Archive for July, 2016

It was only about ten years ago that I discovered the music of The Carter Family.  While various Carters performed in various combinations up until recently; and indeed continue to perform, the original nineteen twenties recordings are what struck me.     These recordings were produced by Ralph Peer, who I just read a biography of.    He was not a touchy-feelie folklorist but a businessman who revolutionized the record business.  He successfully found musical acts outside of the then American mainstream, and made it a profitable relationship for both parties.

Ralph Peer came to Bristol, Virginia in the summer of 1927 looking for talent to record.     He set up a portable studio in a rented room, and put out the word for locals to come audition.  The Carters lived twenty-five miles away in the mountains outside Bristol in a settlement called Maces Spring, Virginia.    The Carters; husband and wife A.P. Carter and Sara Carter, and Sara’s cousin Maybelle Carter borrowed a car and drove down the mountain to Bristol.    Many say the Bristol sessions,  which also included the future star Jimmie Rogers,  were the real birth of country and bluegrass music, recorded folk music, and Americana music.

I wanted to take a bike trip in that region and maybe feel the mountain vibe of the Carter recordings.  The weather was predicted in the nineties all up and down the East Coast, but amazingly at least ten degrees cooler up in the mountains.   And I had never explored this border region between northeastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia, near the far northwestern reaches of North Carolina.   I could have actually biked up to the Carter homestead of Maces Spring, but the bike path from nearby Abingdon seemed a more pleasant bike ride.

I drove three and a half hours on the Interstate from Chapel Hill to Abingdon, Virginia, which is eighteen miles north of Bristol.   I parked the car around lunchtime on the street in Abingdon and took the bicycle out.    My first day was to be on a rail trail called the Virginia Creeper Trail leading thirty-five miles east from Abingdon into the mountains, with the town of Damascus at the halfway point.

Once I started biking on the Virginia Creeper Trail, cell phone reception soon ended.    I had only two Carter Family songs on my I-Phone’s hard drive, so I listened to Wildwood Flower and one other song over and over, playing through a small Bluetooth speaker.   Wildwood Flower consists of just Sara Carter’s vocals and eighteen year old Maybelle Carter’s amazing guitar, which sounds like two guitars instead of one.

 

By necessity, both railroad tracks and roads in the mountains tend to follow stream beds.  The scenery around the railbed was gorgeous, the air crisp, the life in the shade of summer sun invigorating.

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The path also went through open fields and by numerous houses and small settlements.

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I stopped for water and a bathroom break in Damascus.   This is a small town, less than a thousand people, not served by any four lane road.  It is one of the very few towns directly in the path of those hiking the Appalachian Trail.    It retains its old-time feel, even as it has become a magnet for hikers and bicyclists.    There was this apparently hand sewn needlepoint prayer in the public men’s room in a public park of Damascus.

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One of the pleasures of rail-trails are that they are relatively level, even in the mountains.   This trail is about level the first half from Abingdon to Damascus, and then turns uphill in a steady but slight uphill grade.  The second half gains fifteen hundred feet in altitude in fifteen miles until the trail abruptly ends at the North Carolina border.  I had made a reservation at a bed & breakfast that night in Damascus, but I still had some energy, so I rode ten miles further uphill on the trail, and then doubled back down.   As the trail gained altitude the scenery became even more lush.

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Riding back down to Damascus was particularly easy, as the grade was just steep enough that one did not have to pedal, but not so steep as one would have to brake constantly.

I arrived tired and thirsty back in Damascus.  While Damascus feels quite old school on some levels, on the highway near my B&B is The Damascus Brewery, where half  of the six cars in the parking lot seemed to be Subarus with North Carolina plates.  I stopped for a porter.

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The B&B was an interesting place.  I had made reservations that morning because I predicted that the supply of rooms on a summer weekend in Damascus might be tight.   However, this place has four rooms and I was the only guest.  I had the entire renovated and very clean 1895 house to myself.  The owners sleep in a garage apartment next door.    They were extremely polite and helpful, and had lots of cookies, wine, and coffee on hand in case I wanted any.   There was a Ted Cruz sticker on their Honda, the other car had a special In God We Trust Virginia license plate.

