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The time I walked 15 miles for a bologna sandwich
In praise of the lively over the quaint, the generosity of small gestures, footholds of community, and a beautiful day in Stokes County.
In everything there are trade-offs. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is about 700 miles of natural surface or greenway—actual trail, in other words—and 500 miles of roads. Trails are safer than roads, they’re apt to be shadier and cooler in warm weather, they show off natural areas. They can also be monotonous, and except for scenic destinations on weekends, they can get lonely. I like trees and streams as much as anybody, but sometimes it’s nice to get a cup of coffee or a sandwich and have a conversation with somebody.
On the Friday before Labor day I drove out to Hanging Rock State Park in the Sauratown Mountains north of Winston-Salem. Instead of climbing to the summit as I’d done before, I headed east and out of the park. I thought I’d try some back-road hiking, and to make it interesting I made for a landmark: Priddy’s General Store, supposedly the oldest continually operating general store in North Carolina, where, I had read, one could buy a bologna sandwich. According to the trail guide Priddy’s is 7.3 miles from the visitor center at the state park, so with a couple of short detours for sightseeing, call it 15 miles round trip. If you are thinking that this had better be a heck of a sandwich, you are correct.
Of course any walking trip is as much about the journey as the destination—I mean, I could have saved six hours by just driving to the dang store. And I had been thinking so much about walking on roadsides that I underestimated how long it would take to get out of the state park. The first mile and three-quarters are through the woods, back and forth over a stream, and down a series of not-insignificant hills. I am afraid that I also underestimated the hills. Having been here not three months ago and climbed to the summit, I should have remembered that to get to the visitor center from the road you drive a long way uphill. To get back to the road on foot you must therefore go a long way downhill... eight hundred feet, in fact, over that mile and three-quarters of trail, some of it in the form of stone steps and scrambling over boulders. Not that it is unpleasant to walk downhill through green woods on a clear, crisp morning with a nip of fall in the air and waterfalls for company. Not at all! What is unpleasant is what you, dear reader, probably see coming; what I decided, out of self-preservation, to put out of my mind. It was a beautiful morning. Why worry?
The road is first the access road to the park and then a two-lane state highway, which is a highway by virtue of having an assigned number and not by any great volume of traffic—though any traffic on a winding two-lane road with grassy ditches for shoulders will worry a pedestrian. There is a walk-up store selling homemade ice cream, a small hospital, a few houses. A woman walking with a plastic grocery bag in each hand; passing her I say good morning and she says it ought to be a beautiful weekend. A smattering of “for sale” at the end of a driveway, a little dog barking up by the house, a woman in a lawn chair laughing at it and waving to me. A split-level, a couple of trailers. Woods, and open fields, and tall grass by the roadside.
A small sign announces that I am entering the Danbury Zoning and Planning District. Danbury, population 142, is the seat of Stokes County, but most of it is what planners call open space, and I have to walk another mile before I reach the actual town, which is only a few dozen buildings along the state highway and a few short side streets. What I called the “actual town” is actually a historic district, with lots of architecture but little activity. Once it was a commercial and social center, with two hotels to accommodate guests on government business and visitors to the nearby mineral springs. In 1888 the McCanless Hotel, with a two-tier wrap-around veranda and “a well ventilated parlor furnished with piano,” attracted some of the Piedmont's most prominent families; the building still stands but no longer accommodates guests. The 1904 Beaux-Arts/Classical Revival courthouse is now the board of education building; its replacement stands half a mile west, as do a modern pharmacy and restaurant. There is a museum, of course, and a historical society. The turn of the twentieth century seems to have been the high tide of local exuberance; even the new jail was a gem, as the application for the Historic Register states:
The jail in Danbury... combines features of both the Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne styles. Also of brick, this two-story building is block-shaped with a corbeled cornice. Of particular note is the corner tower with pyramidal roof which at one time allegedly held scaffolding for the execution of criminals.
In 1904 in Stokes County you could be hanged for your crimes, but you could at least be hanged from a Romanesque Revival gibbet. In everything there are trade-offs.
One building in the historic district invites business, with a jauntily ahistorical light-up sign in the window: a café and gallery, where I took a few minutes to buy a cup of coffee and peruse the local crafts. Part of the space is set up for dinners and to show films, and signs advertised live music. I hope the shows are well attended by locals, and that the sign advertising ice cream snags tourists to Hanging Rock and the Dan River. It feels like a foothold of community, and heading out I silently wished them well.
Past Historic Danbury I came to the Danbury General Store, which sounds historic but is a fairly ordinary convenience store with an attached grill advertising Italian Meatball Subs, a clerk with a South Asian accent, and a pavilion that used to have gas pumps. A few people who appeared to be locals ate lunch at a picnic table. Replace the gas pumps, change the accents at the table, and you could be in New Jersey. But I felt better stopping here for water than I had getting coffee in town. It may not be charming, but it’s clearly a going concern.
