My lunch in the clubhouse up at Roaring Gap had been staid and sober, never boring but full of earnest, intellectualized discussions of course renovation and a round just completed on the charming Donald Ross design visible out the window. I’d been in North Carolina only 24 hours. I was about to set out from the state’s north-central highlands for the western outpost of Asheville. When there came a brief lull in the conversation, I cut to the chase: So, gentlemen, what’s this Biscuitville place? Worth a visit?
The tenor of our discussion was swiftly transformed.
“Well, you gotta go to Biscuitville,” my host said, his soft drawl getting more pronounced. He set down his flatware and dabbed with a napkin each corner of his mouth. “Great biscuits. The best you’ll find at a restaurant chain. I’m partial to their turkey sausage biscuit.”
Each member of our party quickly followed up with his own ringing endorsement. Biscuitville, I learned, is a regional institution, a drive-thru breakfast chain whose analog for New Englanders like myself is probably Dunkin Donuts. Only biscuit-based. One won’t find any Biscuitville franchises in Asheville, however. In the chicken & biscuit category, that’s Bojangles country — on account of the fact that Biscuitville, a family-run operation, has opted not to expand willy nilly, or even outside east/central North Carolina. But the overarching point was clear: The larger culture here is quite unimaginable without biscuits. Or so my hosts explained.
I had seen the signs for Biscuitville on I-40, one of the many cultural clues I’d gathered while driving west from Raleigh the day before. You can learn a lot about a place from its signage, from its junk-food terroir, from its indigenous leisure options. Every 10 miles or so, I’d been struck by yet another town name that recalled cigarette brands, or country/bluegrass lyrics, or storied NASCAR venues, or movies like the estimable Last American Hero.
All week these whiffs of southern iconography and the images/memories they spurred breezed into my consciousness and out again: Martinsville. Wilkesboro. Hickory… Johnson City, TENNESSEE! Driving through Winston-Salem, I passed the Winston Cup Series museum and experienced a multi-faceted hunk of NC-enabled nostalgia: Cale Yarborough dueling Davey Allison one of those Saturday afternoons from my youth — all of it brought home by my friends at R.J. Reynolds.
I had dared fly into RDU during a relative lull in last year’s pandemic summer, to visit with my son, Silas, who lives in Chapel Hill and had just turned 24. His work for the Conservation Corps of North Carolina takes him all over the state. Golfers visiting Tar Heel country normally make the pilgrimage to Pinehurst, but this trip would be something quite a bit different. I was due to meet Silas in Asheville, after my game at Roaring Gap.
It’s a long way from east to west down Tobacco Road, 9 hours end to end. Driving the nation’s interstate highways, we Americans are treated to all manner of advertising tropes, commercial entities, and place names that never fail to register with first-time visitors. Dinkins Bottom Road. Gumberry. Frying Pan Landing. Kill Devil Hills. Silas Creek just happens to run through the Old Town Club, and beside the Krispy Kreme headquarters there in Winston-Salem.
Across this great nation, car dealers now routinely place themselves — and their family members — at the center of local advertising campaigns. Approaching Greensboro from the east, I was introduced to Cox Toyota via the smiling face of a 12-year-old girl, fully 30 feet high. “Before You Buy,” she advised travelers, in small letters, before the big message exploded across the full breadth of the billboard, “WHY NOT GIVE COX A TRY?”
After my game at Old Town Club in Winston-Salem, I crashed that first night at a nearby hotel before setting out the next morning for Roaring Gap. This resort enclave sits atop a truly mammoth hunk of granite called Old Stone Mountain that, when approached from the southeast, rises so abruptly and broadly as to resemble The Wall from Game of Thrones.
This proved a trip of great contrasts. August temperatures drop 10 degrees between Winston-Salem and Roaring Gap. While I’ve visited North Carolina plenty and the Piedmont Region a bit, one also forgets just how preppy middle-aged Southern men of a certain age and class can be — and I say that as a middle-aged man who came of age in Wellesley, Massachusetts, Ground Zero for the Preppy Movement. Still, it was jarring to observe and move again among so many monogrammed cloth belts and pink oxfords, only to jump in the car and emerge 3 hours later in Asheville, unofficial Capital of the Hipster Mountain South. Despite the fact that North Carolina (like Maine) is continually held up nationally as a textbook example of Purple America, we Yankees tend to forget how big and diverse the state truly is.