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I biked into town to find dinner, and poked my head into each of the three places.    I was surprised that nowhere was crowded.   The Old Mill Inn was actually quite O.K.   I ate outside next to the river.  Inside there was a guitar guy playing competent but uninspiring versions of 1960’s hits, accompanied by a rhythm machine.  That was disappointing as I had expected to hear something more homegrown.   I know from the mountains of North Carolina that roots music is indeed thriving, at least somewhere.

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I rode my bike back to the B&B in the gathering darkness.

I decided that night that I would ride the next day to Johnson City, Tennessee fifty miles to the south, over a mountain.

I woke up in the morning and stared at the ceiling.

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Breakfast was substantial:  three eggs with a lot of salt, bacon, home fries, biscuits, fresh fruit.   It was delicious but I usually do not eat so much in the morning.   I forced myself to eat it all, since lunch would be a long way away.    I bid the owners goodbye and took their picture.

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The Tennessee line is only about a mile south of Damascus.   I rode through town and then into the woods.

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For almost twenty miles the road climbed upward through Cherokee National Forest, topping out on a county line.   It then descended about fifteen miles to Elizabethton.     Cars passed only about one every ten minutes.   It was all beautiful;  I felt at peace with myself, for once.   I passed through the shortest tunnel I have ever seen.

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The road interspersed between wilderness and areas of housing along the road, becoming gradually more populated as I descended into the valley.  Along this road, and also along the path the day before, I saw an unusual number of decaying recreational vehicles.  Some seemed to be weekend getaways permanently parked, others just left in someone’s front yard to die.

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I saw this interesting church.

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And a lot of unusual yard art.

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I was clicking pictures while biking and by accident caught this slice of life.

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Elizabethton is one of the oldest towns in Tennessee, dating from the 1780’s.    I was reminded how Tennessee in the late eighteenth century really was the western frontier, and places like Elizabethton were the gateway to settlement of new lands further west.

Elizabethton has an older downtown strip, typically partly vacant and depressing looking.   In a prominent position where the downtown strip meets the Doe River, this bank building was more impressive.

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In that same downtown strip, a slice of cheese pizza at Jiggy Rae’s Downtown Pizza really hit the spot for lunch.

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For this day, Elizabethton was my return to civilization, to the Real America of Walmart.    There is a nice rail trail bike path called Tweetsie Trail that goes all the way the ten miles to Johnson City, much of  it through suburban sprawl.

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Entering Johnson City from the east, this snow cone truck had considered and creative concoctions.

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Being me, I bought the smallest and simplest, a small chocolate, even though I had just ridden a bicycle fifty miles in the heat.

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Others were not so simple.

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Other than the snow cones, Johnson City, population sixty five thousand, seemed just O.K.    I spend the night there and had a nice dinner, but nothing seemed distinctive.  Like other cities, the formerly vacant downtown is being revitalized with bars and restaurants.  I snapped pictures as I rode out the following morning.   This brewpub in a former train station does look nice.

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High on a hill in what looked like a nice older neighborhood was this gem.

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It was Sunday morning.   Under fifteen hundred feet in elevation, it was going to be hot.  My mission was to ride twenty-five miles to Bristol Tennessee slash Virginia, then the additional eighteen miles back to my car parked in Abingdon VA.

In the suburbs near the Interstate I stopped for an Egg McMuffin.   I had not had one in a while.  It was not as good as I had remembered.    I checked out the other McDonalds patrons at 8:30 on a Sunday morning.

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Sundays have less traffic and car drivers seem less in a hurry.   That was helpful, because there is really no other route between Johnson City and Bristol than this highway, although it did have a full lane wide shoulder.

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Two thirds of the way to Bristol, I passed the Bristol Motor Speedway, a NASCAR track.    It looked enormous.  From Wikipedia I learn that it is popular because it is a short track with steep banking.    I was shocked to learn that it is the eighth largest stadium / sporting event center in the WORLD.  It holds 160,000 people  Who knew?

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Seriously, this is not a hotel.   These are condominiums across the highway from the track, for really serious fans.

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I rode a few more miles before getting into the city of Bristol.

