By Gary Lloyd

The following story is a chapter in Valley Road: Uplifting Stories from Down South. Get it here.

For a year, all I heard about the state of North Carolina was that controversial bathroom law, the one that upset the LGBT community. High-profile musicians and bands canceled their concerts in Charlotte, Greensboro and other cities. Collegiate sporting tournaments were moved to other states. It was a real mess.

I’m not here to talk politics with you. I have zero desire to do so. However, I recently took a trip to North Carolina, and I would like to share with you what I experienced. Spoiler: It’s a beautiful place, more than headlines about who belongs in which bathroom.

We stayed with friends in Apex, and spent our first night in their backyard, tossing a frisbee to a black Labrador, talking about life, and catching lightning bugs with a toddler. He kept them in a mason jar by his bed.

On our first full day in North Carolina, we explored the Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh, where we ran our fingers over the backs of a soft chinchilla, thorny hedgehog and shy ferret. We laughed as the toddler roared at life-size replica dinosaurs.

Later that day, we took the scenic backroads to Chapel Hill, so that I could wander through the Carolina Basketball Museum. I live in a section of the world infatuated with Alabama and Auburn football, a population that recognizes a prized running back recruit quicker than a distant cousin, and I am an outlier. Basketball is and always has been my favorite sport, and North Carolina is one of the sport’s meccas. All within an hour and a half of each other are the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke and Wake Forest. They are all college basketball powers.

I have been to NC State in Raleigh, where I toured historic Reynolds Coliseum and met the women’s basketball coach. I wrote about the program’s two most famous coaches for a college sports writing class, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning professor complimented many parts of my article. It’s easy to write about such a historical place, such inspiring people.

Inside the Carolina Basketball Museum on this vacation, I was blown away. First of all, to walk among those hallowed trophies, championship rings and jerseys was free. We passed rows of framed photos of Hall of Famers, tall trophies hoisted by Dean Smith, James Worthy, Michael Jordan, Roy Williams, Raymond Felton, Marvin Williams, Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Justin Jackson and more. The list goes on. I saw the recruiting letter Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski sent to Jordan when he chose the Tar Heels instead. I saw Hansbrough’s huge shoes and a list of the forty-eight NBA first round draft picks to pass through Chapel Hill. I spoke with the museum’s host on our way out, and we talked about Jackson, who was drafted later that night with the fifteenth pick. That old lady could have talked basketball with me for hours.

I thought that was as good as it could get in Chapel Hill, until I found one unlocked door. It was to the Dean Smith Center, where all those players competed in a sea of baby blue. There was a girls’ basketball camp going on, so I walked up to Section 216, Row F and sat in Seat 1. How lucky those girls were, to dribble basketballs on that floor. I could have sat there all day, admiring the dozens of banners and jerseys hanging from the rafters.

The remainder of our trip was spent with our friends in Wilmington, a port city along the Cape Fear River. We strolled through Airlie Gardens despite the heat and took a dozen photos, and even watched a black snake slither its way under a boardwalk. We fell in love with the house we rented, and I swear I’ve seen its backyard on a postcard before. We spent that evening perusing the shops of downtown Wilmington, and eating ice cream at Kilwin’s. We took photos of the USS North Carolina from the Riverwalk and of the famed river court from the television series “One Tree Hill.” We participated in a ghost tour that night, and I spent more time admiring the old homes and long porches than being too concerned about evil spirits from the 1800s.

We relaxed on the beach and in the ocean for part of the next day, and took a boat tour of the Cape Fear River that evening. On our last day in the Wilmington area, we checked out early and drove south, out of our way, toward Oak Island and Caswell Beach, where we had heard there was a lighthouse. We found it, searched for seashells on a seemingly deserted beach, and I snapped a photograph of Jessica that is now framed and on my desk at work.

Our last night in North Carolina was spent exploring Holly Springs, a well-to-do city that I would move to in a heartbeat. We drove to Bass Lake, where a century ago there was a grist mill and people paid fifty cents to fish. Now, the fishing for catfish and largemouth bass is free, as is walking the two-mile nature trail that circled the lake. I nearly drained my iPhone battery taking photos. It’s a beautiful place. Holly Springs even has its own Coastal Plain League baseball team, and that sold me on the town.

On the day we departed North Carolina for Gatlinburg, Tennessee, we drove mostly on the interstate. I’m not a huge fan of interstate driving, because I love taking the backroads through small towns, admiring the homes and scenery. The interstate is full of eighteen-wheelers that can’t stay in their own lane and signs for drive-thru chicken. But our drive was long, and we wanted to get to the mountains of Gatlinburg as quickly as possible. I live in Alabama, and our interstate views are nonexistent, and the drive is always bumpy.

This drive was shocking. Sure, the lanes were crowded and motorists swerved into other lanes, but there was something different. At almost every exit there were dozens of rows of yellow, purple and pink wildflowers. The fields of flowers were so big that I bet you could see them from ten thousand feet up on an airplane. It was refreshing to see. I learned that the North Carolina Department of Transportation Wildflower Program began in 1985 to add beauty along state highways. The idea is credited to a former governor’s wife, and it adds appeal to the state as a tourist destination.

Well, it looks as if I have mentioned something political after all. But at least this topic, the beauty and history of North Carolina, is worth talking about.

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