, Quattlebaum had worked in Chapel Hill area restaurants, including the defunct Pyewacket restaurant, doing just about everything you can think of: serving food, washing dishes, tending bar and bussing tables. Though he did enjoy the work, he said he could not help feeling like he had missed out.
Quattlebaum reenrolled himself at UNC-Chapel Hill, in order to get a chemistry degree, a degree he had just barely started more than 30 years ago.
Glen Barry, 46, of Chapel Hill, a friend of Quattlebaum’s, said that he is really happy for the change. “Quattlebaum is such a nice, sweet guy,” Glen said. “He’s had a couple of bad breaks, but I think he’s really trying to do something now.”
Quattlebaum spends his days in the UNC-CH libraries reading heavy textbooks with names like “Adventures in Chemical Physics” and “Calculus of Variations: Mechanics, Control Theory, and Other Applications.” Though these titles might bore some, Quattlebaum said that he has been eagerly lapping up their knowledge in preparation for the first summer session to start.
Afterward he likes to take the J Bus to Carrboro and shop at Weaver Street Market, where he might add another bag or two to his collection. Quattlebaum carries with him everything he might need during the day. This means he looks loaded down, carrying bags on his back, elbows and hands. He said that just like the long walks it is something he has grown used to.
At the end of the day he returns to his mobile home five miles west of Carrboro. He has to walk three miles to get to the bus stop, but again he does not mind. At home, Quattlebaum enjoys watching sci-fi movies, especially old ones. “The worse the special effects, the better the movie,” he claimed.
Quattlebaum said that he loves the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community, and he would not want to be anywhere else. He has been successful in this – the last time he was out of the area was more than 10 years ago. “I don’t feel trapped here without my truck,” he said. “It’s always been where I want to be.”
For a printer-friendly PDF version of this story, click here.