It was about thirty degrees outside at eight-thirty on a Tuesday morning when I headed out by bicycle for a three day trip from my home in Chapel Hill NC. Brrrrrr. I was in search of parts of North Carolina I had never seen. I did not intentionally set out to ride through the Uwharrie Mountains; it just worked out that way.
I took my loaded bicycle down the elevator in our condo building and pushed it through the lobby and onto the street.
My intermediate destination was to bicycle thirteen miles northeast to the Durham Amtrak station, a converted tobacco warehouse. It took me slightly over an hour. I was scheduled for the 10:30 AM train west towards Charlotte.
My destination with Amtrak was to be the city of Salisbury NC; a little over a hundred miles southwest of Durham and forty miles northeast of Charlotte. Intra-state Amtrak service in North Carolina has improved. There are now four trains per day in each direction covering the 170 mile route of Raleigh/Cary/Durham/Burlington/Greensboro/High Point/Salisbury/Kannapolis/Charlotte.
Carrying a bicycle with you on Amtrak is frustratingly uneven but improving. Across the Amtrak system they have several different kinds of cars so it is difficult for them to establish uniform rules. On these intra-North Carolina trains they have a combo baggage and lounge car. You walk your bicycle down to the open door and hand it up to the attendant, no extra charge. Mine is a folding bicycle but I chose here to check it as a regular bicycle.
I find train rides comforting. This one took just under two hours.
The NCDOT that owns these tracks has been slowly upgrading them. Making trains go faster is mostly about improving the tracks, not the locomotive. One can feel the difference in the improved stretches, where this train would stop creaking and also pick up speed. I have a speed app on my I-Phone. In an area between Durham and Burlington I clocked us at a consistent eighty miles an hour.
I arrived at Salisbury’s circa 1908 train station a little after the noon hour.
I got off the train and retrieved my bicycle. This is the route I was to take by bicycle over the following two and a half days.
Salisbury NC (population 35,000) has an old school downtown that sits on a hilltop.
Looking for some kind of lunch downtown on North Main Street I saw a line stretching outside the door of a small joint named Hap’s Grill. I cued up even before I even knew what kind of food they offered.
Hap’s Grill has no seating inside, just a tiny area to eat while standing. I assume most patrons were eating the genuine North Carolina way, in your car. The menu was essentially just hot dogs, hamburgers, fries, potato chips, and Cheerwine. On the wall they had a photo of a drag racer.
Salisbury residents are likely proud of Cheerwine, a soft drink sold all over the southeast that originated many years ago in Salisbury. It tastes like Dr. Pepper. Outside on the sidewalk they had tables to stand where I ate my cheeseburger-all-the-way, Lay’s Potato Chips, and Cheerwine.
Finishing lunch I got back on the bicycle and headed out of Salisbury towards the town of Albermarle NC, about thirty miles to the southeast. The weather had turned warmer since the morning. Once outside of Salisbury the traffic was greatly reduced.
Here, forty-five miles northeast of downtown Charlotte but otherwise far from anywhere I saw repeated large houses either looking new or still under construction. People with money are moving out here.
I had never been to Albermarle NC before. After I returned home I mentioned Albermarle NC to a group of friends in Chapel Hill. No one had been to Albermarle NC before and most had not even heard of it. Despite this, Albermarle NC (population 16,500) is a substantial town. As I got into town I biked first through a neighborhood of former mill town housing.
Most of downtown Albermarle sits on the side of a hill.
People are evidently moving to this downtown.
Businesses in downtown Albermarle frequently had “Uwharrie” in their name, such as Uwharrie Soap Company. I vaguely knew that the Uwharries are a range of small mountains, separate and east of the Appalachians. I learned now that their highest peaks are only 1,100 feet, and that the entire range is contained within the the fifty or sixty miles directly north of Albermarle. I would see more the next day.
I wanted to sleep somewhere downtown but the only bed & breakfast listed said they were closed. I had to settle for the Quality Inn out on the main highway, near the Walmart. It was getting dark and I had to make some kind of decision.
Like the place I stayed a month ago in Georgia, the hotel was run by someone named Patel.
I would have liked to eat dinner that night downtown but cycling a hilly two miles each way in the in the dark was too complicated. There were lots of places to eat in the vast asphalt terrain of parking lots and chain restaurants that lined the big highway. The one non-chain was El Ranchito, directly across from my motel. The highway was easy to cross on foot because it has a center divider. Arroz con pollo was OK but nothing special. Genuine arroz con pollo involves cooking the chicken with the rice. Here this was cobbled together from already cooked ingredients.
