I’ve loved this state the whole time.
I fell in love with it, though, at age 12, on a coed summer camp campout (impossible, that phrase; none of us could believe our good fortune), where I had my first kiss at an overlook — Eagle Rock — in the mountains outside Hendersonville. The night smelled like pine trees and rhododendron. Or hope and possibility. That was it, really — place and romance were, for me, twinned up forever.
Or maybe that wasn’t my first kiss. Maybe my first kiss was plainer, in a fluorescently lit middle school hallway, but the summer camp kiss is the one I remember, or choose to. It came after dinner, after we’d hollered songs across the gorge to another camp, and they’d hollered back at us; after we’d sat up late in the dark, trying on some older age, telling each other things we were sure were true; after we’d headed to sleep, everybody sprawled, mostly chaperoned, under the same huge blue tarp. Then the kiss. Hurried. Clumsy. Fairly chaste. Then over. Then some intense hand-holding. We were 12.
A love letter’s a messy thing. It is by definition incomplete. You swoon, you forget, you leave things out. A love letter to a state is messier still, and it requires confessions: I’ve never been to the Outer Banks. I’ve only spent one night in Charlotte. The last time I was in Boone, I was in my 20s. I’ve never eaten a ramp.
A letter like this also requires infidelity, or something like it: If I talk about any one of the indie bookstores I haunt across the state (Malaprop’s in Asheville, Scuppernong in Greensboro), then I’m shorting the dozens I must leave out. If I take pains to mention the way the land finally rises up across the border on Interstate 85 out of South Carolina, then I won’t have space to talk about the tunnels on Interstate 40 just before you get to Tennessee. I’ll probably have to name a beach. A hiking trail. There’s a convenience store on my drive to work that’s currently advertising LOCAL EGGS, DIABETIC SOCKS, and FISHING BATS. Surely a fishing bat is the best kind of bat, but that’s not even the convenience store I want to talk about.
Maybe this is how it goes with love. It’s not that we pick or choose. Not really. We just never have time to say it all.
A love letter must start over, and I want to start over in line, sipping a very cold honor-system beer, at Yacht Basin Provision Co. in Southport. I do love nearby Oak Island — love its not-quite-caught-up-to-last-week feel, its piers, its rental keys in paper envelopes, its houses nearly in the breakers, its fishmongers (I’ve found religion more than once over the grouper cheeks at Haag & Sons) — but I love lunch at the Provision Co. maybe most of all. Here’s how it goes: You stand in line, a long line. You order. You eat — fish sandwich, onion rings, that sort of deal. On the way out, they ask what you had — they have no idea — and you pay. The whole thing runs on the honor system, not just the beer. And I love this not for the chance to cheat, but to get up, pull a second icy bottle from the huge standing cooler, and return to my crab cakes without having to bother anyone to do it for me. There’s a dock off the back of the restaurant, sound-side. Open-air. Boats trolling by. Fans on the ceiling, most with all their blades. Tiny paper napkins, nowhere near big enough to do anything. It’s like eating at your house, if your house were much better, and at the beach, and full of fried food and good people. Or good food and fried people. Which I’m not saying it isn’t, but still.
A love letter wants to try to tell the truth, and the truth is that the finest sporting venue in this state or any other is Burlington Athletic Stadium, home of the short-season Rookie League Burlington Royals. A woman who’s got season tickets behind the visiting dugout has, for as long as I can recall, sung “Green Acres” at the top of her lungs to the desperately bewildered opposing team during the sixth-inning changeover. There’s an unidentifiable orange mascot that did not change over when the team switched from the Indians to the Royals. Right-center field has a dark spot on it. Some nights, hot dogs are a dollar. You can bring your lawn chairs and sit against the fence along the first-base line — for general-admission prices. If you want your baseball Disneyfied, then this isn’t the place for you, but if you want it full of kids playing pickle behind the metal bleachers, if you want flashes of true talent between handfuls of walked-in runs, if you want that little pop-up tent beneath which last season there was an actual grill with actual hamburgers upon it — listen. I know, OK? I do. Minor league ball is minor league ball, but it is its own kind of heaven, no matter the home team. The Asheville Tourists. The Cape Fear Crocs. Ten other teams between them across this state. But with apologies to Durham and Crash Davis and Susan Sarandon and William Blake, my heart lies in Burlington.
