Our State asks: East or West. Where do you stand? Both the mountains and the coast can inspire our devotion. But most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, will own up to an affection for one end of the state or the other.
I am the product of a mixed marriage: My mother is from Lenoir, on the lower slopes of the venerable Blue Ridge, and my father was born and raised in Tarboro, that storied bastion of eastern North Carolina history and style. Mountains vs. Coastal Plain, tomato-based barbecue vs. vinegar, tolerable highland summers vs. the swelter of tobacco fields and swamps: Although I was born in Siler City and have spent the last 20 years 30 miles north in Greensboro, I still feel as if this genetic schism produced in me a tension that somehow must be settled. In other words, I have to choose.
Transplants to North Carolina might well claim to love both the mountains and the coast — and sometimes even the red-clay rollers between the two — but if you are Tar Heel born and bred and plan on being Tar Heel dead, you know better. Loving both just will not do. There are choices in this world, and those choices define us. Beatles vs. Stones? Black olives and capers vs. key lime pie and heavenly hash ice cream? You can say you like both New York and Los Angeles, but such inclusiveness makes you not open-minded but blandly agreeable.
The grit and spite that gave this state its nickname continues to encourage in our character a tendency toward opinions rabidly held. We cling to our likes and dislikes; challenge us, and we dig our heels deeper into tar. You might spend time in Currituck in July and two or three months later, during the blaze of high autumn, take a leisurely drive along the parkway with the throngs of leaf freaks. But unless you’ve had your spine surgically removed, if your cousin put a gun to your head and asked you to choose, you’d sputter out a sentence that started with “I’d as soon,” and finish it with either Appalachian or Atlantic.
I myself confess to some flip-flopping, having lived in all three regions of the state. (My apologies to all residents of the Piedmont, but for reasons that have mostly to do with dramatic natural scenery and resort rentals, few people at cocktail parties or church suppers ask if you prefer the mountains, the coast, or Randleman.) From the age of 6 until I graduated from high school, I lived in down-east Clinton, and after graduate school, I returned to North Carolina and served for two years as a writer-in-residence at the College of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City.
But every summer of my youth, my mother would load up the old Carolina blue Ford station wagon and drive us five kids westward to Montreat, where my grandfather, minister for many years at the First Presbyterian Church in Lenoir, built a summer cottage. There, we hiked Lookout Mountain with our cousins. We swam in frigid Lake Susan and rock-hopped up Assembly Creek to the Moore Center without ever getting our feet wet. Surely the sweet relief from the brutal eastern North Carolina summers influenced my decision to attend Appalachian State right out of high school, but more than humidity led to my choice. The mountains — mist-shrouded, ferny, and primeval — were mysterious and elusive. I did not understand them, and I wanted to.
But despite my time in the mountains, I could never shake the pull of the Coastal Plain. My accent — the long “I,” the impossibility of pronouncing the words “on,” “oil,” or “ruin” in a way that might communicate the meaning of those words to anyone west of Saxapahaw — is more sandy-swampy drawl than red-clay or mica-flaked twang. Physically I take after my father’s people — Parkers and Flemings from just across the Edgecombe line in Pitt County. I inherited my father’s dark skin and his dark brown eyes — those traits that caused Yankees he bunked with in World War II to nickname him Parkerelli. My mother’s folks, Scots-Irish McLeans, are fair-skinned and freckly. Although there are plenty of pasty people east of the Cape Fear and swarthy types west of the French Broad, I like to think my complexion better suits me to the elements down east.
And there is the land itself. I wrote this in Marfa, Texas, just a few dozen miles from the Mexican border, where I spent a couple of months writing a book. At first glance, this high desert landscape is as far from where I grew up as imaginable, for there, the dominant color is tawny, the trees nearly nonexistent, the vegetation mostly agave and cactus. Eastern North Carolina, with its lush tangle of swamp and rivers the color of Co-Cola, its kudzu-claimed tobacco barns and honeysuckled fence posts, is a distant green dream.
