Carolina on My Mind

In my mind I’m gone to Carolina
Can’t you see the sunshine?
Can’t you just feel the moonshine?
Ain’t it just like a friend of mine
To hit me from behind?
Yes, I’m gone to Carolina in my mind.

James Taylor forgot to mention the trees. North Carolina is a state full of trees.

I’m used to the hills of my Bay Area home, but those are spread with golden grasses that turn gray in the dry of the late summer, where these are waves of rounded green mounds that undulate out to the horizon. We were bombing down the Blue Ridge Parkway all last week, traveling between Raleigh, Charlotte, Boone and Asheville, a trip full of conversation and scenery, heavy on the friendship and light on the tourism.

Isoprene-happy oak trees
The blue of the Western Appalachians is a little unique, according to, and can be traced to the isoprene-happy oak trees that make up most of the forests. The hydrocarbon isoprene is produced by these trees in part to protect themselves from excess heat. The hydrocarbon mixes with other molecules and acts like a kind of smog to create the haze of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Whatever the cause, the layers of blue gray stretched as far as sight could go while we climbed up and around the winding roads. Glimpsed through the car windows, the greenery was dotted with lichen-covered granite outcroppings and late summer trickling “cricks” which seemed to pulse with a positive quiet. I have been here before – once – driving down with my dad on a trip from snowy Michigan to Florida beaches in December 1974. It was when I decided that as much as I loved the city, I needed to be within driving distance of the woods.

This is Thomas Wolfe country. It lends itself to purple prose – or blue prose I guess — which doesn’t seem particularly purple when you are looking across the ribbons of hills. These hills beg for poetic cadences, “a stone, a leaf, an unfound door…”

Nacreous pearl light swam faintly about the hem of the lilac darkness; the edges of light and darkness were stitched upon the hills. Morning moved like a pearl-gray tide across the fields and up the hillflanks, flowing rapidly down into the soluble dark. –Look Homeward, Angel

This is also Madison Bumgarner country. Madbum is the ace pitcher of my beloved San Francisco Giants, and is famous for his beard, his love of Ford trucks, his gift of a cow on his wife’s birthday, and his good ol’ country curveball. Thinking of him and of Wolfe makes me wistful for times gone by. Times when I was 19 and could sit down and read long stretches of narrative prose without wondering whether the author was going to come to the point. I spent entire summers reading Dickens, Joyce, and Wolfe on my lunch hour under a tree in a park. Sultry weather and trees makes me think of Thomas Wolfe, and now I know why.  And times four months ago when the Giants were winning.  Ah nostalgia!

In fact, this whole trip has been end to end wistful.

Nostalgia:  /nɒˈstældʒə; -dʒɪə/

Noun, from Greek nostos return home + New Latin -algia; akin to Greek neisthai to return, Old English genesan to survive, Sanskrit nasate he approaches

I was here to visit folks I used to work with in Charlotte. As the headquarters of the other company that “stole mine” in a merger, it was hard for years for me to warm up to Charlotte. I always felt dragged here against my will, even though raised as a city person, I immediately had an appreciation for the cultivation of public parks, public art, and public community spaces that is at the heart of its growth. Driving to town, I realized that in my thirty years in the company, twelve were driven from San Francisco executives and eighteen were driven from Charlotte executives, so that far more of my corporate culture and colleagues were centered around this mindset.

In eighteen years, I have had time to visit often enough to develop my own routines – where I like to stay, where I like to eat, where I like to walk. And downtown – excuse me, UPtown – is such a trip! About ten blocks long and five blocks wide, the central area encompasses a dozen or so modern skyscrapers, a football stadium, basketball stadium, convention center, hotels, art galleries, dance centers, movie theaters, transit center, and plenty of upscale restaurants which could vie for Michelin stars. I have long called it “Wile E. Coyote ACME’s instant city”…. Drop a pill in a glass of water and up springs the city, complete with sculptures and cemeteries around every corner and public art spread across the sides of buildings and even in the parking lots.


So I have such mixed feelings about Charlotte, but I sometimes think Charlotte has mixed feelings about itself.  The financial center of the south, with two national banks elbowing each other for cityspace and mindshare, the city has been labelled the hub of the New South. This is a South trying to drag itself out of the Wolfe and Faulkner era into the 21st century taking the good food, the crazy people, the old customs, and the refusal to change with it. Trying to embrace diversity and technology and remain reactionary is difficult.  It is problematic to want an iPhone, digital ways to move money, and online Black Friday sales while refusing to conceive that gender identification has become more fluid or that America’s Melting Pot is continuing to expand with new refugees.

And the events of last week put the spotlight on this clash in a very painful way. The death of a black citizen at the hands of police was one of a horribly long American list reporrted in the last handful of years, and the protests that started peacefully erupted into violence, tear gas, looting, vandalism, and curfews. The city is calmer now, though the facts of the incident are still in dispute, and the history of these cases this decade does not suggest justice or accountability will be resolved to any type of satisfaction.

What was noticeable was the locals’ shock and reaction to this incident, which had occurred elsewhere – this reaction of “This is not who we are. This is not Charlotte.”

I came to visit friends the day after the televised images of the National Guard ran on an endless loop. The banks and corporations told their employees to stay home, so uptown was deserted and some of my events cancelled. Yet the streets were empty – not full of tanks or police or crowd control barriers – but light on traffic. I had prattled on about the wonders of Charlotte to my spouse for a decade so was determined to see if we could enter the city.  I needed her to have that experience of driving out across the acres and acres of trees only to turn a bend and “Holy Sh-“ as the buildings pop out of nowhere. Charlotte did not disappoint, in that respect.

As we checked into our hotel, the middle aged African American clerk behind the counter was effusive in trying to explain how this was not “her city.” She said she had gone to the peace march with her church, and the protest had felt positive – with singing and praying for calm and justice. Then as they were leaving, they could see others coming in, “19 year olds looking for trouble” is how she described it.   For the rioters, she said, it was the lack of their upbringing that turned them into no-goodniks: “they just needed a good whuppin’ from they grandmother.”  It was clear that she was embarrassed to show this to the tourists, but the combination was striking. She adamantly supported justice for this man who had been killed and simultaneously longed for order to prevail. Such things balance on a knife edge but that is where we must be, same as maintaining an appreciation for the old way of things and moving forward.

This beautiful city of skyscrapers surrounded by those isoprene-happy oaks evokes both nostalgia and warning.  We can long for the past, at least the parts that were simple and beautiful. But we can’t live in it, and if we try to ignore the change that needs to happen that sits in front of us,  we’re going to end up in limbo — neither moving with everyone else into the future or dragging the world back into the past. Wolfe said you can’t go home again, so that nostalgia, that return home has to stay in your mind. You can visit where you once were, but it will change just as you will. New places will become familiar and strange things and strange people will become your friends.

Charlotte will move on and heal. My visit with friends was full of laughter and stories. Reminiscing seemed to take years off; none of them looked a day older to me as these ten years has passed.  My visit to this state of trees has etched new memories.

Although some new patterns might have to be seriously re-examined. North Carolina, you need to know that salsa is not meant to be poured from a syrup jar. I’m just sayin’.



This post is brought to you by the DailyPost word: Trees


Leave a Reply