Fayetteville, North Carolina is a solid half-way stop between New Jersey and Florida. I’ve stayed there overnight several times — Marriott Springhill Suites is my top hotel recommendation.
On my last trip, I nearly crashed my car when I caught this roadside attraction out of the corner of my eye. It is a reasonably large Eiffel tower replica at a strip mall called Bordeaux Center. Maybe not as exciting as a giant pink dinosaur or mermaids, but surprising none the less, and worth a stop for a photo.
It is impossible to write about Raleigh, North Carolina without mentioning the Crepe Myrtles.
Crepe Myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) are flowering trees imported from Asia. They seem to average about 10 feet in height, come in pink, red, purple & white, and are literally everywhere in the Raleigh area.
The sheer number of crepe myrtles is shocking. Now you’re thinking that I’m being hyperbolic, but I’m not. If you live in the area, you’re probably numb to it: “the sky is blue, the grass is green, and everything along the sides is pink.” But for an outsider driving into North Carolina, the experience is sort of like the “Stargate” scene in 2001, a Space Odyssey, but instead of a stream of colored lights, it is a stream of flowering trees. If that reference is too obscure, just imagine driving through a pink tunnel made of flowers.
Gardiner, NC, Suburb of Raleigh
I stayed at a Best Western in Garner, NC. The hotel was fine: pool, “lobby breakfast”, quiet, comfortable rooms, and plenty of parking. Garner, NC, the city, is essentially a highway encrusted with strip malls and big-box stores, surrounded by a web of winding, hilly forest roads. That is my perception of it. I visited the local Walmart to check out the locals. While the Walmart did not have the bins of fireworks that I was hoping for, they did have isles of snack cakes, and beer (which led to this), and the hairbrush & computer mouse I needed.
A UTZ truck in the parking lot of Walmart:
Raleigh Museum of Natural Sciences
The primary place I visited while in Raleigh was the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science. As museums of Natural Science/History go, I would put it somewhere between the American Museum of Natural History and the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science; all are good, but the North Carolina one falls in the middle.
Inside the Museum you’ll find four floors of Natural Science exhibits, most if not all, focused on North Carolina fauna, flora, and geology. The massive whale skeletons, and arthropod zoo, was most impressive.
Other than that I also was impressed by:
The hummingbird exhibit
The live snake and amphibian exhibits
The massive sea shore and forest replica/reproductions
Graphics that explained the different areas & layers of North Carolina geology
The large assortment of taxidermied animals
The gift shop was solid. I bought a squid replica and admired an electric fan shaped like a fox.
Fox squirrels are massive — almost size of a house cat — I did not know that.
Rambling Around Town
When visiting a city, I like to walk around the town without a plan or compass, with the goal of stumbling upon some interesting sights and experiences. I like to visit the stores & restaurants locals frequent; sit on park benches and observe the local vibe like a local would; try to see the city through a local’s eyes.
During my three-hour ramble around Raleigh, I discovered a giant acorn, a sand castle 200 miles away from the ocean, and world-famous Clyde Cooper’s BBQ. Clyde Cooper’s BBQ had pork skins, which I get for my sister’s chihuahua from time to time. The chihuahua is passionate about eating parts of other animals.
It is worth mentioning that I visited Raleigh right after all Confederate flags and memorabilia were removed from State/Government buildings, including museums. Had I visited weeks earlier, I may have had a different experience.
Earlier this year I visited North Carolina to meet a famous cicada expert (Bill Reynolds of the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, NC). While I was in the Raleigh area, I decided that it would be a good idea to visit Chapel Hill, NC. I had not been to Chapel Hill since the 1990s, and at the time I had a blast, so I felt it was worth a second visit.
Chapel Hill has spawned many interesting musical acts, but perhaps their most iconic is Southern Culture on the Skids (SCOTS). SCOTS is a perfect mix of elements of rock, psychobilly, country, and novelty music — it’s like they took parts of each, and made something better than the sum of the parts. One of my favorite SCOTS songs is Camel Walk, which features the lyrics:
OWWWW WEEE, Little Debbie, Little Debbie
I’m a-comin’ on home, baby, ’cause you make me wanna walk
The problem is the Little Debbie, Little Debbie part. A problem you say? Yes, because I became momentarily obsessed with Little Debbie snack cakes. The problem with that is when I eat too many Little Debbie snack cakes, it saps my energy. Realistically speaking, you should only eat one dessert a day — and not buy two or three boxes of snack cakes and some Pabst tall-boys, and then spend the majority of your vacation watching YouTubes and napping in a hotel room (a little hyperbole, but close enough to the truth).