But one thing out there reminded me of home: the vastness of the night sky, which in a flat topography seems to swell and loom with the setting of the sun. Walking in the desert at night reminds me of the hours I spent wandering around at night in the huge field behind the textile plant between my house outside of Clinton and U.S. Highway 421. As trucks thundered past on their way to Wilmington or Raleigh in the days before Interstate 40, that field was a fine place to take in the expansive, and, on clear nights, star-bejeweled Coastal Plain sky.
I know people who suffer from claustrophobia and for this reason prefer the beach. Although the mountains don’t make me feel hemmed in, they do make me anxious in another way. I like to feel, even if I don’t get down there for months at a time, that I am near the ocean. If I get too far west of, say, Hickory, then hell, I might as well be in Topeka, Kansas. When I was a kid, my parents used to take us to an ice cream stand out on Old Highway 70 between Black Mountain and Swannanoa. The place was called Custard’s Last Stand, and I am ashamed to admit how old I was when I realized the name didn’t come from the fact that nearby lay the high grassy plains of Little Bighorn where the Sioux rose up against the white man.
Food might also play a role in my choice. I love an apple but would as soon bite into a juicy cuke. I have never met a ramp I was even tempted to smell. Is it creasy greens or greasy creens, and if the former, what in the world does creasy mean? Having resorted in late middle age to running ultramarathons, I long ago gave up fried food, but any time I see a church or fire department advertising a fish fry, something happens to the steering wheel, akin to cruise control, wherein the car operates of its own volition, whipping into a parking lot thick with smoke and the smell of hot oil and crispy croaker.
Some people argue that there is simply more to do in the mountains, especially if you are the outdoor type. It is true that the options are many and varied: hiking, fly fishing, mountain biking, wildflower collecting, rapids running, rock climbing, gem mining, leaf gazing. Some people don’t much care to swim in the capricious ocean, and others can’t quite cotton to the sand. “I get bored sitting on the beach all day,” others claim. I confess I never get bored within sight of the ocean. I like to swim in it, and I like to walk alongside it. I like the way the sun warms it, and I like the rhythm of its swelling and shrinking, and I like that its saltiness gives me license to eat potato chips all day long. If it gets too rough, I am perfectly content to drag a low-slung chaise longue into a tide pool and watch it wave at me. Having been taught to reciprocate greetings, I can waste hours waving right back.
Although North Carolinians love to argue about which province is best, if pressed we’ll admit to being fortunate to have the choice to make in the first place. Along about the time that I figured out General Custer didn’t breathe his last in Oteen, it occurred to me to feel sorry for those Midwesterners who could not get in their car after church and be bodysurfing by midafternoon. Fortune might play a part in it, for we don’t get to choose where we are born. We do, however, get to decide what sort of relationship to cultivate with our inherently complicated notions of home.
There’s nothing wrong with preferring some aspects of home to others, as we North Carolinians well know. Which is why we spend hours debating the question of which region is superior: because we understand in our souls that the answer, finally — like everything else in any place worth defending — depends entirely upon whom you ask.
Michael Parker is the author of five novels, including the recently published The Watery Part of the World, set on the Outer Banks. His articles have appeared in The New York Times and Oxford American. Parker teaches in the M.F.A. creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
East or West: Where do you stand?
These stories appeared as part of the feature exploring eastern and western North Carolina:
The Town: Murphy
The Town: Manteo
The Grape: Yadkin Valley
The Grape: Duplin Winery
The Catch: Brook Trout
The Catch: Shrimp
The Legend: Eustace Conway
The Legend: Fort Fisher Hermit
The Road: U.S. Highway 64 West
The Road: U.S. Highway 64 East
The Farm: Apple Brandy Beef
The Farm: Grassroots Pork Co.
The BBQ: N.C. Barbecue Company