North Carolina - Country Roads

12 seconds that changed the world


We skidded our car into a space, flung our bags into our hotel room, and marched up through the streets of the mountain town of Asheville North Carolina. It was bitterly cold, especially for soft West Coasters, but it sure was pretty. The town had a hipster vibe, (famous for its craft beer), Dom can testify a bottle of 'Cold Mountains' warmed him up nicely.

Up bright and early we headed to the famous Biltmore Estate and Gardens (the biggest private residence in the US) a sprawling estate owned by the Vanderbilts. It is truly grandiose, 200 rooms, 8,000 acres, not too shabby. Growing up in Ireland and living in England for years, I love a Sunday spent at a Stately home, it's the closest I'll get to Downton Abbey!

Aristocracy American Style

The Music Room was lit by candlesticks made for the Hapsburg Empresses. A Library Room filled with 20,000 books and a chess set first owned by Napoleon Bonaparte! Vanderbilt was a fan of mod cons; the stately home had a primitive central heating system and 43 indoor bathrooms (at a time when most houses did not have a single indoor toilet) and mechanical refrigeration when others used ice to cool food.

As we spilled out into the gardens the view out across the Blue Ridge Mountains was breathtaking. The spectacular 'gardens' were landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted the man behind Central Park in NY, Capitol Hill in DC, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and let's not forget the Kentucky Civil Park. An impressive CV!

Look hard and you'll see a wagon

With the sun at our backs and wind in our faces, John Denver’s 'Country Roads' on the radio, we tore up the Blue Ridge Mountains. We bathed in spectacular swathes of Autumn reds (a trillion, billion, leaves coated the sides of the road), as we climbed higher, icicles hung from the mountain sides, the mountains were heavily populated with trees, trees, trees... My favourite!

The sad thing was seeing smoke from recent forest fires. The surprising thing was seeing a wild turkey trotting along the road, not a bother on him!

We knew we were in Trump country as the "Trump - Pence" signs flew by. That and the fact Fox news seemed to be on the screen in most bars, hotels, and restaurants we gamboled past.

Quite randomly we stopped to rest our bones in a town called Mount Airy (it would turn out to be quite the find). As Dom and Ró splashed about in the hotel’s small indoor pool, I glanced through a pamphlet on the town I had pinched from the lobby. I was vaguely looking for a tip for lunch, when 1950s quaint America unfolded before me. How could you not fall in love with a town that has as line item on its map key - 
"Banjo Art Area".

By the time the Irish Olympic swim team came back to the room I had our day planned. A stroll through TV induced Utopic America.

The hotel staff were incredibly nice. Once again the Southern accent slayed me "Sure thing, Darlin' ". She gave Róisín a balloon and delivered the classic line "Y'all come back now" as we departed.

He'll always be Matlock to me (photo snapped in the Andy Griffith Museum)

The first gem I had gleaned from the town pamphlet - the town of Mount Airy was the setting for the 1950s TV program The Andy Griffith Show. I had never seen the show but the reference rang a bell in the part of my brain that stores Americana fact & fiction. A little googling later I discovered that Andy Griffith played a small town cop with his son Opie (played by TVs embodiment of 50s nostalgia, Ron Howard) living in a town called Mayberry (Mount Airy). I was more familiar with Andy Griffith as the septuagenarian crime buster Matlock

The Andy Griffith museum was a small room homage to the show and Mr Griffith himself. For us it was enjoyably twee and cutesy, I appreciate for others it may have deeply stirring childhood and cultural experience. The ace up the sleeve was finding out the entry price included a visit to the 'Original Siamese Twins' exhibit. I am fascinated by twins in general, they blow my mind, finding this exhibit was the best museum moment of my life.

Brothers in Arms (photo snapped in the Andy Griffith Museum)

Chang and Eng Bunker were born co-joined in Siam in the 1800s (now known as Thailand). The doctors advised their mother to have them separated. She refused as she feared one would die. She taught them to stretch the band of skin and muscle that joined them at the chest, enabling them to stand side by side instead of face to face. At some point they were picked up by a circus as a freak show act and toured the world. When the time came to retire, they settled in Mount Airy!

They married a couple of sisters and had 22 children between them. This lead to 1,200 offspring spreading across the States, who continue to meet annually in Mount Airy for a reunion. The Bunker bro’s story had me hook, line and sinker. Dom had to wake me from an open mouthed trance as I watched a video of footage from the Bunker family reunions. 

Are people still buying tapes? Hell, are people still buying CDs?!

Main St had everything I wanted to see and more; General Store, Ice Cream Parlour, craft shops, antique/vintage stores, vinyl record store, a shop selling CDs and cassette tapes, lots of bakeries, an old jail, and a winery. Dom lost me in the first antique/junk store. I emerged with a 1940s horsehead play stick for Ró.

