A Road Trip, Northeast: The Carolinas in Spring, Part One

Back in the 1300s, in the “Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, the British poet Geoffrey Chaucer declared a fact that should seem obvious: the dawn of spring is the time to get out of the house and do some traveling. In recent weeks, the tulip trees and quince bushes bloomed, the daffodils and hyacinth came up, and the buds appeared on the dogwoods and wisteria — all signs that winter is over! So, I loaded up the truck on the last day of the dead season and hit the road to visit some friends and family that I haven’t seen in a while. Unlike other trips, when I could stick my preferred back roads, this time it would mean lots of interstate if I wanted to make some time and get where I needed to go: first Spartanburg, South Carolina in the Upstate, then Manteo, North Carolina in the Outer Banks, with the final destination being Norfolk, Virginia on the Chesapeake Bay.

Day one meant a mid-morning departure, designed in part to pass through Atlanta at what I hoped would be the least-busy time for traffic. I had no intentions of stopping there, but the city’s residents wouldn’t let me off without at least a pause. We moved along gracefully and respectfully until we wound our way into downtown on I-85, and then the couple-thousand people in the cars around me made sure we slowed to a crawl for a while. You do you, Atlanta, you do you . . . I had some time to survey the glass and steel with one eye, while keeping the other eye on the brake lights in front of me. Thankfully, there were no long standstills this time, and the burden that is Atlanta traffic was light and almost painless. 

What lay beyond for me was Spartanburg, where I would be visiting two friends: a married couple, both historians of the South, who’d moved to the Upstate for teaching jobs there.  Situated in the western corner of South Carolina, Spartanburg is a typical Southern city in some ways. It was founded through a deal made with indigenous people in the 1700s, then became a railroad hub in the 1800s, and later got its UDC-sponsored Confederate monument in 1911. Though not heavily populated, the area is home to a passel of small colleges and universities: Wofford, Converse, and USC Upstate in Spartanburg; Limestone in Gaffney, and Winthrop and Clinton in Rock Hill. More recently, it is also where the Marshall Tucker Band came together and where Adia Victoria was born.

At my friends’ home, I got to meet their young son, who was born after they left Montgomery, and of course, we caught up on the who’s-done-what, but amid those talks, the subject also turned to the South and Southern-ness. I was apprised, though not shocked that South Carolinians apparently regard themselves as the Southernest of all Southerners. Despite my disagreement with that belief, I’ll give it a few marks in the plus column. Before there was a “South” or even a United States, the Carolinas were the first “Southern” states, being founded as colonies well before Georgia. Second, this was where the Civil War’s fighting began, at Fort Sumter. And third, this is the home state of Strom Thurmond. But as a native Alabamian, I have to retort with my own, “Now, let’s not be too hasty . . .” Though, I will also gives props to Mississippi, which historian James C Cobb has designated as The Most Southern Place on Earth. We’ll just have to leave the argument there for another time, knowing also that each local aristocracy and the history faculty at our state universities already have their minds made up.  

Continuing eastward, the drive across the Carolinas to my next stop in coastal Manteo, North Carolina was highlighted by one of the South’s great under-appreciated glories: the presence in spring of effervescent clusters of redbud trees and wispy white dogwoods. The interstate highways that cut across Southern landscapes are often walled-in by pines or scrub trees, making them corridors of boredom and monotony punctuated by opportunities to patronize a McDonald’s or a Comfort Inn. Amid the speedy hum of tires on pavement, the wishy-washy tendencies of fuzzy radio stations, and the gaudy invitations to join in the sanitized wonders of commercialism, one bit of natural beauty on this long trek to the East Coast was seeing those smatterings of glowing purples and dancing whites among the mostly still-dead limbs and grey-brown brush. Today’s advertiser-driven narratives about travel revolve around convenience and familiarity, which explains the culture of the interstate exit, but I think we’d be better off without them. After all, don’t we leave home to sacrifice those things, and wouldn’t it be better to encounter places like Red Sammy’s Famous Barbecue in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” instead?

