A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Some claim that the Coastal Plain begins east of I-95, but for those of us who grew up there, the boundary is less clear. You might say that there is

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Some claim that the Coastal Plain begins east of I-95, but for those of us who grew up there, the boundary is less clear. You might say that there is

Hidden Beauty in the Coastal Plain

Tobacco fields in Clinton, NC

Some claim that the Coastal Plain begins east of I-95, but for those of us who grew up there, the boundary is less clear. You might say that there is no physical demarcation, only an emotional one. Landscape exists as much within us as without, so the sight of flat fields curving slightly toward a line of pine forest can trigger an emotional reaction that is just as valid as what passes outside the windshield in letting you know that you’re home.

My own emotional reaction to that hard-to-pinpoint boundary is much clearer now that I have not lived down there for more than 45 years. Now the landscape is vivid because it is visible, and it is visible because I derive pleasure from its charms. I cannot say the same for the years I spent there, when I hardly saw it at all.

A stretch of road known as Spivey's Corner in Clinton, NC

The author, who grew up in Clinton, the seat of Sampson County — the second largest county in the state — was very familiar with the long stretches of flat two-lane blacktop that connected communities like Plain View and Newton Grove and Spivey’s Corner. photograph by Faith Teasley

Or rather, I saw enough of it to know that it was not, to my mind, the most beautiful part of our state. It felt insignificant compared to the rolling hills of the Piedmont and the salt marshes of the coast and, of course, the majestic, wall-calendar-worthy vistas of the Blue Ridge. What I saw was sandy soil and pine forests, neither of which compared to the attributes of the other three regions of the state. I saw row after row of head-high corn and waist-high tobacco, fields of sprawling beans, peppers, and watermelon, and because I was not of farming stock, I did not look at these fields and see money. I saw monotony. The land felt scrubby, the woods patchy. The fallow fields awaiting the spring disking appeared bereft. I dreamed of more elevation than an anthill.

Monotony, however, wasn’t only to be found outside. I’m speaking now of adolescence, when I became aware enough to even take stock of the land. I was afflicted with that malady that plagues most teenagers, wherever they grow up: a longing to leave. Anywhere else is better than here; if we lived elsewhere, we would be someone else.

Growing up in Clinton, elsewhere, for me, was someplace like Chapel Hill, where you could walk from your dorm to a whole street filled with record shops and restaurants. Elsewhere was urban, or deeply forested and mountainous, or within view of the Atlantic. The inevitable question one gets asked — “Do you prefer the mountains or the beach?” — is an either/or query. No one has ever said, “Do you prefer the mountains, the beach, or Spivey’s Corner?”

No one has ever said, “Do you prefer the mountains, the beach, or Spivey’s Corner?”

So I saw what I felt, and what I felt was mostly boredom. One of the chief entertainments of my youth was for our parents to take us “to ride.” (It was never for a ride, always “to” ride.) These trips were focused more on architecture than on agriculture. We would ride out to the Coharie Country Club or the development across the highway, called Fox Lake, and check out the new construction.

Around the time that those rides got old, I started “riding around” with my friends. These rides were confined to a preordained orbit, established by older siblings and cousins and as rigidly adhered to as the wagon-wheel-rutted paths of the Oregon Trail. From the Little Pep drive-in to the Glam-O-Rama laundromat, twice or thrice around the courthouse square. When we broke the route, it was to drive the 13 miles to Warsaw, in neighboring Duplin County, which, unlike Sampson County, sold a malt beverage favored by a certain type of teenager. The ride to Warsaw (we sometimes called it, in code, “Going to Poland”) was more of the same tobacco fields and pine forests, but you only noticed it on the way over.

• • •

In high school, I had a friend, the late Mike Lockamy, who was both ineffably cool and unusually stimulated by the place where we grew up. Mike took me on long rides through the county. We would start up toward Midway or Keener, where the soil is rich and the flat fields plenty, and proceed, via back road, to the southern end of the county, which might as well be in a different state, so drastically does the ecosystem change. Down there, around Kerr Station and Ivanhoe, the land turns sandier and swampier as the Black River winds its way toward the Cape Fear. Pine trees are replaced by fat-trunked bald cypresses. Spanish moss, water moccasins, a river the color of Coca-Cola: It all seemed so exotic.

Mike was open to the possibility of what could be seen. He taught me to take pleasure in the off-white afternoon of a cloudy eastern North Carolina Sunday in November, when the fields turned from tawny to the gray of the sky, and showed me that uniformity was magical instead of dreary. I like to think that I would have gotten there myself, but I’m indebted to Mike for taking me, at least momentarily, out of my adolescent complacency.

Giant cypress tree trunks in Black River Preserve on the Coastal Plain

When it comes to majesty and beauty, few things compare to the ancient bald cypress trees in the Black River Preserve. photograph by Andrew Kornylak

I don’t get down east often — my family moved away many years ago — but when I do, I see things I never would have thought to even notice. The line of pines at the edge of a cornfield seems mysterious to me now. And there are the tobacco barns, which, even back then, seemed to lean with the knowledge of their imminent obsolescence. Chink-logged and tin-roofed marvels, wrestled down now by vine and time.

To find beauty in a thing you’ve overlooked is a kind of renewal, but it’s also a confirmation. That person you thought you’d be if only you’d grown up in a place more obviously enticing is only a shortsighted version of yourself. All you need, besides a trustworthy guide, is the objectivity of distance and a little emotional maturity to understand that the binary choice of mountains versus beach really should be multiple choice. Mountains, fine; beach, great; but let us not forget the subtle and bountiful charm of the in-between.

This story was published on Apr 29, 2024

Michael Parker

Michael Parker’s latest book is the novel Prairie Fever. He taught for many years in the creative writing program at UNC Greensboro and now lives in Durham.