I met up with Silas in the AirBnb he had secured in Asheville. In no time at all, we were ensconced in a fabulous beer garden at the One World Tavern, sipping pints of Pisgah Pale Ale and watching hippie chicks groove to the stylings of a pretty damned convincing Doors cover band. The shirtless lead singer prowled the stage in a towering Cat in the Hat-style top hat of red felt, lending his performance a convincing blend of the Haight Ashbury, by way of Alice in Wonderland.
Silas was out west directing one of the dozen crews he oversees for CCNC, which builds and maintains trails in wild lands not owned/managed by federal or state governments. At the One World, he was texting with some of his crew guys. Apparently, earlier that evening, they had seen these very hippie chicks primping for the show at the Sweet Pea Hostel downtown. This was my first trip to Asheville and everything I’d been told about the place rang true: super liberal vibe, buttressed by several local colleges and more brew pubs per square mile than any southern city I can think of. It also serves as gateway to the region’s premier hiking and mountain bike trails, where Silas and I were planning to visit next.
But first, dad needed a bike.
My son the Millennial has become well nigh obsessed with mountain biking in general and late ‘80s mountain bikes in particular. He doesn’t just ride them. He buys them online, sources all manner of obscure parts from various and sundry outlets (via Craig’s List), rebuilds them, then sells them off at a tidy profit — though he himself might “own” as many as eight bikes at any one time.
That first full day out west he had tracked down a prospective dad bike from some dude in a trailer west of Asheville. The seller was older, which Silas said he interprets as a good sign: “The older guys often don’t know exactly what they’ve got, in terms of value and cachet.” I stayed in the car. The potential buy felt vaguely dodgy and surreptitious, for no good reason really. Silas eventually emerged — empty-handed. Not worth the front-end investment, he reported. I’d be renting a bike in Brevard.
That morning, I’d risen early and showed up for my game at Biltmore Forest Country Club, an elegant Donald Ross design expertly refurbished by old friend Brian Silva. This relatively obscure track, along with the much feted Old Town Club, were the golfing highlights of this trip. Roaring Gap was delightful, but New England is chock full of first-rate, semi-mountainous Ross designs. By contrast, Biltmore Forest roamed all over a gracious, effectively deforested valley to outstanding effect. I was first off that morning, in a cart with the required caddie. We played the front nine in an hour, whereupon the pro came out and told us to slow down: “Y’all are gonna run into the maintenance crews.” Can’t we just play through them? “Um. I guess you can…”
Biltmore Forest is located in South Asheville, home to the Biltmore Estate, the largest private residence in the United States. It served as the mansion setting for the brilliant 1979 film, “Being There”. The area all around the club is ritzy, too, another lovely contrast with Asheville proper, which can be rather motley and proud of it. This is particularly true of West Asheville home to the One World Tavern and one of several pawnshops we visited after I’d played golf. Silas hadn’t been in North Carolina long. He’d just moved down from D.C., where he’d lived only a few months after arriving from Montana. Somehow his beater acoustic guitar had not made the trip(s), so I had offered to buy him a replacement for his birthday.
The Boy is quite an accomplished guitarist who can pick out a fun, cogent lead to almost anything. I am just the opposite, a workmanlike rhythm-only player — sort of what you’d expect from someone who didn’t start till he was 40. It’s fun to visit music shops and play all the guitars therein, but for me it’s also intimidating, as these places are invariably filled with good players noodling at levels I cannot hope to match. At pawnshops, however, no one judges you. Quite the opposite, in fact. “Was that you back there?” the guy at the register asked. “You sound really good.”
Armed with a cheap axe, we were ready for a proper mountain experience. We departed Asheville via the famed Blue Ridge Parkway, a veritable marvel of physical beauty, engineering and New Deal public works. After heading southwest for a very scenic hour, we pulled off and plunged nearly straight down into Brevard, where we were reminded our country was smack dab in the middle of a pandemic.