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Bristol is in two states.  The main downtown street State Street divides the city, with one side of the street in Tennessee and the other Virginia.   I am sure that there is a “nice” area of Bristol but I somehow missed that.   The neighborhoods in both sides of town that I biked through looked impoverished.    Downtown, however, seems OK.   At 11:00 AM on a Sunday people were having brunch.

 

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And this is where the Carter Family got their start in the record business, right within a block of the two photos above.   Of course, the building has been torn down and it is now a parking lot.

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I will confess that the recording of Wildwood Flower shown earlier in this blog was not actually recorded in Bristol; it was recorded nine months later when Ralph Peer had the Carters come up to the Victor studio in New Jersey.   But some of the early Carter Family hit records really were recorded in the original Bristol sessions.  This one touches on a frequent Carter Family theme: death.  (Girl to boy: I know you do not love me, so when I die, I hope you stare at my grave and weep.)

 

It was getting hot, so I got back on the bike to pedal the eighteen miles to my car in Abingdon.

US11 from Bristol to Abingdon parallels Interstate 81.   Biking on the “old road” one passes highway stuff from long ago.   This motel pool seemed stuck in time.

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This motel has become a mini-storage, but they kept the sign.  And then there is the drive-in movie.

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People smugly call places like Oklahoma flyover country.  However, almost everybody I know in North Carolina drives to the beach and they hardly notice what I-40 passes through.  Beyond the southeastern Raleigh suburbs no one seems to even stop for gas until they get to the coast.   Tootie had rented a small house in Topsail Beach for a week,  170 miles from our home in Chapel Hill.  I decided to bike there.  Maybe I could catch the vibe of that driveover country.

Because the temperatures were going to be in the nineties,  I started very early, pedaling out of parking level P-1 at 6:30 AM on a Thursday morning.  I wanted to cover the sixty something miles to Smithfield by about 1:00 PM,  stopping for a late breakfast at the halfway point in downtown Raleigh.

Greenbridge, where we live, looked pink in the early morning light.  Our apartment is on the top left.

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South of Southpoint Mall, I rode on the American Tobacco Trail bike path.

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The bike path does not really go in the direction most people would want to travel, so I cut off the bike path west of RDU airport, and rode through miles of newer subdivisions.  A bicyclist can safely ride from Chapel Hill to Raleigh by meandering through subdivisions with pretentious names.  I have been biking to Raleigh for years and it has taken me a long time to figure out this route.

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Entering the Raleigh city limits from the west I passed the state fairgrounds.  While not very useful as a modern event space Dorton Arena from 1952 is a lovely piece of architecture with a roof supported with high tension cables.

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Along Hillsborough Street near NC State,  these buildings built just in the past five years have made a formerly suburban area feel pleasantly urban.

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Morning Times on Hargett Street downtown is supposed to be a nice place and it is.    I got egg with corned beef hash and a decaf.

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The southeast side of Raleigh is traditionally African American.    Suburban sprawl can pull things in striking directions and show us how unintentionally racist our society can be.   Developers apparently do not want want to build anything on the black side of town.  Old Clayton Road is a two lane road from downtown Raleigh sixteen miles to Clayton.  It has hardly any traffic.    Because very little has been built here in the past fifty years, pieces of interesting commercial architecture remain.  This first warehouse is now a Latino church.

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There are former gas stations from about the 1960’s going all the way back to maybe the 1920’s.

 

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I-Phones have change travel is a revolutionary way.    They allow travelers not only access to the great Google Maps, but have access to the rest of the world’s information, right there in your pocket.  Unfortunately it also allows us to do office work anywhere.  While I take a lot of time off from my company Logisticon, on this trip I found myself doing extended business negotiations and emails.  On a two lane road that passed under a freeway ten miles the other side of Clayton,  I sat on a guardrail in the shade of the overpass and worked the phone, trying to escape the blistering heat while cars roared overhead.

I was hot and tired after leaving the underpass and I stopped at a mini-mart to drink a cold bottled Starbucks Frappuccino.

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It was only a few more miles to Smithfield, where I would stop and get out of the heat.

