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shatley meal
If Mr. Yelverton had a first name, I never knew it. Everyone used the more formal address.

George YelvertonHe ran a barbecue restaurant in Greensboro, N.C., and I knew him in the early 1970s. To call it a restaurant is an exaggeration: It was a hole-in-the-wall behind the main line of storefronts along the city’s main street. Butted up against the brick back walls of department stores and banks, Yelverton’s Barbecue faced only a parking lot.

Mr. Yelverton was thin, wiry, with high cheekbones and short silver hair and with the reserved demeanor of a gentleman. He made pork barbecue in the eastern North Carolina style.barbecue 2

Most people who know anything about barbecue know that the nation is subdivided by regional chauvinisms. There is Kansas City barbecue and Texas barbecue. Even North Carolina is split between Halifax style — eastern North Carolina style — and Lexington style.

It was a time of rapid change in the South, and change in Southern cooking as well. Many local barbecue establishments had changed their method of making hush puppies, using a new device that extruded corn batter into the hot grease like a carnival funnel cake. Mr. Yelverton didn’t approve.

“I never saw the advantage of doing things faster and easier,” I remember him saying one day. He showed me his technique.

“You mix up your cornmeal with water,” he said, making a stiff, granular dough rather than a batter. “Then you take a dollop of it up in a serving spoon.” He had a large, steel-handled spoon about 15 inches long. “Then you use the back of a tablespoon to whip off bits into the grease.”

Each serving spoon was subdivided into four or five hush puppies, each cut away from the gob with a flick of his wrist on the convexity of the tablespoon, leaving a perfect hush puppy, shaped like a lemon wedge, with ridges. They turned a beautiful, aromatic coppery color and were absolute heaven when you bit into them hot.

hushpuppies 3Recently, my wife and I were back in North Carolina and, though Yelverton has long gone, we stopped at a barbecue joint in Shelby. The hush puppies had changed: Not only were they plopped into the grease via the ubiquitous extruder, making little round cigar shapes (I’m being polite), but they were made with added onion and sugar.

“That’s not a real hush puppy,” my wife said. She can be very strict when it comes to the right way to do things, and hush puppies with sweetener counts for her not simply as a variant, but as a perversion.

“Hush puppies don’t have sugar in them,” she stated categorically.

My wife is typical of many Southerners: certain the way she grew up was the “right” way. It fuels many a heated discussion. You get obstinate opinions about whether to soak country ham, about whether Brunswick stew requires squirrel meat, about the best apple to fry.

“I like June apples,” my wife says. “My great-grandmother said they were the best.”

Her great-grandmother was a genuine Civil War widow and had the bona fides.

If there is one thing that defines Southern food, it must be the soil, the terroir, the sandy podzols of eastern North Carolina or the black loam of the Mississippi Delta. You can see it in the flesh of catfish made pink by the red-clay river bottoms.

Like patriotism, food preference grows from the land where you grew up and the people who raised you. It is what you know and what you are comfortable with.

Southern food is divided by region, by class, by race. The food of Louisiana is sui generis. The menus of South Carolina plantations were more upscale than on the small farm holdings in Piedmont North Carolina or Virginia. The hardscrabble diet of the Blue Ridge Mountains is something else again.

Yet, there is a certain overlap. Soul food and Southern cooking emphasize different aspects of the cuisine but share more than they don’t. Cooked greens, side meat, cornbread — these are the common denominators.

The original of both was humble — pronounced “umble” without the “h.” It was food grown on family farms, from hogs slaughtered on a frosty morn and made into sausage and head cheese.

greenfields mealThere is nothing fancy about it. I remember once a friend visited from New York, where he was an investment lawyer. We took him to Shatley Springs in Ashe County, N.C., where they serve family-style meals with piles of fried chicken, country ham, boiled greens, scraped corn, hot biscuits, mashed potatoes and gravy so thick a knife can stand upright in it, served with little dishes of corn relish and pickled beets and washed down with sweet tea.

“I loved it,” he said later. “Especially the chicken sauce.” Chicken sauce! We all laughed good over that one.sally lunn bread

There is an upscale Southern cooking. It comes from plantations and includes such things as peanut soup and Sally Lunn bread and Lane cake.

But for me, the best is the down-and-dirty recipes that came through grandmothers and aunts. Foods so primal there aren’t even recipes for them, like the dog bread I came to love — a form of cornbread so basic its ingredients might as well be earth, wind and fire. I first ate it in Halifax County, among the cotton fields and abandoned tractors, pickup trucks and windbreaks of oak trees. I asked how to make it.

“First, you mix up a mess of cornmeal,” she said. No half-cup of this, or 6 ounces of that. Just mix up a mess.

That’s white stone-ground cornmeal, if you are brave enough to try this, with salt and enough water to make a thick batter or thin dough.

In a black-iron fry pan, you melt some bacon grease or the renderings from streak-o’-fat-streak-o’-lean and heat it up till it sputters at you. Dump in the cornmeal and stick it in the oven till it’s done. Can’t tell you how long. It depends.

When it comes out, it is heavy as a transuranium element, with a thick, dark undercrust that makes it all worthwhile.