So, to recap, you can see how my unrestrained mind works: 1) Visit North Carolina, 2) think about visiting Chapel Hill, 3) think about Chapel Hill’s best band SCOTS, 4) think about their song Camel Walk, and its lyrics about Little Debbie snack cakes, 5) go to Walmart to buy a USB cable but leave with Pabst and boxes of snack cakes, and 6) hang out at the hotel — instead of Raleigh or Chapel Hill — because I ate too many snacks.
Learn from my mistakes: no matter how delicious banana cakes are, limit yourself to one a day. You will appreciate them more, and you will get more out of life.
That was a massive tangent. Back to Chapel Hill.
Chapel Hill is the perfect college town. They have all the right ingredients.
√ Music venues.
√ Music stores.
√ A variety of non-chain restaurants.
√ (I will assume) bookstores.
√ a College (UNC).
√ better weather than most states north of North Carolina.
√ an interesting local culture featuring unique art, music, and food.
√ College students.
Visiting Chapel Hill for the second time was like visiting a movie set after watching a really awesome movie about it. So what do I mean by that? Well, the last time I visited I was with friends, we partied, drank, played cards, and went to amazing local restaurants, bars, and music events — heck, my friends and I even danced on stage at a SCOTS show! SCOTS drummer David Hartman (dating a friend at the time) took me to a favorite BBQ joint. You couldn’t ask for a better Chapel Hill experience.
Visting in 2015, all the right elements were there: the Local 506 bar, CD Alley, the brewpubs, the restaurants with their painted goats, colorful band flyers, and stickers festooning every vertical surface. I’ll say it again: it was like visiting a movie set of a movie I’ve already seen. (Now I’m thinking of the NLP technique where you step outside memory and view it objectively, but let’s not go down another tangent.) Sobriety, daylight, time limitations, and a lack of companions made my visit decidedly different — but I still had fun.
What I enjoyed about Chapel Hill this time around:
CD Alley (405-C W Franklin St): a great little record store, with a good selection. Appropriately, I bought a CD of SCOTS’ Zombified album (which is great Halloween rock n’ roll music). CD Alley feels like an authentic record store: cramped, dark, decorated outside with stickers and fliers of local bands — for a music obsessive, it feels like home.
Carolina Brewery (450 W Franklin St): good brewpub. I had the Firecracker lager (I think), which was tasty.
Local 506 (506 W Franklin St): they were closed, but it was great just to stand outside the door and take in all the interesting, multi-colored band flyers
All the interesting stickers and band flyers all over town. Some people don’t like graffiti, especially when it is done to their property without their consent, but in a college town, it just makes sense. Light poles and mailboxes would look naked without it.
Even though my second Chapel Hill visit was not as “epic” as my first, there was one thing that made it special — one thing that I would not have experienced the last time around, and that is the Ackland Museum (101 S Columbia St,). Ackland was around the last time I was in town, but leisurely enjoying a well-curated museum was not on my agenda in the 1990s.
Ackland is a wonderful medium-sized museum with a well-balanced diversity of art spanning many centuries and styles, from the ancient…
… to ultra-modern…
So what did we learn:
1) Go easy on the snack cakes, but do enjoy them from time to time.
2) If you return to a place you’ve been in the past, don’t expect it to be the same, but do enjoy it for all that it is.
3) Sometimes you get more out of life when you take it fast, but it is also enjoyable when you take it slow.
Unfortunately, the Welcome Center part of the North Carolina Welcome Center was closed. No brochures for me. But I did enjoy this giant folk-art weather vane (pictured above).
The folks hanging out at the Welcome Center seemed like tourists. Lots of jorts (cuffed jean shorts). Lots of people walk their miniature dogs. Thankfully no grifters — the “we need $20 to get back to Erie Pennsylvania” routine gets old quickly (I’m talking to you, Maryland).