Archive for the ‘Central North Carolina trips’ Category

Durham is about fifteen miles by bicycle from my home, depending on the route.   By the shortest route it is not even a very pleasant bike ride.  But Durham is a cool place.

I had read about Saltbox Seafood and its eccentricities, so I biked over to check it out.   Would the food be worth the wait?

In New Orleans in an industrial neighborhood there is a snowball stand called Hansen’s Sno-Bliz.   It has even won a James Beard culinary award, certainly the only one ever for a snow cone place.   Back in the 1980’s when Tootie and I lived near it, it was run by its original owners, an elderly couple who had run it since the 1930’s.  They were pretty much the only employees and they made amazingly creative snowballs with an exhaustive list of toppings.   All the syrups were made in-house.   They even invented their own snow making machine, with ice of uncommon fluffiness.    When we would arrive outside there would be a line of maybe five people.   But it still took about half an hour get to the front of the line.   The old lady (Mrs. Hansen, I presumed) took your order.  She would slowly and lovingly work out exactly what you wanted on your snowball.   It took like five minutes to just place an order for one or two snowballs.  The pace was so slow in was excruciating.  But if you had nothing else to do on a warm summer evening it was sometimes worth taking an hour (or more!) to get a delicious snowball.   The place still exists today, run by their granddaughter.

I saw some parallels in Saltbox Seafood Joint,  on the east side of downtown Durham.   There is nowhere to sit except on picnic tables scattered on the lawn.


At 1:30 PM on a Thursday there were three people standing at a walk up counter.    The guy taking orders was super friendly.   It took, however, nearly half an hour before he finally took my order for one clam roll.    He kept stopping taking orders so he could deliver food to other people.  When he finally took the order, as he had done for the people in front of me, he was sure to say “we are a little behind right now, the order will take forty-five minutes, is this OK?”

The guy said their menu changes every day, depending on what seafood they get that day, driven in from their sources on the North Carolina coast.  He said all seafood was from North Carolina.


I was determined to see this through, so I said “sure.”   It looked like there were two people working there, the guy taking orders and the other guy preparing food.    A little later I also saw another guy in the back.

I sat on a picnic table in the shade.   I actually was quite pleasant.   I read The New Yorker on my Kindle for somewhat longer than forty-five minutes.    I was starvingly hungry.  I swore I would never do this again.

But when my name was called the food was really delicious.  Clams have a distinctive flavor that can stand up in strong seasoning.    Their special creative coleslaw covered the fried clams, which had been heavily sprinkled with lime juice and a spicy hot and salty powder resembling Old Bay seasoning.  Everything tasted great, even the bread.  Unlike most fried seafood, I felt no urge to put ketchup or anything else on this.  It was complete and ready to go.



So it was great food that took forever to get.   Was it worth it?  I dunno, it depends on how valuable your time is!

Walking along Chapel Hill Road on the west side of Durham, I had never noticed the quantity and quality of 1920’s looking bungalow houses in this area.  They must have all been built about the same time.  They are generally big houses with enormous deep front porches.   This part of town does not seem yet completely yuppified.














I needed to drive 140 miles to pick up Tootie and Kathryn from an evening arrival at the Charlotte airport.    Using the opportunity I got to Charlotte early, parked the car, took my bicycle out of the trunk and spent most of the day looping though the streets of Charlotte.

I took lots of pictures.  Charlotte calls its downtown Uptown.  In a couple of areas I was struck by extreme and pervasive teardowning.   Southeast of Uptown in the prosperous neighborhoods of Dilworth and Myers Park small houses built in the 1940’s – 1960’s are being torn down and replaced by much larger houses.   Sometimes this is done in good taste, sometimes not.   I think this practice upsets the neighbors but there are a lot of bigger problems in the world.  It also shows the growing inequality in America.








There is very different teardowning going on in the other direction, northwest of Uptown in and near the neighborhood of Seversville, which looked to me an African American neighborhood now gentrifying.    This whole area is only about two miles from the high rises of Uptown.

All over the country 1920’s houses in the bungalow/arts & crafts style are popular.   Clearly there is insufficient supply in Charlotte, so the gentrification of this formerly mostly African-American neighborhood allows incoming young professionals an opportunity to build their own 1920’s bungalow.  There are a few original houses in the 1920’s style in Seversville, but mostly plain box houses are being replaced by brand new houses in this 1920’s style.  The house on the left is old, the house on the right in brand new.