Cut it into wedges and use it to soak up your “pot likker” or your sop.

THE SEVEN KEYS

There are seven defining ingredients in Southern cooking. From Virginia through Alabama and out towards eastern Texas, these are the comestibles essential for your pantry. hog snout

Pigmeat

The hog is Providence’s gift to the Southern belly. Pork is central to so much that defines the cuisine, from barbecue to country ham to the many varieties of bacon — side meat, fatback, not to mention bacon grease. Nothing seasons pintos like ham hocks. “The hog seasons everything that isn’t him,” said one Southern cook. Pigmeat also defines the McCoy-Hatfield divisions between those who soak their ham before cooking and eating it and those who cherish the crust of salt that develops as they fry their slice of unsoaked country ham in a black-iron frying pan. Special mention should be made of liver mush, which is to North Carolina what scrapple is to Philadelphia.fried chicken

Fried chicken

There is almost no controversy over fried chicken. It defines White Southerners and Black Southerners, upper-crust and redneck. Fried chicken, slowly cooked in a black-iron frying pan till it’s brown and crusty on the outside and hot and juicy on the inside, is the very badge of Southern regional pride.biscuits

Hot breads

You don’t find a lot of yeast breads, but baking-powder breads are all over. Biscuit dough can be baked into biscuits, buttered, covered in jam or jelly with dinner, or split in two and slathered with gravy for breakfast. It can also be dropped into boiling stock with cooked chicken to make dumplings. On the other side, cornbread can be baked in a sizzling-hot frying pan or in a black-iron form to make cornpone, or dropped into hot fat to make hush puppies, or, what may be the best, cornbread cakes, which are cornmeal pancakes, buttered and served in a stack with your pintos. You can’t beat a meal of fried fish, caught yourself, with new potatoes and scallions, eaten with a helping of cornbread crumbled into buttermilk.collards

Greens

The recipe reads, “Cook up a mess of greens.” This means you take a pile of collards or mustard greens, turnip greens, young pokeweed, or peppery “creasy greens” — which is wild watercress, “the caviar of Southern greens,” one woman called them — and cook them down with some fatback or bacon until they are a fraction of their precooked volume. You serve them with vinegar, and don’t forget to sop up some of the “pot likker” with your cornbread.leather britches

Field peas and beans

The number of varieties of Southern pulse is immense — field peas, Crowder peas, black-eyed peas, pinto beans, butter beans — and whether dried or fresh, makes a daily contribution to the plate. A variety of green beans, dried on a string on your front porch, is called “leather breeches” (or britches) and when reconstituted in a pot of water with seasoning meat, develops a deep flavor almost beeflike in character.biscuits and gravy

Gravy

In France, they say, “La sauce c’est tout,” the sauce is everything. In North Carolina, they say, “Could I have some more gravy on them biscuits.” A Southern gravy is sometimes so thick you might be forgiven for thinking it is mortar for bricks. Gravy comes in many forms: sawmill gravy, red-eye gravy, chicken gravy, chocolate gravy.peach pie 2

Pie

Finally, you can barely survive in the South without pie or its kissin’ cousin, cobbler. Sometimes, lunch is just a slice of pie and a cup of coffee. Southern food isn’t always the most heart-healthy, for sure, but as one Southerner put it, “Is there a better way to commit suicide than pie?”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Linville Falls
It has been nearly 50 years since I first saw Linville Falls in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Back then, getting there meant finding an unmarked gravel road and an unmarked dirt parking lot — really just a thicker place in the road to pull over into.Linville Falls 03

Then we followed a spongy, loamy footpath under the hickories and oaks toward the distant roar of the waterfall on North Carolina’s Linville River. No one was there but us and we picnicked on the rocks over the crashing water. The upper falls are a broad, shallow drop, but at the lower falls, the quartzite pulls tight, constricting the river and forcing it down a spiraling chute that drops over the edge of the cliff and down 75 feet to the river and Linville Gorge.Linville upper falls

It is an impressive torrent with a basso profundo roar, and nothing will ever change the way it seemed to me that day, as I leaped over rocks, crossing the white water to the other shore so I could climb on the gnarled rock to see down the waterway.

Leaping from rock to rock across the cataract could easily have got me killed, swept over the precipice, but I was young, and therefore, an idiot.

I’ve been back many times over the years. The National Park Service built a paved road from the Blue Ridge Parkway, making it easier to find. Then they paved the parking lot and built a pedestrian bridge over the river upstream from the falls.Linville Falls from above

The last time I went back, there was a visitor’s center and a souvenir shop and a parade of vacationers trotting down the path to the fenced-in overlook. The falls are just as impressive, but the experience isn’t.

If I speed up those five decades in my head like time-lapse photography, I can see time take shape. It builds and it destroys in a constant rise and fall like an ocean tide.

And what comes in, ebbs.

A few years ago, my wife and I visited another familiar site, on Old Route 16, a dirt road that drops down the side of the Blue Ridge from Ashe County towards North Wilkesboro. When we lived in the mountains, we used to visit an abandoned farmsite along the road, halfway down the mountain face.

There was a clearing in the wood and an old wooden house with a broad porch that looked out over the steep valley below. Above us was the spot ominously known as the “Jumpin’-Off Place.”

