First in Flight (To Be Rather Than to Seem)

First in Flight (To Be Rather than to Seem)

“Come along, come and see. There are sights in this country and people in this country who vanish any gloom you ever may feel, and fill you instead with wonder. Every road is as good as a promise and the promises all will be kept. And do not worry about getting lost, I have gone on ahead and know the way.” –Charles Kuralt

 An Unexpected Companion. Another Charles. Art Devil’s Gift. Moravian Enclave. Blue Blowing Boone. Shadows. Worldwide Living Room. What Money Can Do. The Commons. Busy Break. Parting. Epilogue: Barrier Shot. Parting. North Carolina Reading. Recipe. Gratitude.

An Unexpected Companion

Light glinted off the dark waters of Cape Fear River, named for the dangerous sandbars and shoals littering the coast where fresh water met the sea 30 miles distant. I looked at the palm trees, aware that I wouldn’t be seeing them again until I wrapped back around to the west next fall or winter; Wilmington is the northern-most east coast city to have them. It was a perfect spring day. One of the oldest drawbridges in the country hovered on the horizon, and on the other, the cool gray hull of the World War II battle-ship “North Carolina”. Off the River Walk I made a right, and followed my nose under the shady trees to a candy store. Ducking inside, I retrieved a scoop of ice-cream, and returned to an outdoor bench.

I was sitting in a town inhabited by a ghost, one whom I’d been following or who’d been following me for most of the year. His name was Charles Kuralt, a name I hadn’t heard before this trip, but was now getting to know. I’d bumped into his specter many times, whether encountering him in honorific signs or plaques, in pictures on diner walls, in articles, or in the responses of those who heard about what I was doing, commenting, “Yeah, like Charles Kuralt.” Since Charles was born here, and Wilmington was his home town, it seemed appropriate finally, after a quarter year of accumulated chance, to greet this kind phantom and humbly learn what I could.

Somehow, growing up with only 3 television networks, I managed to miss his program, On the Road, inspired by John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and named after Jack Kerouac’s eponymous book. It aired for over 20 years. Charles Kuralt was a man who set out to discover the decency in America; doing one report a week, in each state, for fifty weeks, every year, in an effort to capture the spirit of America at its best. This had a definite ring of familiarity to me.

In preparation, I too read Travels with Charley and On the Road. I was also interested in reinvigorating for myself, the idea of goodness in people, feeling inundated by the constant media-barrage of negativity we’re subjected to, and the lazy cynicism that so many of us carry around as a lens, like a pair of scratched designer glasses that we think makes us look cool. We need to be reminded of the goodness here, and Charles, even several decades ago, felt the same way, “It does no harm just once in a while to acknowledge that the whole country isn’t in flames, that there are people in the country besides politicians, entertainers, and criminals.”

With his Spirit peering over my shoulder, I settled under a tall canopy of trees against the glare and pulled up a few of his videos on my iPhone’s You Tube. What I saw was a man who deeply enjoyed his subject, he smiled a lot, he was interested, and interesting. To a background of strumming banjos he highlighted the unusual: a fellow who could open beer cans with a throwing axe, the country’s biggest ball of string, an 80 year old lady who performed acrobatic flying, the fastest runner at age 104, a man who could hold more eggs in his hand than anyone else. He interviewed the best musical saw player; the best traffic cop; the best bicycle messenger. And always, Charles Kuralt effortlessly reaffirmed people’s  ”incredible wealth of human kindness.”

Charles Kuralt traveled light, and with a small crew wore out six motor homes over the course of the show. I had no crew, no dining room table to relax at and write in my vehicle; I drove myself, entirely amateur, with no itinerary, or salary, often having to rely on the exact Goodness I sought to find. But our intentions were the same.  And since I was alone again, and had an extra seat in the Chief, I invited the Spirit of Mr. Kuralt, Charles, to ride along with me for a while as a mentor.

Another Charles

It befitted that I should be traveling in a state named Charles, labeled in honor of England’s King Charles I (Carolus in Latin).  Carolina was the second colony founded by the British, and divided into North and South not long after.  The Carolinas have always had a somewhat rebellious streak. North Carolina was the first colony to declare its independence from the British crown, leading the way to the American Revolution. A hundred years later, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, leading the way to the Civil War. It’s a land of beautiful beaches, famed coastal islands, lakes and rivers and mountain forests. Good country for a people who meant business.

