Armchair Road Trip Day 9: Serendipity in Carolina

September 7, 2020 — Leave a comment


nc line sign


There was nothing spectacular planned for the ninth leg of our excursion — but it gave us one of my favorite experiences of the whole trip.

I’ve always liked the Buddhist saying, “After enlightenment, the laundry.” Essentially, everyday life goes on no matter what other big things are happening. And after a week of iconic sites and experiences in New York, DC, and beneath the surface of the Earth — in a stretch of relentless, record-breaking heat — it was definitely time for some laundry.

I found a laundromat on a tired, low-rent business strip in Troutville or Roanoke. It doesn’t matter; it was all so nondescript and uninspired. The place was crowded and hot, and the TV had evidently been modified to produce a volume that could carry across a football stadium. And it was playing Jerry Springer!

I dumped the clothes in a machine and escaped the din to stroll around outside. Mtuseni sat in the car with the AC. He usually hates air conditioning; even he’d had enough of the heat.

I love old roadside signs. They seem like ghosts of better times and the failed hopes of business owners. There’s a melancholy to them. The area around the laundry had several — and many more along the entire street.


dunkin alley

Looks like nobody runs on Dunkin’ in Roanoke — or needs autos in Troutville. Or… wherever.


blank arrow sign

I love these old pointing-arrow signs. Did they work? Were people hypnotically compelled into the business? This arrow leads people nowhere now.


As we got into the South, there were far more churches than in the Northeast. And religious signs! Giant ones. There were a lot of signs on roadways telling me to repent. No thanks, I’m good.

I remember one TV weather forecaster talking about “a balmy 74 degrees for church services this morning” — on a random Sunday in the fall. In Boston, the forecaster might mention that on Easter, but never just in general. Being a heavy-duty Christian, Mtuseni was fine with it all. It made me feel unsettled, as I knew that church and politics are closely entwined in this region. As a gay Yankee, I already had two strikes against me here.



Growing up Catholic and being an altar boy, I’ve seen plenty of Jesus statues. This one kinda creeped me out. He looks lost and confused and hot.


After the laundry we headed out for North Carolina. We named the GPS Bianca, after the woman who was tearing up the courts in the US Open that fall (and eventually won it all). Mtuseni was watching a match and said, “Ahh, Bianca is becoming a problem!” He’s so fickle; he rooted for whoever was up game by game! 

The GPS had sometimes been unable to keep up with complex exits and interchanges as we zoomed through urban highways. Hence, that cold Google Maps voice became Bianca. And she became a problem in North Carolina.

I had an idea of where we should be heading, and was surprised when Bianca took us off the highway and onto a secondary road. It was beautiful country, much prettier scenery, so I wasn’t too bothered. Then she made us turn onto a winding country road with small farms and woods on either side.

Again, lovely. I was thinking of James Taylor singing, “In my mind I’m goin’ to Carolina.” At the same time I was confused. With many more miles to go, what were we doing on some country back road? I was getting ready to turn around and reset the GPS, when we came up on a small stand of empty, weathered buildings. 


grocery strip


I love old, abandoned buildings more than I love old signs — and pulled into a gravel lot to take some photos. After a few minutes, a van pulled into the lot. I got nervous, thinking it might be some grizzled farmer in dirty overalls holding a shotgun and yelling, “Git off my property!” 


cedar grove trio


Instead, it was Mattie Rose, a retired nurse and the sweetest, most friendly woman. She lived down the road and was driving to practice piano at her church nearby. Seeing me taking pictures, she wanted to tell us the story of this little enclave. Mattie told us we were in Cedar Grove — which I hadn’t noticed from the nearby post office — and she’d lived there all her life. 

She told us all about the buildings. What old Mr. Pender sold in his grocery and how she’d buy penny candy there as a kid. How everyone got stuff fixed at Oliver’s repair shop. The piano player who played for famous evangelist Billy Sunday. The office of the attorney who prosecuted Al Capone! 


grocery store


auto repair


Mattie talked about how people would sit around outside and talk, and everybody in town knew everybody. She explained when the businesses closed and the periodic ideas to do something with the buildings, which always fall through. I think they should be left just as they are. 


lawyer bldg


I’m fascinated with ghost towns and long-vacant buildings, because they were once full of people living life. I’d love to spend a year traveling through the Southwest documenting them, discovering what they were like in their heydays.

I’ve taken photos of many old buildings over the years, but never got to hear their history. Mattie Rose made those proud, lonesome skeletons come alive with her childhood memories, warm smile, and soft drawl. That odd detour gave us a nice, serendipitous surprise. 

Mattie wished us well on our trip, and we said goodbye and continued down the road. In a few miles it linked back to the highway and we sped along to Raleigh — not seeing anything special at 75 mph, but with happy memories of Mattie and Cedar Grove, North Carolina. 


cedar grove


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