Four hundred years after a pair of English scout ships moored off the coast of what would become the Outer Banks, editors at a newspaper in the foothills of North Carolina dispatched their prized writer to mark the anniversary with a trip across the state’s longest road.
Columnist Jerry Bledsoe hadn’t been tasked with finding precious metals or disrupting Spanish trade routes. His solo odyssey aimed to wrangle an intangible resource: folksy stories about everyday people who lived and worked along this largely rural thoroughfare.
These original profiles, over 60 in all, covered immigrants and town elders, refugees and food workers, fishermen and farmers, musicians and preachers. They appeared in Bledsoe’s Greensboro News & Record columns over the course of five months in 1984, and were published as a book, From Whalebone to Hot House: A Journey Along North Carolina’s Longest Highway, U.S. 64, two years later.
If there is one trait the North Carolinians featured in Bledsoe’s book share, it is this: fresh nostalgia. A sense of change was in the air. Many of the traditions that had built the state were giving way to more commercial and corporate interests. Small-town life was getting bigger, more connected and affected by national and global influences. The mourning period had begun.
Bledsoe had a knack for telling the right story to illustrate this. Something of a working-class historian, he found pockets of people keeping to the old ways outside major metropolitan areas. It wasn’t that this was the real North Carolina, so much as its overlooked and forgotten parts. And although many of his subjects’ sentiments were tinged with sadness, they were all keenly aware of the transitions and their place in them. Attitudes of optimism still prevailed.
Bledsoe’s columns spoke to a paradoxical appetite for newness and familiarity. A self-taught writer, he defied categorization. Part of his appeal was his own multitudes. He treated readers with homespun yarns in his columns and bloody ledes in his reporting. He wrote more than 20 books over the course of his career, mostly collections of his newspaper work. He also ran his own imprint, Down Home Press, which published more than 50 titles by over two dozen authors.
His columns were often lighthearted: takes on Cheerwine (Bledsoe was for), smokers (against), hamburgers at breakfast (for). And cats—so many columns about cats.
But it was his crime reporting, not his unpretentious portraits of Southern homelife, that garnered his greatest acclaim. Bitter Blood, a 1988 true-crime tome about three wealthy local families, went on to become a New York Times paperback bestseller.
Throughout the ’80s, the News & Record regularly printed full-page advertisements for its star columnist. Readers knew Bledsoe’s face, which appeared in these promotions and at the top of his columns.
These days, Bledsoe’s printed work isn’t as readily obtainable, unless you’re squinting behind paywalls of low-resolution broadsheets, roaming public library stacks, or sifting the out-of-prints in an antiques shop. He, too, has disappeared from public life, perhaps without even trying. You might not expect a guy who once had the same literary agent as a pope and a president to be hard to find. Yet Bledsoe has no flashy portfolio website, does no interviews, and has no social media.
After completing his extremely extended assignment, his first column, dated Wednesday, October 24, 1984, begins: “I. Capital I. For most columnists, that surely is their favorite letter of the alphabet. It’s been more than five months since I’ve used it in print.” Bledsoe followed this with 28 capital ‘I’s, a Helvetica colonnade meant to reclaim his own space with the more familiar first-person perspective his readers expected. “Boy, do I feel better,” he added.
And so, I set out to recreate Bledsoe’s 1984 trip, albeit in five days instead of five months and traveling west to east this time. But I also hoped I might find the columnist North Carolina forgot on my journey. Bledsoe had listened to so many stories. It was time someone returned the favor.
Surrounded by anachronisms with dangling price tags, I explained all this to John Gorham, manager of Collector’s Antique Mall in downtown Asheboro. It had been in an antiques mall like this in Charlotte when I first randomly encountered Bledsoe’s book. It felt like finding a treasure map.
The most recent mention of Bledsoe, from a four-year-old article, led me to the antiques mall in Asheboro. Gorham told me Bledsoe had sold books there, but his booth had been cleared out and re-rented for some time.
“Maybe he doesn’t want to be found,” Gorham said.
Here’s the thing: North Carolina is long. Bledsoe’s ’84 trek commenced at Whalebone Junction, the seaside terminus of U.S. 64, within a few miles of the exact spot where English explorers had first set foot in 1584.