Almost to the North Carolina line, I encountered the second interesting thing I had seen on that all-interstate route: a blue billboard with white block letters declaring, ABORTION IS LEGAL IN NORTH CAROLINA. I gathered that it was an invitation to women (and their partners) with unwanted or problematic pregnancies to drive just a little further to procure the medical procedure they might be seeking. Such a trip would be necessary since South Carolina’s state legislature has made clear its attention to criminalize abortion, to the greatest extent possible, in the wake of the 2022 Dobbs ruling.  I also think that placing the billboard inside of South Carolina’s borders was a screw-you to the state’s conservative leaders and their supporters, reminding them that they might make abortion illegal but they can’t make it go away.  This dueling match over what is basically a personal medical decision has been dominated by two narratives – that one side are wanton baby killers while the other side are heartless control freaks – and those warring mythologies have led to a seriously unfortunate lack of humanity and compassion all around.

Thankfully, the last leg of the route to Manteo was Highway 64, which turned into the kind of road I like as the Outer Banks drew near. After more than seven-hundred miles of interstate, my path was no longer lined with concrete embankments, but with homes and homesteads, clumpy fields plowed into rows, old vine-covered barns, and clusters of stores in small communities. I was ready to mellow down and enjoy the back roads that I prefer. Thinking that a pint of George Dickel might soothe my nerves once I arrived at my destination, I did discover the unfortunate fact that the only ABC Store in Columbia, North Carolina has only one employee, who was apparently sick that day. I would have to wait and see what they had in Manteo . . . but it was worth it. Along with a plate of fresh fried oysters, I enjoyed a good cold blonde from Northern Outer Banks Brewing Company while I caught up with an old friend in a bar down by the water.

This trip to the Outer Banks was also of particular interest to me for another reason, related to the Netflix show of the same name. My children, who are both teenagers, like the show and were somewhat jealous I was getting to visit the real place. It didn’t really matter though, since we were in Folly Beach one recent summer and found out that they were filming the upcoming season nearby. I got a good chuckle out of the fact that a show called Outer Banks was filmed in the Lowcountry – that would actually have been a better name for the show: Lowcountry – but my kids were hyper-focused on whether we might see the good-looking young stars while they were in town. Now that I was in the real Outer Banks, my friend was telling me that he watched a little bit of it, and nothing could be less like the Outer Banks than that . . . To be honest, the point of the show is isn’t really authenticity or sense of place, yet it still offers a narrative that doesn’t jive with what’s actually going on.

As the sun went down in Manteo, I had to move on. My destination for the evening lay two hours north, and now that I’m descending into middle age, I don’t see so good in the dark. A little over a year ago, my wife’s sister and her family moved to Norfolk, Virginia and I hadn’t been up there yet, so it was long-past time to visit. Beyond the obvious draw of seeing family, I was also interested in a question that had arisen on Twitter in the weeks before my trip: is Virginia part of the South? The folks in Charlottesville would certainly say yes, but earlier in March, someone tweeted out a picture of the most nondescript, milquetoast plate of barbecue and sides one could ever imagine with the text, “Nobody make BBQ like in Virginia . . . I’m in heaven rn.” I hoped it was a joke – I thought it was a joke, an ironic one – but it got quite a few unfriendly retweets, including this one from the aforementioned Spartanburg native Adia Victoria:

I’m a moderate and mild-mannered BBQ guy, but I still found that tray of food unappealing. Putting the rest of it aside, I can say from those green beans alone . . . that food ain’t Southern.

As for Virginia being part of “the South,” I don’t have the experience or the expertise to say yay or nay. I can share that I found Norfolk to be a pleasant and generally friendly place. Thinking about it as a Southern place, there were a tremendous number of churches and clearly segregated neighborhoods, which would say Southern, but the place was more cosmopolitan than what I’ve experienced in the Deep South. I had some damn fine pastor tacos at a taqueria called Jessy’s, then a stellar reuben at Hank’s Filling Station, which I washed down with a couple of Rappahanock Red Ales from 6 Bears & A Goat Brewing in Fredericksburg. But the question remains: Southern? Well, no. All in all, excellent food, beers, people, all the things. But Southern . . . ? As a short-timer and a tourist, I guess I’m not the one to say. 

Read Part Two

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