Initially, these businesses related to pitch, turpentine, and tar, from which the nickname “tar-heels” sprung after a comment made by General Lee . Tobacco was also an important industry; North Carolina still led the nation in its production, as well as in furniture, brick, and textile. Additionally, following New York, the State hosted the country’s second most important banking sector at Charlotte. Pepsi was invented here, so were Krispy Kreme Donuts.  John Coltrane, and Andy Griffith were notable citizens. And the fertile landscape seemed fertile soil for successful journalists, including Edward R. Murrow, David Brinkley, Howard Cosell, and in my empty passenger seat, Charles Kuralt. Travels with Charley indeed.

Art Devil’s Gift

The first place we stopped was Raleigh. I’m used to the West with little tree cover, so you know when you’re in a city, unlike the often wood-hidden Southern towns. And so it was with the State capital, only when the trees parted to reveal a downtown did I realize I was in Raleigh. According to my guidebook, this was once the home of a tailor named Andrew Johnson, a man who assumed the Presidency after Lincoln’s assassination, and then became the first U.S President to be impeached. According to another guidebook, acquired at the visitor’s center, there was a Norman Rockwell exhibit at the North Carolina museum, the nation’s first state museum, and for me a perfect way to start off a day in America.

We pulled into the parking lot as the sky unfolded blue and bright, and walking in we saw a  young man with a Star-spangled and striped hoody walking his dog. “Hey, good morning. That’s a great jacket. Where did you get it?” I asked.  He stopped and we both looked at the tag which read Made in Mexico.  “Here, you can have it, man.” He took it off and handed it to me. “Really?” “Yeah, just give me yours so I’m not cold…” We made the switch and I thanked him, noting that it would make a great addition to the supra-patriotic outfit I was accumulating. Here it was, immediate kindness and the morning had barely begun. The ghost of Charles smiled in validation.

The museum staff at the counter informed me the Rockwell exhibit ended nearly 2 years ago. I bought a ticket for whatever was up anyway, and not knowing how to explain Charles, I let him deal with his own. First, we wandered around the reflection pool and outdoor sculptures, I was happy for a chance to stretch my legs, and then we perused inside the handsomely designed museum with white walls and natural light framing statues of marble, African masks, and inspiring contemporary works. Thus, the morning we spent amidst creations that make us wonderfully human, the world of Art, the afternoon I meant to spend among another such temple to another such uniquely human trait, Learning.

I wore my new hoody to Durham, curious to see the beautiful campus at Duke, a story-book compilation of gothic revival architecture, perched amid rolling hills and forest. Originally called Trinity College, the name was changed to honor one of its largest donors, Washington Duke, who founded Durham’s American Tobacco Company. He was the first to automate cigarette production, making his fortune off the soldiers of the Civil War, who mostly died anyway. Now he was giving back.

To say the least, my financial wherewithal was dire, and I knew with past experiences trying to park around Universities, it would be a problem. So I resolved on a quick drive-through, hopping out of the Chief for a quick picture of Duke’s famous Chapel. A security guard approached immediately, and said I’d have to move. He asked about the van, I explained the project and he directed me to the parking office. “Go over there,” he said, “They’ll hook you up.” And so they did, giving me a free pass, good for the whole day, a day spent wandering the campus and voluptuous gardens and ponds, people-watching in the student union, and visiting the towering 210 foot chapel, where Charles and I found some peace in the echoing silence. Colorful light poured through the stained glass, and when I got up to leave, the 50 carillon bells tolled overhead.  It was difficult to imagine something more beautiful.

On the grass, I saw the guard again, he pulled me aside and showed me a picture on his phone, “I took this early in the morning; they say it happens only once or twice a year. It’s a rare lighting effect.” It was the cathedral, flared a brilliant orange, like the flame on a candle. It was stunning.

Moravian Enclave

In Winston Salem, home not only to recognizable cigarette brands but also the Krispy Kreme Doughnut chain, I zoomed in on my navigation system and found a nice big park to work out in. Some guys were playing pick-up basketball under trees that filtered the morning light. Salem Creek ran alongside a dirt foot-path. After a few sprint drills in the parking lot, I threw an Indian blanket on the grass and tried to remember what I could of a yoga routine.