I crave the leaves changing over, a fire in the woodstove, a well-earned cup of coffee, a flannel shirt. I crave, then, State Highway 21 from Elkin to Sparta, a kind of catchall smorgasbord of signs and signals that say you’re no longer down in the flats, that you’re headed for windows-open weather, for the High Country. A left-hand exit off U.S. Highway 421 lands you almost in another era, one of roadside motels, of flea markets, of half the businesses being named “State Road” this or that. There’s a wooden sign directing folks toward an actual “Camp Cheerio.” There are gas stations with flat-top grills, gas stations housing meat-and-threes, gas stations selling hand-spun milkshakes. All these gas stations also sell deer corn and blaze-orange stocking caps. There are Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola signs on the general stores. There are Cheerwine signs. Horse farms, cattle farms, Christmas tree farms. Twist your way toward the scenic overlook that aims back toward Grandfather Mountain, and then you’re up and over the Eastern Continental Divide, past the Blue Ridge Parkway, and headed for Sparta, for the last decent grocery before you’re nowhere, some cabin you’ve found, big back porch looking off into nothing, quiet nights, quiet mornings, boots and jeans and deer in the yard.
I’m doing it wrong. I’m smitten. Reeling. Counting the ways I love thee. Let’s pull it together: Let’s speak of the World’s Largest Strawberry at The Berry Patch in Ellerbe — and of my son, age 3, standing atop a picnic table in front of said two-story strawberry, fists in the air, shrieking, and blazing through what remains of the largest sugar shock of his life, having eaten his entire ice cream cone and some of mine. I’m a sucker for the World’s Whateverest Anything, but this place? I love the boulders in the lawn, painted, only half-explicably, like fruit. I love the road-weary families, sunstruck and confused about scale, wandering through the crushed-rock parking lot toward an open-air vegetable market and truly excellent ice cream. I love even the trash cans scattered around, housing sticky spoons and spent cups and legions of bees. The whole place may be an actual fever dream. Sitting out there in the long shadow of the fiberglass strawberry, it’s almost hard to believe you’re sitting out there. But you are, and what remains to be done is this: Clean your hands and face as best you can, try not to get stung, buy a few ears of sweet corn and maybe some tomatoes, crank up the AC in the car, and head on home.
And here: Let’s engage in a bit of abject heresy. There’s just no good way to love one barbecue joint more than another; there is no best barbecue in this state. That’s the deal: To love North Carolina is to love each and every Speedy’s or Jimmy’s or Bubba’s or Smiley’s. Or: To love barbecue is to love North Carolina. I’m not going to stoop to East versus West, or ketchup versus vinegar. I’m instead going to lay down a few rules: The building should be cinder block or brick or corrugated metal. I humbly request a hand-crank hush puppy machine. We must begin and end with pork, though I will allow chicken or beef on down the menu. Slaw, in quantity. I enjoy a baked bean. There needs to be a counter bar as well as tables. Homemade sauce. Mugs sporting the name of the establishment, perhaps alongside a farm equipment advert or two. The über-classic Short Sugar’s in Reidsville more than fits the bill here, but what I mean to say is this: To live and love in this state means to know where the barbecue is in your town, and where the place is within a couple of hours that’s well worth the drive. Plus those spots in between. Plus that one place Down East. And the one from out near Hickory that time, however many years ago.
