The Great Southern Escapade, Day 1: Rainy roads to Charlotte

Day 1 of our Great Southern Escapade took us from home in Brooklyn to my aunt and uncle’s place in Charlotte, in which we would spend the first two nights. We didn’t have too much planned for Charlotte. Our goal for the beginning of our trip was to make sure we could power through the long hauls. Brooklyn to Charlotte and Charlotte to Clarksdale both clocked in on Google Maps at just over ten hours. We knew we would have to make frequent stops for gas, food, switching drivers, and stretching our legs. Part of our first drive was seeing how much each stop would set us back. We ended up finding ourselves somewhat surprised.

We set out on our grand trip southbound at 5:00 on a chilly Sunday morning, day-old bialys in hand and the Elantra stuffed to the brim with all of the trappings of a two-week journey. The radar over the previous evening had made no mention of rain. In fact, it guaranteed at worst overcast but calm skies, and perhaps a glimpse of the sun as we crossed into Maryland.

But once we got the navigation and music working, and as we made our way down the BQE and across the Verrazano, little sprinkles of early morning mist turned into fat droplets that splattered against our windshield and smeared our vision of the roads of Staten Island and New Jersey. Becca can handle any situation behind the wheel – her driving skills far surpass mine – but neither of us expected the weather that greeted us at the outset of our trip. A couple of gnarly crashes also impeded our progress as emergency crews sorted out the damage to other travelers who fell victim to the slippery roads. At the time, it seemed like a bad omen.

But we crossed into Delaware at around 7:00 as the sun rose, and the grey light gave us some respite as we pulled into the Welcome Center to gas up and switch drivers. Behind the wheel, I drove the short distances through Delaware into Maryland as the rain picked up again. When we crossed into the two-lane section of I-95 in Virginia, the windshield wipers were swishing at full speed and I was gripping the wheel with all my might to keep safe distances from the trucks surrounding us on all sides.

At 10:30 we took a rest at our first Waffle House of the trip in Glen Allen, Virginia, a joint just north of Richmond. (You can read more about our visit to this Waffle House here.) Of the four Waffle Houses we visited, this first experience – our first ever – was the finest. While I’m ashamed to forget our server’s name, she showed us wonderful hospitality and kindness even though the crew was understaffed and the pre-church crowd was mobbing the place. For twenty-five dollars – the cost of a disappointing and overhyped basic breakfast for one in Brooklyn – Becca and I each got a waffle, smothered hash browns, and bacon, as well as coffee that seemed to refill itself. Sometimes things can be good, cheap, and quick, and Waffle House manages to fit that bill.

With our bodies and car refueled, we continued on the rainy road to Charlotte, switching from I-95 to I-85 near Petersburg, VA. The rain let up as we crossed into North Carolina, with sunny skies greeting us as we passed through Durham and Chapel Hill. We switched drivers and gassed up again in Archdale, a town just outside of Greensboro and about an hour and a half outside of Charlotte. At about 4:15 in the afternoon – just over eleven hours after leaving Brooklyn – we pulled into my aunt and uncle’s driveway not even a smidge tired.

We didn’t do much during our first night in Charlotte. We got Italian takeout from a restaurant called Trio in the McAlpine neighborhood, schmoozed for a good while, and hit the sack at around 9:00. But we did learn a good amount about the city of Charlotte in general. Different areas of the city have grown over the past decade, in spite of the pandemic. The South End, North Davidson (NoDa), South Park, and areas north of NoDa have become havens of arts and culture where millennials and zoomers work, play, and live, if they can afford the rents (which compared to New York prices still made Becca and I jealous enough to spit.) We would explore these neighborhoods more on Day 2 for sure.

But during Day 1, we learned a few things that would shape the rest of our journey:

  • Regular gassing up was key. Our Elantra gets fantastic gas mileage, about 30 mpg. in the city and 40 mpg. on the highway. With a 14-gallon tank and the way we drive, we can go about 250 miles without our fuel dipping below the halfway point. But to stave off driver fatigue and pushing our car along for too many miles at a time, we decided that stopping every three hours or so would allow us and our Elantra a chance to breathe.
  • It’s okay not to have a plan. We didn’t have anything lined up for Charlotte, but my aunt, uncle, and cousin gave us some excellent tips for places to check out around the city on Day 2. So we decided that for the rest of our trip, aside from the few things that we had set in stone, we would go with the flow and see what interesting things popped up in every city we visited.
  • Trucks don’t need to stay in the right lane. Becca and I have always figured that trucks had to stay in the right lane on the highway in order to keep the traffic flow regular and allow smaller cars and trucks to pass. This law doesn’t seem to exist in other states, and if it does, no one enforces it. Both of us hate driving next to trucks, behind trucks, in front of trucks, anywhere near trucks. So while every time we passed a truck felt like a little victory, seeing trucks in both the left and right lanes filled us both with such a sense of dread no matter who it was behind the wheel.
  • Waffle House would become our North Star. When in doubt, the lit-up yellow sign would guide our way to our destination, or at least to full stomachs at a reasonable price.

On Day 2, we would make moves around Charlotte, discover the city’s blossoming thrift store culture, and uncover what was turning Charlotte into the Brooklyn of the South. Hope you’ll follow along.

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