My car was parked across the street.   An older small house wedged between two brand new larger houses (that look old!).

Right old, left brand new


Left old, right new.


Bicycling just a few blocks further west and the gentrification stops in its tracks.  Commercial strips are essentially abandoned, two or three miles from Uptown Charlotte.   Is it all based on race?  I think it is.   Every city in America has areas like this.   Why does no one want to live or work here?  These parts of towns have modernist commercial architecture that would have been torn down in more prosperous areas.










The wind was blowing hard and predicted to be from the southwest, with gusts up to thirty miles an hour.   Tootie suggested she drive me and my bicycle thirty-five miles southwest of Chapel Hill so that I could bike with the wind.    I got out of the car in the parking of lot of Loves Creek Baptist Church on the north side of Siler City (population 8,000);  pulled the bike out of the trunk and headed off towards downtown.

I did not eat at this place but it looks memorable.


Siler City is Norma Rae country.  Or, it was formerly Norma Rae country before almost all the textile mills closed in the past twenty years.   I passed one closed mill after another.  Chicken processing plants have opened more recently.   I do not think Siler City was ever a pretty town.

I have met several people who live in the Siler City area;  the liberal diaspora of Chapel Hill spreads out to near here.   I rode into the older downtown.


There was modernist architecture.


Before heading north back towards Chapel Hill I decided to bike an hour long loop though the countryside south of Siler City, maybe looking for the American Dream.


I might have found that dream on the way back into Siler City from the south, when I cruised through the quite nice neighborhood around the Siler City Country Club golf course.  I wonder if this house shocked the neighbors when it was built.



Siler City made national news back in the year 2000 when former Klan leader David Duke held a rally downtown.  The rally was more a less a failure in that locals seemed turned off by his message.    The inspiration for the rally was the influx of Hispanics who mostly came to work in the chicken processing plants.   The percentage of the population in Siler City who is Hispanic went from basically zero to about forty-five percent in ten years.

This seemed a good day to look for a Mexican restaurant.  I would never have found this place without Yelp.    It starts with a Mexican grocery store downtown that has no sign.



You walk in through the store past the impressive meat department to a small restaurant in the back.


The menu is on the wall.  Women were preparing fresh tortillas in the kitchen.


Accompanied a guava soda and green hot sauce, I got four tacos, two asada (grilled beef) and two lengua (beef tongue).


After lunch there was no alternative other than to bike northeast towards Chapel Hill through farmland pretty much the whole way.


In the liberal la-la land that is Chapel Hill, we miss entire movements.    Maybe twenty-five percent of ALL the houses displayed this specific sign, not only in Siler City but all along the roads through the countryside back to Chapel Hill.


These signs are the inspiration of a sixteen year old from nearby Asheboro.    He has encouraged thousands to buy them.

About halfway back, predictably on a creek for originally for water power (Cane Creek), I passed Lindley Mills.   On their website they say they are 10th generation owners and they now produce high quality organic flour.



I applaud their existence but I usually only bike on greenways when I have to.  There is so much more to look at when biking on neighborhood streets!  Still, Raleigh has built in just the last few years a top-notch 112 mile system called the Capital Area Greenway.

I biked around a lot of those Raleigh greenways one day last week.

The placement of these greenways has a lot to do with rainwater drainage.  To explain my understanding of water in Raleigh I have to go way back.  I had moved to the Raleigh/Durham area in 1988.  Before, in 1974 I first left my hometown of Virginia Beach to go to college in Chestertown MD.  On graduating I went to graduate school in Phoenix AZ,  then moved to Houston TX, New Orleans LA, and Miami FL.    Except for Phoenix, which is desert, all these places are flat; I had never lived anywhere with hills.  I had never experienced the quite common topography of the North Carolina Piedmont.   I had to learn that when you have rolling hills the frequent rainfall drains to ravines at the bottom of those hills, which become streams and creeks.   Along these streams are mostly flat areas called flood plains.   Because this is the lowest area, cities lay sewer lines paralleling these creeks.    These narrow bands of flat wooded areas are too easily flooded to build buildings on,  and most have a municipal right of way for the large underground sewer pipes.   It was excellent foresight to start building bike paths, “greenways” next to or on top of these sewer lines.   While Raleigh can be quite hilly, almost all the Capital Area Greenway is flat, and there are now paved paths alongside the meandering creeks.


