Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Today we awoke early, anticipating more than five hours drive-time to Lexington, North Carolina, and its famed assortment of Western-NC-style BBQ joints. Jenny and Vienna slept for a couple of hours while I retraced our route up Highway 12 and West along Route 64. The clouds hung low but were puffy and pink with sunrise. Here and there, seagulls rested on bridge railings, and I enjoyed a quiet drive. Departing the Outer Banks I felt confident that we would return again someday. We enjoyed the cool breezes, the laid back island vibe, the tasty local seafood, and the thrill of hang gliding. Even though we received lots of help and patient advice from our instructors, each of us could imagine leaping off a tall cliff, catching a thermal vent, and joining the birds in sunny flight. Our morning drive to Lexington was mellow, relaxed, and uneventful. We arrived at Jimmy's Barbecue at around 12:30 ready to sit down for a tasty lunch. What could go wrong? Well, after enjoying such luck yesterday, beating the rain to enjoy an afternoon of hang gliding, we had to pay the price today. For some ungodly reason, Jimmy's closes its doors on Tuesdays.

Fair enough, we figured. Lexington is renowned for its disproportionate number of BBQ places, so we'd just find another. After hitting a main drag through town our flexibility was rewarded with Bar-B-Q Center, an old establishment for these parts. Inside, we found a bustling collection of back-slapping business types, sweaty laborers, and few tourists. The servers trilled with "hons" and "darlins" but weren't otherwise talkative. Since pulled and chopped pork is the specialty around here, we ordered sandwiches. I specified "with some brown" to request particularly smoky, fatty pork. Our sandwiches included layers of fine-chopped and reddish slaw on top of the meat, a combination that defies explanation, other than to say that it's surprisingly tasty. We agreed that the meal was mighty nice, but we decided to see if we could do better.

I'd heard that Lexington Barbecue was popular among the locals, but when we couldn't find a wireless hotspot to access directions, it was time to ask for help. We pulled into a gas station and I found a guy lounging outside, eating a corndog. He directed us just around the corner and under an overpass, and within minutes we pulled into a confidence-inspiring large parking lot filled with cars. A small line of folks waited for seats, but we found three chairs at the counter and began our interactions with probably the nicest restaurant owner we'd ever met. This fellow was the son of Lexington Barbecue's founder, and he possessed a showman's love of patter, drifting from person to person with a momentary story or the continuation of a conversation that may have been going on for years. As folks would leave, he'd sometimes remind them, "We'll see you next week."

When we ordered, one more pulled pork sandwich and some slaw to share, he asked, "don't you want hushpuppies? They come with the meal." We demurred, partially in deference to our stomachs, and partially because none of us enjoy hushpuppies that much. A few minutes later though he brought some over and said, "Now, just try 'em. I think you'll like 'em." I popped one in my mouth, just as a courtesy, and fell into a reverie that escapes my vocabulary of expression. This was no mere fried dough; wafting from these puppies were hints of herbs and a pop of almost buttery warmth beyond the initial crunch. The owner smiled as we looked almost guiltily up at him. Our sandwich, again with "the brown," was undeniably excellent. Jenny commented on the even smokier flavor than was found at the first place we visited in town, and the mixture of juicy and chewy textures found in each bite. Recognizing that we'd found great fortune with Lexington Barbecue, we abandoned any pretence of restraint and ordered desserts: peach cobbler for Jenny and Vienna, pecan pie for me. The cobbler was warm and gooey, possessing a crispy and buttery crust. The pie was topped with darkened and sugary nuts that dipped into a warm gelatinous filling. With this meal, we could leave Lexington happy. On our departure, the owner reminded us, "We'll see each other again."

Returning to the highway, Vienna spotted a sign for a town called Welcome. So even before driving for ten minutes, we began to drift way from the main line. The town didn't offer any particularly memorable sights, but it was nice to slow down and look at the houses and businesses before beginning a long drive that would bring us to the Smoky Mountains. Our destination for the night was Cherokee, North Carolina, with only one goal in mind: to stay in the Pink Motel. Jenny and I photographed this place a few years back while researching our motel book, but Vienna had never seen this place. This time we three would stay in this pleasant line of rooms that bordered a rocky creek on one side and a tourist road on the other.

Passing through Maggie Valley we had no difficulty reaching Cherokee by suppertime. But given our double-lunch, none of us were inclined to leap at dinner opportunities. Instead, we bobbed in and out of souvenir stores that seemed to have seen better days. Along with stuff associated with Native Americans -- dream-catchers, leather goods, drumming CDs, and the like -- we spotted plenty of "redneck" paraphernalia for would-be tough guys and the girls who loved them. A typical t-shirt advertised, "If you ain't rebel, you ain't shit." We also passed by plenty of Confederate flag memorabilia of the "heritage not hate" tradition. But we chose a simpler and more direct touristy purchase: we bought some fudge that we'd nibble over the next few days.

Dinner was a visit to a local café, I stuck with a small salad while Vienna had a buffalo burger which she remembered as being quite tasty and Jenny chose some sort of Frito-pie concoction because she wanted to try frybread. Afterward we returned to the Pink Motel. Jenny and Vienna took a walk along the creek behind our room while I enjoyed some twilight photography of the motel's beloved sign. The rest of the evening we stayed in, chatting and watching television, before turning out the lights.

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All text and photos copyright Andrew and Jenny Wood