The next morning I made coffee in my room. Years ago my sister Betsy told me never to use in-room coffee makers because they are unclean. I continue to ignore that probably good advice. I knew I was heading out into the rural abyss and needed a hearty breakfast. I do hate chains but out here near the Walmart my closest and best choices were Chick-Fil-A and Biscuitville. At least Biscuitville is a North Carolina chain. I got a bacon and egg biscuit which I took to eat back at the room along with the hotel coffee. I watched Morning Joe.
The weather had warmed up enough by 9:30 AM for me to depart the motel by bicycle, looking to cycle a circuitous route forty-six miles to Asheboro NC.
A few decades ago someone thought Albermarle NC could support its own shopping mall. I passed its dead body on the way out of town.
A town even as small as Albermarle can have traffic like a big city. I was lucky on my ride west on state route 27. The highway was in the process of being expanded to four lanes but the new half had not opened yet. For most of my ten miles on that road I had a double lane highway all to myself.
Soon after crossing the Pee Dee River I turned left onto the much smaller Liberty Hill Church Road. While the road changes names several times it enabled me to cycle thirty something miles straight north towards Asheboro on nearly empty peaceful country roads. I was traveling through the Uwharrie Mountains but the road must have been parallel to the ridge as there were few major hills.
I learned there are only two extant covered bridges in North Carolina. In rural Randolph County fourteen miles south of Asheboro is the Pisgah Covered Bridge, built in 1911 for only $40.00. It sits next to the highway which has a replacement modern bridge.
As I neared Asheboro I crossed over I-74. The NCDOT keeps building giant highways, especially in rural areas. Look at all the traffic.
That morning I had booked an Airbnb in central Asheboro NC (population 27,000) because I wanted to stay downtown. Every conventional hotel in Asheboro was out on the highway like the Walmart. Asheboro seems still very much a factory town. The Airbnb was half of a working class looking duplex. Inside it was very nice and I could bike or long walk to restaurants downtown.
I had always seen Asheboro from the amazing amount of commercial sprawl spread along US-64. I did not know it actually has a quite nice downtown.
Arriving into into downtown I stopped at Nannie Maes Cafe and Bakery. It was refreshingly communal, people hanging out. In addition to coffee they had a plethora of fresh looking baked stuff. I had had a peanut butter sandwich out on the road but at 3:30 PM I was still hungry. Here I ordered an oat milk latte, one pack sugar, plus a slice of broccoli and ham quiche.
I am not Italian but at home I like to cook Italian style. I once heard that Italians, even on vacation, like to eat Italian style cooking. Online I found a restaurant called Positano about a mile away. I bicycled over there in the dark through the grid of city streets and found the one empty seat at the bar.
There were two or three groups of locals sitting around a tight space. One loudly proclaimed that they had considered a sober January but it would be too difficult. I interjected that, actually, I was twelve days into this sober thing, and yes, it was difficult for the first couple of days but you get used to it. I sipped the limeade that the bartender had suggested. We all had a great time discussing this and other worldly subjects. Being Southern, they all cordially introduced themselves.
Even though I sometimes prepare it at home I like to order eggplant parmesan when on the road.
The next morning I considered my options. Yes, I theoretically could cycle all the way home to Chapel Hill but it would be fifty-five miles at a minimum, over a route I already had cycled many times. Instead, I chose to cycle the other direction, twenty-six miles west to the High Point Amtrak station. I would then take the train to Durham, and from there cycle the twelve miles back to Chapel Hill.
For breakfast I made myself a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich in the kitchen of the Airbnb, along with coffee they had provided. It was peaceful sitting there.
My route to High Point took me OVER the Uwharrie Mountains on Caraway Mountain Road. There were hill climbs but almost no traffic and the scenery was lovely.
On the other side of the mountain there was about ten miles of rural neighborhoods before the city of High Point. Make America Great Again has morphed into Take America Back.
It is diversifying out here! At a country store cappuccino is now included among fishing worms and lottery tickets. Inside there was a mounted deer head watching over it all. I just got a bag of salted cashews.
Downtown High Point in dominated by giant furniture showrooms that trivialize the pedestrian experience. They are apparently only used a small portion of the year.
My friend and High Point native John Ripley had pointed out that High Point was proud that in 1937 they moved their railroad tracks into a trench downtown, reducing noise. As is typical of American infrastructure, this was done too late, just about the time Americans were starting to greatly reduced their travel by train! I biked up to the Amtrak station.
My 11.50 AM train arrived on time.
I was back in Durham before 2:00 PM. The center part of Durham has been exploding with growth. The area below was mostly empty warehouses and vacant lots ten years ago. Durham Central Park was created out of former industrial land.
I cycled back home to Chapel Hill, a little over an hour’s bike ride away.