We could picnic on the porch with the bluebird and tanager singing in front of us, the buzz of insects all around and the gentle breeze rattling the grass in the field.Linville trillium

It had been 20 years since we visited that farmhouse and we thought we should see what had become of it.

About three miles down the old dirt road, we passed where it should have been, but there was no break in the forest, no open field. We couldn’t find the house. We kept driving, hoping we’d find something that looked familiar, but we didn’t. Finally we stopped the car where the farm should have been and walked deep into the woods.

Buried a hundred yards into the tangle of maple trees was a naked standing chimney, completely eaten up by brush and undergrowth.

When I climbed down the hill towards it, I discovered the forest floor was spongy with rotten boards, completely collapsed in on themselves, with a few nailheads still showing.

In the years since we last visited, the old house had been completely digested by the woods, leaving only the indigestible brickwork of the twin-sided chimney.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And the once-glorious view of the declivity was now completely obscured by trees and brush. Instead of a vacant field overgrown, the house was survived only by complete woods.

In just those few years.

Nature can reclaim an entire farm in 20 years and leave nothing behind but the masonry. And that won’t last much longer.

 
 
 
 
 

madison lede pix
The 1930s remain in our visual imagination with a vividness that hardly exists from other eras — at least eras we didn’t actually live through. And it is through the photography of the period that this happens: It is hard to recognize how many of the canonized photographers from that era gave us documentary and quasi-documentary images of the times. Elsewhen, artists — and the photographers — often sought something more universal, or general, or eternal, but the quota of work from the 1930s screams out the time of its birth. madison color quad

Think of them: Brassai, Bill Brandt, Walker Evans, Cartier-Bresson, the whole army of photographers working for the Works Project Administration under Roy Stryker — our image trove from the 1930s is a stuffed portfolio. Madison bw quad 1

Click to enlarge

If we tend to distinguish between photography as journalism and photography as art — art with its formal concerns — then the work of Life magazine photographers falls into the first camp and the more elevated work of photographers such as Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham or Frederick Sommer would seem to be of another genus. But especially in the prewar decade, the photographers we honor as artists often were the ones who left us with a chronicle of their times. It is hard to picture America during the Depression without the black and white images of breadlines, dustbowl farms, iron workers and iron-willed matriarchs reigning over raw wood kitchen tables in unelectrified Appalachian cabins.madison bw quad 2

(I am not forgetting later movements of “street photography,” and certainly not forgetting Robert Frank, William Klein or Garry Winogrand, but their work on one hand also seems like a throwback to an earlier era, and on the other, is more consciously concerned with formal problems, like composition, lighting and contrast — and often with even more Postmodern concerns, such as how photography makes the world look. In the ’30s, the primary concern was sociological: These people we have been privileged to look at.)madison bw quad 3

I bring all this up because a friend sent me a link to an unusual archive at Duke University of old documents, photographs and films, primarily from North Carolina. In it, there is a set of three films, or rather three reels of randomly edited home movies, from Madison, N.C., taken between 1939 and 1941 and available for download. You can find them at:

http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/hleewaters/Spatial_Coverage/Madison%20%28N.C.%29

madison bw quad 4These films appear to have been taken by a single person, who filmed schoolkids, class by class, streaming out of the schoolhouse, workers leaving the factory and pedestrians walking down the streets of Madison and neighboring Mayodan. At times, he attempts trick photography, and they are not always in perfect focus. The first reel is in color, the remaining two reels are black and white. It is clear he (or she) favors framing with the subject in the right half of the picture, but it seems less like a formal concern and more like a idiosyncratic tic.

madison bw quad 5Madison particularly interests me because it is where my wife grew up. She was born in 1941 and so, the images in these movies pretty closely approximates the town she knew as a little girl. A few of the teachers shown in them are teachers she knew in school. madison bw quad 6

But I also found that if I excised individual frames from the motion, I could see them almost as a new source of FSA photos, or undiscovered images of Walker Evans. I have included a bunch of them with this blog post. madison bw quad 7

One has to forgive the lower quality of focus or color, taken as they are from what must be a 16mm original, but what strikes me most in them is the quality of individual human beings, the person behind the eyes that stares out at us from the pictures. It is the same face — or the same kind of face — that we see in Dorothea Lange’s California agriculture photos. There is joy, suspicion, hope, hopelessness, anger, privilege, satisfaction and shyness in these faces (sometimes as the film progresses, the same suspicious face turns friendly).

madison bw quad 8And I come to see them not so much as impersonal esthetic constructs, but as a doorway into each of them as people. Individuals, shining lights of the cosmos bound in skin. madison bw quad 9

And then, by way of looking back at the old, familiar pictures of Jack Delano, Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott, John Vachon, Ben Shahn and others, you come to the realization that what makes them special — what, indeed, makes them important — is not their photographic quality, not their compositional innovations or formal intent, but that through those rectangular frames burn the lives of actual beings. What brings them alive for us esthetically is exactly the quotient of compassion, of empathy, we bring to them. Do we see them as esthetic exercises? Certainly that aspect exists in them, but such aspect exists in abstract torn-paper collages, too. No, what gives them power is that connection they enable between us in our age, and those people in the pictures, in their age and we see they are us. madison color quad 2

 

State Line tex-NMTo see the world, you fly around it; to learn about your neighborhood, you walk through it; but to appreciate something about the country you live in, there is nothing better than an automobile.Clouds from plane

A jet flies too high and fast to take in any detail. The country is too big to slog through on foot. A car is the perfect compromise, letting you pass over a significant portion of the nation each day, but allowing you the leisure to stop and sniff the magnolias in Mississippi, the rank ecstatic yellow sunflowers in North Dakota — and the lingering odor of peanut butter at Graceland.

