Archive for the ‘Eastern North Carolina trips’ Category

Wilson and Rocky Mount NC are similar cities twenty miles apart.   Rocky Mount initially was based on textile manufacturing and Wilson on raw and bulk tobacco.

 

I parked the Prius in a Walmart parking lot two or three miles from downtown Wilson.

I bicycled through the more prosperous and woody residential neighborhoods on the east side of Wilson.   This house is NOT typical but I do like its style.

 

Closer to downtown the neighborhood was less upscale.  Does this count as Modernist?

 

I had no idea that this day, Saturday November 3rd, was the day of the Whirligig Festival!      A folk artist named Vollis Simpson lived near Wilson and had compulsively been creating whirligigs for years.    When he died in 2013 the city of Wilson appropriated an abandoned piece of downtown as a park for his whirligigs.   I had visited here about three years ago and the “park” did not look like much, a few whirligigs on barren dirt surrounded by vacant buildings.    It has really improved, with even a restaurant now facing the whirligigs.  While downtown Wilson is still largely vacant, this park is actually becoming a place.   There were crowds and live music this sunny Saturday.

 

 

 

I eventually got back on the bicycle and rode the twenty miles to Rocky Mount, across flat open fields, often lined by pine trees, with the occasional abandoned farm building.

 

I had visited downtown Rocky Mount two weeks earlier and it appeared even more abandoned than downtown Wilson.   I had not noticed The Prime Smokehouse, which sat on an otherwise unoccupied downtown street.   An African-American run restaurant, it has a much more varied menu than the traditional North Carolina barbecue place.   I got shredded beef sandwich and green beans.

 

After lunch I pedaled through the south side of Rocky Mount, and then back to Wilson.

I put my new bicycle in the back of the Prius and drove a hundred miles east from Chapel Hill NC to Rocky Mount NC.    I found a parking lot downtown where I could leave the car for a few hours.  There is plenty of parking in downtown Rocky Mount.

 

 

Yes, I have a new bicycle!    It is a Bike Friday made to order in Eugene, OR, somewhat like my PBW that broke in half six months ago.  I will try to be more careful this time.   On the new bike I chose an eleven speed rear cog with no front derailleur, skinny 20 x 1.1 115 psi tires with Schraeder valves, and drop down handlebars that separate into two pieces when packing the bicycle in a suitcase.   I had had it about a week when I took this ride.   It is taking me a little time to get comfortable on it.    Of course it feels much lighter and faster than the Surly Long Haul Trucker.    I will keep the Trucker for occasional use.

Rocky Mount, population 55,000, despite its name has almost no rocks or hills.   It was built at the site of one small waterfall of the Tar River, which provided power for textile mills.    It sits in the vast coastal plain of Down East.   Its downtown is quite vacant, but there are a few signs that life is springing up, here and there.

 

 

 

The NCDOT “thoughtfully” designed the principal road through downtown as a one-way, to handle the vast amount of traffic on this workweek day.   Not.

 

Two blocks over is what used to be Rocky Mount’s principal shopping street.   It sits with the main line double track New York to Florida CSX railroad running down the middle of the street.

 

 

One can travel easily north / south from Rocky Mount by rail, to places like Richmond, Washington, and New York, from a nicely restored station Amtrak station. The size of this station says that in about 1912 Rocky Mount was an important place.

 

I decided to bicycle over to Tarboro, about twenty miles to the southeast.

 

This would take me first through the south and west side of Rocky Mount.

 

Eventually I found myself on razor straight country roads.

 

 

 

I have been told that Tarboro, population 11,000, has a highfalutin sense of itself.   It is one of the prettiest towns in North Carolina.  Its newspaper, until it closed quite recently, was the Daily Southerner.   Locals will tell you that like Boston, Massachusetts, Tarboro has a Common, a parklike space in the center of town, between the residential area and the commercial strip of downtown.  Of course (of course!) there is a Civil War statue on the Common.

 

 

Downtown Tarboro does have some vacant storefronts but it certainly looks more in-use than downtown Rocky Mount.  I  had vaguely heard about a restaurant downtown called On The Square.   It was lunchtime.

At lunchtime at On The Square where one orders at the counter there was a small line of men in khaki pants.   Khaki pants are popular in The South.

Another Man in Khaki had stepped out on the sidewalk to take a call.

 

My lunch was the special of the day, ham and cheese sandwich with a side of tomato soup.   I read The New Yorker on my Kindle.

 

What else to do but bicycle back to Rocky Mount?   I took the same route, it luckily had been almost traffic-free.   That kind of bicycling route is hard to find.

 

 

Robeson County NC does not get much good press.  It is one of the poorest counties in North Carolina.   Wikipedia describes its population as one third white, one third black, and one third Lumbee American Indian.    The state of North Carolina recognizes the Lumbees as an official Native American tribe, although the federal government offers only limited recognition.

I had remembered all the press coverage Robeson County got back in 1988, when two Lumbee Indians took over a newspaper office at gunpoint, to protest local corruption.  One was Eddie Hatcher.  After he was imprisoned many radicals considered him a political prisoner.  He had a very complex story, broke the law in other ways, and was in and out of jail.  He died in the state penitentiary in 2009.