It took nearly three full Carolina seasons, from May to October, for Bledsoe to complete his own voyage. Stopping to ask the locals how they feel has a way of slowing one down.
U.S. 64 bisects North Carolina horizontally into two more or less equal parts. But it isn’t just one road. It’s a collection of interconnected infrastructure. Highlight them on a map and the image becomes like a shattered windshield of colocated roads, alternate routes, freeways, byways, and bypasses. You could take U.S. 64 across the state a hundred times, in either direction, without taking the same exact route twice.
From its tapered tip in the Appalachians to that sandy strip elbowing the Atlantic, the state spans 500 miles as the cardinal flies. The trip takes longer for the featherless. The shortest nonstop route across the state takes about 9 hours. For the completist, it would take almost 1,500 hours to drive the state’s intricate network of roads and highways, second only to Texas in terms of cumulative state mileage, and that’s assuming you can maintain a speed of 55 mph through Wake County at 5 o’clock.
Sticking to mainline U.S. 64 these days puts the trip at about 12 hours. If you don’t detour and backtrack through the many Alts, the Olds, or the Truck Route, or get distracted by the business routes through all the beautiful historic downtowns, you’ll put about 612 miles on the odometer.
Halfway across the state at my stop in Asheboro, I prodded Gorham until he pulled a dusty Rolodex from behind the front counter. He fished out an index card, yellowed and brittle. Seeing as how he just met me, Gorham didn’t hand it over, but did dial on my behalf. After a loud beep, Gorham explained the circumstances for his call and read my phone number from the business card I handed him.
I couldn’t ask for more help if I tried. As I opened the door and stepped outside to resume the second half of my journey east, I heard a phone ring. I looked back at Gorham. His grin proved something I’d already known from looking at a map: There are no dead ends on U.S. 64 in North Carolina.
I’d made a rule before the trip. My compressed timeframe dictated only stopping at places no more than one parking lot away from the road. Even with maps, Bledsoe’s book, and multiple satellite-pinging GPS apps it’s easy to get lost in your home state when it’s of a comparable size to Bangladesh.
My first stop, a cigarette shop literally touching the Tennessee border that Bledsoe visited in the final column of his trip, was derelict. Through a locked glass door, an empty shelf inside advertised $4.57 packs of Marlboros. Next door was a burned-out house. The Whalebone book, my sacred text on this journey, rode shotgun. It included a picture of the couple who owned the shop and lived in the house.
Whenever I got to a place that had been photographed for Bledsoe’s book, I’d hold up the black-and-white image in front of the spots where they were taken, superimposing the past on the present. Sometimes whole buildings had become desiccated or vanished. Other times the colors had faded. It reminded me of something folk storyteller Utah Phillips once said: “I can go outside and pick up a rock that’s older than the oldest song you know, and bring it back in here and drop it on your foot. Now the past didn’t go anywhere, did it? It’s right here, right now.”
Restaurants often caught my eye first. I’ve spent the majority of my own working days in food service, as a dishwasher, server, bartender, manager, and marketing director. I can think of no better way to gauge the health of a place than its foodscapes.
There were more independent food operations than I expected to find. Noticing a lack of fast food joints felt like hope. Among the few hundred total restaurants along U.S. 64, the split between independent and corporate restaurants is fairly even. But many, many more are now owned and operated by people who truly represent the diversity of North Carolina.
I stopped at a produce stand in Murphy run by a man who claimed his legal name was Spud. He pulled out his license before I could roll my eyes. Then there was a winery in Hayesville whose founder had recently passed away. A graveyard of rusting propane tanks by the hundreds. Gem mining for tourists. Motels and outfitters for bikers and hikers.
That time of year there weren’t many other cars, just the sound of my own engine mixing with the rush of whitewater. The Cullasaja River has its own speed limit; you try to keep up. From Highlands to Lake Toxaway, you pass the not-so-subtle entrances to all the country clubs and private communities, pickleball courts in the distance, green as the winter magnolia leaves clinging to the roadside under a skeletal canopy. I wondered if Bledsoe got carsick here, too.
The metal roofing in Western North Carolina distinguishes itself from other parts of the state. I stopped at a ranch in Horse Shoe and admired where the hybrid offspring of cattle and American bison, called Beefalo, roam. I learned about a boutique mill in Hendersonville using hard wheat grown in North Carolina. I passed a couple McDonald’s owned by newly elected U.S. Rep. Chuck Edwards. In Chimney Rock, a couple invited me to their home for dinner. It wasn’t the only time.
