Archive for the ‘Eastern North Carolina trips’ Category

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.




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?









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



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.












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.






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



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.




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.




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.




Market House dates from 1832.



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.




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.



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.



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



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.



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.


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.