I drove over from Chapel Hill with my bicycle in the trunk and parked at Crabtree Valley Mall, next to Crabtree Creek and the bike path.



This path parallels the creek, frequently crossing back and forth, sometimes going over water.





At several points the bicycle rumbled over gum balls spread all over the path.




A piece of the bike path had been washed out by recent heavy rains .  I detoured up steep hills through neighborhoods.  Raleigh has been on a economic roll lately and prices for inside-the-beltline houses have gone through the roof.   There has been the controversial practice of the Tear Downer.   In neighborhoods of 1950’s-60’s ranch houses homeowners and speculators are tearing down houses like this:


and replacing them with houses like this:



In certain neighborhoods it seems this is happening to almost every other house.

I actually have read something advocating for historic preservation of fifties-sixties ranch houses.  I grew up in a neighborhood of these ranch houses and I find them really unattractive,  especially those with “colonial” details.   I have trouble getting excited about saving them from being torn down, although the gaudy house above is even worse.    Here in Raleigh another house bites the dust.



On the way back I stopped in Crabtree Valley Mall to get a decaf coffee to drink on the drive home to Chapel Hill.




For years, I have been predicting that Mebane would become the next Carrboro, the next Saxapahaw, the next former mill town to where creative types priced out of Chapel Hill can relocate.

I rode out to Mebane to eat lunch, then ride back, a little over twenty miles each way from my home in Chapel Hill NC.   The bicycle route to Mebane takes you from the La La Land that is Chapel Hill/Carrboro as it slowly becomes the Real North Carolina.

Chapel Hill is in Orange County.   Because of county legislation passed decades ago, outside of town the Orange County Rural Buffer mandates something like one house for every five acres.    Most of the rest of rural North Carolina does not look quite so pristine.  One downside to the Rural Buffer is that it is slowly being filled up with five acre estates.  There are always going to be contentious political issues about land use.  There is not that much large scale farming going on out here and much of the land may not be great farmland anyway,  However having the Rural Buffer creates attractive rural landscapes and it is something we should be very proud of.






Lots of people still live out here.  Most of the interesting residences are hidden in the woods where you cannot see them from the highway, with a few exceptions.  David Summer told me a long time ago that Ippy and Neal’s house was his favorite in the whole Chapel Hill area.  Ippy is an artist, and some of her drawings are currently on display in the lobby of the Greenbridge condo building where I live.


While almost all this ride was in Orange County you sense a cultural shift the further you get from Chapel Hill.   I draw the cultural line when houses start having boxes for the Burlington NC newspaper.


I saw homemade modernism, plus other stuff.









Cruising into Mebane, you see several brick factory buildings.  The most prominent is for the White Furniture Company, in business from 1881 to 1993.   I remember when it closed, the press was that Americans were no longer willing to spring for a fine piece of furniture, produced by skilled craftspeople.    They just wanted Ikea.   More recently the former factory is being converted to apartments.   Five years ago I would not have believed that people would live in a condo in Mebane;  now I think the plan might succeed.




Those living in these new condos can walk to town.      Martinho’s Bakery and Deli has been there a long time, but most other bars and coffee houses have opened in just the past two years.    Some might even make it.







These guys seem to be selling little of everything.


Martinho’s was busy on this Monday.  While the steak and cheese sub (that day’s special) was really not that good, I have had other things there that are fine.   You do not see this kind of place much in North Carolina, with pictures on the wall of owners and of their native country Portugal.





I got on the bicycle and rode home.

Like I said, much of the upper end housing in the Rural Buffer of Orange County is hidden in the woods.   There are a few tract developments, however.   This gated community has been there a long time, with a FrankLloydWrightesque sign at the gate.    You cannot see any of the houses from the road.


More recently, grandiose Pennsylvania developers Toll Brothers built this section of about twenty minimansions on a former cow pasture, maybe five miles from downtown Chapel Hill.





Has anyone heard of Ellerbe NC?  It is in Richmond county, twenty-six miles west of Southern Pines.