It wasn’t long before a lost dog was circling my van, whimpering. Its ears pricked when her master approached in a Sedona sweatshirt, an intelligent young woman who was a journalist for the local paper. Setting down her empty coffee cup, she played with her dog while she told me about the town. She said she loved Winston-Salem and loved the park, called Washington, which was the city’s first. To her, living in Winston-Salem was like living in a feather bed. “I kinda landed in a sweet spot,” she said, “this is an exceptional park and cohesive neighborhood.”  She walked her dog here every day; meeting many different kinds of people, and was writing about some of her experiences. Apparently, Old Salem was nearby and consisted of many original Moravian buildings. She suggested I visit them. When they left, I watched the pair spin around each other in the grass, a woman and a dog, in a dance.

Truly idyllic, Old Salem was as my imagination promised. There were barns, small shops, taverns, and gardens. Among the many original restored buildings and landscapes, inhabitants did their daily business costumed as the founders who settled there. The Moravians were persecuted Protestants from central Europe. As missionaries, they established the region called “Wachovia” in the North Carolina back country of which Salem was its administrative hub. Congregations set up towns around its professional and spiritual axis, producing many essential goods like tools, furniture, ceramics, and metal-works. Old Salem contained the oldest standing African-America log church, as well as the country’s first women’s college.

Blue Blowing Boone

One of the most beautiful drives in America is along the Blue Ridge Parkway, one that Charles had traveled many times before. As one might expect, it’s located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of Appalachian chain. Originally conceived as a scenic by way, its construction began with Franklin D. Roosevelt and wasn’t completed until 52 years later. It ran from Shenandoah in Virginia, twisting and turning all the way down to Asheville and beyond, to culminate near Cherokee, North Carolina.

I meant to catch it near Boone, a little alpine town known for its hiking, kayaking, and mountain biking. Home also of a college and art school, whose halls I explored, and whose art I explored, with plenty of opportunity among the art students lining the sunny Spring sidewalks with their work displayed for purchase.

Perched around the corner near a famous 4000 foot precipice known for its fierce winds, was another village named Blowing Rock, which was anything but fierce. A woman at the Antiques Show in Charleston made me promise not to miss it, she said she “summered there” and I could see how it complimented her dignified vibe. It was a quaint hamlet comprised of crafty antique stores and real estate offices. The ghost and I stopped for a thick club sandwich; when we drove off, we forgot to visit the notorious rock.

Following a tip from a convenience store-owner in Boone, I intended to camp that night within view of the pristine waters at Price Lake. The Chief deposited us just over the dam where we watched the sun skip off its lapis waters. Small waves glittered like rippled glass over bright turquoise near the shore, before plunging into an irresolvable Prussian blue at the deeps. Nearby, the campgrounds were closed, so we continued on in hopes of finding somewhere to camp in the slanting afternoon.

The sky-raking trees were just beginning to change, thickly covering the crumpled mountains. To riff on a phrase from my transparent passenger, “It was a place where you could hear Spring coming for miles.” We were still at altitudes where winter’s furthest edge bleached the woodlands the palette of a pale moon. Surrounding us was a bone colored forest called “Pisgah”, named after the biblical mountain from which Moses glimpsed the Promise Land. Within its borders was Mount Mitchell, at 6,684ft the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi. The area was also famous for Summer festivals and the world’s largest Highland Games and Gathering of Scottish Clans. I imagined bagpipes and kilts (but not what was under them), and big sweaty men as white as bark, tossing tree-trunks and stones. We drove all afternoon along the Parkway, through sweeping majestic views which must have swept away the National Forest’s hospitality, for every campground was closed.

Shadows

Light quickly evaporated, tossed over the world’s shoulders by the tall trees. I was still having trouble with my headlights and preferred not to drive in the dark. The narrow road found its way through the shadows, walled by crags of gloom. I wasn’t worried, I had a ghost with me, a ghost who told me not to worry in fact, because he’d gone on ahead and knew the way. Charles’ quiet confidence gave me comfort, and a sweet breeze blew through the branches, arrayed in dark forms passing without structure beneath the Chief’s spinning tires. Charles once quipped “You can find your way across this country using burger joints the way a navigator uses stars.” He was right, out in the middle of nowhere was a McDonald’s and beside that a Loews with a parking lot where I figured we’d settle in for the night.

We were awakened by a crowd of teenagers doing donuts and curious making drive-by’s in their big-wheel trucks. I listened to my intuition which agreed with Charles, who suggested we go. So I risked a blinky headlight drive down the mountain, creeping over a narrow two-lane road. I stared drowsily back into the face of night and the artificial fire-flies that approached in pairs and drove swiftly past. After descending a long hill, we found sanctuary in an Asheville Walmart. Safe pavement to sleep.