It’s summer again, and once more, I open up another brand-new Rand McNally road atlas and begin planning a drive around the North American continent.Sunflowers North Dakota

In the past 15 years, I’ve made the round-trip across the United States at least a dozen times. I feel like Magellan when I start once more on the circumvehiculation of America.

I’ve done it alone and with my wife. I’ve done it camping and in motels. I’ve done it in summer and in winter. I’ve done it in as long as two months and as short as two weeks. Last year, I made it from Phoenix to North Carolina over a weekend, but I’m not likely to repeat that butt-numbing feat.

Yet I am planning another road trip this spring.

Friends tell me I am nuts, a masochist torturing myself or a sadist torturing my wife, but I keep setting out.

There is always something new to see, or some old friend to revisit: I’ve been to North Carolina’s Outer Banks something like 40 times, and I’m beginning to develop the same relationship with Maine’s Down East. When I have lived in the East, I couldn’t wait to visit New Mexico again.Baldwin Co. Ala. sunset

There are soft-shelled crabs to be eaten in Virginia, salmon in Seattle. There are pirogis in Wisconsin and scrapple in Philadelphia. You can only get pizza in New Jersey, you can only get barbecue in eastern North Carolina, or a real Cuban sandwich in Miami.

Barns in Pennsylvania have stone foundations; in Georgia, they rest lumber right on the ground. In Wisconsin, the barns are red; in North Carolina, it’s the dirt that’s red; the gray, weathered barns aren’t painted at all.

I remember passing through Iowa and being astonished to see a farmfield filled with hogs and each animal had its private home, looking like a Levittown of doghouses.

In southern Arizona, I passed something very similar, but it was for fighting roosters.Bear Mtn Bridge

American regionalism is alive, despite network television and corporate advertising. America hasn’t yet been completely turned into one great food court of McDonald’s and Arby’s.

If you think you have only a choice between Pepsi and Coke, wait till you pop the top of a Double Cola in Reidsville, N.C.

Try one at the Sanitary Cafe, where calf’s brains are the breakfast special.Cadillac Ranch Amarillo Texas

I’ve been to most of those landmark places you’ve heard of: International Falls, Minn.; Walla-Walla, Wash.; Langtry, Texas; Cairo, Ill.; Appomattox, Va.; Intercourse, Pa.; West Point, N.Y.

There are some great old iron bridges across the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, some great concrete bridges in central New Jersey that speak of the the great age of American highway building in the 1930s.

I’ve been up Pikes Peak in Colorado and up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

I’ve been over Lake Ponchartrain in Louisiana and across the floating bridge over the Hood Canal in Puget Sound north of Seattle.Columbia River Gorge Oregon-Washington

It helps if you love to drive, and I know not everyone has that passion. My brother hates driving, for instance. He views an automobile vacation like a two weeks stuck in an elevator. He can’t wait for his floor to arrive so he can get the heck out.

But most elevators don’t have windows.

As I watch the landscape pass across my windshield, like a travelog on a movie screen, I get a sense of the whole elephant, not just his trunk or tail.

Of course, we are talking here about a two-lane blacktop trip, not a bland rush down an interstate highway, where one stretch of concrete pavement can be distinguished from another only by the names on the exit signs.factory, trees, Lowell, Mass

It is a particular kind of travel and has nothing in common with the destination-vacation of the tourism industry. I have no interest in waiting on Disney World lines for thrill rides or Lake Winnibigoshish for a week of trout fishing. You can have your three days lounging on the sands of Bimini or your Love Boat cruise.

Instead, I get to travel an arc of the planet, get to feel in my bones the curvature of the earth and the roughness of its skin. It is through driving across its surface that I get some body-feel for the size of the globe: It is roughly 10 times the distance I drive to get from Phoenix to New York City. New OrleansThat’s not some numbers on some mileage chart, but a distance I know by the seat of my pants.

It’s also a lot smaller than the world seemed before I began driving.

In those years, my wife and I have been to each of the 48 contiguous state at least twice and most more frequently; we have been to all but one of the Canadian provinces; and even skirted into Mexico a little bit.

And each of those trips could have produced a Blue Highways, a book-length summation of what we saw and learned.Frosty dawn Wisconsin

Part 2

Over the past decade and a half, I’ve put enough vacation miles on the cars I’ve owned to equal driving around the world 2 1/2 times. You don’t drive that much without learning a few things.

