I was always hoping to spend more than six months in the US. Unfortunately, that is the maximum time "Uncle Sam" allows you to stay on a tourist visa. There is an escape clause though - you can apply for a departure date extension. After talking it over with my girlfriend, we decided to apply for an extension till mid July. The wheels of the INS are notoriously slow, I received a letter notifying me that my application had been received over a month after I applied and the notice said processing time could be as much as 3-4 months .. which was "cute" considering by that time, even with the extension, I'd only planned staying another 2 months. It was approved, about 1.5 months before I was due to leave.
One of the most common questions that I was asked was "was I going to get a job while I was there?" Unlike most other countries (such as Australia), the US does not allow the holder of a tourist visa to work (ie: in paid employment). In order to get a job one needs either a social security number or a "green card", neither of which I have. Anyone caught working on a tourist visa is deported and will have a lot of trouble getting back in. So, no, I didn't have a job and, no, I wasn't even looking for one. Even if I was offered one, I'd have to return to Australia and re-apply for a work-visa, which could take months.
Davidson College is a Presbyterian college, so naturally there are plenty of "noted christian" guest speakers. In february Tony Campolo gave a talk. He was a very talented and dynamic speaker, passionate about his subject. Only problem was, I disagreed with virtually everything he had to say. Given his background in USA-style evangelical fundamentalism I guess that's not all that surprising - I have a low tolerance for fundamentalism. It requires a too-rigid mindset for my tastes. I question, I doubt. I can't accept and believe things simply because someone tells me "this is the TRUTH". Some of the things he seemed to suggest to me was how good democracy was, how it was the best human "system" so far developed. I'm not about to debate the pros and con's of different political systems, but given all it's faults, surely there has to be something better? Democracy is even further from the ideal in the US than it is in Australia. Or maybe it's just a lot less humane there. He also said you needed to "earn your way to heaven" with good deeds and to be a *real christian* you needed to have some great emotional experience or turning point, a "conversion experience". I don't think there's anything wrong with either doing good or conversion experiences, but they just ain't required.
Still on the topic of religion (sorry), we went to an ecumenical Ash Wednesday service, it was a joint Presbyterian- Catholic service. At least supposed to be. As far as I could tell it was more Catholic than anything else. Even used a Catholic service. Interesting tho'. During the service people actually had a cross signed on their foreheads with ash. Still on the topic, went to a lecture series at church on "Heretics and Great Theologians". Amazing how little difference there is between the two.
Groundhog Day is a local tradition in the US that occurs in late february. Yes, *that* movie was about the holiday. Has something to do with whether the picked groundhog leaves a shadow or not indicating whether winter was near its end or not. The groundhog looks kinda like an undersized wombat. These days the event has been "cloned" and groundhogs are brought out all over the country. It has a 30% success rate (or a 70% failure rate), so take from that what you will. The original groundhog predicted an early end to winter. North Carolina had the mildest winter in ages - and it finished early. But in the north-central part of the US they have had the worst winter on record, and one of the latest breaking ones. It's all relative I guess. :)
I mentioned earlier the "Artist Series" at the College, the first event being a group of musicians. In late february the next in the series performed. This time it was a dance troup. "Pilobolus". There were six acts and it was pretty amazing stuff. The whole thing went for about two hours and the dancing and choreography was just amazing. I think they got a 10 minute standing ovation at the end, deserved it. The day after that a *big* storm went through the Carolina's. There were several tornadoes, south and north of here. Fortunately the worst of the storm passed Davidson by.
March brought a lot of local sight-seeing. The first trip was to Catawba and Iredell Counties, which lie just to the north of Mecklenberg, which includes Davidson. Unlike Mecklenberg which is primarily a city/suburban county based on Charlotte, the biggest city in the Carolina's, Catawba and Iredell Counties are quite rural. In addition to a lot of beautiful country driving - much of it through mist or light rain - we saw many local historical sites.