Worldwide Living Room

I needed a shower, and a night or two away from the Chief would be nice. An old friend in Albuquerque introduced me through Facebook to someone she knew in Louisiana, who in turn linked me to his brother Jeff, who happened to live in Asheville. He was kind enough to take me in for a few days and showed me the town. A talented musician, he produces viral videos and a Sunday online musical program called “The World Wide Living Room.” He lives in a very cool old house within walking distance of the hip River Art District and the beautiful art deco downtown.

Jeff told me town managed to retain its deco character through a stroke of luck, it was very poor. When these beautiful old buildings were being torn down across the country in an effort to modernize, the Asheville buildings were saved, there wasn’t budget to change them. With nearly 200 buildings, it’s the highest concentration of art deco buildings in the southeast, and also a major arts and crafts destination.

Furthermore, Asheville is another one of those towns where people have flocked for decades for its health benefits, seeking the vibrant mountain air, and the curative properties of its sulfur springs. Now the region with its forests and streams was an enclave for nature-lovers attracted to the hiking and whitewater rafting, as well as artists and musicians like Jeff who enjoyed its creative atmosphere and increasingly famous music scene.

What Money Can Do

On Saturday, Whitney, another musician and one of Jeff’s friends, helped me with my self-appointed task of picking up trash in some local parks. Duties done, she  then took me on a tour of the Grove Park Inn, a turn-of-the-century spa and hotel with fabulous views of the city.  A pharmaceutical magnate suffering from chronic bronchitis built it into the giant boulders of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is a temple to the Arts and Crafts movement, containing the world’s largest collection of arts and crafts furniture. Grove Park felt like a cozy mountain lodge, very different from the Biltmore, which I visited that afternoon.

The Biltmore Estate was the last great gasp of the Gilded Age, and on its premises is the largest private house in the country, an American palace reminiscent of Versailles. George Vanderbilt II, heir to a shipping and railroad fortune erected the ornate castle at the end of 19th century; it is still owned by the family. Visitors included Henry Ford, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Thomas Edison, and Thomas Wolfe. 1000 laborers spent 8 years on its construction and imbued it with convenient luxuries hardly heard of at the time. Telephones, hot and cold running water, elevators and refrigeration, with 250 rooms, 31 bedrooms, 65 fireplaces, 43 bathrooms, a bowling alley, a 23,000 volume library, 1600 works of art, a winery, 8000 acres of gardens and forestland designed by Frederick law Omstead, who shaped central park. Charles would have felt right at home haunting those rooms, but I didn’t go in, choosing instead to dodge the lines and nap on the opulent lawns, enjoying my last day in Asheville.

The Commons

Riding in the Chief, protected by his roll-cage, I peered out my windows at the speeding semis and familiar highway off-ramps. I was driving over the largest state-maintained highway system in the country, with nearly 80,000 miles of roads. Charles didn’t like it much, he preferred the back roads and byways, he’d complained before that “…highways allow you to drive coast to coast, without seeing anything.”  But I thankful for the speed, and in a hurry to get to Charlottesville, where I intended to plant some roots for a few days.

Busy Break

I’d been traveling for over three months now, accumulating 11,000 miles behind the scraped ’60s glass protecting my odometer. North Carolina would be the 12th state tucked under my belt.  In Charlotte, I hooked up with an old buddy, Mike Wandell. Since I was a quarter of the way through the trip, woefully behind on my blogs, and still inhaling poisonous gas fumes belching from the Chief, this would be a good place to rest, catch up for a week, deal with the various issues, and strategize for the next leg.

His pad was downtown, in a modern high-rise with unparalleled wrap-around views of the city. He showed me my room; it was like the Four Seasons. We caught up on the balcony, the sunset burning apricot in thousands of windows, and talked about his job with the Bobcats, and working with Michael Jordan. In between work, he graciously filled the next week with dinners, concerts, and basketball games. Unbeknownst to him, I had a grinning, curious Charles at my side.