I crossed a bridge over the Dan River, where a German Shepherd dog the size of a small bear shook the water off his fur before retrieving a stick; passed through little Moratock Park and saw the remains of a Civil War-era iron furnace, and headed out on another rural road. By now I had walked five and a half miles. Priddy’s General Store was two miles on. I thought briefly of turning back. I might have gotten lunch from the grill back at the intersection. Something I had forgotten nagged at me. But I had come this far, and my legs felt fine. I kept walking.
Walking many miles alone you have lots of time to ponder the great questions of life. Here is one: What is a general store? Or, more important, what is a general store for? The term came into use in the latter 1800s to distinguish what had formerly just been called “stores” from the specialized retail operations that industry and railroads were bringing to small towns: coal merchants, hardware stores, dealers of agricultural implements, fish merchants, cigar stores. Another term was “country stores,” defined in a Pennsylvania city directory of 1859 as those “who keep a general assortment of Dry Goods, Groceries, Crockery, Hardware, &c., &c.” That term already smacks of urbane nostalgia; by 1859 all stores in cities were specialty stores. A country store had been the first to open at the crossroads that became the town; a general store remained the retailer of first resort for the neighborhood. It was thus a place to see your neighbors—not only those neighbors you’d seek out willingly but those you might just as soon avoid. A place to make conversation, to trade news and gossip—in short, a hub of a community.
What serves that purpose now? Super Wal-Mart is a retailer of first resort, but hardly the hub of a community. Convenience stores at rural crossroads are the withered heirs of general stores, but they don’t sell much, and I rarely see people exchanging news. I've seen Latino and Asian groceries that seem to do both. Bodegas in cities, I imagine.
The Danbury General Store, practical, multicultural, and modern, is doing its best. On a previous trip I stopped at the Hanging Rock General Store on the other side of the state park: a recent structure of wood and stone made, I think, to look much older; it sells some groceries, along with camping supplies and local honey and crafts. It largely serves the needs of tourists, which is fine. It’s a perfectly nice place to get a drink or some ice cream on the way home from the park, or to stock up if you’re camping. I like it. But I'm not sure it’s a general store. The one tries to serve the purpose; the other tries to look the part.
And then there is Priddy’s.
Hunt for information about Priddy’s General Store on the Internet and you'll read about “rustic traditions” and “old-time charm.” You'll learn that “Priddy’s is where you can forget the rush. Where time stands still.” I like old things as much as anybody, but this kind of breathless blather makes me fear that I will find a place that has become a museum of itself. A store that sells horehound drops instead of candy bars, decorative trivets instead of cookware, mason jars with drinking lids instead of the kind in boxes for canning pickles. A store that sells nothing you actually need but only things to remind you that you'd been there; that exists not even to preserve memories of what it once was but to evoke what people nowadays would like to imagine it once was.
Making museums of old buildings may be better than letting them be bulldozed. But they’re still dead. You know how you can tell? Because time stands still. Time never stands still when you’re alive. It only stands still when you’re dead. Maybe that’s Nirvana, but it ain’t living.
I am pleased to report that time does not stand still at Priddy’s.
The building dates to 1888; when the Priddy family bought it in 1929 it became N. D. Priddy's Grocery, and the third generation of that family now runs it. It is an aging wooden structure with a mismatched addition, a front porch with a metal roof, a couple of rocking chairs and a picnic table, and signs advertising wares—antique, newly printed, and hand-chalked. Inside you can buy potting soil, chainsaw files, canning jars, odds and ends of hardware, and hiking boots. You can buy a sandwich, a fried apple pie, and a soda in a glass bottle, which is old-timey if it's RC Cola but not if it’s Jarritos: your choice. You can also buy a souvenir t-shirt, but where can’t you buy a souvenir t-shirt these days? Notices on a bulletin board advertise local events, and sometimes in the evenings there is live bluegrass music, which was born in this part of North Carolina and never entirely went away. There is a little bit of clutter. The place looks lived in. It has neither the antiseptic organization of a supermarket nor the contrived display of a boutique; some of the merchandise appears to be in the same place its predecessors occupied half a century ago, and the rest is set where it fits. If Priddy’s feels old-fashioned it is because the old way still seems to be working, and so no one has felt called to change it. It feels comfortable in its own skin.
