Most people outside North Carolina do not realize what a huge area encompasses what we call Down East; flat, flat, flat, and stretching on for miles. There are a bunch of small towns, a lot of agriculture, and small cities like Rocky Mount, Wilson, Greenville, Goldsboro, and Kinston. While the Charlotte and Raleigh/Durham areas have grown and prospered over the past twenty years, things Down East have pretty much stayed the same or declined.
I drove an hour and a half east on a Thursday morning, parked the car in the small town of Snow Hill, and pedaled off into the morning. Snow Hill is a beautiful small town, not ravaged by four lane highways. I got to Kinston about lunchtime. It says a lot about North Carolina towns when one is pleasantly surprised to find any kind of life in a downtown area; it is a given that Kinston’s downtown would be essentially abandoned; but in its decay it looked livelier than the downtowns I have seen in Wilson, Rocky Mount, or Goldsboro. There even were two nice clothing stores that seemed very much in business, a man’s and a woman’s, next door to each other.
They had a nice 1930’s looking courthouse.
Also downtown, Kinston has been on the national news for the past several years, owing to a high end restaurant The Chef and Farmer that has been featured on the PBS show A Chef’s life. On this trip, I ate for much less at King’s Barbecue, the quintessential Down East meal of chopped barbecue sandwich (it is understood that this is pork, in vinegar sauce, with cole slaw on top), brunswick stew, hush puppies, and sweet tea. It makes one imagine what it was like a hundred years ago here, where almost everything you ate would have been corn, cornbread, a few vegetables, and pork for seasoning.
Cycling back to the car, I thought about how flat and Southern the land looked, a tamer version of the Mississippi Delta. V.S. Naipaul wrote of Down East in his book A Turn in the South:
It was a landscape of small ruins. Houses and farmhouses and tobacco barns had simply been abandoned. The decay of each was individual, and they were all beautiful in the afternoon light.