In the summer of 2012, I helped a close friend (who was also named Sam) move from Pasadena, California to Atlanta, Georgia. Instead of taking a normal route along Interstate 10, Sam, drawn in by the search for a rare German pastry called baumkuchen, insisted on taking a circuitous route that ultimately sprawled across the Great Basin and the Midwest and down the Appalachians and Atlantic Coast. My recollections from the time, lightly edited, are hereby offered for your entertainment.
Our route now turned south, and for the first time since California, west. As it was, we were down to our very last QI. One of the questions on this episode was “who’s to the right of Genghis Khan?” Jimmy Carr responded, “Every cab driver I’ve ever met?”
“See, I don’t quite get that,” I said. “Are cab drivers in Britain particularly conservative?”
Sam cleared his throat. “Don’t you remember? On the show, they showed a picture of Genghis Khan with his advisors in turbans. That’s what he meant.”
It turns out I was right. Apparently London cab drivers have a reputation for being right-wing and hostile to immigrants in particular, in enormous contrast to those in America, who are mostly immigrants themselves, or at least natives with unhealthy attachments to their ancestral countries. But let’s get back to West Virginia.
“I was really hoping Greece would get to kick Germany’s ass.”
The Appalachians are not big mountains, but they are very long and straight, and getting around them has been a problem since the first humans arrived here. What would have been a relatively short drive to North Carolina took six hours, through nearly the entire length of West Virginia. Separating the two Virginias is the towering spine of Appalachia: the Blue Ridge. We passed right through the ridge in an exceptionally long tunnel and came out in the most remote part of Virginia. Not long after, between Bastian and Bland, the highway passed under the Appalachian Trail and I made a point of taking a picture.
Since South Dakota, we’d passed up an inordinate number of gas stations called “Kum and Go.” Sam refused to fuel up at them, because in his words, “what were they thinking!?” Unfortunately there were no other gas stations, so we stopped. I went inside to buy a drink. The store was full of men with mullets and horseshoe mustaches. You’d think by now they’d moved on to a more recently-outdated style.
A storm gathered as we drove into the Raleigh-Durham area, which locals call the Research Triangle. As the rain started to fall, we approached a pickup truck full of watermelons.
“Oh, that looks so good right now,” said Sam. I snapped a picture to savor the moment, but as we passed we discovered the driver of the truck was a middle-aged black man. We took a moment to feel bad about ourselves. “Good thing I got the picture beforehand,” I said.
Our host James was a chubby, bespectacled, thoroughly Southern academic who had studied with Sam at Harvey Mudd. Technically located on the Duke University campus, his apartment was massive, having previously been vacated by a man of questionable hygiene. There was no sign of that now, but he was quick to make caveats.
“There’s a lot of crime in this area,” he said. “Every college town is like that, around the university is a kind of donut hole. You always take your bicycle in.”
Theo took us into town. Aside from being home of a great university, Durham is also the home of the ancient conglomerate American Tobacco, which produced Lucky Strike cigarettes. Tobacco is obviously not the industry it used to be, but the people and government of Durham remain proud of their heritage, keeping the old factory buildings and giving the name “American Tobacco” to the renovated district in which they sit.
Seemingly every business in the downtown area was an homage to local history. I quickly lost count of the number of things named after Bull Durham (the historic tobacco factory, not the movie). Midsize cities excel for this kind of thing; big enough to be important, small enough to be intimate.
Together we chose a Spanish restaurant for dinner. Among the appetizers I observed some kind of sausage wrapped in bacon, greedily taking one and popping it into my mouth.
“Those are dates,” said James.
I stopped, feeling the strange sweetness of the fruit mix with the bacon. “I know,” I said, covering my mistake, and continued eating.
Over time, the topic turned to sports. Having recently followed the Euro Cup, I explained how, for the first time, I hadn’t found soccer boring.
“I mean, there was so much subtext!” I exclaimed. “I was really hoping Greece would get to kick Germany’s ass.”
“All for the better, I suppose,” said James. “American Football is on its way out.”