The first is, of course, to stay off the interstates. You may get there faster, but not by much, and you’ll be bored the whole drowsy way. And in much of the country — and especially in the West — speed limits on smaller highways is not much lower than on the four-lanes, and with less traffic.Golden Gate Bridge SF Calif

Have a rough itinerary and plan how many miles per day you are willing to drive. This is more important for a passenger: Driving will keep you occupied, but your partner may go stir crazy sitting in a seat while going across some of the flatter places in Texas; Don’t overdo it. Marriages hang in the balance.

But never make your itinerary too rigid. You will discover unexpected things along the way; let yourself enjoy them.Gorilla, Am Mus Nat Hist04 copy

We never reserve motel rooms, so we never feel forced to get somewhere by nightfall. There are enough motels along the way. Even national parks, with their crowds, often have last minute cancellations. We’ve pulled into the Grand Canyon and into Yellowstone and gotten a room. But have a contingency plan.

One year, we hit South Dakota the week of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and there were no vacancies for 200 miles around. We had to drive into the next state to find a room. But that brings up the next lesson:

Don’t be afraid of mishaps and adventures. They may be uncomfortable during the trip, but they will be the best stories you tell your friends. No matter how bad it gets, it will provide the most vivid memory.Imperial Dunes California

Don’t drive every day; take some time to spend in a single spot. Three days we spent in a cabin on Daicey Pond in Maine’s Baxter State Park were three of the best days we ever spent — hiking, canoeing, watching moose and listening to loons at the base of Mount Katahdin. Not once did we start the car. When we finally left, we were ready for more miles.

There are things you should always have in your car: water, a blanket, Fig Newtons, a road atlas, your address book with phone numbers. Forest Lawn cemetery LAI also carry an entrenching tool — one of those small folding shovels you can buy at army surplus stores — for digging out when I get the car stuck in sand or mud.

Don’t be afraid of dirt roads. There are some amazing rewards at the end of a bit of gravel.

We also always carry a small library of Peterson nature guides, two pairs of binoculars, camera equipment and twice the amount of film I think I can possibly shoot.

And finally, my nomination for the greatest invention of the 20th century: cruise control. It keeps your right foot from cramping up on the gas pedal. I was 45 before I ever tried it and I’ll never be that stupid again.pacific coast highway California

Part 3

What makes for good driving?

I don’t know about others, but for me, optimum driving conditions include:

–Little or no traffic for infinite miles ahead, with no stoplights.

–Interesting and varied weather; I don’t want incessant sunshine any more than I want endless rain. A front moving through gives me a constantly changing cloud show.Greylock Mt from Melville home Mass

–An old road with a history. Route 66 is the most famous, but not the only one. I especially enjoy roads that follow geology: along a mountain range or river, so that the road seems to belong to the earth, rather than denying it.

–Occasional side roads, preferably gravel, for a change of pace.

–Periodic change of landscape, such as when you drive from the Plains to the Rocky Mountains, or from the white sands of the Atlantic Coastal Plain into the hilly interior of the Piedmont.

— A regional food specialty you haven’t tried yet and no chain restaurants.leo carillo st beach california

— A few museums and a few national parks. I gotta have both.

— A used book store in every town.

— A pile of Haydn symphonies on CD to run through the dashboard player.

–A clean windshield. This last must be renewed frequently. Bugs bust on the glass.Mississippi barge

Part 4

The dozen most scenic drives in the 48 states:

1. Beartooth Highway, U.S. 212 from Red Lodge, Mont., to Yellowstone National Park.

2. The Pacific Coast Highway, Calif. 1, from San Luis Obispo to Leggett, Calif..

3. Blue Ridge Parkway, from Waynesboro, Va. to Smoky Mountains National Park, N.C.

4. N.C. 12 from Nags Head to Okracoke, N.C.

5. Ariz. 264 from Ganado to Tuba City, Ariz.

6. U.S. 1 from Miami to Key West, Fla.

7. La. 82 from Perry, La., to Port Arthur, Texas.

8. U.S. 1 from Ellsworth to Calais, Maine.

9. Kancamagus Highway, N.H. 112, from Conway to Lincoln, N.H.

10. Tex. 170 from Presidio, Texas, to Big Bend National Park.

11. Utah 12 from Red Canyon to Torrey, Utah.

12. Wash. 14 though the Columbia River Gorge from Camas to Plymouth, Wash.Niagara Falls

Part 5

It isn’t just the flashy, famous places that draw the true driver. In fact, commercial destinations, such as Disney World or Las Vegas, are probably best gotten to by airplane and shuttle bus, so you can give over all your time to waiting in lines.

No, in a car, some of the best experiences come by rolling through the kind of places that fall through the cracks of marketing. Places “below the radar,” so to speak, of commercial development.mobile bay point clear

The small towns, endless farms, mountain ranges, Indian reservations — these are the places you have the opportunity to discover things for yourself. In the big theme parks, you get a uniform experience, developed through marketing research. The ride you take is the same ride millions of others take.

But when you talk to the harried but chummy waitress in Doumar’s, an original ’50s style drive-in on Monticello Ave. in Norfolk, Va., you are talking to a real person, a one-on-one experience that is particular and individual. You get a flavor of place, of culture, of people, of individuals.Page Dam Arizona

To say nothing of the flavor of ice cream, in a cone as close to identical as possible to the original waffled cone Abe Doumar is credited with inventing in 1904. They still make them on the same old wheezy portable machine. If your lucky, they’ll be making them while you eat.