My brother Alex Marshall wrote a book fifteen years ago called How Cities Work.   One point of the book is that transportation defines cities and towns.  The original Smithfield was built around the Neuse River, and followed by a railroad.   The original downtown is clustered around those two transportation modes.   About fifty years ago I-95 created an exit just down the road.  Now there are no hotels and almost no restaurants in the traditional downtown of Smithfield, population 12,000.

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There at least six nice motels one and a half miles away at the I-95 interchange.    I booked a room through my I-Phone at a Best Western.   I checked into the hotel and rested in the air conditioning.

When it was time for dinner, I can easily say that over 98% of the retail and restaurant business in Smithfield has moved that mile and a half to the freeway.    The town functions on a residential level but the former retail downtown is essentially unused.   In the category of sit-down restaurants by I-95, there are ten or more chain and non-chain restaurants, including a Mexican place, Texas Steak House, Ruby Tuesday, Bob Evans, etc.     Downtown I could find only one place that I would want to eat but I did feel a responsibility to try it.   The sun goes down late this time of year so I biked back into town to Simple Twist.   I sat at the bar and read my Kindle.  The staff recommended shrimp and grits. It was a little too rich but delicious.  The place was very friendly; its name comes from a Bob Dylan lyric.

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Ava Gardner was from Smithfield.  Biking back through downtown to I-95 I passed the town’s museum for her.

 

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At the 6:30 AM breakfast in the Best Western, there were folks even older than me, and the conversation seemed to be about the outlet mall next door.

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It was still one hundred and thirteen miles to Topsail Beach.    I hoped to get as far as Warsaw NC, maybe even Wallace NC, which was about seventy miles away.  According to the map, those were the only towns along the way that had motels.

I hit the road by 7:00 AM trying to beat the heat.    Smithfield is at the start of the coastal plain called Down East, over a hundred miles of pancake flat lands to the coast.    I biked through tobacco fields.

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Around the farmlands, buildings looked vivid in the morning light.

 

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Where you would not see any people for miles it was startling to see a busload of farm workers tending a tobacco field.  While I only stopped the bicycle for about ten seconds to take the picture, the workers did notice me.   I feel somehow guilty about it.

 

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I only passed through a couple very small towns before getting to Warsaw.

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I needed lunch.  It was getting hot.   Warsaw has a McDonald’s a mile away out at the I-40 exit.   Yelp lists three restaurants in town but the only one open was Chinese and kind of sad-looking.    Not on Yelp was this taco truck.  The outdoor seating under a tent was not as cool as actual air conditioning, but the tacos were good.    Mexican immigrants seem to have brought life to this town.

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It was twenty miles further,  in the heat, to Wallace.    If I made it to Wallace, that would have been about seventy miles that day, and I would only have about fifty more miles the next day to the beach house.

I set off to Wallace after lunch, passing through the towns of Magnolia and Rose Hill.

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I pulled into Wallace sweaty and tired.   From Rose Hill  I had called the Duplin Inn in Wallace on the phone and booked their last room. I felt it amazing that the only motel in Wallace was almost full; who would want to stay here?

Those who have read this far are probably assuming that I biked all the way to the beach.   I did not.  Just after booking the room and giving them my credit card number, Tootie called, and said that her friends had left the beach house that day.   She was going to be alone that night, why didn’t she just drive out fifty miles and get me?  What could I say?    Sure.    I biked up to the motel and they graciously agreed not to charge my credit card.   A couple hours later Tootie picked me up at a Burger King that sat in the Walmart parking lot.

I did have some time to look around Wallace.   Like other towns, the business of Wallace has moved out to near the Interstate highway.    Those who say that Walmart put downtowns out of business are not really correct, at least in most North Carolina towns.   Downtowns had gone out of business long before Walmart.   Walmart put other regional mass retailers out of business.  On the north side of Wallace, their empty shells litter the highway.

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I stopped in Walmart to buy a few things while I was waiting.   Compared to the dead feeling of most of Wallace, the Walmart on the east side of Wallace was alive and full of people; it felt like the center of town.  I stayed in the store long enough to notice that these three old guys were not eating anything and not going anywhere.   They were hanging out, like they would have in another era at the town barber shop or cafe.

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