Good Golly, It's Raleigh! (or, what to do with 8 hours in Central NC)
What were you doing at 3:30am on Saturday, January 14, 2023? Sleeping, I hope. I was on my way to Boston to board a 6:05 flight to Raleigh-Durham with the intent of sleeping in my own bed that same evening. The flight had originally been 40 minutes later but JetBlue evidently wanted to rip away one more shred from an already tattered night of sleep. It would be a day full of minor annoyances but ultimately a successful first visit to the Tarheel State.
Let’s back up. As I’ve probably mentioned by now, a bucket list item of mine is to visit all 50 US States by the time I turn 50. Prior to 1/14/23, I had been to 36. North Carolina was the lowest hanging fruit remaining, so when a super cheap flight deal to Raleigh came up last fall, I plucked it clean. What did I know about Raleigh? Other than it being North Carolina’s fast-growing capital, next to nothing.
The flight down was uneventful. Upon landing I spotted wind-whipped snow flurries, an incongruous weather occurrence more suggestive of North Dakota than North Carolina’s Piedmont region. The unseasonably cold day (I had been hoping for the local average of mid-50s, luxurious weather for a New Hampshirite in January, but alas got a day that was only marginally warmer than home, with wind chills in the 30s). A tone of minor but nagging frustrations was set.
I had elected to rent a Mustang for the day, which was basically the same price as a compact car. Excited to get behind the wheel upon landing, I was met by a drawling 60-year-old bespectacled man who said matter-of-factly “we don’t have a sports car today. Will another vehicle be okay?”. Wait. What?! My spirits sank instantly. It was like waiting in line to meet Nolan Ryan, only to realize at the last second that the guest of honor was instead Wilbur Phipps, a beer-gutted, soft-throwing minor league pitcher. I noticed that despite the charming southern lilt, he didn’t apologize. The disappointment was genuine.
“Uh, yeah, that’s fine” I uttered flatly. What else could I say? Still hoping for at least a Camry, I stopped in my tracks when I saw my whip for the day: a tiny, boxy Jeep Renegade, a name laughably unbefitting of its mini fridge-on-wheels appearance. As if to rub salt in the wound, a gorgeous, shiny, jet-black Mustang slowly passed me when merging onto the highway. I glanced pitifully and longingly into the next lane from my dorky ride.
Traffic moved insanely fast on I-40. While I typically keep my vehicle to 70mph, I clattered eastward around 75 as one of the slowest cars on the road. Trying to rescue positive day trip vibes, I searched for a decent radio station for probably 15 minutes without finding a single one. Is it that hard to play classic rock or anything other than country, hip-hop, or – worst of all – endless adverts? Good grief.
Despite all this, I had arrived safely and was excited to explore. Perspective, Adam. My first stop was at Dorothea Dix park, a sweeping green – or in winter, brownish – space that provided wonderful skyline views. Downtown buildings peeked through jagged, bare branches. It was charming in a prickly January sort of way. OK, this is better, I thought.
My morning improved further when I parked and walked around downtown, a lovely if eclectic collection of structures ranging from government buildings to historic churches and glass towers. I ducked into the Morning Times cafe, getting a this-is-the-place-to-be vibe. I enjoyed a delightful coffee and an egg sandwich while peering out at Saturday morning Raleighites rustle by in heavy coats and scarves.
After perambulating the capitol building, which was perhaps less impressive than others (I like gold domes and I cannot lie), I wandered into the Museum of North Carolina History. This free institution was utterly absorbing, a fabulous collection of goosebump inducing artifacts from real pirate swords(!) to fragments of the Wright Brothers’ 1903 flyer. One of my favorite pieces was a tiny slate chalkboard/abacus used by an African American girl when she was allowed an education, just after emancipation. Practicing true empathy and historical perspective, it was tough to keep a dry eye on that one.
The Museum also included the NC Sports Hall of Fame, a great addition to the experience. However, it was missing the one thing I would have liked to see most – some Michael Jordan paraphernalia. A shoe, a shoelace, a fingernail clipping – anything! All they had was a placard that said “Michael went to UNC, blah blah blah.” This, to me, was an air ball on the game winning shot. Unless I missed something obvious (admittedly a distinct possibility in my old age), it was a huge disappointment that capped off an otherwise fantastic hour or so in the museum.
Next, it was time to do something I literally couldn’t do in New Hampshire or the northeast at all. The Mordecai (pronounced MOR-de-key) House, oldest in Raleigh still on original foundations, was once the centerpiece of a 5,000-acre plantation. Now, it sits on a considerably humbler 3ish acres, surrounded by other historic buildings that were transplanted to the site to create something of a historic village. Naturally, the whole complex is an enclave within the capital city that has grown up around it.
I was given a one-on-one tour by a young female guide who clearly knew her facts. Being surrounded by slavery’s distant remains – both artifacts and lived experience – was eye-opening. Hearing shared stories of individual slaves’ lives brought things into even clearer focus. How humankind could treat each other so poorly for so long is still chilling to me, but it was time to move on, both physically and emotionally.
I’d had a thoroughly packed morning, but still had several hours before my return flight. Off to Durham! Despite the ho-hum, snooze worthy name (there are 18 Durhams in the US), the NC version is actually quite a sizeable city in its own right, approaching 300,000 and ranking as fourth-largest in the state. However, its permanent status as second fiddle to Raleigh seems to give it a bit of a little brother complex, trying to prove its own uniqueness and charm with a hint of rebelliousness.
I first stopped to breathe in the rarefied air of Duke University, surely one of the most handsome and stately college campuses I’ve seen in a while, if not ever. I made a brief stop at the Duke Basketball Museum, probably what the school is best known for to the average sports-loving American. I lowered my head and proceeded into the gusty wind through campus toward the famous chapel, a stunning gem of a building that looked like it was straight out of Europe.
My final stop was Durham proper, where my explorations began at historic Durham Athletic Park. I circumnavigated this hallowed baseball ground, former home of the Bulls minor league team and filming site for the classic 1988 baseball flic Bull Durham before strolling downtown.
I quickly noticed the wonderfully designed city flag flapping in the breeze. I popped into a bookstore to try and snag a sticker or something flag-related, but had no luck. What I saw was a somewhat incongruous, quirky mixture of warehouses and modern, yuppie-ish medium-rise apartment blocks.
Much of the urban landscape was architecturally enigmatic, once-dingy buildings repurposed as hipster bars and shabby-chic coffee shops. Pleasant artistic flourishes abounded – a mural or sculpture here, brightly colored crosswalk there. However, it was like putting a brightly colored suit on a slightly skeptical grandpa – the aesthetics were all over the place. I didn’t dislike it, but in my limited time I struggled to fall in love with it either.
One thing I will say is that Durham kept it real. It didn’t sugar-coat its industrial past but unapologetically marched toward the future with enthusiastic college-town vigor. With Duke and other institutions nearby, as well as its proximity to the state capital, I think this is a place that will see continued growth and prosperity moving forward.
Perhaps, then, Durham was more relatable than I’d originally thought. Isn’t “keeping it real” all we can do when life gives us abandoned warehouses? Despite the very real frustrating aspects of the day, I’d painted proverbial murals over them, acknowledging their existence but turning them into something positive, something productive. The ability to do this, in architecture or life, is essential. Nobody is without his or her ugly neighborhoods, but the key is to infuse them with new life, and a willingness to motor forward. Even if you must drive a mini fridge on wheels.