Archive for the ‘Eastern North Carolina trips’ Category

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.

Where else to go during a pandemic?   In our home town of Chapel Hill NC we have friend named Connie (married to a guy named Mark).  Connie is originally from Rich Square NC (population 958).   Connie and Mark’s daughter Hadley was our baby sitter back in the 1990’s.    I think Hadley currently lives in Los Angeles CA.  Despite being from Rich Square, Connie has lived in Chapel Hill for at least thirty years.

Thinking about Connie and Rich Square has always made me want to visit that area.   While Connie is white Northampton County is one of several in northeastern North Carolina counties with an African-American majority, a part of eastern and northeastern North Carolina that is truly quite remote.   By car Rich Square NC is two hours from the beach but also an hour and a half east of Raleigh.   Rich Square in an hour and a half both from Richmond VA and Norfolk VA; three hours north of Wilmington NC.   Northampton County has not grown much since the American Revolution.  (population in the year 1800: 12,000; in the year 2020: 19,000)

The weather was predicted to be cooler than the previous days but I still wanted to get an early start.   At about 6:00 AM at home in Chapel Hill NC I made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.   Out there in Northampton County during a pandemic I wanted to bring my own food.

It would take slightly over two hours drive to Rich Square even if there was no traffic.    I stopped for coffee at a Starbucks on the east side of Raleigh, forty minutes into the drive, arriving Rich Square at about 9:00 AM.

This is the day trip bike ride I took on this sunny but pleasantly cool Saturday.  

There is no Walmart in Rich Square.   I parked at Rich Square Market, the town’s only grocery store.

I pulled the bicycle out of the car.   Signs pointed to one growth industry out here.

I bicycled south out of town.   The land here is coastal plain; totally flat except an occasional slight hill.

I passed through two small towns, Roxobel NC and Kelford NC, first Roxobel.   It did not look much like a traditional town, just a few buildings interspersed along a highway.  One was the Roxobel Grill.

On this Saturday morning there was some kind of small flea market or farmer’s market going on.

Just two miles from Roxobel,  Kelford NC was even smaller.

This house stood several miles past Kelford.   I speculate that it is really old.

Along the highway also were many trailers.

I had not seen any business that could possibly have employed more than ten people.   It was a surprise to suddenly come up on a huge plant that processes what I assume are chickens.  There were dozens of cars in the parking lot on a Saturday morning.

I circled around the factory on the bicycle before bicycling down the road towards the next town.   It must have once been two towns but is now called Lewiston Woodville NC.   The total population of 549 is not likely not enough to support two downtowns.   The former downtown Woodville just stood by itself on a soybean field.

About a mile away is the former Lewiston NC, now Lewiston Woodville.   There are several actual businesses, including this mid-century modernist bank, along with an abandoned grocery store.

The real commercial action in Lewiston Woodville is now the gas station, just around the corner.

I pedaled through the rest of Lewiston Woodville.

I shared the road with a tractor before heading out of town north on State Highway Eleven.

This road had more traffic than those I had been on previously.

Lacking a picnic table I sat on a guard rail where the highway crossed a swamp and ate the first half of my peanut butter sandwich.  I highly doubt there are alligators around here but I still mildly thought about them being down there.

To get away from traffic I angled off on what the NCDOT calls “Business” Route Eleven.    It was delightful to bicycle since I saw a car only every ten minutes or so.

Another small town!  This time I bicycled through Aulander NC (population 888).   There was a mid-century modernist post office.

Aulander was slightly more put together than the previous three towns but still was not really picturesque.

I only saw two retail establishments in Aulander; a gas station/mini-mart and a Family Dollar.

It would be twelve miles farther back to the town of Rich Square where my car was parked.   For the first time this day I pedaled through tobacco fields.

I had only eaten half my sandwich.   It was time for my second “lunch.”      Once again I sat on a guard rail along the highway.  There was essentially no traffic.

Back on the road


I was back in Rich Square!    I had not seen much of the town when I had left it earlier in the day.

Rich Square has half a dozen retail businesses including a restaurant called Claudine’s.  They had set up tables outside in hopes of attracting customers during a pandemic.   I had already eaten lunch so I had to pass.

I got back in the car and drove two hours home to Chapel Hill.