Oh, and the sandwiches. You can have bologna or ham, hoop cheese or American, on white bread or honey wheat, with mayo, mustard, tomato and/or onion. That’s it. I went with bologna and hoop cheese, mustard, tomato, white bread because honey wheat just felt wrong. Jane, who manages the store, made the sandwich herself at a back counter by the fridge, peeling and slicing what was too deeply red and off-round to be anything but a garden tomato, reminding me that it needed a little salt and pepper. The bread came a bag: “home style,” Jane said, as opposed to restaurant bread that made a sandwich all about the bread instead of what you put in the middle. It is a sandwich I might have eaten as a kid—a little better, actually, with a slice more bologna than my mother would have allowed (I am paying for it, after all) and the good yellow hoop cheese we didn't have in Pennsylvania. Nor would my mother have peeled a tomato, though it's something her mother might have done, had she gotten it into her head it was better that way. My grandmother was like that. I always appreciate attention to detail. It felt generous.
Jane saw my backpack and knew me at once for a Mountains-to-Sea Trail hiker. Had I come through all that rain earlier in the week? No, it was only a day hike, trying to figure out how to get started, but I meant to finish the whole trail. What had inspired me to hike it? I said something about hiking with my daughter, but I can see that I am going to need the hiker’s version of an elevator speech. Did I have a trail name? Not yet. I was a curiosity, and I was trying not to disappoint.
I got a Sun Drop from the cooler and found myself at a little table with a couple who had driven up for the day from somewhere south of Thomasville, who also were eating bologna sandwiches. We made the sort of small talk strangers make in these situations, and talked inevitably about how much nicer it was to have lunch here than in, say, a Bojangles by the highway. We felt out each other’s opinions, the way polite strangers must, they bemoaning the state of service in the service industry, I imagining that it’s hard to care when you’re stuck between a corporation and a drive-thru. Still, they said. I allowed (though not in these words, which I thought of later) that it's bad for the soul not to care. We were very different people and we ate lunch together, and it was pleasant.
Meanwhile Jane talked with a customer in the low, casual tones that mark an existing relationship: a regular, a neighbor, a friend. There are ongoing conversations here to which a passer-through is not privy, and that too is a good thing. There is the makeshift community of passing strangers, and there is the deep sustained community of neighbors, and here were both at once. It may be you need the latter to invite the former, for how can you make yourself at home without it being someone's home in the first place?
After I paid for lunch Jane asked to take my picture: she always likes to take pictures of the MST hikers.
It was the first time I had seen anybody's phone since I'd come into the store.
All I had to do now was walk back to Hanging Rock. I refreshed my water, cinched up my backpack, and headed west. I was rested, and the afternoon was as lovely as I could ask of early September. The rolling hills of the Piedmont make for easy, varied walking. But seven miles you have already seen, at a time of day that suggests either a siesta or a fresh cup of coffee, is a long walk. When I used to run I worried about overuse injuries, and instinctively I kept checking the danger spots, but they were fine. I just wore down, mentally as much as physically. Walking on roadsides you can’t zone out as you might on a trail; you have to watch for speeding cars. By the time I reached the state park access road I had to remind myself to keep up the pace.
At last I made it back into the park. The woods were cool and lovely, the stream inviting.
And then I remembered. After six hours and almost fourteen miles, I still had eight hundred feet of elevation to make up. The trail rises slowly at first, and then more steeply, until, about a half-mile from the parking lot, I saw this.
And then, past those, another set of stone steps, just as long.
And past those, still another, twice as long.
Those steps had seemed charming first thing in the morning, coming down. Now they were the rocky slope of Mount Doom. I might have stopped here, made my way down to the pool at the bottom of the waterfall, taken off my boots, cooled my feet and rested. But I just wanted to be done. So I kept climbing, passing knots of fresh, cheerful hikers who had taken off work early and come out to see the waterfalls. One little boy, despite my attempt at a reassuring smile, clung warily to his mother; seeing myself a little while later in the restroom mirror I couldn’t say I blamed him.
By that point, it didn’t matter. I was done. I washed my face, changed my sweat-drenched t-shirt for a clean one, filled up my water bottles, and headed for home.
It was a heck of a sandwich, anyway.
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The details and quotations about the Danbury Historic District are from the nomination form to the National Register of Historic Places, dated May 21, 1985, available from the National Archives. Additional information about the McCanless Hotel comes from The Danbury Register, March 5, 1942, p.1, available via Digital NC; a writer for the town's weekly newspaper recalled a day in the 1880s when the Reynolds family came to town.
The definition of a country store is from Boyd's Lancaster County Business Directory, 1859–60 (Lancaster, Pa., 1859), p. 210. I downloaded my copy from Google Books and would love to link to it, but it seems to be gone. (Old business directories are endlessly fascinating: not only can you get a general sense of what was happening in a city at a given time, but you can reconstruct the life of specific streets.) Google Ngrams lets you can trace the rise and fall of the terms “general store” and “country store”.
On Priddy General Store the best brief history and description is from Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina; hence also the quotation about time standing still. I don't really begrudge anyone that marketing; it's what people want to hear. But I'll say it again: I'm awfully glad it isn't true.