Routes get directed and renamed often, and U.S. 64 is no exception. But it seemed to me the outlook of the people Bledsoe described along it hadn’t changed. Friendly people shared their stories, favorite road trip songs, and even their dinner tables.
I waited in line for barbecue on a busy corner in Rutherfordton near an abandoned mansion. In Statesville, a slice of pizza served out of a food trailer was as good as any I’ve had anywhere, New York included. I counted fewer barbecue joints than I expected, though I expected a lot. Barbecue was another frequent topic of Bledsoe’s columns.
Of his Lexington stop, Bledsoe wrote: “In its first 300 miles, U.S. 64 is not exactly a gastronomic delight. Even the state’s native dish, barbecue, is meagerly represented.” Bledsoe can’t be faulted for this take. Tunnel vision for smoky pork products is a chronic condition many of us suffer.
Most of the counties along U.S. 64 immediately east of Wake have experienced population decline since the ’80s. Yet this part of the state is where I found the best food, much of it harvested locally. Should it have come as a surprise? After all, this is arguably the heart of North Carolina’s top industry, agriculture. But one thing remained the same: none of it was barbecue.
At the pilgrimage-worthy Zuuaa Mart in Williamston, an efficient assembly line piled my styrofoam container high. Food critics and celebrity chefs might glibly refer to a haul like this as traditional working-class fare: syrupy yams, vinegary greens, neck bones, tails, feet. There are no sides here; every offering is its own pièce de résistance. Yet this humble kitchen delivers food often appropriated by fancier operations, for far higher prices, in the big cities.
Good food is meant to be shared—the same goes for good travel—but I hesitate mentioning this spot out of the fear Oscar Wilde described in The Ballad of Reading Gaol: “Yet each man kills the thing he loves, / By each let this be heard, / Some do it with a bitter look, / Some with a flattering word.”
The best part of the experience, as it should be with any food experience, was the people. Despite the mass exodus of this region’s residents, this takeout-only restaurant had been packed with a diversity of locals and truck drivers eager to educate me on the local delicacies. An eagerness to share good things was a common occurrence at this point, and it didn’t stop here.
One recurring sentiment in the Whalebone book is that people didn’t talk about politics enough. This isn’t an occurrence most of us are familiar with these days. But on my tour, politics didn’t come up one time. There were less Gadsden flags and “Let’s Go Brandon” signs in front lawns than I expected, too.
In one serendipitous moment, I stopped a man coming out of a brewery who seemed like he may be the owner. He wasn’t, but the conversation continued until I realized Bledsoe had written about this man’s father in his first published book, The World’s Number One, Flat-Out, All-Time Great, Stock Car Racing Book. Then there was the new bar owner in Morganton whose eyes gleamed when he bragged about his country-rapping niece.
I made an exception to the one-parking-lot rule at Keaton’s in Cleveland, where they still crank out North Carolina’s best-kept secret: fried chicken hand-dipped in a spicy proprietary barbecue sauce. How Nashville’s hot chicken earned national renown is now a subject of great consternation for me.
Dollars now dot this backcountry byway: Dollar Generals, Family Dollars, and Dollar Trees. Between those you’ve got plenty of gas stations, Christian churches, antiques malls, auto shops, industrial sites, solar farms, grazing livestock, kidney health centers, houses big and small, tobacco shops pivoting to sell vapes, kratom, and lab-made THC compounds inserted into sugar and gelatin or sprayed onto smokable hemp.
I noted the sheer amount of restaurants serving Asian food and Latin food, which were there before, but perhaps less discussed as essential to the success of the state’s economy. There are just too many for the case to be otherwise.
My stop in Asheboro on the third day seemed like the place I might actually find some leads on Bledsoe himself. He would be 82 now, and he’d lived in the middle of the state for most of his life. He’d described his life there with his wife and son in his many columns.
I’d found the most recent evidence of Bledsoe’s whereabouts in a newspaper article. It was a piece about his last book, a memoir about his early life and burgeoning newspaper career, published in 2017. The article included information about where the book could be purchased, at Collector’s Antique Mall. It was there, standing outside under red clay smokestacks, when I received a phone call.
