Archive for the ‘Eastern North Carolina trips’ Category

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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You can drive to Fayetteville NC from Chapel Hill in a little over an hour.   It is the home of the large army base Fort Bragg and is a very different place than Chapel Hill.  You can sense a different worldview.  Following my urbanist tendencies, I headed downtown, looking for a place to park the car for a few hours while I took a bike ride.  I found a space downtown at the Airborne and Special Operations Museum.

 

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Fayetteville is actually one of the oldest cities in North Carolina. The vast majority of neighborhoods in this city of 200,000 consist of miles and miles of disconnected housing developments and strip malls.   Even on a Sunday when traffic is light, bicycling from place to place is difficult.  But the immediate downtown is O.K.  I have come here to bicycle several times in the past twenty years, and I have watched as the city has successfully fixed up downtown buildings, and more recently, in finding service businesses to fill up the mostly empty spaces.   There is some nice mid-century lettering, even if the original businesses no longer exist.

 

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Market House dates from 1832.

 

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Not that many years ago someone renovated and reopened the Prince Charles Hotel but the business only lasted a few years.   According to the Fayetteville Observer, a Durham developer bought the vacant building in late 2014 for only $ 200,000.00, It is now abandoned and waiting for its new owner to make something happen.  Criminally, the Republican state legislature recently cancelled tax credits for historic properties, which makes such renovations much less attractive.

 

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One can only bicycle around the ten or fifteen blocks of downtown Fayetteville for so long.   So, I chose as a destination the small town of Parkton, fifteen miles to the south, and bicycled down there and back.    Much of the way it was a singularly unpleasant bike ride, in that streets of one subdivision are unconnected to streets other subdivisions, and a bicyclist is constantly being forced back onto major highways.

Eventually things opened up and I was bicycling on small country roads through open fields.   There are some hills in the city of Fayetteville but once out near Parkton, the land flattens out in the Down East coastal plain.

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Parkton is a pretty small place.  It does have two actual operating retail businesses, one of which is a Family Dollar.   I was surprised they have their own police department.   With their three police cars I thought of Mayberry.

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On the way back to downtown Fayetteville new housing developments spring from the flat plain like weeds.

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On a Saturday in 2002 I managed to get away for about twenty four hours total.   The memories of my one night in Tarboro are still so vivid that I want to share this story.   It would be eight or nine years before I started writing a blog about my bicycle adventures.

I had seen Tarboro a few times before, stopping briefly on car drives to the beach.  Tarboro is the prettiest small town in North Carolina, rivaled only by that other Down East destination Edenton.    Both exude Southern gentility.  With a population of just eleven thousand, this short visit helped underscore how interesting such a town could be.

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Tarboro is about a hundred miles east of Chapel Hill and twenty-something miles west of Rocky Mount.   I had first heard of Tarboro twelve years earlier,  back in about 1990 from a longtime friend of my wife’s.   The friend was from Greensboro.   She had been deeply in love with a guy from a Good Family of Tarboro.    The relationship had ended and she was having trouble getting over it.   She regaled us with stories of various social events, fancy outdoor picnics and barbecues.     Tarboro abuts the Tar River, and a couple times she was in the car with us and the highway crossed the Tar River.  Both times she pointed out “That is the oldest river in the world!”     Anybody from Tarboro will tell you that only Tarboro and Boston, Massachusetts have a Town Common, which is a wide grassy space in the center of town.    The friend seemed to love everything about Tarboro.  I had been impressed by its architecture and town planning but she loved it for its people.

Another friend who I did not know as well in 2002 but have since come to know better is our Chapel Hill friend Martha.  She has the most pleasantly distinctive and cultured Southern accent of anyone I know.  Martha has close ties to Tarboro.   She grew up in Elizabeth City but both her parents were from Tarboro.   Her father is a retired doctor.  Her mother, known as B2 was an artist who died relatively young.  Martha describes B2 as loving and vivacious.

So in 2002 I decided to check the place out by bicycle.   I parked our minivan about thirty miles out of town, pulled the bicycle out and pedaled off to see what I could find.   I got into Tarboro just as it was getting dark.  I rode up to the Ramada Inn on the 64 Bypass, but having to stay on out the highway defeated the purpose of this trip.    Pretty much in the dark I pedaled back into town.    On the north side of the Town Common there was a sign for a bed and breakfast.  I biked up to it, parked the bike,  walked on the porch, and knocked on the door.

If it was not this same building, then it was a building that looked very similar to this.

 

A woman, maybe sixty years old, answered the door.   She said they normally did not get walk-up business.  She eyed my bicycle outfit.  She hesitated a second and then said sure, they had a room.    I negotiated a price,  parked my bicycle on the porch and she showed me to my room.