As we ambled along I noticed posters everywhere for Donna Fargo. She kind of looked like Jane Fonda (including the headband) and was coming to town for a Christmas concert. My guess is she is a bluegrass singer. Mount Airy is steeped in Bluegrass history. The Earle theatre has been open since 1937 and hosts the 2nd longest running radio show in the US playing traditional mountain music.

Love Donna F

The plan was to check out Gertrude Smith's house (a house full of antiques, kept as it was when the New York interior designer died in 1904). However, I was out voted when our trails brought us upon an ice cream parlour. The parlour had photos on the wall of celebrities, most if whom I didn't recognise, apart from John Wayne and the Siamese twins (my new favourite 19th century celebs). Then I turned to see a wall dedicated to Donna Fargo! I only knew her from a poster but got excited by her stardom nonetheless and gripped Dom’s arm and squealed “Look, Donna Fargo!”. 

Pink and pies as far as the eye can see

As we drew to the end of Main St, I recalled the town pamphlet had mentioned a local dish to ask for was a 'sonker' a mix of a tart and a crumble. We passed the door of Miss Angel's Heavenly Pies and I insisted it was our last chance to get sonkered. An explosion of pink attacked us as we went in. A huge inflatable Christmas tree poked us in the face as it perched on top of a table. While we waited to be served I noticed a creepy photo behind the counter of an older lady seductively offering cake as part of Miss Angel's Pie Calendar (turned out to be the owner in the pic, the eponymous Miss Angel - a gal’s gotta do what a gal’s gotta do to sell pies!). I ordered a 'sonker' to-go (peach 'sonker' with a moonshine glaze) and hit the bricks. It was sonking good.

We popped into another antique shop and got chatting with the owners. Two older men, one in denim overalls, chewing on a toothpick, stroking his long white beard (he looked like he was auditioning for Hill Billy #1). As we were about to leave, bearded dude stops us in our tracks...

Beard: Where y'all from?

Dom: London...England (big smile)

Beard: Y'all vote for Breeeezit?

(We looked at each other, presuming he's referring to Brexit)

Dom: No, no, we don't actually live there anymore

Beard: Y'all vote for Trump?

<Awkward silence>

Beard continues: We did. We knew he was ‘the one’ for a year. Hell, we wanted him 8 years ago.


Dom (very diplomatically): Well, we didn't have a vote, and he's in now.

Beard: He's gonna make America great again.

Me (not very diplomatically): Well, we live in San Francisco and were routing for Hillary.

<Both men leaned in delighted, spittle foaming on their lips>.

Beard: Well, y'all very diverse on the west coast, ain’t ya!

<Toothless grin>

There was a flitter of fiery talk between the men about the things that put them off Hillary, namely Benghazi, Planned Parenthood, and taxes.

When Róisín piped up with ‘Mummy, who is Ben Gazey?” We decided it was time to leave, said our thank yous and slotted out to another roar from the men of "He'll make America great!".

In fairness to the men, they were courteous and friendly and keen to have a debate - Isn't that what America is all about. People are entitled to their opinions (and let's hope America stays that way).


On the way out of town there was another reminder that we were in the red south we saw a little church on a side of the road with a huge Trump sign erected in its front lawn emblazoned with a white cross. Good grief!

We drove through the Outer Banks, a 200 mile string of islands and spits with ocean on one side and sounds on the other. Well kept houses dotted the roadside built by seafaring folk. The ever present church every other mile or so. Big posters boasting Trump for President. Restaurants with wild claims to pull you in, such as the Weeping Radish offering “brews and butchery”! Shops with puzzling slogans such as “Miss Lizzy: Fashion for the Fun of It” (huh?). Another restaurant sign offered “Spaghetti and French Stuff” (ooh la la). More pro Trump signs, one even said '"Anyone But Hillary". This election seemed to be about voting against a person instead of for a person. Sad times we live in.

The Atlantic sea off the Outer Banks is famously treacherous. Due to the high number of shipwrecks on its shores the waters became known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. But what had drawn us there was the town of Kitty Hawk, or more precisely Kill Devil Hills that overlooked the town. The place where the Wright Brothers had first flown a plane. The birthplace of modern day aviation.

"Achieved by dauntless genius and unconquerable faith"

The story has it Ohio (where the Wright brothers grew up) gave them the strength brawn and wherewithal, North Carolina gave them wind. An interesting fact that seemed to fascinate Dom was that the Wright Brothers patented a flight control mechanism, they did not patent an airplane, which is what the world associates them with. They proved that if a triple axle was used with camber wings (curved wings) they could sustain flight with a heavy load. Every plane in the world today uses that triple axle system.

It was exciting to see the spot from where the world changed. My favourite part was the enormous life size sculpture of the plane with one Wright brother lying flat on board, the other urging him on from the sidelines.

12 seconds that changed the world!

Next stop Virginia

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