We are in need, friends, of a street, a neighborhood — a place to call home even well after you leave — and that place is Carr Street, in College Hill, in Greensboro. The street itself is a block of tumbledown Victorians, graduate-student apartments jigsawed into the houses three and four at a time, a place of wildflowers and volunteer curbside cherry tomatoes and mint run amok and wisteria hanging off the phone poles. The place is about Jeff Towne, the kindest, warmest, absentee landlord I’ll ever know, and Jim Clark, who runs the MFA program at UNCG, but who also, several times a year, discards his wrinkled suit jacket for torn denim shorts and a Hog’s Breath T-shirt, which I can’t believe still holds together, in order to grill ribs all day long. The smoke hangs like a beacon over the neighborhood, and past and current students and various hangers-on and several complete strangers show up by evening bearing sides, a kind of loaves-and-fishes deal that makes you believe fully in mac ’n’ cheese, if not also the god of your choice. I learned on that street to fake being a grown-up. I learned what generosity looked like. I was again taught communion. I learned how to carve a slab of ribs on the tailgate of a pickup. Both my boys’ first food was Jim Clark’s barbecue sauce. You want to know the look of wonder? Feed an infant one of Jim Clark’s ribs.
A non-comprehensive list of what you might see on the walls and glass shelves at Brightwood Inn in Whitsett includes souvenir national park spoons, Olan Mills portraits, a Happy St. Patrick’s Day sign, glassware for both use and decoration, plastic flowers, and various stuffed animals. It’s a roadhouse decorated like your grandmother’s living room. Elvis ate at Brightwood back before the interstate came through.
And here’s Lucille behind the bar: ageless. Forever smiling. Seven days a week for 50 years, no lie. Though she says she never drinks mixed drinks, she claims to make the best Long Island iced tea this side of wherever. Lucille will stand behind the bar and talk to you as she pieces together twenties she recovered from a house fire.
Brightwood is comfort more than it’s anything else: You park in that lot, underneath the red neon sign, look for the rooster that hasn’t been alive in years, and you think: I can’t believe this place exists. I drive by it every day, but only land inside there a handful of times per year. A very famous poet once hit on my wife there. That’s just a fact. It doesn’t weigh anything.
Rivers not getting enough space and time here: the Haw, the New, the French Broad. Forests going wanting: Uwharrie, Nantahala. Dismal swamps not mentioned: the Great Dismal Swamp. Stone Mountain State Park near Roaring Gap will have to stand in for all of these, will, with its general store sitting down at the bottom of the hill, have to have front porch enough to rest up for every trail from mountains to sea. And it’ll do fine. It’s got a little something for everybody: family-friendly trails; less-family-friendly trails; trails with large signs warning, absent punctuation, 200 FT. FALLS AHEAD FATALITIES HAVE OCCURRED HERE USE EXTREME CAUTION. In our family, this makes for a ready-made Christmas card. In others, I suppose, it instills a somewhat more prudent fear. Still, to be in love in the here and now means to find somewhere to escape the interstates and Internets, to have some spot you know well nearby, to learn what weather looks like in a place that’s not your own backyard, or the parking lot at Sears.
And now all this is turning hopeless. This state has all the geographies. Most of them, anyway. And each wants a love letter of its own.
You see? We’ve come to the end, and there’s no chance to wax endlessly about the tamales and ceviche at Fiesta Grill in White Cross. There’s no time to name the quiet campus spaces, like the quad in front of the glittering new library at N.C. State, the old campus at Chapel Hill, the chapel at Duke, the shade beneath the Chinese fir off the northwest corner of Whitley Auditorium at Elon. I don’t get to talk about the angry dog, circa 2005, biting the waves down on the wild south end of Topsail Beach, endlessly confused and each time expecting that this time the water would be fresh. I had some things to say about Highway 70, which runs from Hot Springs to Statesville to Kinston to New Bern. I did not mention the Appalachian Trail. I did not manage to name John Coltrane or The Avett Brothers or Doc Watson or Roberta Flack.
My first kiss was here. My first dog. I met my wife here, married her here. Had my first son. My second. A final confession: I’m not from here. Not originally. But I’m trying. I truly am. If you’ll have me, North Carolina, just know that I’ve been yours all along.