We had noticed in Asheville, too. The place was hardly deserted but it was not the normal hive of activity, Silas said. Lots of pubs and restaurants were closed. Down in Brevard, the tip-off was just the opposite: The place was mobbed. Every community in the Southeast makes use of these mountains come the summer months, so as to escape the heat. The bike shop was jammed. The roads were jammed with cars — and hikers spilling off trailheads. We hit four lots in the Pisgah Forest before finding a place to park and ride. The mountain biking was pretty amazing, and chest-heavingly taxing for a middle-aged novice. Funny how the brochures for such trail riding never emphasize the amount of uphill work involved. Damn.
Silas and I ate exceedingly well across the Hipster Mountain South — at Blue Smoke, a marvelous drive-thru BBQ joint in Brevard; at Jay’s Hot Chicken Shack in West Asheville; and twice at Cook Out. What’s that? Never heard of this fast-food chain with 300 stores in 10 states? Well, neither had I, but a more wonderfully trashy mass-market experience one is unlikely to find anywhere in the former confederacy.
Near as I can tell, Cook Out is best known for its vast menu, items from which patrons are free to parse into 4-item value meals called “trays”. It’s a dizzying exercise. Normally, fast-food chains festoon their drive-through menu placards with pictures, to better entice to you. At Cook Out, there is no room for graphics. There are so many options, space cannot be wasted on imagery. A South Carolina-based golf colleague said there are so many decisions to make at Cook Out, he first drives through purely for strategic surveillance and cogitation purposes — only then does he go around again to place an order. In North Carolina, Cook Out is famous for serving Cheerwine, the not unpleasant cherry soda/Dr. Pepper hybrid indigenous to the state. Everywhere else, it’s the massive menu, with its 40 different “fancy” milkshakes that includes seasonal staples like watermelon and peach cobbler. Bravo.
The wild lands tended by Silas’ crews are, by their very nature, remote. Silas was already an expert backwoods camper when he arrived here. In North Carolina, he routinely stays the night at some campground, as there are rarely hotels in these far-flung locales. Or he’ll just pitch a tent in a clearing at the head of some forest road. We did both on this trip.
My penultimate night in state, we set up shop at the Lazy J Campground where we bathed in the French Broad River, worked on a rack of local IPA, and played our newly acquired guitar by the fire. Our camp neighbors spent an hour doggedly managing their nascent fire with charcoal fluid, each spritz illuminating our rustic tableau like small-scale thunder and lightening in the distance.
We arose the next morning, donned our best golf clothes, packed up and headed for Cashiers, where we met up with a course-rating colleague at Wade Hampton Golf Club (pictured above). When I first got into the golf business, during the early 1990s, this 1988 Tom Fazio design was a standard-bearer for the lush, manicured parkland style then dominating U.S. course tastes (see TSB Vol. 1, No. 2 for details of this phenomenon). I remember running several killer Wade Hampton photographs from Mike Klemme in the magazine I edited at the time — and vowing to make it there someday.
The verdict, all these years later? Decorous but a bit dull, though the views from its gracious clubhouse porch, down the 18th fairway to the encircling mountains beyond, were pretty sweet. Sitting there in a rocker, sipping yet another superb brew of local origin, I asked of my host whether anyone had ever showed up at Wade Hampton GC straight from the Lazy J Campground. “Um, no.”
We drove all that evening back to Asheville, then further north into a wilderness where Silas would return to work the next morning. It was pitch black when we arrived. He pitched the tent. I blew up the mattress by a stream we could hear but not see. At dawn, we awoke to find a half dozen young crewmen drinking coffee and cooking breakfast on camp stoves resting on the tailgates of various pick-up trucks. We said our goodbyes, Silas heading further into the backcountry and his dad opting for civilization. It’s a 5-hour drive down I-40 from Asheville to Raleigh. I broke up the trip at the Biscuitville in Clemmons, North Carolina. Bravo.