She asked “Do you drink?”   When I said sometimes, she replied that I was welcome to join her and her husband in the library.    He was an interesting old guy.   I got the feeling that meeting and talking to their guests was the highlight for this couple each evening.   They were not even Southern.  They had been attracted to the beauty of this town and had moved here to operate this B&B.   I cannot remember what we talked about, but I am sure I ended up telling them half my life story.    I was drinking one of the stiffest gin drinks I have ever had.   He was pouring his own second or third while I was still nursing my first.    We did talk about restaurants in town.     The B&B overlooked the block-wide Common and the downtown commercial strip was on on the other side.    My hosts said that there were really only three places to eat.    The one I should definitely NOT eat at was the restaurant called On The Square.   It was a new place.    The food there looked unusual.  They said the prices were “ridiculous.”    After an hour long cocktail session I decided to escape that second drink and go eat.  I staggered out of the library onto the porch, the onto the sidewalk to walk downtown.

Of course I ended up eating at On The Square.     It was one of the best meals I had had in a long time.

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I sat by myself at the bar.  The other bar seats remained empty the whole time I was there.    In fact, at about seven-thirty there really was hardly anyone eating there.   The room was nicely furnished but brightly lit.   Gradually, the place did fill up.   As I remember it had only about eight tables.    A lunch place, they had only recently opened for dinner one or two days a week.   The people eating there all looked well-to-do,  dressed in a Southern country club manner.  They all seemed to know each other, exchanging Southern fake-nice kisses.   I heard women exclaim to each other  “It’s so nice to see you” in high pitched female voices.    Back in 2002 most small North Carolina towns did not have serious fancy restaurants like this.   Such places have multiplied in the years since.

I do not remember what I ate but it was all delicious, eating this three course meal while reading The New Yorker magazine.     Towards the end, somebody who worked there, who looked somehow non-Southern, walked up and wanted to chit-chat.   What he really wanted to know was, what was I doing here?  Why would some random guy be sitting in Tarboro reading The New Yorker, eating by himself?

He was the co-owner.   He said that they did not normally get people like me as customers.   He told me something about himself.   He and his wife had been working as sommeliers at Windows on the World in New York, on like the hundredth floor of the World Trade Center.    They had seen their entire working world be destroyed in a flash in September 2001.     They had both been obviously freaked out by this.   His wife hailed from the town of Tarboro, North Carolina, so they retreated here and acquired this little space.  The restaurant had only recently started serving dinner.   I later found out that both of them were sommeliers with serious credentials.    He told me he often visited Chapel Hill.   He said that being from wherever he was from, he needed to get out of Tarboro sometimes and Chapel Hill was the closest respite.  On The Square has gone on to be a successful restaurant in Tarboro.

It had been a great dinner.  I strolled around through the historic parts of town  before walking back across the Town Commons to the B&B.

The next morning I had the obligatory Breakfast.   I remember being served this breakfast at a fancy dining room table, covered with lace, candelabras, and nicknacks.   The room had a soaring high ceiling.  It all looked like someone’s rich grandmother’s dining room, circa 1951.

I did not see my male host that morning but my hostess seemed to have lots of energy.   Not only did my hostess cook me bacon and eggs, but sat next to me and conducted a long diatribe directed at Bill Clinton.   Even though he was no longer president she still had so much resentment towards that man.   Once, I made the mistake of trying to reason with her;  this only made matters worse.

Still, we were all smiles when I packed up and walked down the stairs off the porch.   Waving goodbye, I rode the thirty miles back to the minivan.   I was home in Carrboro by mid-afternoon.

People smugly call places like Oklahoma flyover country.  However, almost everybody I know in North Carolina drives to the beach and they hardly notice what I-40 passes through.  Beyond the southeastern Raleigh suburbs no one seems to even stop for gas until they get to the coast.   Tootie had rented a small house in Topsail Beach for a week,  170 miles from our home in Chapel Hill.  I decided to bike there.  Maybe I could catch the vibe of that driveover country.

Because the temperatures were going to be in the nineties,  I started very early, pedaling out of parking level P-1 at 6:30 AM on a Thursday morning.  I wanted to cover the sixty something miles to Smithfield by about 1:00 PM,  stopping for a late breakfast at the halfway point in downtown Raleigh.

Greenbridge, where we live, looked pink in the early morning light.  Our apartment is on the top left.

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South of Southpoint Mall, I rode on the American Tobacco Trail bike path.

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The bike path does not really go in the direction most people would want to travel, so I cut off the bike path west of RDU airport, and rode through miles of newer subdivisions.  A bicyclist can safely ride from Chapel Hill to Raleigh by meandering through subdivisions with pretentious names.  I have been biking to Raleigh for years and it has taken me a long time to figure out this route.

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Entering the Raleigh city limits from the west I passed the state fairgrounds.  While not very useful as a modern event space Dorton Arena from 1952 is a lovely piece of architecture with a roof supported with high tension cables.

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Along Hillsborough Street near NC State,  these buildings built just in the past five years have made a formerly suburban area feel pleasantly urban.

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Morning Times on Hargett Street downtown is supposed to be a nice place and it is.    I got egg with corned beef hash and a decaf.

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The southeast side of Raleigh is traditionally African American.    Suburban sprawl can pull things in striking directions and show us how unintentionally racist our society can be.   Developers apparently do not want want to build anything on the black side of town.  Old Clayton Road is a two lane road from downtown Raleigh sixteen miles to Clayton.  It has hardly any traffic.    Because very little has been built here in the past fifty years, pieces of interesting commercial architecture remain.  This first warehouse is now a Latino church.

