Biking Eastern North Carolina flatlands, Tarboro to Williamston NC and back, November 9-10, 2021

Posted: November 18, 2021 in Eastern North Carolina trips

This trip would be a one nighter. I drove our Ford Escape Hybrid an hour and a half east of Chapel Hill. Tarboro is one of the prettiest small towns in North Carolina. I drove around Tarboro looking for a safe neighborhood where I could park. There were no “No Parking” signs anywhere, no signs about parking at all, really. Would anyone care if I left our car parked here for thirty something hours? I guessed I would find out.

parked on the street, Tarboro NC

I did not have room on the back of my bicycle for my peanut butter and jelly sandwich so I strapped it in its foil wrapping onto the top of my trunk bag.

I cycled through the town of Tarboro (population 11,000)

residential street in the wealthier part of Tarboro.

Tarboro has a “Common,” a downtown park that the locals will tell you that is the only Common in the USA other than Boston. Veterans Day was just around the corner and there was an American flag thing going. Tarboro is likely a very conservative place, so I guess when one is anti-Trump one needs to shout it out.

This house is in a prime location, facing the Common, with liberal banners
Tarboro Common flag celebration

I cycled through Tarboro’s downtown and onward east towards Williamston. Here is the loop I rode over two days.

Tarboro sits across the Tar River from Princeville, which states it is the oldest (1885) town founded by Blacks in the United States. I cycled northeast from Princeville. Eastern North Carolina is almost completely flat.

Note to Harvey: there are usually no shoulders on highways in North Carolina

Tarboro is very Southern feeling. (Its newspaper from about 1850 to when it closed in 2014 was The Daily Southerner)

I guess it was appropriate that for much of the day I bicycled through cotton fields. The plants were fluffy and white, ready to be harvested.

Out in the middle of nowhere on the flat landscape was this new looking giant house. Who lives here? Why?

After an hour or two out cycling through flat open fields I stopped for lunch at the first town I came to, Oak City, population 317. The air was clear and the day was silent. Oak City has a small park across the street from the fire station. I sat at the one picnic table and read The New Yorker on my Kindle while eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. About a hundred yards away the two fire/rescue people stood there, watching me pretty much the whole time. I guess this town does not get many visitors.

After lunch I biked over to the fire station to wave hello to the two first responders, then rode around town before heading east.

downtown Oak City NC
Mid century modernist post office, Oak City NC
Oak City NC
Outside of Oak City NC

It was fifteen or twenty miles further to Williamston NC. Most of the cycling was through open fields in a flat landscape with the occasional gentle slope.

buzzards feasting on an opossum

On this trip I passed several pre-WWII gas stations, most likely 1920’s.

I bicycled into Williamston NC (population 5,200). Williamston is on the Roanoke River and was a port town. It is a hundred miles from any ocean beach. By East Coast standards an isolated place, “out there,” a hundred miles to either Raleigh or Norfolk/Virginia Beach, a hundred-fifty miles to Wilmington NC. It sits at the crossroads of east-west US64 and north-south US17. The town has lost population since 1960.

Commercial activity is almost entirely on the big four lane highways. The older downtown is fairly empty.

downtown Williamston NC

An exception to the emptiness downtown was a brewery and an arts center. Locally owned breweries and coffee houses are sprouting everywhere in America. Williamston has a coffee place out on the highway, and for a thirsty bicyclist at cocktail hour, their own brewery, downtown, opposite the arts center. Unfortunately it was a Tuesday and the brewery is only open Thursday – Saturday.

I cycled around the older part of town.

oldest house in Williamston, from 1833

North Carolina builds highways! They promote sprawl. There are three tiers of auto highways in Williamston; the original US17 that runs down the town’s main street; the four to six lane bypass that was built in the 1960’s, and now a freeway passing two miles out of town. The newest and nicest Williamston hotels are out by the freeway. I booked a room at the Quality Inn, an older motel not downtown but on the wide but lightly used Business Route 17.

Almost adjacent to the Quality Inn is the Sunny Side Oyster House, built in 1935 when this location was likely a lonely shack out on the highway.

Later on I returned to the Sunny Side for dinner.

It seemed very old school. There are two rooms. You have a drink at the bar while you wait for a seat in the the inner room. Once seated you watch your oysters being shucked.

bar room
View from where I had dinner, sitting around watching oyster shuckers

Oyster styles are regional. The most popular oyster here was “steamed,” similar to what in Virginia Beach we called “roasted.” I have lived in and visited New Orleans on and off for years and in New Orleans I have never heard of roasting or steaming in-shell oysters. Here in Williamston the unshelled oysters are put in a large steaming device and when you order they ask how much you want them cooked. I chose lightly steamed. They were opened hot by the shucker as he stood in front of me, putting each oyster in the same small dish as I ate them.

The flavor is less intense than the raw oysters I am more used to. I dipped them in either butter or pre-mixed tomato/horseradish sauce. Raw oysters are also available here, as are Alaska crab legs, shrimp, and scallops. For a second item, taking the recommendation of the server I had initially ordered scallops. They returned a few minutes later and said they had just run out. I got shrimp instead. They were delicious.

The scene was quite social, I enjoyed talking to the older couple who sat next to me. They live five miles outside of Williamston where they run a campground.

I am, correctly I believe, quite COVID cautious. Even though I am fully vaccinated I normally never go into a crowded indoor space like this but the Sunny Side Oyster House was too unique for me not to experience. No one, worker or patron in this establishment was masked. Everyone acted as if it was not a problem. It has been nine days now and I haven’t gotten sick, thankfully.

The free breakfast the next morning at the Quality Inn was so bad that I had to look elsewhere. They did not even have Raisin Bran, just English muffins with no butter or jelly. They had space age pre-made microwavable egg burritos and sausage biscuits. Gross.

Only a couple hundred yards from my motel was the Shamrock Restaurant. Getting that short distance without a car involved walking/running across a six to eight lane highway, then another six to eight lane highway.

Donald Trump sticker on the door of the Shamrock Restaurant, Williamston NC
posted at the Shamrock. Local theater seems to thrive in outlying communities like this. A great thing.

After my COVID chance-taking the night before I had no interest in crowding into the mask-less dining room. I got my breakfast to-go and ran back across both highways to my motel room.

breakfast tasted freshly made and delicious

It was thirty-five miles back to my car in Tarboro NC. There had been quite a lot of local truck traffic the day before. I chose more remote roads going back and I was rewarded with mostly quiet and peaceful country roads.

All day was bright and sunny with temperatures in the fifties and sixties. It has been about five years on this blog since I last repeated a V.S. Naipaul quote about Eastern North Carolina, from his book A Turn in the South.

It was a landscape of small ruins. Houses and farmhouses and tobacco barns had been simply abandoned. The decay of each was individual, and they were all beautiful in the afternoon light.

Cycling back onto the picturesque streets of Tarboro NC my car was still there. I packed up the bicycle in the back and to drive home. On the way out I stopped a few blocks away at the locally owned Tarboro Coffee House for something to drink in the car on the drive home; oat milk latte, one pack of sugar.

I was home by 5:00 PM.

Comments
  1. Betsy says:

    I love the series of small ruins. I need to do a series of prints or something like that.

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