This was a ridiculous statement on its face. American Football is the most popular sport in the country. The whole practice is celebrated from the professional level down to amateur high-schoolers, whose games bring together whole cities. And a critically lauded television show, Friday Night Lights, had recently centered around it.
And let me make it clear, I do not view this with the rose-colored glasses of a lifelong football fan. I went to a high school with an astonishingly bad football team which only existed because certain parents felt that a high school must have a football team, in a media market without an NFL franchise, in a state where baseball and basketball are king.
My uncle, a diehard college football fan, wonders why I don’t like the sport when I have never played it and have no connection to it. But even I recognize the place it holds in America at large, which is why I reacted with shock to James’ theorem.
“How can you say that?” I asked. “It’s football. It’s practically the meaning of life.”
“Okay, okay,” he said, “but high school football? In ten years, it’ll be gone. Except maybe in Texas.”
He may not have been far off. At the time, High School football was coming under intense media scrutiny for the injuries sustained by the players, made possible by their massive armor. As a teenager I knew a guy who was on our team, who had had nine concussions on the field, and warned that he could become a vegetable if he took another hit. By graduation, he’d had eleven and, while not braindead, was certainly unstable.
James implored us to stay an extra day and chill in his apartment. I was just a trifle upset. It’s true, we were a day ahead of schedule, but our travel plans for the final three days were packed: A tour of funny accents in the Outer Banks, Charleston, and Savannah, a southern-style feast for the ages, and a rather sketchy stay in Florida. We could easily have stretched it out.
Because we didn’t have our own keys, taking the day off meant one of us would have to stay in the apartment, which meant I would have to stay in the apartment. Sam went out and got soul food that, while far better than Harold’s in Chicago, was fairly unmemorable. Feeling just a slight bit sick afterwards, I excused myself to use the toilet adjoining the unoccupied bedroom, rapidly clogged it, and spent the whole afternoon trying to clear it, to no avail. Having tried everything, I left James a check for a plumber and avoided the issue for the rest of our stay.
“…grilled tuna in honey mustard with green onions, surrounded by deep fried oysters…”
In any case, we didn’t go to the Outer Banks. The drive would have been long enough, and my friend in Havelock was coincidentally away at a forensics conference in Arizona. So we were going to drive straight to Charleston.
At Charleston it had been Sam’s plan to give ourselves a royal welcome. Charleston is an ancient city by American standards, retaining much of its colonial architecture. Resting on a narrow peninsula at the confluence of several rivers with the Atlantic, this was a place of refinement, mint juleps sipped on verandas, great eating, and old-world charm. It was the first place on our journey to feature great oaks draped with Spanish moss, though there is actually little “Southern” about it.
One exciting thing about Charleston was its accent, an arcane, quasi-caribbean version of English, unrelated to anything else in America, allegedly owing its unique sound to the 18th century influx of West Africans, Huguenots, and Sephardic Jews. I find it just a bit reminiscent of the Fens in East Anglia, but I’ve never been to the Fens so that may be presumptuous.
The reservations to our hotel had been a gift from Sam’s Hawaiian friends, and it was plush. The building, located on the oddly-named Meeting Street, was a model of 19th-century splendor, with little alcoves and kiosks obscured by wooden shades. I felt as if I should be resting behind them in a white suit, smoking a cigar. In fact the building was not that old, but it carried the appropriate level of charm.
We walked along tiny cobblestone streets to a packed restaurant called Slightly North of Broad. It was our first “southern” restaurant, though the food was so much more than such a description could encapsulate. I had the grilled tuna in honey mustard with green onions, surrounded by deep fried oysters– the first oysters I ever ate. Sam had opted to drink something called Blenheim’s Hot Ginger Ale, which was sweet yet spicy. It was the best meal either of us had on the entire trip.1.
Under a sky of charcoal and lightning, we repaired to the harbor to have a look at Fort Sumter. This was where the Civil War began, but now the 19th-century citadel was being dwarfed by naval and container ships that were in fact further away. We returned to our suite in time to avoid the rain, only to discover that a tornado warning had been put in place for Charleston County.