Likewise, there is nothing predictable about the starfish you find in an Oregon tidepool, or the bears in the Smoky Mountains. You get to experience the infinite variety of real life.Sierra Nevada Mts California

Of course, I have my favorites.

Among the 48 states, I can never find the end of either California or North Carolina. They are both richly varied.

California seems to have everything from the world-navel of pop culture to the most remote wilderness. It has more than any other single state.Thunder hole Acadia NP Maine

But North Carolina is nearly as varied geographically, and it has B&G fried pies, the most soul-satisfying food in the world. North Carolina also has the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Outer Banks.

And I cannot get enough of the great, grassy, rolling middle of America. When I tell people I love driving through Nebraska, they look at me like I just said I was born on the Hale-Bopp Comet. But just pull into one of those one-street towns with the grain elevator towering over the single railroad track and have lunch in the cafe where the farmers eat.Yellowstone Nat Park Wyoming

Or imagine the wagonloads of immigrants trudging along the Platte River, with Scotts Bluff on the horizon.

The pace is slower, more humane in Nebraska.

Humankind developed on the grasslands of Africa, and Nebraska, especially, seems to call atavistically to me, reawakening my genetic love of savannas.Monument Valley Arizona

It’s easy to love the broad vistas of the West. Southern Utah doesn’t seem to have a square inch that isn’t photogenic, and the Grand Tetons of Wyoming are mountains right out of central casting: They are to other mountains what Cary Grant is to most men.

But I also love the Mid-Atlantic states. Sometimes, a Western forest is too much of the same thing. You can walk for miles in the Cascades of Washington and see only two kinds of trees: Douglas fir and Western redcedar.Zabriskie Point Death Valley Calif

It’s different in Pennsylvania or Tennessee. In the great Appalachian mountain chain of the East, there are more species of plant life than in all of Europe. The variety is blinding: Redbud in spring, Tulip tree in summer. White pine, pin oak, red maple, sweetgum, sycamore, witch hazel, horse chestnut — and hundreds more.

And there is something humanizing about the landscape. This is land which has been lived in for hundreds of years. It is still wild, but it has made peace with the humans who live there and send smoke up their stony winter chimneys.Zion National Park Utah

In the past, I avoided cities the way I avoid Justin Bieber songs. The noise, nuisance, dirt and traffic were everything I was trying to avoid by getting on the road.

But I have come to terms with them, also. After all, it is in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Boston that you find the symphony orchestras, natural history museums, ethnic foods and imposing architecture.Mississippi River Hannibal Missouri

The greatest city for driving is Los Angeles. It may be the home of the cultural antichrist, but it is also a great fermenting, creative pot, with lots of roads that take you past inventively loopy buildings: The Tail ’o the Pup hot dog stand, the downtown Coca-Cola bottling plant in the form of an ocean liner.

In LA, you can’t get anywhere without wheels. It is the perfect American city.mobile bay

There are two states that I have to admit I don’t particularly enjoy: New Jersey, probably because I grew up there and don’t feel much urge to go back; and Florida, which is supposed to be a Southern state, but it has been given over to graceless Yankees. But even in Florida, I have to admit I love the Cubano culture of Miami and the Everglades, proving that there is always something of worth.

Driving 1It was the weekend I drove across America: I left Phoenix after work on Friday and pulled into North Carolina before breakfast on Monday. I was hauling macadam.

But to paraphrase Mr. Bernstein from Citizen Kane, “There’s no secret to piling up miles, if all you want to do is pile up miles.”

At any rate, I logged 1,886 miles between work on Friday and sleep on Sunday.

People sometimes ask me if driving doesn’t wear me down, but it doesn’t. There is nothing I find as relaxing as spending a week on the highway, watching the scenery scroll by and the sun roll around heaven all day.

I get up at 5 each morning and count a hundred miles on the odometer before stopping for breakfast. You notice the difference from one edge of a time zone to another: On the same day, 5 a.m. can be black night in Williston, N.D., and broad daylight in Pensacola, Fla., both in the Central Time Zone.driving 2 - night

It gives you a cosmic feel: You know you are moving across the arc of the planet’s edge. In Saskatchewan you can watch the grain elevator behind you sink below the horizon in your rear view mirror, like the sails of a ship dropping under the curve of the earth, just as the next elevator breaks the surface in front of you. You are always on the top of a mound that falls off to every side.

The point of this particular dash across the continent was to collect my wife, who had been visiting her mother in North Carolina, and continue on our vacation, making a great loop across the Northeast and back through central Canada.

I left the office at about 4 p.m. on Friday and drove the 289 miles to Gallup, N.M., where I stayed in a chain motel and ate supper at a tiny, empty  dive, where a Navajo woman made a great turkey sandwich.

Saturday took me from Gallup to Oklahoma City, some 725 miles. I could have gone further, but I did some sightseeing in Endee, N.M., and in Amarillo, Texas.

Sunday, I stopped for a couple of hours in Arkansas, but still managed to make 872 miles, stopping in Kingston, Tenn., just short of Knoxville.