“This is Jerry Bledsoe,” Jerry Bledsoe said.
Bledsoe had become my white whale, and here he was on the other end of the line. I played up my foothills accent, usually reserved for hyperbolic conversations about Panthers football and pier fishing with my father. I explained my trip and how I wanted to know if he ever developed a good sense of the character of this state, and if it was still the same.
“I don’t know how much help I’d be. I don’t even remember taking that trip. Where did I go?”
The thing about Bledsoe is that sometimes you can’t tell if he’s joking or not. His columns were often hilarious, usually at the expense of himself. It’s the sense of humor one cultivates living in the relative equanimity between North Carolina’s mountains and sea.
I still wanted to meet, so we agreed on a time and place and politely ended our call. It didn’t matter that my trip would be delayed by a full day.
Then my phone lit up—Bledsoe again. He had realized he didn’t know who the hell I was. A feline chorus accompanied him. The reporter in him had returned and he had questions.
“Just wondering *MEOW* if I should greet you *MEOW* with my AR-15 *MEOW*?”
I told him all I’d be armed with is a pen and pad.
I asked him if I should bring cat treats.
“I’ve spent half my life savings on cat treats,” Bledsoe said. “I have plenty. See you tomorrow.”
He was unarmed when I arrived. A green knit sweater, thick and fuzzy in that vintage way, weighed down his lanky torso. Save for the color, his downy white bowl cut matched every picture I’d seen printed of him since before Neil Armstrong took a step on the moon.
We shook hands and Bledsoe led me into his office. I had read in more than one column about Bledsoe’s favorite beverage. I retrieved a glass bottle of Cheerwine from my computer bag and handed it to him. He smiled at the gesture.
I had a lot of questions. I wasted no time and launched into the most important one. There had been much debate in many letters to the editor concerned with Bledsoe’s opinion on this topic. The people of North Carolina needed, once and for all, clarity. So I asked Bledsoe, point blank, what was up with all those cat columns?
“Are you kiddin’? You see these cats out here? You see this one over here? She’s the sweetest. Where are you, Amber? There’s my baby, my sweetie pie, my Amber Bamber,” Bledsoe said.
Amber tiptoed between overflowing bookcases, file cabinets, and stacked plastic totes labeled “memoirs.” Framed art covered the walls. Even more frames crowded the floor, stacked in rows like in a museum vault. Where the art wasn’t, pottery was.
“Biggest collection of Seagrove pottery in the world,” Bledsoe said of the popular style of ceramics hailing from the town a few miles south of Asheboro. There was a ton of the stuff, so I had no reason to question such a claim. At 82, Bledsoe is still a funny guy. He wants to laugh and he wants to make you laugh.
As he showed me more pottery and endless art in his home, we came upon something unexpected: a statue of Goofy, the Disney character. Bledsoe said he was one of the world’s foremost collectors of Goofy memorabilia. He didn’t laugh when he said that.
In his office Bledsoe got up and walked me along a careful path over to a bookcase. I read names along out-of-print spines behind glass. They were pristine editions by writers like Charles Kuralt and Kays Gary, names also found in the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame. (For reasons I do not know, Bledsoe isn’t on that list.)
“Oh yeah, old Kays was a great friend of mine.”
I pointed to a work by Jim McAllister, a contemporary of Bledsoe, whose columns had been similarly collected in multiple books with jovial titles like Rambling Around in the Carolinas.
Bledsoe recalled spreading the late writer’s ashes off a pier near Myrtle Beach.
“I turnt up the can and the ashes started floating out. And as they floated out, a whole bunch of birds were up there on the water, sitting out there on the water, oh about 80 or 100 of ’em,” he recalled. “It swirled. Slowly, slowly, slowly. And they stayed with it, till it all went down.”
“But they’re all gone now,” Bledsoe said, putting his hands in his pockets. His blue eyes swept over the hundreds of books behind the glass.
We turned to talk about his newspaper days.
“You really had tremendous people working at ’em, you know. Just the most wonderful people, the smartest people. That was what made my life, you know, being able to get to know these people and get into that business, and come out from it and create my home.”
I asked him if there was ever a moment when he found his voice as a columnist.
