Archive for December, 2017

My wife Tootie’s sister Kathryn had been given a gift certificate to the restaurant Chef and the Farmer, one hundred twenty miles east of Chapel Hill, in Kinston.    The three of us drove over there, ate a grand meal at the restaurant, and stayed one night at the Mother Earth Motor Lodge.

We enjoyed it so much that I drove back by myself two days later to take a bike ride.  Eastern North Carolina is called Down East, a vast flat coastal plain in some places as much as two hundred miles wide.  It is the poorest part of North Carolina.   Some towns like Kinston seem far away from “anything.”  Kinston is not near Raleigh or Charlotte or Wilmington, not even all that close to the beach.   New Bern is almost the oldest town in North Carolina and has long been a draw as a historic place.    I decided to bike from the Walmart near Kinston to New Bern and back, on two consecutive days.


I drove our white Honda over there on a Saturday morning.   If downtown Kinston seems abandoned and depressed, one reason might be that almost all retail activity has moved almost five miles east, to where the new US70 bypass meets the old US70.     In the Walmart lot I figured they would not bother my car for 28 hours.

The Walmart and other large chain stores in this newer strip mall out near the Bypass have clearly taken their toll on older sprawl closer, maybe only a mile or two from downtown.   The Kinston Mall, on this Saturday afternoon, was essentially abandoned.

Kinston clearly has issues, with manufacturing and agricultural jobs lost and not much to replace it.  Two newer businesses downtown have helped in a small way to put Kinston on the map.   Both were started by Kinston natives.

The first is the Chef and the Farmer and the adjacent Boiler Room restaurants,  and the accompanying reality TV show of chef Vivian Howard.  I ate lunch this day at the more informal Boiler Room.   After miles of semi-abandoned commercial buildings, here in a downtown alley,  on just this one block was activity.    Most of the rest of downtown is empty storefronts.   Life!

Blueberry barbecue chicken sandwich.

The other entrepreneur downtown making waves is Stephen Hill, owner of Mother Earth Brewing Company, almost next door to the two Vivian Howard restaurants.   There was this line forming at the brewery when I went in the Boiler Room for lunch, and when I came out it was still there, only longer.  I asked one guy what was up; he said they were waiting for a “release” of some exotic kind of beer at Mother Earth.

Stephen Hill (of Mother Earth) has done other stuff besides running a brewery.   According to a recent article in the Raleigh News & Observer he has been buying up low cost real estate downtown, fixing it up, and and then renting to artists, usually from somewhere else, who apply to live there at his below market rates.    He also bought this motel two blocks away and beautifully renovated it in 2016 in mid-century modern style.   They fixed up the swimming pool and added a mini-golf course.   Tootie and I want to bring our friends and stay here in the summertime, hanging around the pool.

Biking east from downtown Kinston I rode through at least a mile of depressed and semi-abandoned poor neighborhoods.

Taking the back roads it was thirty-eight miles further to New Bern.   Most of the way the two lane highway was lined with farms and occasional houses across the absolutely flat landscape.

interrupted by swamps and woods.

New Bern is very different city than from Kinston and is slightly larger with a population of 30,000.    New Bern, founded in 1710 by Swiss settlers and named after the Swiss capital, has had second-home visitors and tourists coming to its historic center for many years.    Yachts stop by here on their New York to Florida transfers on the Intracoastal Waterway.  Downtown at night people seemed dressed up.   New Bern also is quite close to several large military bases.

I had booked an Airbnb for the amazing price of thirty-five dollars; fifty-seven including tax and cleaning fee; a bedroom on the second floor of a house owned by a Dutch guy, not exactly in the historic area but only about a mile away.

Despite the fact that his pickup truck, boat, and Honda Civic were in the driveway, he was not home. He was out of town in Detroit, of all places.    I learned from his very cordial and interesting neighbor and caretaker (who lived next door) that he was about sixty years old and lived here because his daughter’s husband was stationed in Fort Bragg (130 miles away, next to Fayetteville.)   He did not want to have to live in Fayetteville.    Sounds reasonable.   He had given me the code to unlock the front door.   So I had the entire house, if I really needed that much space.  Furthermore, he was clearly a neat-freak, so my bedroom and the rest of the interior were spotless.

