I love this town. I love towns where one can park the car just once and walk to all the noteworthy sites. Raleigh is laid out in an easy grid format.with public "greens" arranged in a row of four, 4-acre squares, modeled after William Penn's city of Philadelphia, and similar to General Oglethorpe's plan for Savannah. The center square, Union Square, is crowned by the stately Capitol building. From here you can walk north to the State History Museum, Natural Science Museum, and to the Visitor Center, housed in a fabulous grand mansion across the street from the opulent 1895 Governor's mansion. At the Visitor Center you can either walk south to tour the Capitol City Trail or go north to the Oakwood Historic Walking Tour, each one showcases some wonderful Victorian houses and provides a guidebook describing the the homes and their original occupants. It's a great way to see how Raleigh evolved. Farther north takes you to Mordecai Historic Park, an antebellum plantation with a mansion, post office, chapel, and the relocated home of President Andrew Johnson. The whole town is like walking through a storybook. There is a strong sense of a commitment to the past here, an honoring of architectural treasures, and a willingness to share, for Raleigh people are very open, very warm, very friendly.
We opt for country roads today as we drive to North Carolina's eastern shore to visit the state's mysterious, history-filled Outer Banks, the "Graveyard of the Atlantic," the strand of barrier islands where Pirates once ran rampant and the Wright Brothers proved to be right. The drive is peaceful, quiet, tranquil. Along the way I see some scraggy fields of lowlying twigs that seem to be littered with trash. I squint through the sunstreaked passenger's window to get a better look. "Hey, Ken," I ask, pointing to the field, "Is that trash out there, or is it cotton?" I've never seen cotton in its natural state and hope upon hope that this is, in fact, a cotton field. Ken assures me it is. I want to stop the truck. I want to get out and walk through these neat rows of twigs with cotton snagged on their thorny branches. The cotton looks like the long, ropelike stuff that manufacturers cram into aspirin bottles, and comes out of the bottle all misshapen, long and snaky. That's what the cotton here looks like, like cotton pulled from an aspirin bottleneck. It hangs from the twigs tremulously, drooping haphazardly, calling me to come touch, come feel, come see what untamed cotton feels like. But this cotton field is on private property and I don't want to be hauled into jail under suspicion of being a cotton-picking thief, so I suppress my curiosity and remain inside the truck. But, boy, I sure do want to walk in those fields and feel the naked cotton in its natural state.
This place is magical! Just magical. Water on all sides. Wind whipping from all directions. Wind, surf, sand dunes and colorful gliders in the air. This is living. But as we drive down the main strip, (actually, THE strip, for these little barrier islands are really nothing more than strips of land), I see all kinds of commerce, such as shops, restaurants, and banks. I keep hoping to see a sign "Outer Banks Bank." But not one. Not one bank cared to make a play on words. They wisely resisted the call of the inane.
The Wright stuff
Back when we were in Dayton, Ohio, the Birthplace of Orville and Wilbur Wright, I had purchased a book about the brothers entitled, Twelve Seconds to the Moon. It's a great book because it shows their struggle, not just to invent something so bold as to defy gravity, but to fly in the face conventional wisdom as well. Rarely do we hear of the Wright brothers' plight to rise above the scientific elitism of the day. Not only did they fly the first airplane, but they twisted the noses of snobby naysayers. You see, the Wright brothers were two unschooled bicycle shop owners who loved aviation and thought they could build a plane. But they did not belong to the accepted scientific community. They were not associated with the heavily funded Smithsonian. They were not wealthy industrialists. They did not go to the "right" colleges -- in fact, they didn't go to college at all. But, this is America, isn't it? Land of Opportunity, Right? America is the egalitarian country that shuns social castes. On paper, yes. But in reality, America does have unacknowledged social barriers against people who do not attend the right schools nor belong to the accepted intellectual organizations. Back at the turn of the century while the Wright brothers were experimenting with man's flight, Uncle Sam was funding the "accepted" scientists. But his avuncular purse was backing the wrong horse. The "accepted" scientists, with their "accepted" practices and formulas, failed with persistent regularity. Meanwhile, the Wright brothers quietly worked alone in their bike shop. They worked from 8 in the morning till 8 at night and only after the shop was closed could they afford to work on their airplane project in the cramped back room of their bike shop. They funded all the research and experiments themselves from the money they earned peddling bicycles. So, working part-time, with a fraction of the funding, they beat out the accepted scientists of the day. Orville and Wilbur were the first to successfully fly a "heavier than air" motorized airplane. And yet it took them five long years -- after their now-famous 1903 maiden flight -- to convince Uncle Sam of the significance of their accomplishments. The whole story is told beautifully at the National Park Service museum. The park rangers do a great job depicting the engineering obstacles -- as well as the societal obstacles --- that Orville and Wilbur had to overcome. Documents, diaries and dioramas -- as well as life-sized recreated airplanes of the Wright brothers' 1902 and 1903 models are displayed. There's even a replica of the workshop that Orville and Wilbur built themselves. Here, they worked alone on this isolated land testing their idea, and their determination. It's a great story, a wonderful flight of fancy. (Unfortunately, the Wright Brothers monument itself leaves much to be desired. Just a big wall of grey concrete. Its symbolism is unclear to me. Both Ken and I thought the Wright Brothers deserved something more artful. At least something with wings, for God's sake.)