After making my way out of Shenandoah National Park via Skyline Drive for the last time, I headed south to Roanoke, Virginia. This was not a town that was originally on my list of places to stop, but one of my best friends, Tyler’s, brother lives there with his family and his folks rent an apartment so they can come spend time with their grandchildren. Ann and Art (Tyler’s parents) emailed me to invite me to stay with them whenever I wanted and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet them. Plus it allowed me to break up my trip to North Carolina.
When I arrived, I took an incredible shower. I forgot how good a shower feels after camping for more than a weekend. I’m not high maintenance in the least, but being able to put my hair into some different concoction than what sweat and a ponytail had done to it for the last four days, made me feel like a pin-up girl.
After visiting for a bit, Ann, Art and I went over to Tyler’s brother, Kelly’s, place to say hello and meet his wife and kids. They were a rambunctious trio (the kids, that is), but super adorable and eager to show me all their toys. Kelly and I met back in May when he was in town for a conference and it was nice to see him again. He’s a radiologist and does volunteer work in Rwanda a few weeks out of the year. The last time he was there, he brought back some baskets the local craftswomen weave and gave me one as a thank you for being Tyler’s bud. It’s gorgeous and the gesture itself was beyond touching.
We headed out shortly after to do a tour of the city - it was raining pretty hard so we were only able to drive around. Roanoke is a pretty small town, but really beautiful. It sits kind of in a bowl surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, so it’s really lush and green. It’s also where Norfolk Southern was based for many years, so there’s a huge railroad history, which can be seen throughout the city. The downtown area was full of repurposed old buildings that had been around for years and are now cool little stores, bars and restaurants. Since it’s so small, the tour only took about 15 minutes, but I was glad to see it, even if through the backseat window.
After dinner, we went back to the apartment and I finally had the opportunity to update my blog and send some emails. Art, Ann and I got to know each other better and FaceTimed with Tyler later in the evening. That was way surreal. When I lived in Brooklyn, Tyler and I would see each other nearly every week, especially toward the end. Talking to him on FaceTime, while incredibly awesome to get to see his face and all, made me really sad. It was the first time I realized this is how it would be going forward, not just with him, but all of those I left in New York. I imagine this is just the first of many moments of homesickness, but it snuck up on me and the first is probably always the hardest to grapple with.
I left the next morning and decided to finally take the backroads to my next destination, Durham, North Carolina. That drive reassured me that I need to be on those as much as possible. I probably saw more great little things in that one stretch than I had on all of my interstate drives combined. The only problem with those roads is that it’s not easy to pull off and take photos with out seriously risking your car getting smacked from a passerby. So, most of that drive is committed to memory instead of digital pixels. I did drive by a little grass-fed beefery (I’m coining this term), through a u-turn, visited with Diane at Baldwin Grass-Fed Beef, and bought some rib eyes to bring along with me to my friends. I also saw a ton of dilapidated barns and houses, which, I’m quickly realizing, are some of my favorite things to see on the road. I saw one house that had burned down and seemed to still be smoldering. Yes, creepy.
I arrived into Durham in the afternoon and gave the biggest hug to Mike, an old friend from Austin. He and his wife, Rita used to live up in Boston when I first moved to Brooklyn and I’d go up to see them and their baby girl, Sofia, regularly. They moved down to Durham about six years ago after Rita got an academic position at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I hadn’t seen them in five years and, as is the case with all great friends, we pretty much picked up right where we left off. Sofia is now 8 (nothing like that to make you start looking for the AARP card in the mail) and really just a neat kid - interested, smart, great to talk to, and pretty much all around amazingly fun. They had a new baby, Alexandra, a little over a year and a half ago. Alex is real slow to warm up and has maybe the best baby side-eye I have ever been thrown. After a day and several attempts at getting her to do that great baby giggle, we were buds.
As has been the trend with this trip so far, I was fed very well. Mike is also a great cook (I am real fortunate to have so many friends who have put in time perfecting their cooking game) and we all shared some great meals together - both at home and also throughout Durham. For lunch one day, Mike took me to Allen & Son, which apparently some southern magazine dubbed the best BBQ in the country, with Franklin’s in Austin coming in second. The pulled pork was pretty epic, as were the hushpuppies and peach cobbler with homemade vanilla ice cream (!). Being a brisket girl, though, I can’t say it topped the Texas BBQ I’m partial to, but it was superb nonetheless.
Mike and I also went out one night while Rita graciously stayed home to watch the kiddos. He took me over to the American Tobacco District, which is the former Lucky Strike factory and warehouses. About 15 years ago, the city went in and repurposed this vacant space into an incredible public park, business offices and some bars/restaurants. It’s also across the street from the Durham Bulls baseball park. This place is one of the best reuses of space I’ve ever seen. Every thing was so well-thought out and really cool to explore. After, we had dinner at Geer Street Grden in the old downtown area and ate this thing called The Pile, which was a plate of fries topped with melted cheese, bacon, jalapeños, fried chicken and came with srirachanaise (exactly what you think), a garlic aioli, and two gravies. We ate other stuff, too, but, let’s be real - this was the highlight. I’m pretty sure it was also responsible for the wildly slow moving that occurred immediately following. We hit a few bars after, albeit barely, and played a little of my favorite table game, shuffleboard. I lost. A lot. I blame The Pile.
The rest of my time consisted of touring around Durham and Chapel Hill, seeing Rita’s lab at UNC (she’s a microbiologist so all that was real awesome), running some much needed errands (oh Trader Joe’s that is not in NYC, I want to marry you), catching up finally on Game of Thrones, and spending some really great time with the Cutlip-Tamayo family (definitely the best part). To be honest, I didn’t go into that leg of the trip thinking that I’d put Durham on my list of possible city contenders, but it surprised me. I’m not sure if it’s exactly what I’m looking for, but there was a lot more there than I originally thought and I have Mike and Rita to thank for showing me it all.