North Carolina, and a New Journey’s Commencement

May 19th, 2018 in Adventure

I’m happy to say that my third wandering of the USA is now well underway! Much of my first month involved the state of North Carolina from sea to mountains, and this log will stay focused on my activities in that state.

My trip began with a Chinatown bus ride down to Wilmington, North Carolina to start my journey. I could handle fourteen hours in a bus overnight, right? After all, I concluded last year’s cycling trip with three plus days of Amtrak riding from the Pacific. Well.. never again. These buses deserve their horrible reputation. This one was packed, the air cut out several times (which is rough when you have a teenager asleep on your shoulder) and the bus driver was running a cigarette smuggling racket that involved stops at any gas station on the way in Virginia. I definitely felt my sanity hanging by a thread by the end of things.

My reason for making Wilmington my first stop was a reunion with “Saritor”, who I met during my World of Warcraft days. He’s been a close friend since I left the game many years ago; we’ve kept in touch via Gchat, mutually commiserating over the woes of the coder’s life. He shares my proclivity for nature and has by chance or design been the only person to have met me on all three of my trips. Thankfully, he works from home and was able to grab me off the bus and whisk me away to his home he shares with his brother, his brother’s girlfriend, and her daughter. I probably wouldn’t have minded a bike ride, but the bus drop off point was  in one of those wastelands of commerce with big box stores and highways, so I gratefully accepted.

A fair bit of time here was spent playing video games and watching anime. I finally got to see all the hubbub was with Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds; who knew a game would be invented where you can wander around an empty countryside for fifteen minutes before getting sniped and that it would be fun! I know I still have the personality and interest to drop a whole day consuming a very compelling game, tv show or book. I try not to beat myself up when it happens, as it’s going to be a part of my life to want to rampantly consume a piece of media, just like I might eat an inviting slice of pizza left behind in the NYC subway, Scavenger style.

Anyway, I digress; back in Wilmington, I got a nice infusion of the beach city’s vibes, including an Easter siesta on the ocean and was welcomed as if I was family into all of the house’s regular activities, and got started on some of my own intended routines. I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity for a day, something I’m hoping to do at least once per visit to any new area. I pick Habitat as a default simply for its visible name and the promise of doing good, physical work, but expect to vary it. I also got a jog in with the local running club, after a poor showing at my last dalliance with NYC Marathon I sorta shrugged off the sport, but being in these new places it’s a good way to get a decent lay of the land and work out.

My strolling here brought out some feels. I have an intent to challenge myself to grow my photography and so I also looked to see what was going on in the city confines. But, the downtown quickly revealed itself to be a mini-tourist trap and my camera felt like a dead weight around my hip. It’s a funny result of tourism, that places lose their luster and become more spectacle and nuisance as more people come to consume it. I can’t deny that I am a tourist myself on this trip, but if there’s one thing a New Yorker knows is that wherever the local equivalent of Times Square is, that’s where we don’t want to be.

Wilmington has a curious history. Did you know white supremacists successfully pulled off a coup d’etat some hundred years ago here and forced out its democratically elected government? It’s the only time it’s happened in the history of the United States! Juxtaposed with that history are the Confederate monuments that prominently blight the city’s main street. I know this is a hot button topic right now, and really am unsure if my voice as a Yankee visiting the South is the most welcome in the debate, but these monuments shouldn’t be a part of your city’s public landscape in 2018.

Wilmington also has an unfortunate problem with the quality of its tap water. It’s some of the most foul I’ve tasted, and the reason many believe lies at the foot of Dupont Chemicals. A Chemours plant they own has been dispersing a chemical, GenX, into the Cape Fear river for decades, where much of the city draws its water. A debacle like this is why we need stringent regulation in protecting our environment, as whole areas can become unlivable through this sort of pollution, and it’s being disarmed under Trump! Clean drinking water is not something to take for granted and I’d consider it a necessity for anywhere I choose to live; if it happens here, and in Flint, don’t be naïve in thinking it can’t also happen to you.

As my week in Wilmington winnowed down to its last days, Saritor and I set our sights for a road trip west to Asheville, which was my first place I knew I would be going on this trip. We opted to stop at Congaree National Park in South Carolina to check that park of our respective lists. The place is mostly flat swampland, which might not be a dazzling prospect, but I thought it was really quite a pleasant excursion, especially since it’s such an unfamiliar biome for me. We opted for a 10 mile hike that skirted the Congaree river, was overloaded with blooming flora, and featured a couple miles of boardwalk. The early Spring climate got us through without much worry about insect pests.

I would make several trips up the Blue Ridge Parkway while in Asheville. Have y’all heard of it? I may have mentioned the parkway last year when I rode it on TransAm, but it’s a very special scenic roadway that navigates the deep wildernesses of the Appalachian mountains. It winds along mountains, soaring over 5000 feet and meanders for hundreds of miles. Our target, Mt. Mitchell, had its approach roads closed, so we couldn’t navigate that way. The dream of driving up and riding my bicycle back down to Asheville was, alas, not realized.