At dinnertime I biked to downtown in the dark, a nice ride through residential streets.

I had a nice dinner (it cost about as much as the Airbnb!) downtown, and I walked around a little.

I biked back to downtown New Bern the next morning to take pictures and eat breakfast.

I had to have a big breakfast because I knew there would be nowhere to eat until I bicycled about forty miles back to Kinston.    I felt lucky to find a nice downtown non-chain restaurant, crowded on a Sunday morning, with patriotic slogans on the walls.

I rode back to Kinston on a different route, a lot of it on Old US70, paralleling the newer four lane highway.    I nominate Old US70 as the longest straight stretch of road in North Carolina; seventeen miles without a curve.   It had very little traffic; I would ride for ten or fifteen minutes without having a car pass in either direction.   I worried about dogs out here but none gave me much of a chase this day.  I pack two kinds of dog “heat”:   pepper spray and a loud air horn.   In all my rides over the years I have never had to use the pepper spray.   But it feels good to know it is there.

I passed by cotton fields.

While not an authority on the subject, I know there has been a generations-long reduction in the number of small farms.   Out here Down East I keep going back to that VS Naipaul quote about this area:   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.


Driving the rental car back from Florida to North Carolina,  I stayed overnight in Atlanta and had the opportunity to bicycle a little around.

On I-85 I stopped at the Welcome to Alabama rest area.   This is an impressive piece of modernism for what is essentially a bathroom facility.

I found this plaque weird and unsettling even if this is their state motto.

I had departed Florida much later than planned and I did not get to Atlanta until about nine at night.  I had booked an Airbnb, a studio apartment in a neighborhood called Inman Park.  It was spooky driving into an unknown inner city neighborhood in the dark, with few street lights on heavily wooded lanes.   Google Maps had guided me to this address through an impoverished neighborhood where I did not feel safe.   The neighborhood looked slightly wealthier when I got close to my destination.   It was a 1920’s apartment building, the second floor long hallway cluttered with bicycles.

I walked down the hall to door number twelve where I punched a code the owner had emailed me.     Seventy-nine dollars including tax, cheaper than a hotel and way more interesting.   It took me a long time to find where she hid the towels.

Since I had been in the car so long I was not about to drive around further.    Yelp showed a restaurant three blocks away, I walked over there through a neighborhood of large older homes, on dark streets where trees had buckled the sidewalks.

The restaurant stood alone in the dark.


It was nine-fifteen on a Monday night but a few people were still eating here.   Food was good but expensive.   Neo-Southern, of the style essentially invented by Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill.  The big deal here was apparently fried chicken, although, of course, they were out of it.

The next morning I decided to take an hour to bicycle around the area, maybe go as far as downtown Atlanta.  I pulled the bicycle out of the trunk of the car.

I could finally see “my” apartment building in the daylight.

The immediate neighborhood was mostly constructed around the turn of the twentieth century.    Being Atlanta, the houses were large and gaudy.   I read that by the 1960’s and 70’s most were chopped into small apartments and the buildings were falling apart.   The area has now indeed gentrified but mostly it has not descended into cutesiness, it still retains some funk.    This house was one of the fanciest.


I biked west towards downtown through a mix of commercial and residential buildings.  I was not the only bicycle on the road, commuter bicycling in this part of Atlanta seems endemic.

Martin Luther King was born in this house in a nearby neighborhood.     A large visitor center about MLK is just a few blocks away.

The church he preached in.      Some event was going on.

Clearly these neighborhoods east of downtown are gentrifying.

This 1930’s looking building seemed Art Deco.

