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.
South of Southpoint Mall, I rode on the American Tobacco Trail bike path.
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.
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.
Along Hillsborough Street near NC State, these buildings built just in the past five years have made a formerly suburban area feel pleasantly urban.
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.
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.
There are former gas stations from about the 1960’s going all the way back to maybe the 1920’s.
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.
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.
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.
Ava Gardner was from Smithfield. Biking back through downtown to I-95 I passed the town’s museum for her.
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.
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.
Around the farmlands, buildings looked vivid in the morning light.
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.
I only passed through a couple very small towns before getting to Warsaw.
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.
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.
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.
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.