Installment No. 1 by Kristy Woodson Harvey
Illustrations by Baxter Miller
No state looks, smells or tastes as wonderful as North Carolina. From the mysterious Blue Ridge Mountains, to the pristine waters of the Carolina coast, to the scent of pine on a summer day, to the quench of an ice cold Pepsi paired with a savory barbecue sandwich, there are so many things to love about this state, and, as we well know, so many people who love it.
Time and time again readers from all over — from the arid desert city of Dubai, to the concrete jungle of the Big Apple, to tiny tobacco towns in Eastern North Carolina — have told us Bit & Grain stories connect them to our beloved state in a way that feels tangible and heartfelt.
Today we tip our hat to those readers, and to all lovers of the Old North State, by launching the North Carolina Love Letter Project, a series that celebrates what makes North Carolina special. In an era when the written word and love letters are all too uncommon, this reader penned project highlights what we love and love to hate about the place we all come home. Got something to say about the Old North State? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For our inaugural piece, we bring you a love letter penned by author Kristy Woodson Harvey. A Piedmont-born North Carolinian, Kristy’s letter chronicles her journey to and love affair with Eastern North Carolina where she now happily lives and writes.
I grew up in Cheerwine country — in the birthplace of Food Lion and Hap’s hot dogs, Stanback headache powder and America’s first 10 gig city. So I guess you could say Salisbury was my first love. It was a wonderful place to be young — close enough to the mountains to have a season-long lift ticket and close enough to the beach that we could pack up on a Friday afternoon and drive until we hit salt air. Weekends were spent piling into someone’s Jeep and heading to the lake. Norman, Tillery, High Rock, Baden. It didn’t matter. As long as there was a dock for jumping, we were there. I didn’t think I could love anywhere as much as my hometown.
Enter: Chapel Hill. I had always bled blue, spent more football Saturdays than I could count getting a foot tattoo on my face at Johnny T-shirt and post-gaming at the Carolina Inn. But, for a time, I wasn’t a bystander during these crisp fall days anymore. I wasn’t just a fan flooding Franklin Street when the Heels won the National Championship. I was a student. I was a part of something bigger. And I can say confidently that I made more memories in those four years than in the previous eighteen combined.
Somewhere in there, I fell in love with an Eastern North Carolina boy, which, if you’ve been down that road, you know by extension, means falling in love with Eastern North Carolina. They all say they’re going to leave home, those Eastern NC boys. But they don’t. Well, I mean, they might make it to Raleigh, but that’s as far west of 95 as they can tolerate. Something about the altitude, I think.
I don’t know if it’s the pit-cooked barbecue, the obscenely sweet tea or the fact that the rest of the state doesn’t understand what they mean when they say they are going to “carry the car to take on some fuel” but those boys find their way back to their rivers and oceans like their beloved hunting dogs to a duck. I loved Eastern North Carolina pretty much from the start, its gorgeous old homes and wonderful accents, its “Dahlin’, your pound cake needs more buttah,” and meeting the farmer that grew your squash. But there was one problem.
You see, living down East means spending the summer at the beach, and, if you’d asked me years ago, I would have told you I was a mountain girl. I wasn’t too keen on the salt on my skin, and I was particularly perturbed by sand in my bathing suit.
My then-boyfriend, now-husband was going to see to it that changed. Weekend after weekend we’d drive from Chapel Hill to Atlantic Beach. Weekend after weekend I’d change bathing suits thirteen times a day. I was still a mountain girl.
I don’t know how it happened, actually. But I remember when. We were riding over the Atlantic Beach Bridge at sunset. I was in the car with my soon-to-be father-in-law, and, as I gazed out the window, I could feel him watching me. I turned, and he said, “Kinda tugs at your soul, doesn’t it?” That was the moment. The precise second the last of my heart fell for my home state.
It was official: I was in love with North Carolina. As everyone knows, truly loving any person, place or thing means loving all of it. Now I count the minutes until Memorial Day when I’m firmly planted in Beaufort until school starts. That’s how it is with love. Sometimes it sneaks up on you.
As I write this letter, I’m sitting in a British Virgin Islands airport. After a week of waking up, hiking, diving into the Caribbean water and paddleboarding to breakfast, there’s going to be a lot to miss for a girl so besotted by both the mountains and the sea. We have half-joked that we should just move here. I write books, after all. It’s kind of a have-laptop, will-travel gig.
But I’m starting to remember it now. Pimento cheese, chicken salad—anything with Duke’s mayonnaise, really. Grits, ham biscuits, and sweet tea for Lord’s sake. Ruby red cardinals and those insufferable little squirrels, generations-old oak trees, and, I’d venture to say, the best literature to ever come out of anywhere. It makes sense because the thing about North Carolina is that it doesn’t only have the best settings. As all who live here know, maybe the best thing about it, maybe the thing to love most of all, is that our state has the best characters.
I smile as I step onto the plane, remembering the good I’m going back to. I slip my ear buds in, NC boy James Taylor starts singing and, just like that, I’m gone to Carolina in my mind. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that my heart has been there all along.
North Carolina born and bred, Kristy Woodson Harvey is the author of the award winning book Dear Carolina. She is a Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Journalism and holds a master's in English from East Carolina University. She lives in North Carolina with her husband and four-year-old son.
Her newest novel, Lies and Other Acts of Love, will be released on April 5th. You can find it any where books are sold. Show your local independent book store some love.