Just a little further west I found the Eastside Bicycle Trail, a former rail line.  In a really nice way it is totally yuppy.  It is lined with not only houses, but brewpubs and coffee houses.   The houses shown here are faux old, they are actually quite new.    I could actually see ourselves living here, if we accepted the uniquely American notion that one can move anywhere, settle in, and somehow be happy; damn family connections, friends, etc.    (It is less than twenty minutes to the largest airport in the world!   You would never have to change planes to go anywhere!)



I had to get home, however.    I bicycled back to the car and drove the six hours back to Chapel Hill.
















The Gulf Coast beaches of northwest Florida and Alabama are the prettiest beaches in America.    The sand is blindingly white, the water crystal clear.  Amazing.


The human built environment here is more variable.   While some areas are quite nice, a lot of the development is astonishingly ugly.

This is a completely different part of Florida that what many people know.    Pensacola is seven hundred miles from Miami.   Also, these northwestern beaches are primarily used in the summer, so in early December this was low season.

I was here following a family reunion of sorts, a memorial service for our beloved Aunt Barbara, held at a beautiful Episcopal church in the old part of Panama City.   Barbara and her husband had retired to Panama City Beach and lived here almost thirty years.

The day after the service my plan was to bicycle the ninety miles to Pensacola in two days, then drive back in a rental car.

I parked my car in a Walmart lot and took the bicycle out.   As I left the parking lot I could see the beachfront high rises in the distance.  I bicycled the several blocks toward the beach.

I turned right onto the highway closely following the coastline.

This area is not all high rises; those come in clumps.   Other areas had miles of older beach houses.    I bicycled past this place where Alex and I had eaten breakfast the previous day.

The breakfast had been fine if you could ignore the bumper stickers above the grill.

At one point I had an opportunity to see the beach as the road turned slightly inland.

The next ten or fifteen miles comprised a series of “towns” constructed in the last twenty years or so.   I put that word in quotes because while these places try to mimic a town, they are really real estate developments masquerading as towns.   An actual town has a government and is populated by people who actually live there.   Very few people live in these “towns” full time and they are are ruled by homeowner associations and real estate companies.   My brother Alex has written extensively on this subject.

Still, these “towns” can be appear quite nice.   Instead of high rises, most have dense “neighborhoods” of mixed use buildings.   The first “town” we passed through was Rosemary Beach.  By my calculation, it looks to copy St. Augustine, Florida.    While these places look old they are actually new.

Each “town” along the way had its own architectural personality.   This one was Seacrest Beach.

Sandy Shores was gated to keep the riff-raff out. (What are they so frightened of?)

Alys Beach, where every building is white.

The last “town” of this stretch is the most famous.    Seaside was about the first planned community in America that tried to build a new “town” masquerading as an old town.   It was designed by the Cuban-American architect Andres Duany who was instrumental in the New Urbanism movement.  While my views have become more jaded over the years, if someone had asked me in about 1990 who my guru was, I would have said Andres Duany.    Duany at that time was more than an architect.   He wrote and put out videos showing the failure of postwar American urban planning and how ugly the shopping centers and cul-de-sacs of suburban America were.   He said we needed to go back to copying the small towns of 1920’s America, where streets were in a grid and houses had front porches that came relatively close to the sidewalk, and kids could walk to a corner store.  Mixed use.  In 1985 these ideas were new and controversial.

Seaside was much smaller than I expected.     Since parts of it are almost thirty years old, it is pleasantly overgrown with live oaks and some buildings look almost genuinely  “old.”     Most houses have front screen porches and grass yards are prohibited.    Lots of picket fences.

I grew up in Virginia Beach.   Parts of Seaside looks like an idealized version of what the north end of Virginia Beach would have looked like circa 1955.

And Seaside has a “downtown.”    Yes this all is contrived.   And elitist.  And no person of color was within miles of here, except maybe working in the back.     But the “downtown” was quite nice.   There is a line of trailers converted to food trucks.   They were uniformly all old Airstreams, I am sure there is some regulation requiring that!

Beyond Seaside route 30A winds through a state park and state forest land.

Unfortunately there was a bridge out, and I had to detour onto on the main highway US98.