Parting

Unbeknownst to Mike also, I left this grinning, jovial ghost of Charles Kuralt on his balcony when I left before sunrise on Easter morning. It was time to say good-bye. Anyway, Charles liked the view, and we both chuckled at the irony of my leaving him to stare out at a primary banking and credit nexus. He’d said that “the everyday kindness of the back roads more than makes up for the acts of greed in the headlines.” But it wasn’t only on the back roads, or in small towns like Boone or Asheville, it was right here as well, in the shining streets of the city, where people played in the parks with their kids, or worked until the darkest hours tending bar, or helped out a friend with a bed and meals for the week. I was grateful, riding with Charles made my soul feel larger; I planned on taking his advice to heart. He reminded me that every scene is a picture, and every person has a story, and within these resides our own decision, and even responsibility, to find the Good. My lesson has been to humbly accept it when it’s offered. Importantly, by being alive he reminded me to be, rather than to seem. Appropriate advice for a ghost. I’m going on ahead, so that one day I also will know the way. I’m sure I’ll run into him again on the road.

*      *      *

Epilogue: Barrier Shot

I’d hit the beach before, when I first entered the state at South Port, a sleepy sea-side town with a few small galleries, a Christmas shop, pirate paraphernalia, and a pleasant pier where I was dive-bombed by seagulls. I crossed the ferry and drove through Kure beach with its signature monochromatic houses and past Fort Fisher, the last Confederate fort to fall in the Civil War.

This morning I was headed back to the coast again, famous for its pristine beaches protected a by ribbon of thin barrier islands responsible for more than 600 shipwrecks, the area notoriously known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

Under the bloom of an amazing sunrise, I made a run for the Outter Banks. I was sad to miss Fayetteville, home to a friend of mine at Fort Bragg, and for those interested in trivia, the first miniature golf course, and Babe Ruth’s first home run. But my nav took me through an utterly gorgeous area of back roads to that would have made Charles envious. The Chief and I were on our own again. The morning mists still clung to the rivers; around us were corridors of green which opened occasionally to equally green lawns and fields, spackled thinly with pink and purple flowers. This was the famed Abermarle Highway, a narrow road clambering through small towns with historic names like Troy and Carthage. American flags adorned the white wood houses which eventually turned to brick as we drew near the coast. Butterflies and dragonflies fluttered among their gardens. Good luck.

I was excited to see the ocean again and barrier islands hosting some of the most beautiful beaches and lighthouses in America. I didn’t want to miss the sand dunes at Jockey Ridge, with windswept dunes over 100 feet high, nor Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk, where the self-taught engineers Wilbur and Orville Wright changed the world with 12 seconds of flight in 1903. More importantly didn’t want to miss Roanoke, founded by Walter Raleigh nearly 30 years before the Mayflower landed, and the site of one of America’s first tragic mysteries. It was there the first English child was born on New World soil; it was there over a hundred colonists disappeared without a trace, leaving only the word “Croatoan” scrawled on a tree, the name of a nearby island. With only the afternoon, I made them all in a frenzied run, garnering a $225 ticket for missing a red light.  Virginia was next, another State Sign Dance and another state. After many weeks, I was leaving the South.

North Carolina Reading

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier; North Carolina Is My Home by Charles Kuralt; Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe; North Carolina Women: Making History by Margaret Supplee Smitth and Emily Herring Wilson; The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver; By Accident by Susan Kelly; Head Games by Thoma Nelson; This is Where We Live: Short Stories by 25 Contemporary North Carolina Writers by Michael McFee; Tar Heel Dead: Tales of Mystery from North Carolina by Sarah R. Shaber; Marching on by James Boyd; The River to Pickle Beach by Doris Betts

Recipe

Gourmet Sweet Potato Classic

Ingredients

  • 5 sweet potatoes
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup butter, softened
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Lightly grease a 9×13 inch baking dish.
  2. Bake sweet potatoes 35 minutes in the preheated oven, or until they begin to soften. Cool slightly, peel, and mash.
  3. In a large bowl, mix the mashed sweet potatoes, salt, 1/4 cup butter, eggs, vanilla extract, cinnamon, sugar, and heavy cream. Transfer to the prepared baking dish.
  4. In a medium bowl, combine 1/4 cup butter, flour, brown sugar, and chopped pecans. Mix with a pastry blender or your fingers to the consistency of course meal. Sprinkle over the sweet potato mixture.

Bake 30 minutes in the preheated oven, until topping is crisp and lightly browned.

Gratitude

Jennifer Ramo, Clark Thompson, Jeff Thompson, Whitney Moore, Michael Wandell, Matt Grable, Jennifer Burkhard Rousseau, Rose Caughran, Peyton Miller Spence

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