I knew Robeson County has had economic setbacks.   Until 2001 most of the world’s supply of Chuck Taylor All-Star basketball shoes were made here.   I really did not know anything else about the place, except the land would be flat.

The county seat and largest town in Robeson County is Lumberton, population 22,000.   It is 125 miles south of my home in Chapel Hill, on I-95 near the South Carolina line.   I parked our car in the Walmart on the far north side of Lumberton at eleven on a Tuesday morning and pulled my Surley bicycle out of the trunk.

 

I hatched a plan in the car on the way down.   I decided to ride south towards Dillon, South Carolina, maybe seeing the tourist trap South of the Border.    Ultimately the route came out like this:

The north side of Lumberton was much more prosperous than I expected.  It was a beautiful day.

 

The American dream; perfect lawn,  a pickup truck, and a front porch with American flag pillows.

 

The older parts of Lumberton

 

Downtown Lumberton was pleasant, but the only building that seemed full of people was the courthouse.   While it looks brand new, I learn it is a 1975 renovation of an older building, with a new facade in 2005.   The building looks depressing,  like it is celebrating its power to imprison its citizens.

Other parts of downtown were attractive but mostly unoccupied.

There is this nice modernist building.   It used to be a bank but apparently is now empty.

After I bicycled across the Lumber River there were miles of poorer African-American neighborhoods.   After that, the landscape opened up.

Trailers across the landscape.

The office of a religious radio station was this nice piece of modernism, sitting alongside the highway.

 

The highway passed across the occasional swamp.

Twelve miles south of Lumberton is the town of Fairmont.   Over on I-95 (on another trip) I had seen a sign  “HISTORIC DOWNTOWN FAIRMONT, NEXT EXIT”

I wanted to see what the commotion was about.  Despite the sign, Fairmont, population 2600, did not look like anything special.

 

This semi-abandoned house must have been attractive in its day.

 

South Carolina was just a little further down the highway.

 

When you enter South Carolina annoying rumble strips appear on the side of the road.

 

I got to Dillon, South Carolina in time for a late lunch at a restaurant with an unusual name, especially for rural South Carolina.

 

 

My steak and cheese sandwich was quite good.   I asked my server about the restaurant’s name; she said the owner, who is from the country of Jordan, had first moved to Massachusetts, then to here.

After lunch I bicycled around Dillon, population 6,600.   One of Dillon’s claims to fame is that it is the hometown of former Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke.    He played in the Dillon High School band before becoming class valedictorian and going off to Harvard.    While at Harvard, he came home summers to work at South of the Border.

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There was no decent place to stay right in town so I found a room at the Quality Inn out near the I-95 interchange.    I still wanted to bike a little more so I cruised around on the farm roads outside of town.

 

BC Steak & BBQ is one of those Southern places with a big buffet of greasy meat and vegetables.  I got mine To Go and ate in my motel room next door,  so I could have my dinner with the wine that I had bought at the Food Lion.

 

The next morning I woke up and watched Morning Joe, then packed up and pushed out.    I had always associated South of the Border with Dillon SC, but SOTB is not really in Dillon, it is six miles north of Dillon on the North Carolina border.

South Carolina has a libertarian streak that attracts North Carolinians:  motorcycle riders are not required to wear a helmet, it is faster to get married here, and most fireworks are legal.   I am not sure why someone built and then closed down all these tittie bars.  These places were north of Dillon and just south of South of the Border.

 

Topless Reflexxions Bar

 

 

 

 

I thought everybody knew about South of the Border, but my friend Lyman, who is from Louisiana and Texas, was clueless.    It is probably the East Coast’s most famous tourist trap, begun in 1950 as a place to buy fireworks and beer, when neither was available in adjoining Robeson County, North Carolina.  Its now politically incorrect signs of a “Mexican” named Pedro appear nearly every mile for over a hundred miles in either direction on I-95, preying on the New York-Florida car traffic.    For over sixty years it has included restaurants, motels, and an amusement park, among other stuff.    I think most of it now looks dated, built at a time when there was NOT a McDonald’s at every I-95 interchange.  Maybe today it can be considered folk art.   Approaching it by bicycle on two lane route US-301, one gets a different perspective from than from I-95.   The signs start many miles away.

 

 

 

 

 

Then I stumbled onto the real thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I only slowed down to take pictures and kept pedaling.   Continuing up US-301 just beyond SOTB there is the very small town of Rowland NC.   It reminded me of something my late father told me, that US-1 was the original north/south highway from the Northeast to Virginia to Florida, replaced later by US-301.   That was replaced by I-95.    Each highway has motels that reflect the era in which they were built.    Rowland NC, on US-301,  has several motels from the nineteen fifties.   I somehow doubt that now many long distance travelers stay in these places.

 

 

Did they put up this fence so the locals don’t know who is sleeping with whom?

 

Earlier in the day, just north of Dillon,  I had seen other motels.

 

 

 

 

North of Rowland NC I pedaled up US-301.    This road closely parallels I-95.    For a U.S. highway, there was hardly any traffic, a car every five minutes or so.