“I don’t think that’s happened yet,” Bledsoe said. “But I’ve still got a chance to get on to 83 or 84.”
Of his columns, Bledsoe said, “I thought they’d be entertaining for 10 minutes and move on. And that’s it. Now, people do remember them. I’ve had people tell me about something they read 30 years ago. That’s really great, just to know somebody remembered something that you wrote. Just a magnificent thing.”
I asked if he ever truly had any sense of a collective identity of North Carolinians—the kind of question his trip across the state seemed designed to answer. Bledsoe said that’s how he made a living, but there was more to the time he spent on that long road.
“You can get on the highway, drive it all the way, stop all along the way, talk to different people. And when you get to the end, you say this one was like that and that one was like this. And they were interesting and nice and kind. So that was a nice trip,” he said. “It’s just something you can go to bed at night and think about. It’s just a pleasantness of knowing other people and caring about them and having them care about you.”
He insisted on giving me a tour of his land and home. Many of his columns had described building his life on this property. After all of his travels telling other people’s stories, this is where he feels most connected to North Carolina.
He led me to a series of brown sheds where more art and pottery had been shuttered from sunlight. Above the doors of one, an old wooden sign reads “Down Home Press,” Bledsoe’s old publishing imprint. The real art, for me, is here: built-in bookcases that contain hundreds, if not thousands, of books. Some he authored, many he published. These out-of-print titles are all in mint condition. Just sitting there. It was the same in the other sheds.
“These are the books we couldn’t sell; they didn’t ever move,” he explained. “In the end, we’re going to have a problem with what to do with them. Dig a hole and pour ’em in it. You would set this whole Uwharrie mountain range on fire over here!”
There was one thing Bledsoe told me I didn’t believe. He said he was through as a writer.
“I don’t know of anything new to say. That’s the whole problem.”
Bledsoe had been a workaday journalist. He wrote thousands of columns and reported just as many stories. If he could accuse anyone of saying all there was to say, that person would be himself.
I didn’t bring up how his most recent book, the 2017 memoir Do-Good Boy, ended like this: “I would write six books before Bitter Blood hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list and turned me into a crime writer for a decade. But that’s a story for another time.”
Our visit came to an end, and it was time to resume my own journey east. There were more people to meet, stories to tell. I reminded him to drink that Cheerwine I’d given him.
“I won’t forget about that!”
Bledsoe smiled and laughed, then put his hands back in his pockets. We exchanged goodbyes, then he turned, ambled off.
There’s this Kurt Vonnegut quote: “And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.” I often ask myself the same thing about North Carolina. I wonder if being from here means I can claim it more than others.
Centuries ago, those English explorers had come here on a mission. Bledsoe was an explorer, too, but he didn’t seek to claim North Carolina for himself on behalf of some institution. He traveled from Whalebone to Hot House to tell the story of the people who were there already.
As it turns out, Bledsoe’s 1984 trip wasn’t the first he’d taken across North Carolina for his columns. He’d completed a trip in six days, back in ’67, for the Daily News. That series began with a caveat: “Six days is not enough time. There are too many things to do, too much to see, too many people to talk to.”
No, five or six days isn’t enough time. Neither is five months, or even a lifetime. I think four centuries couldn’t even do it justice. North Carolina is just too big. I could barely fit half a trip across one of its roads in this piece.
Earlier that morning, I’d stopped at a Biscuitville, hoping to settle my nerves before meeting Bledsoe.
A woman named Ruth took my order. I tend to like people who hand me food, but I especially liked Ruth. Unprompted, she pointed to the framed sanitation rating on the wall behind her.
“Only 100 in Asheboro,” she said with a smile. She’s right, it was the only current 100 score rating in the city at the time, according to the Randolph County Environmental Health Department website.
“My grandson works down at the Chick-fil-A and they can’t even say that.”
We talked about biscuits and jelly for a minute before I thanked her and headed out.
“My manager says I talk too much. He says, ‘Ruth, how can you get any work done talkin’ all the time?’ I says to him, ‘How can you get to know people without talkin’ to ’em?”
I got back in my car and drove east.
Matthew Vincent is a freelance writer based in Franklin, N.C. When he isn’t traveling down some lonesome road, you can find him mixing sourdough at Bent Willow Bakery.