I needed lunch.   In the middle of a pine forest along this wide highway was a strip mall that included something called Music & Coffee.

It was staffed by one woman.  There were signs promoting singer-songwriter nights at this venue.   She makes an excellent chicken salad croissant.

Back on the road towards Destin I was able to ride on this sidewalk much of the way.

Destin was a tiny fishing village surrounded by white sand dunes until about 1985.    Development went immediately to high rises without bothering the usual steps along the way.

Some areas did look nicer than I expected.

I stayed this night at the Sea Oat Motel, a motel that the woman behind the desk claimed was an original, built before the 1980’s boom, back when she said one had to drive seventeen miles to Fort Walton Beach to go to the grocery store.  Ground floor Gulf front room, ninety dollars plus tax.

For dinner I chose to bike in the dark out to the highway, in a sea of huge strip malls. (Yes Betsy, I have bike lights.)


One ethnic group that has done quite well all along the Gulf Coast are the Vietnamese.   I guess the hot and swampy climate reminds them of where they came from.     Two of my favorite food writers R.W. Apple and Anthony Bourdain both have said that Vietnamese food is their favorite cuisine in the world.   And both writers crow about pho.    The Baguette Bistro in Destin advertises themselves as French/Vietnamese.   The waiter recommended the pho.   This was the first time pho really blew me away.    Intensly flavorful broth, very fresh condiments, lots of beef.   I am learning that pho is like a hamburger in that how one uses the condiments is a large part of the experience.

There were Vietnamese families eating there as well.


The next morning I biked seventeen miles west to Fort Walton Beach, a faded beach town with an old school downtown lining US98.

In this strip of mostly empty storefronts was the quite nice locally owned Maas Coffee.   I stopped for breakfast; latte and a roll.   The pastry was surprisingly good.

I biked about fifteen more miles down highway 98.  It was none too glamorous.  I got off the main highway onto parallel roads when possible.

I was looking forward to the Navarre Beach Causeway, which would take me out the the Gulf Islands National Seashore.    Google Maps showed the barrier island as entirely green colored, meaning all of it should be parkland and I assumed very little traffic.   I would be able to follow that highway all the way to Pensacola Beach.

When I got to the top of the Navarre Beach Causeway bridge, this barrier island looked much more developed than the map had indicated!

Thankfully these high rises only extended for a couple of miles, and after that I enjoyed about sixteen miles of an almost traffic free road through undeveloped dunes of white sand.

As I got near Pensacola Beach there was a bike path along the beach highway.    It led up to these displaced looking high rises, the first buildings along the beach in many miles.

The national seashore ended abruptly at those tall buildings.   I cycled a few miles through residential areas of Panama City Beach filled with normal size houses.   I was hungry for lunch, but I did not want to stop at just anywhere.   Meals on these bike trips should be an experience.  I was running out of options and I settled for Flounder’s, a large crowded indoor/outdoor restaurant on the docks facing the water.    I sat at one of the several bars.

It was two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and everyone seemed to be having a good time.

Lunch was fine.   I felt sort of guilty for taking this picture as I was walking out.

Downtown Pensacola was less than ten miles further, much of it across bridges.    I found a decent renovated motel downtown.   I walked around later in the evening.   There were nice Christmas decorations.   Pensacola is older than New Orleans but parts have a New Orleans look.

The next morning I biked around the older parts of Pensacola.

This modernist house mixed nicely into the same neighborhood as the 1920’s bungalows.

While Pensacola does have some lovely older neighborhoods, it reminds me of those other Navy towns Norfolk/Virginia Beach and Jacksonville, with miles and miles of almost poor 1950-60’s neighborhoods thrown across the sandy landscape.

When I arrived for my car, Enterprise refused to rent to me because I already had one Enterprise car on my account.   I was forced to bicycle across Pensacola again so I could rent from Budget at the Pensacola airport.    Still, I had an easy drive back on I-10 to my other rental car at the Walmart in Panama City Beach.