I had driven down to the Sandhills area on a Wednesday morning, looking for some other part of North Carolina to discover.   In the center of the triangle formed by Pinehurst, Southern Pines and Aberdeen sit the huge parking lots for Walmart, Best Buy, PetSmart chain stores, and megastores that line both sides of US15-501.  I parked outside a Panera Bread and went inside and bought a decaf.   Scanning Google Maps on my phone, the town of Ellerbe looked interesting.  I pulled the bicycle out of the car and took off towards the southeast, to see what the mysterious town of Ellerbe would be like.

Off the main highway about a mile from my car, Aberdeen has an interesting municipal building.


I rode off down a pleasant two lane road through the Sandhills countryside.



Those not from around here may not know about the Sandhills.   This area of central North Carolina that spills into South Carolina  is over a hundred miles from any beach, but the topsoil is pretty much all sand.    This is somebody’s driveway just west of Aberdeen.


Around the end of the nineteenth century somebody noticed that all this otherwise near worthless land was perfect for building golf courses.  It was right on a principal north / south rail line;  people could come down here from the Northeast overnight by train.  Pinehurst and Southern Pines were the first golf resorts here.   The most prominent kinds of tree that grow well in sand are pines.  So everything here is named pine this or sand that.

I saw a little bit of golf stuff leaving Aberdeen, but apparently the south side of town is not as popular.    Most of the golf courses are north and east of where I was riding.   Heading southwest towards Ellerbe I got the impression that all this low cost land gives people a certain freedom.   You can live here and spread out.   I saw houses of all sizes.   If you want to live in a messy way just go for it.




Or if you can afford a big house, maybe you also can afford a big front yard!


People here seemed to value their privacy.


I was about thirteen miles out of Aberdeen when I really felt I was in the middle of nowhere.  The houses had stopped and the two lane road ran through piney woods on sand.  I came upon something called Sycamore Lodge.    It is a large private campground; people must just come in their RV’s to hang out.



The rest of the way to Ellerbe was mostly piney woods, interspaced with someone’s house, or someone’s old car.




About three miles before Ellerbe I crossed over I-73/74.    I-73/I-74 is a recently built highway south from Greensboro to Rockingham to Wilmington, giving someone (I guess) an alternate way to drive from Greensboro to Wilmington.    There wasn’t much traffic on a Wednesday at 2:00 PM.   It used to be that having great roads like this was the key to economic development, but I do not think that is true anymore.  It might be the opposite; young energetic entrepeneurial people are moving to places that are not defined by their highways but have inviting public spaces.  Instead, what about a pay raise for our teachers?


In the classification “towns big enough to have one or two restaurants and a Family Dollar store” there are hardly any towns left in North Carolina that have not had their downtown ambience wrecked by a divided four lane highway.    In most towns in North Carolina, even those near an Interstate highway, the NCDOT had previously built a four lane highway on the “old” road.   Ellerbe is indeed intact, but I wonder how long it will last before a strip mall or maybe even a Walmart is built at the I-74/I-73 interchange.   Ellerbe does feel like fifty years ago.





Lunch was at Denise’s Diner.


There were artificial flowers around the entrance.


I got their specialty cheeseburger with cole slaw on top, plus a side of green beans from the hot bar, with sweet tea and a slice of pecan pie.   It was all delicious and cost seven dollars and thirteen cents total.





I bicycled back to Aberdeen by a different route.   I enjoy looking at signs.   Just outside of Ellerbe, these people want you to call them, but why?


This trailer park wants you to call Jeff,  but how?  Maybe everybody around here knows his number.


I passed though some of the most remote feeling areas that I remember visiting in central North Carolina.   The major things I saw out here were a place called K2 where they train guard dogs, and this huge solar energy facility.  It is much larger than it appears in the photo.


Bicycling along through what appeared the middle of nowhere, I suddenly was inside a neighborhood where it all appeared to be about golf.    This was Foxfire, the first of many developments centered around golf that I would pass in the next ten miles.



I stopped at a mini-mart to get more water.   Apparently, the same management who runs the mini-mart and sells real estate also sells gold bullion and a Glock handguns!  You can’t be too careful out here.




When I approached Pinehurst,  the older areas around the original hotel were more posh.  While these houses are not at all new, they try to look even older; maybe even aspiring to downtonabbyish pretentions.




I bicycled through several more miles of roads fronting on of golf courses before I got back on US15-501.   I was dicey dodging the cars around the Walmart, before I could get to my parked Honda about a mile down the road.