I usually avoid the interstates, but to waste as little time as possible before joining my wife, I took I-40 most of the way, playing dodge-cars with semis, terrorizing slow-moving RVs and watching my odometer spin like a slot machine.interstate mt airy

The next day, I drove across the Smokies, up along the Blue Ridge and down into the Piedmont, managing to cruise through Andy Griffith’s Mount Airy.

There are some disadvantages to this kind of travel. Meals, for instance, are either awful or non-existent. Mostly, I keep a box of Fig Newtons in the back seat and gnosh occasionally. The entree is beef jerky bought at a truck stop; I’ve become quite a connoisseur of jerky. A liter of bottled water sits on the back floor.

When I do stop and eat dinner, it is uniformly greasy, oversalted and overcooked. And don’t even mention the salad bar.

Then, it’s into the motel room for a night’s sleep before getting up again at 5, to see the dull light in the east spread out along the fuzzy line that separates the sky and its brightening clouds from the ground below and the road that stretches toward the rising sun.

Sandro at Hatteras copy

Cape Hatteras is a place for pilgrimages.

It is a bit of sand that emerges from the ocean 30 miles out to sea off North Carolina. It is a place where you go to be reminded that you don’t live in an apartment, you don’t live in a city, but rather, you live instead on a planet.Hatteras cape point from lighthouse copy

For years in the late 1960s and early ’70s, my college friend Alexander and I went to Hatteras each February to experience the organ-point surf and a constant 20-knot wind that keeps your lapels flapping and your skin wrung raw. It’s a wind that can part your eyebrows.

Others may visit in the summer, when the ocean is tamed and the wind warmed, but February is the only real time to visit if it is a pilgrimage you are on.

Hattaras is much congested these days, but in 1968, at least in February, you could grab a mile or two of beach all for yourself.

In February, the last nor’easters of the season have blown through and chiseled the dunes into new shapes.

And each February, it seemed, there was a stretch of about a week when winter breaks and the temperature would climb each day to the mid-70s and the sun could warm your chill-chapped face.

It was then that Hatteras gave up its best.NC12, Hatteras Island NC copy

To get there, you take N.C. 12, a two-lane blacktop that runs the length of the Outer Banks like the vein down the back of a shrimp. For the 50 miles from Nag’s Head to the cape, the road runs straight between the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Pamlico Sound on the other.

Sandro and the lighthouse copyThe Banks are a series of barrier islands that begin to tear away from the mainland in Virginia and reach their greatest distance from terra firma at Cape Hatteras, about 100 miles farther south.

At their skinniest, the banks are only a few hundred yards wide, with its single road protected from the stormy Atlantic by only the skimpiest of sand dunes.

And in February, it is not unusual for portions of the road to be flooded or blown over with sand.

After one vicious nor’easter, the road about five miles north of Buxton at the cape was nearly washed away. A vast pool of salt water covered what used to be highway. To make our way through it, Alexander had to take his shoes and socks off and wade through the icy water, feeling for the pavement with his bare feet. I followed in the car, driving at a cautious crawl through water that washed over the top of our hubcaps.

As befits a pilgrimage, we had our rites. We camped in the dunes and drank Alexander’s ceremonial hot chocolate in the mornings. His penitential recipe called for equal parts milk and Hershey’s syrup.

There were the whelks, Scotch bonnets, skate egg cases, dogfish carcasses, the 360-degree aural horizon of surf crash, the snap of the tent’s oily canvas in the wind, the intermittent flash of the lighthouse at night seen from our campsite, the squeak and squawk of the gulls and terns, the beef stew simmering in the black iron pan, the corroded spikes pulled from the wreck of the Laura Barnes — iron pulled and twisted like taffy — the swig of Courvoisier in the morning followed by that tar-thick hot chocolate.

There were those mysterious — to me anyway — channel markers land-locked on the mud flats near the Bodie Island campsite — the surf so far away — that unnamed wreck near the lagoon at the Cape, those Loran towers, the old dune-covered ruins of the former Route 12 near the light house that we walked along one evening and watched the stars through binoculars — the most stars I had ever seen.

A great deal has been erased and recorded over in my memory, but these items are indelible. I can even see it in these photographs awful as they are.

In all the years we went on this pilgrimage, two episodes stand out.

First, one inky night, we walked past the base of the lighthouse on our way to the beach. For some reason, the door to the lighthouse, which was always locked, was left open. There was no one around, and we didn’t hear anyone in the lighthouse tower when we poked our heads in, so we started climbing the iron spiral stairs.

It is a long way up the tallest lighthouse on the East Coast, and when we got to the top, we opened the door to the balcony that surrounds the lamp and walked out in the wind and watched the light flash over our heads and swing out to sea, where the tiny stars of ships shown on the black horizon.

The other episode occurred as we walked out in the dark toward the cape point, a mile or so from the lighthouse.

At the cape point, the surf crashes around you in all directions. You can lose your bearings quite easily, especially when you are below the dunes and can’t see the lighthouse.shipwreck Hatteras copy 1

The air is thick with the mist of exploded breakers; it collects in your beard and dampens your peacoat.

