It’s true that an Internet connection and a credit card security code can bring the world to you.
Friends post photos of their Asheville vacation. A live webcam watches fishermen on the pier at Kure Beach. Overnight shipping delivers barbecue, still warm, from Kinston to your cross-Carolina kitchen.
Even postcards, those 3-1/2-by-5-inch bits of paper proof that you were there, can be ordered online and sent here.
So why bother to travel?
Because it’s not the getting. It’s the getting away.
Neuroscience has proved in recent years what Helen Barrett of Washington, D.C., must have understood in 1948 when she found a postcard in her mailbox from Lois, who didn’t need to sign her last name: Travel can make the mundane magical. Getting some distance from the daily routine frees the mind.
Going to a new place, being with new people, can make you a new person.
“This is some vacation I am having,” Lois wrote on the back of a card that features a streetscape of mid-20th-century downtown Rocky Mount, its commercial buildings gleaming against a blue sky. “Just saw Gladys & Sam,” she reported, and that evening, she planned to attend a ballgame between Rocky Mount and Wilson.
Lois didn’t say how she got to Rocky Mount, where she had come from or why she chose to vacation in a town that was known mostly as a stopover on the way to somewhere else. But a collection of hundreds of postcards city resident John L. Taylor donated to the Braswell Memorial Library in town a couple of years before he died tell the story, a few lines at a time, of a city – and state – that recognized early the importance of turning on the charm for guests.
From its earliest recorded history, North Carolina has attracted people from elsewhere; the first English colonists who managed to build successful settlements in the 1600s soon were followed by boatloads of people who wanted to see the place for themselves. It’s how much of the state’s population growth continues to this day: People come to visit, fall in love, move in.
Travel, now a $20 billion-a-year industry in North Carolina, has evolved, accommodating changing modes and routes of transportation but all the while capitalizing on the natural beauty that always has been the state’s main draw.
In the early 1900s, travelers mostly came to or through North Carolina towns by train, and hotels and resorts were built close to rail stations and trolley lines so visitors wouldn’t have far to tote their bags. In Rocky Mount, at the intersection of train lines headed east-west and north-south, travelers on their way to Georgia or Florida sent postcards from the grand Ricks Hotel, not far from the downtown depot, to let friends and family back in Maine, New Hampshire and New Jersey know they had made it safely that far.
Trains also hauled passengers to the coast, where they stayed at hotels such as The Lumina at Wrightsville Beach. Trains took visitors to the mountains, where they sought the healing powers of the cool, clear air and mineral waters of attractions such as Hot Springs, in Madison County, or to indulge in the comforts of the Grove Park Inn in Asheville. Trains delivered equestrians and golfers to Pinehurst.
By the 1920s, the number of automobiles in North Carolina was doubling every couple of years, and the state had embarked on an ambitious road-building plan, matching federal funds to run highways across the 500-plus-mile length of the state. Through the 1950s, small towns flourished as asphalt and concrete brought guests right to their businesses’ front doors.
In Rocky Mount, motor courts, one-story motels where drivers could park outside their doors, sprouted along U.S. 301 north and south of town and on U.S. 64 east and west. The Brightleaf Motel, Mosley’s, Holiday Lodge, Washburn’s. Their postcards, given away free to overnight guests, crowed their amenities: Swimming pool! Televisions! Air conditioning!
Hal Orr’s Inn still hugs U.S. 301 on the north side of the city, its pool sodded over years ago after new owners tired of trespassers climbing the fence for a free dip.
Rocky Mount today boasts some 2,700 hotel rooms, most of them at modern chains that line Interstate 95, the Maine-to-Florida route whose North Carolina section was built from 1961 to 1980.
Like other bypasses, I-95 made it possible for travelers to get to their final destinations in record time. Via I-40 and four lane U.S. 64, it’s now one day’s drive from Murphy, in North Carolina’s southwestern corner, to Hatteras Village on the Outer Banks.
Rocky Mount’s Ricks Hotel is long gone, and dozens of the 166 buildings that make up the town’s National Register-listed historic district are shuttered and for sale, as if waiting for the next boom cycle.
But visitors who take the time to detour off I-95 or U.S. 64 point their iPhone cameras at the facades. Maybe they’ll stop for a hamburger at the Central Cafe on Church Street downtown and drive to Battle Park to walk the trail and look across the falls of the Tar River at the defunct Rocky Mount Mills, which housed the state’s second cotton mill. Throw in a visit to the local children’s museum and the arts center, and it’s enough to fill an afternoon.
If you moved to North Carolina from somewhere else, the road that brought you here can take you on lots of adventures like this, to corners of the world you haven’t seen before. The News & Observer will explore 15 of those places in our summer series, Best-Kept Secrets: Day-Trip Edition, which starts Monday on Memorial Day and runs each Monday through Labor Day.
On half a tank of gas, you can be someplace where the natives speak a different dialect from the one in your neighborhood. The topography is hillier. Or flatter. The water is bluer, or greener, or more the color of sweet tea. The air smells like a flower you can’t quite name. The tomatoes are more acidic. Or sweeter.
Everything is sort of familiar, but nothing is quite the same.
If you’re lucky, when you return home, you won’t be the same either.