We instead opted to just enjoy the bars and restaurants for a night before we split. Asheville is vying for craft beer capital of the world, so if you’re not hiking, the libations here are a fine alternative. Dinner that night, at Nine Mile, was especially noteworthy due to my having a go at the spiciest meal on the menu, a pasta dish with 18 habanero peppers cooked into it. I put it all down my gullet despite palpable suffering and claimed victory, but it was pyrrhic in nature (ask me off the record about it, if you’re really that curious). I definitely found my limit in spiciness that day, especially after reading the news about the crazy side effects from eating ultra hot peppers.

After parting with Saritor, I would spend a few more nights hosteling in West Asheville before camping with my first of two Couchsurfing hosts. Those early nights were definitely marred by my fretting over the cold weather. I packed mostly for the upcoming hot days in the South and underestimated the effects of the elevation, with freezing lows gripping me in my sleeping bag. Fortunately, I pawned a track jacket with that host’s friend during this time that has become one of my favorite pieces of attire. Why was he selling it, along with all his other earthly possessions? Dude was moving to South America to become a wandering DJ.

Asheville is a nexus for hippies, transients, and other quirky folks. I saw squirrel pot pie served with a gluten-free crust. I may draw flak for saying this, but it’s definitely got that Portlandia vibe. As a New Yorker who watched that show when it was in vogue, Portland, Oregon acquired a bit of mysticism that was really only dispelled when I finally visited there on my bicycle. Asheville on the other hand, makes me want to watch the show again and see what comparisons I can draw. Portlandia‘s early seasons were really quite good, though I feel like the show had unfortunately lost some luster after becoming intertwined with the pushback against gentrification.

A local curiosity is the glut of talented artists that come to the city to busk as the weather warms. Tourists are an easy mark for a steady buck, as many people with money to burn come here for the tourism and nightlife. A striking amount live within the city who are homeless to some degree. I met multiple people living by the grace of someone letting them camp on their property, and saw plenty more who simply found patches in the local woods to call their own or just lived out of their cars.

I had a great time towards the end of my trip via a Couchsurfing stay with John Gellman. I felt fated to meet a gentleman who has a serious portfolio of music photography over many years, including captures of many great artists from the 70s’. His project for the last few years now is a focus on portraits of the aforementioned buskers. I felt very inspired hanging out with such a knowledgeable dude, and his presence was my ticket to do some fun stuff like hanging out with local bands or taking photos up on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I was kinda dismayed to find the city overall not very fun for bicycling. It in general lacked marked lanes, and steep hills define the downtown and West sections where most things are happening and can be an ordeal to ascend sans infrastructure. Fortunately, the motorists in the area were in general simpatico; I never really felt like I was fighting them. The city’s smaller size overall makes it an impractical place to live with just a bicycle, but it could definitely be done.

I got restless and wanted to visit this year’s crop of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, so I hopped on my bicycle for my first real ride since TransAm: 35 miles to Hot Springs, a small town nestled in the hills on the Tennessee border, population: 300. The trail goes right through Hot Springs, so hikers are abundant this time of year. I made it my mission while there to photograph everyone, and finished with some results! I did most of my work in town, but also did some field work going up and down the trail for a few day hikes with my camera holstered on my hip. I considered this time a big step forward for me in facing down the anxiety of asking people to stand for formal portraits.

I had hoped to visit my friend from back home who is currently on her own thru-hike, Maxine a.k.a. “Short Stix”. It was originally her idea to attempt the thru-hike two years ago, and we planned it out together. It took her an extra two years to get her affairs in order to make her own attempt, but I still credit her as the catalyst for setting out on that amazing journey. Sadly, I missed her by a mere day, as snow hampered her approach earlier in the week and my departure to Atlanta was fixed. Still, she’s got my blessing and is in absolute contentment out there, so I feel good about her own journey.

Unfortunately, my ride to Atlanta, Forrest, wasn’t keen on driving as far as Hot Springs so I got stuck with bicycling right back to Asheville to meet him. Did I mention Forrest at all yet? I hiked 400 miles or so of the Appalachian Trail with him. We became fast friends when we realized we could quote every line of the best retro episodes of Spongebob Squarepants back at each other. That boy’s lived in Georgia all his life, and it was my hope for a long while to find the right occasion to pay him a visit. A big part of this trip coming together was when he told me about his intent to hike some of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and I realized I had my ride down to Atlanta from there as long as I made it to Asheville to join him for that.

Playing on Forrest radio when he scooped me up off my bike was Chance the Rapper’s “Best Life”, which would be the theme of our road tripping around the area and subsequent Atlanta hanging. We said farewell to Asheville with a breakfast at Biscuit Head before sojourning into the natural attractions of the Pisgah National Forest (where I slid down slippery rocks into freezing water,) the Southern Blue Ridge Parkway (where we played frisbee with university students up top of Black Balsam Knob,) and Grand Cherokee Casino (where Forrest quadrupled his bets playing blackjack while I multiplied my original sum by 0.) Finally, we fed the hikers the next morning up at Newfound Gap in the Park, deciding we were too lazy for any strolling ourselves.

We then departed for Atlanta, with spirits high amidst the reunion of two intimate friends, that would prove to be a very defining vibe for the next step of the journey: finding the way West through the South.