To make our way, I carried a hissing Coleman lantern that threw our shadows on the sand at our feet. And when we looked up to spy Orion in the sky, we were startled to see two giants walking in the air.

The lantern threw our silhouettes up into the sky, and we walked among the constellations.

In many ways the Outer Banks have become a place in my head — an eternal place in my head where all the adventures are always happening — and have slipped out of place in time.Sandro inside the Okracoke lighthouse copy

Which year did I photograph Alexander inside Okracoke lighthouse?

I want desperately to recapture every detail.

But in another sense, he always in that lighthouse, looking up its whitewashed core.

BILT E3

One very trendy New York artist has said, ”Money creates taste,” but the truth is otherwise. Money can create fashion, but never taste. 

In fact, more often than not, the only taste that seems to come from wealth is bad taste, and that in huge, ostentatious quantities. 

For instance, the money of George Vanderbilt poured into the mountains of North Carolina near Asheville has created a garish monument to obscene wealth and acquisitional excess called the Biltmore Estate. 

Begun in 1887, it is a 250-room mansion in phony French chateau style that took an army of stonecutters and craftsmen six years to finish. Even today, in the possession of Vanderbilt’s descendants, it is the largest private home in America, situated on 8,000 acres of North Carolina mountain real estate. This has shrunk from its original 125,000 acres. 

It is an astonishing collection of bric-a-brac and great art treated as bric-a-brac. Durer engravings are treated like knickknacks, like so much plundered lucre, heisted from the trove of Europe to show off to admiring Americans, unable to create great art, but sure as hell able to buy it. 

Designed by the ”architect to the robber barons,” Richard Morris Hunt, it is a mind-boggling showcase of things to gawk at, but not to admire. 

It took six years and 1,000 men to build. With a 390-foot facade, the house has more than 11 million bricks, 250 rooms, 65 fireplaces, 43 bathrooms, 34 bedrooms and three kitchens, all of which are contained on over four acres of floor space. 

Bowling alley

Bowling alley

The massive stone spiral landscape rises four floors and has 102 steps. 

Through its center hangs an iron chandelier weighing 1,700 pounds. 

Inside can be found a vast collection of art and furniture, more than 70,000 cataloged items, including 23,000 books, furniture from 13 countries, more than 1,600 art prints and hundreds of paintings. One cannot help but think of Citizen Kane

There were indoor bowling, billiards, a swimming pool, a gym. Outdoors, there were croquet, fishing, horseback riding, more swimming and hunting, hiking and camping. 

It is a monument to excess, of a kind Bill Gates can only dream about. 

The Vanderbilts could entertain a few close friends at a dinner table that could seat 64 guests in a banquet hall that is 72 feet long. Meals served at the table were usually seven courses long and required as many as 15 utensils per person. banquet hall

Enough fresh fish to feed 50 people was shipped in daily from New York City. Lobster, twice a week. 

But then, the Vanderbilts were wealthy people. 

George was a grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, aka the Commodore, who is best remembered as one of the great robber barons of American monopoly capitalism. It was the Commodore’s son, William, who responded to questions of how the family business practices might affect the public by saying, ”The public be damned.” 

The Commodore paid for the Breakers in Newport, R.I., also designed by Hunt, which is a mere 70-room ”cottage.” 

It pales beside the splendiferosity of Biltmore House. 

In fact, the estate is so impressive, it’s a shame it isn’t beautiful. Instead, its a hodgepodge of architectural styles, each displayed with the same aesthetic care as the collected artwork, which is often hidden behind furniture. 

Hunt pulled together a little of this and a little of that, with no controlling idea, so the house is a kind of architectural landfill. 

Library, ca. 1910

Library, ca. 1910

There are some very nice details, but they never add up to a satisfying whole. Instead, like a meal of too much rich food: garlicked langostinos and chocolate cake, they sit in the belly undigestible, waking you up in the middle of the night with disturbing dreams. 

It certainly isn’t aesthetics that brings the crowds. There may be a great deal of art on the walls of the Biltmore mansion, but these gawkers would not be paying the hefty admission price to see Claudes and Renoirs. No, like some tabloid version of ”America’s Most Wanted Mansions,” it is the excess and wealth that bring them in. They want to see how real money lives. 

For Americans have an oddly unsolved double standard when it comes to wealth. They are decidedly democratic in the sense that they believe, fervently, that no one is better than anyone else. They wear their sloganed T-shirts and shorts to prove it. But they don’t imagine that this equality rests at the level of a working middle class. No, they imagine an equality where everyone wins the lottery and has tons of moolah and can make themselves just such a mansion to live in and watch Wheel of Fortune while their servants bring them lite beer and corn nuts. 

It is a proletarian dream of money: Cash without the scruples of good taste. Let’s all put a dozen Jaguars in the garage. Let’s light cheap cigars with $100 bills and bring Uncle Ed around for a game of snooker in the basement while the kids bang away, attempting Heart and Soul on the Steinway. 

For these crowds of gawkers at the Biltmore see the Vanderbilt family as a 19th-century version of the Lotto grand prize. 

And I’m afraid, the Vanderbilts have obliged them by building the world’s largest, most expensive double-wide.with trailer