 

 

How many songs talk about a crossroads?   Robert Johnson channeled by Eric Clapton of Cream:   I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees.  

For the last few miles into Lumberton, even though there still was no traffic on US301, the road closely followed I-95 and I could watch the truck traffic.  It was a gentle peaceful ride, in a noisy sort of way.

 

There is a levee that surrounds central Lumberton, so I could finish the ride into Lumberton on a bike path.

 

 

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.

 

Seen while biking around Rocky Mount on May 8.

 

 

Northeastern North Carolina, inland from the beach was the first part of North Carolina settled by Europeans.   It is also the poorest, most rural, and most heavily African American part of the state.  I had the bicycle in the trunk as I parked the car at about noon on a Saturday in the town of Windsor, population 3,600.

 

 

 

Windsor’s biggest industry now is probably this prison.

 

 

I biked the next five hours through almost entirely rural countryside.    The land is absolutely flat, interspersed with inland estuaries.  There were pine tree farms.

 

Near here, in the direction of Virginia Beach, is the site of the infamous mercenary training base operated by Blackwater Worldwide that had a huge presence with the U.S. military in Iraq.    It is named after the nearby Blackwater River.  This was not that same river but the water is about the same color.

 

This area has apparently has been depopulating for many years.   I passed scores of historic homes that were fixed up just enough to keep from falling down.  In many cases it looks like the residents abandon old houses and move to an adjacent double-wide.

 

 

 

 


 

 

I crossed the Chowan River, which is really an estuary of the Albermarle Sound, on a five mile bridge on North Carolina Route 32.   On a bicycle, when you were in the middle you felt like you were out in the ocean.

 

Edenton has a current population about 5,000.  At least on one website makes the claim “the prettiest town in the South.”  It is indeed a pretty town, but isolated 150 miles northeast of Raleigh and 75 miles southwest of Norfolk.    It was originally an ocean port in the eighteenth century, sitting on the open calm waters of Albermarle Sound.   I think it is slowly being rediscovered by retirees from somewhere else.

 

 

 

I do enjoy the minor thrill of biking into a town without having planned exactly where I am going to sleep that night.   I found this motel near downtown.  When I walked in to ask about a room, the expected Indian owner was sitting at a table, eating McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets with an overweight non-Indian looking woman.

The price of sixty-three dollars including tax was a good deal and the room was fine.

 

Dinner that night was at the 309 Bistro downtown.    It was a conservative looking crowd.

 

I ate lamb chops sitting at the bar.   Partway through the meal these two guys I imagine as Log Cabin Republicans came to the bar for their takeout order.

 

The next morning while watching CBS Sunday Morning I tried to eat an Egg McMuffin.   It was just so bad that I could just not finish it.  I really have become a food snob.

 

The bike ride back was peaceful on a Sunday morning.  To get across the Chowan River again I took a different bridge, this time US 17.   It was likely was illegal for bicycles but I took it anyway.    After the bridge I got back on small roads.   Like the day before I saw lots of abandoned farms.    It reminded me again of what V.S. Naipaul had written about Eastern North Carolina:

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I drove the Honda towards Down East, into that vast coastal plain of eastern North Carolina.  Pretty much at random I parked the car at a CVS just outside of Farmville.   Yes, just last week I was in Farmville, Virginia (population 8,500), and for some reason this week I ended up in Farmville, North Carolina (population 4,500).

Right across from the CVS was this modernist motel.  I fear that these kind of places will be torn down soon; I think nobody appreciates them but me.p1060282-1

 

 

Farmville has a nice downtown, except that it has the problem that other towns like this have; what to do with these buildings in 2016?

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Farmville even has an art-deco movie house, although apparently only used occasionally.

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I biked out of Farmville across the coastal plain.    Many North Carolinians do not live in towns, they live out: out of town, out along highways;  in houses, manufactured housing, and what we used to call trailers.

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Greenville is isolated (85 miles east of Raleigh, 120 miles southwest of Norfolk, 110 miles north of Wilmington, 80 miles or more to any beach), but arriving by bicycle from the east, Greenville (population 89,000)  feels like The Big City.  It is the home of East Carolina University (28,000 students) that includes a teaching hospital and a medical school.   I often remind my readers that while much of America looks decaying,  five institutions in America usually appear over-funded: rich residential neighborhoods, the military, the court system, universities, and health care.    After bicycling past miles of people living in trailers, suddenly I am thrust upon the buildings of the ECU medical complex, which fits into two of those over-funded categories.   Many or most of the buildings look quite new.  In some ways Greenville looks like a boomtown.

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Downtown, near the central campus, there were lots of new tall buildings.

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I am sure that Greenville can be a really pleasant place to live, but it is not a great place to look at.   Some of the blame can come from the NCDOT, who over the past sixty years have built bypass upon bypass.   Wide four lane roads with fast cars prevail.    I had a decent lunch downtown before heading back towards Farmville.

I had already eaten lunch two hours earlier when I got back to Farmville.   Still, there were two barbecue places in Farmville that bear remembering for next time.   Both appeared open and functioning.

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