I was almost done with my month-long sobriety; no alcohol during February. I had done this as a self-imposed act of denial, sort of Lent for a non-believer, suggested by a friend in Chapel Hill who was doing the same. Still on the wagon, I took off to bicycle 163 miles in three days from Charlotte, through Salisbury and Greensboro, back home to Chapel Hill. My regular readers know that I frequently partake in the bar life on these bicycle escapades, so it was going to be interesting to see what a difference sobriety would make. The short answer is; not much difference at all. I learned some things about myself. The warm genial feeling of a drink in a bar after a long day of cycling is very closely approximated by a hot sweet decaf cafe au lait, especially when the weather is cold, and when the sweet hot drink is taken at a friendly local coffee house, like the Koko Java in Salisbury, or the Green Bean in Greensboro. Later on in the evening, where the only drink was tap water, no ice; one could still achieve that sense of calm satisfaction at the end of a nice meal, especially if it was dinner of veal piccata at La Cava in Salisbury, or braised short ribs at LaRue in Greensboro.
Tootie dropped me and the folding bicycle off at the Durham Amtrak station at seven on a Thursday morning. While one buys the tickets from the Amtrak website, the rail cars for just the the Raleigh/Durham/Greensboro/Charlotte service are owned and operated by NCDOT. These refurbished 1960’s coaches are nicer and cleaner than the regular Amtrak coaches I have taken up and down the East Coast.
About ten in the morning, I got off into the frigid wind at the Charlotte Amtrak station. Thankfully, the wind was blowing in the direction I was headed.
As most visitors to Charlotte know, the wealthier people live south and east of downtown. The Amtrak station is about a mile north of where Tryon Street passes under I-277, and the trendiness of Charlotte’s downtown stops. The station is very much on The Poor Side of Town. I was to be riding north, so I started this bike ride already on The Wrong Side of The Tracks.
The bike ride was O.K., and I was able to stay mostly on roads that had wide enough shoulders to keep me somewhat safe. But for the entire forty-three miles to Salisbury it was just ugly. I have seen this pattern on other trips. I can faithfully say now that maybe two-thirds of the built up area of America looks like shit. Most of America has an effective policy of slash and burn urbanism, where we abandon the old and open the new, further “out”. On this trip, there are miles and miles of semi-abandoned factories, mixed with semi-abandoned strip malls and housing for poor people; things like trailers strewn across the landscape, mixed in with the occasional new housing subdivision. Most people like me organize our lives around driving our cars between the “good” areas of town to other good areas of our town, or good areas of other towns. We learn to focus out the ugliness we are driving through, if we notice it at all. As a bicyclist I am constantly looking to find the smallest and least traveled road and I this may cause me to see America in a different light. I am struck at how unattractive a large percentage of America really is. If a foreigner came here and just started wandering around, his or her primary impression of America would be abandoned strip malls. There is also a racist face to suburban sprawl; nobody wants to put stuff on the black side of town. On the north side of Charlotte, the few commercial buildings are old; frequently empty.
Among the few busy commercial establishments was The Sunflower, a meat and three place where I got lunch while many were still eating breakfast. It had a multicultural menu that included items for the mostly African American clientele including breakfast of fried fish and eggs. I got meat loaf with green beans and collards, cornbread on the side.
One passes through miles of decaying neighborhoods until the usual suburban sprawl starts way north around Huntersville. After Huntersville, there were some new developments, then miles and miles of working class housing. This is also near Kannapolis, a town whose name I had not realized came from the name of its factory Cannon, as in Fieldcrest Cannon towels. Kannapolis has a particuarly hard story; it once had one of the largest towel factories in the world. In July 2003 Pillotex, the successor to Fieldcrest Cannon, went bankrupt, and four thousand three hundred workers lost their jobs in one afternoon. From Charlotte north the hundred plus miles to Greensboro, then east fifty something miles to Chapel Hill one passes mostly closed textile mills and furniture factories, one after the other. This is Norma Rae country, most people do not seem to live in actual towns. They lived, and continue to live, in semi rural areas. It is a mix of small houses and trailers, mostly spread out across the land. One sees very little open countryside.
One sees varying displays of patriotism. This house included both the rebel flag. the American flag, and a sign about Jesus on their porch.
I did pass two nice bits of mid-century modernism, a church and a graveyard.
Late in the afternoon I pulled into Salisbury and had my delicious coffee at the Koko Java. Sitting there, I scrolled through my phone, looking for somewhere to spend the night. I do not always like bed and breakfasts, but none of the motels were within walking distance to the restaurants downtown, and if you factored in the price of breakfast, it was a reasonably good deal. I was their only guest, in a two year old renovation of a 4800 square foot near mansion, run by two English people. They had moved to Salisbury because such large homes are unaffordable in places like Asheville. They did say that when one moves to Salisbury one has to bring one’s own money or job; the local economy does not provide much support. I walked downtown that night for an Italian dinner at a former church called La Cava.
On the way back after dinner, the older part of Salisbury looked pleasant at night.
The next day I cycled through towns and countryside filled with dead factories; Salisbury to Spencer to Lexington to Thomasville to High Point to Greensboro.
On the south side of Greensboro, the NCDOT is pushing its suburban sprawl agenda. Do you think the new road is wide enough?
Downtown Greensboro is doing a pretty good job making itself useful. A lot of people are actually now living there, creating loft apartments.
I want to put in a plug for the Biltmore Hotel in Greensboro. America does not have many hotels like this; a small reasonably priced older hotel downtown in a small to medium size city. It is neither a flophouse nor frou-frou. The free breakfast the next morning was enlivened in a small room downstairs by several skinny fifty or sixty somethings; arguing about the merits of Bernie Sanders vs. Hillary Clinton.
That last day was another fifty something miles from downtown Greensboro to my home in downtown Chapel Hill. The east side of Greensboro is not what one would call quaint.
I passed where the work is being done on the massive and unnecessary I-840 bypass on the northeast side of Greensboro.
I then spent the rest of the day going through these towns one by one along what I now know is a fall line, where because of water power it was a good location for factories. The ride was more pleasant than the day before, the towns seemed livelier and in better shape even though there were lots of dead and dying factories.
Burlington. I have seen this house before; the owner must have a huge need for privacy.
Mebane; only twenty miles from Chapel Hill!
Lunch the last day had been at a Mexican restaurant in Graham. I was struggling to get through Robert Caro’s 1100+ page biography of Robert Moses (The Power Broker), which is not available on Kindle. I bought the paperback, and then I tear out 200 page sections so it would not be too heavy for lugging around on a bicycle.
The final portion of the ride was across rural Orange County, which includes Chapel Hill. You can really tell the difference, it was the only area of the three day ride that looked truly rural and peaceful. Much of this can be attributed to Orange County’s unique Rural Buffer. Of course it is elitist, in that the area is slowly becoming a series of small estates rather than farms. Still it is undeniably unique and lovely.