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There are former gas stations from about the 1960’s going all the way back to maybe the 1920’s.

 

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I-Phones have change travel is a revolutionary way.    They allow travelers not only access to the great Google Maps, but have access to the rest of the world’s information, right there in your pocket.  Unfortunately it also allows us to do office work anywhere.  While I take a lot of time off from my company Logisticon, on this trip I found myself doing extended business negotiations and emails.  On a two lane road that passed under a freeway ten miles the other side of Clayton,  I sat on a guardrail in the shade of the overpass and worked the phone, trying to escape the blistering heat while cars roared overhead.

I was hot and tired after leaving the underpass and I stopped at a mini-mart to drink a cold bottled Starbucks Frappuccino.

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It was only a few more miles to Smithfield, where I would stop and get out of the heat.

My brother Alex Marshall wrote a book fifteen years ago called How Cities Work.   One point of the book is that transportation defines cities and towns.  The original Smithfield was built around the Neuse River, and followed by a railroad.   The original downtown is clustered around those two transportation modes.   About fifty years ago I-95 created an exit just down the road.  Now there are no hotels and almost no restaurants in the traditional downtown of Smithfield, population 12,000.

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There at least six nice motels one and a half miles away at the I-95 interchange.    I booked a room through my I-Phone at a Best Western.   I checked into the hotel and rested in the air conditioning.

When it was time for dinner, I can easily say that over 98% of the retail and restaurant business in Smithfield has moved that mile and a half to the freeway.    The town functions on a residential level but the former retail downtown is essentially unused.   In the category of sit-down restaurants by I-95, there are ten or more chain and non-chain restaurants, including a Mexican place, Texas Steak House, Ruby Tuesday, Bob Evans, etc.     Downtown I could find only one place that I would want to eat but I did feel a responsibility to try it.   The sun goes down late this time of year so I biked back into town to Simple Twist.   I sat at the bar and read my Kindle.  The staff recommended shrimp and grits. It was a little too rich but delicious.  The place was very friendly; its name comes from a Bob Dylan lyric.

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Ava Gardner was from Smithfield.  Biking back through downtown to I-95 I passed the town’s museum for her.

 

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At the 6:30 AM breakfast in the Best Western, there were folks even older than me, and the conversation seemed to be about the outlet mall next door.

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It was still one hundred and thirteen miles to Topsail Beach.    I hoped to get as far as Warsaw NC, maybe even Wallace NC, which was about seventy miles away.  According to the map, those were the only towns along the way that had motels.

I hit the road by 7:00 AM trying to beat the heat.    Smithfield is at the start of the coastal plain called Down East, over a hundred miles of pancake flat lands to the coast.    I biked through tobacco fields.

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Around the farmlands, buildings looked vivid in the morning light.

 

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Where you would not see any people for miles it was startling to see a busload of farm workers tending a tobacco field.  While I only stopped the bicycle for about ten seconds to take the picture, the workers did notice me.   I feel somehow guilty about it.

 

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I only passed through a couple very small towns before getting to Warsaw.

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I needed lunch.  It was getting hot.   Warsaw has a McDonald’s a mile away out at the I-40 exit.   Yelp lists three restaurants in town but the only one open was Chinese and kind of sad-looking.    Not on Yelp was this taco truck.  The outdoor seating under a tent was not as cool as actual air conditioning, but the tacos were good.    Mexican immigrants seem to have brought life to this town.

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It was twenty miles further,  in the heat, to Wallace.    If I made it to Wallace, that would have been about seventy miles that day, and I would only have about fifty more miles the next day to the beach house.

I set off to Wallace after lunch, passing through the towns of Magnolia and Rose Hill.

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I pulled into Wallace sweaty and tired.   From Rose Hill  I had called the Duplin Inn in Wallace on the phone and booked their last room. I felt it amazing that the only motel in Wallace was almost full; who would want to stay here?

Those who have read this far are probably assuming that I biked all the way to the beach.   I did not.  Just after booking the room and giving them my credit card number, Tootie called, and said that her friends had left the beach house that day.   She was going to be alone that night, why didn’t she just drive out fifty miles and get me?  What could I say?    Sure.    I biked up to the motel and they graciously agreed not to charge my credit card.   A couple hours later Tootie picked me up at a Burger King that sat in the Walmart parking lot.

I did have some time to look around Wallace.   Like other towns, the business of Wallace has moved out to near the Interstate highway.    Those who say that Walmart put downtowns out of business are not really correct, at least in most North Carolina towns.   Downtowns had gone out of business long before Walmart.   Walmart put other regional mass retailers out of business.  On the north side of Wallace, their empty shells litter the highway.

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I stopped in Walmart to buy a few things while I was waiting.   Compared to the dead feeling of most of Wallace, the Walmart on the east side of Wallace was alive and full of people; it felt like the center of town.  I stayed in the store long enough to notice that these three old guys were not eating anything and not going anywhere.   They were hanging out, like they would have in another era at the town barber shop or cafe.

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