About thirty years ago I had an air freight client on the outskirts of Clinton NC;  a manufacturer of high-end glass panels.  I used to drive down there for sales calls.  The factory might still be there although companies now change names every few years as they get bought and sold.   I recently realized I had never seen downtown Clinton, which is sixty-five miles south of Raleigh, part of that great expanse of flatness North Carolinians call Down East.

On the day after Christmas I put the Bike Friday in the back of our car and drove down I-40.    I chose to start my bicycle ride from the smaller town of Faison NC (population 961), about twenty miles northeast of the larger Clinton NC.   Faison NC is at the top right of this map.

 

Here is Faison NC.

 

In an otherwise mostly empty downtown Faison NC, Hispanic immigrants have opened new businesses.

I pulled the bicycle out of the back of the car and headed west towards Clinton NC.   Faison NC actually has a few distinctive buildings.

 

There was not much traffic as I bicycled out of town.

In the fifteen or twenty miles to Clinton NC there was a plethora of rural abandoned buildings.

 

 

I passed lots of industrial agriculture, including this set of barns holding thousands of what I think were turkeys.

Clinton (population 8700) feels positively urban compared to Faison.   I appears about that about a generation ago many retail businesses in Clinton moved from their downtown out to the US-421 Bypass.

 

Now a lot of that retail on US-421 is also vacant, as the older sprawl is replaced by the further-out Walmart and its attendant shopping center.   I bicycled toward downtown,  passing a tractor dealer along the way.

There is life here!   A long-time town doctor had donated his historic home for use as an arts center.

 

Downtown Clinton is not all empty, unlike many such North Carolina towns.

 

On the other side of downtown the entire street smelled of bacon as I bicycled by an enormous Smithfield pork processing plant, right in town.   It was apparently just breaking for lunch.

Soon I was out of town, heading east towards the town of Warsaw,

 

across significant wetlands.

I passed another Smithfield pork processing plant.   Clearly employees drive mostly pickup trucks!

I hit the second point of the day’s town triangle by arriving near the town of Warsaw (population 3000).

My brother Alex wrote an entire book about the fact that urbanization clusters around transportation modes.  While there are almost no restaurants in the actual town of Warsaw, there are at least eight restaurants (mostly fast food chains) at the I-40 interchange, two miles away.

I had to eat, despite my food snobbism.   Smithfield’s is a regional barbecue chain; maybe I could find something there.  It was packed; I got in line.

 

What to eat?   My doctor has suggested I cut down on animal fat and red meat.   Brunswick stew was the healthiest looking thing I saw; only by the pint: $ 5.99.   The young woman at the counter offered their special of a second pint for only $ 2.00 additional.   (No wonder Americans are fat!)  I declined, what would I do with another pint of Brunswick stew?  I brought my own beverage (my water bottle!)

The stew was warm and comfortable, I ate it slowly while gazing at the parking lot.

Back on the bicycle, it was only eight miles to complete the triangle by bicycling back to Faison NC.    I arrived on the other side of town and bicycled to my car for the two hour drive back to Chapel Hill.

 

Just to see something new, I put the bicycle in the car and drove the Toyota Prius about eighty miles from my home in Chapel Hill to Centerville NC.  It is sixty miles northeast of Raleigh NC, or twelve miles northeast of Louisburg NC.

The population of Centerville NC is listed as eighty-nine, but they do have a Dollar General.  I parked the car and pulled my bicycle out.   There was only one other car in the Dollar General parking lot.  The area immediately felt very country.

How country was it?

Country enough that someone had just driven a four wheeler to the Dollar General!

 

Bicycling was relaxing along country roads with almost no cars.  I fashioned a big loop to bicycle around the area, including going through the seemingly under visited Medoc Mountain State Park.    This area is generally flat so the “mountain” is really just a hill.

 

 

Wood NC is really really small.   It evidently used to have a gas station and a store.

 

Hollister NC, population 674, has a modernist post office and an actual restaurant, Lynch’s Bar-B-Q and Grill.

For those of you not from around here, eastern North Carolina barbecue consists mostly of just one thing, chopped pork in vinegar sauce.    It is usually served on a bun, with a dollop of coleslaw.   Lynch’s has no inside seating, just an outdoor counter to order from.   There is not even a picnic table.   Everyone just eats in their car.   I try to do my meals “properly” so I took my sandwich and bicycled three miles back to a shelter at the state park, where I could read my Kindle while eating.   It was all very peaceful.