Murray's Mill is a small hamlet in Catawba, just a dam, water-powered mill, a shop and a few houses. With all the rain the water was flowing over the top of the dam and around the sides. While we were there this guy came over. Turns out he is a Murray, and he used to work in the mill before it closed down. It's in a little valley and with the misty rain, the quiet, the narrow windy road, one lane bridge, it just screamed "olde country", one would not be surprised to find a yeoman coming down the road riding his horse, or a knight or perhaps a farmer with his waggon of produce pulled along by a bullock.
Further north was the "Bunker Hill" covered bridge. What's a covered bridge? They are wooden bridges that for some reason they decided to essentially build into a shed with two walls. If you've seen the movie "Bridges of Madison County", that's the bridge I'm referring to. It was restored a few years ago so it doesn't quite have that antique feel, but inside the graffiti dates back to the early part of the century and there's old-style construction methods - no nails, just wooden pins holding the it together. The road has long since vanished, but the bridge remains, a testimony to the skills of the builders. Standing on the bridge, watching the rain literally pour down outside and rush by underneath in the river, surrounded by the smells of damp wood and the country and isolated enough that there was not even a hint of the rest of modern civilisation. Like the mill, you could easily imagine you were back in the last century, having to jump aside for the farmer coming up the muddy trail (which is all it ever was) with his waggon, or maybe riding his horse, doing the rounds of his farm.
From there we rejoined civilisation and went to Statesville, a "historic town". Downtown statesville is a virtual catalogue of old buildings, from the Morrison Motel which exudes character to the Town Hall, made of red stone and with more than a hint of spanish influence. The whole town seemed to be a virtual museum of buildings. On the way back we ran into a local who started chatting about camera's, turned out he was an official photographer from the nearby "Nascar" racing car circuit. Leaving Statesville we came across this church that looked like it was a minature castle, taken brick by brick from Europe. One could easily imagine rows of archers hiding behind the crenelations on the roof and a knight in armour astride his battle horse coming crashing out of the front door and demanding to know the purpose of one's visit.
North of Statesville is the Fort Dobbs Historic site. Not much there now, but in 1754 a fort was built there to help defend the settlers from the indians. It was only ever attacked once before being abandoned in 1764. It was closed but there was a nice lady working there who let us into the little museum and gave us the history. The site also hosts frequent re-enactments, with folks getting dressed up in 1700's clothes and running aound having a great time.
If anyone plans on visiting North Carolina, they should take one word of advice - for some strange reason, virtually every tourist site seems to be closed on mondays; so plan your trip accordingly. Of course, there are some places that are only open on mondays, just to make matters confusing. :)
A few days latter we went on a trip east, into Cabarrus County. The first stop was just south of Mt Pleasant, a "historic Bost Grist Mill". What that means I'm not all that sure. What I know is that it was a water-powered mill for flour grinding. Built in 1810, it was washed off it's foundations and partially destroyed during the 1912 flood. It was then rebuilt and moved to it's present site situated in a rather rustic country environment.
Next stop was the Reed Gold Mine. The site of the first gold discovery in the US and sparked off the first gold rush. Mining started in 1803 and in the1820's that the first mine shaft was sunk. It wasn't until Reed Sr died that the Reed Mine started, he considered himself a farmer and wanted little to do with that "gold mining stuff", mind you, he wasn't above having his family and slaves panning for gold in the creek! First off we saw a short movie about the mine and it's history. The mine isn't as extensive as many others and has four levels going down to 35 metres, we went on a tour through several of the tunnels (for about an hour) and then walked around the various ruined and reconstructed gold processing plants before ending up in the museum. There's still gold there - you can go panning during the summer and when they were making the mine safe for the public, they came across a vein of gold - which they promptly concreted over! The biggest nugget ever found was a 28 lb monster. The best thing about the whole place is that the costs are paid for by commercial sponsors and the North Carolina government - which means there's no entry fee!
After that we went to Mt Pleasant for lunch and a tour of the historic buildings in that town - virtually every building there dates from the last century or earlier, the town has almost been frozen in time. Stopped at the Eastern Cabarrus Historic Museum, which, bucking the "state tradition" was only open on mondays! Originally built around 1852, the site was the home for various colleges up to 1933 when it was abandoned.
The next tour we went on was a change from the previous ones. Where before we had gone by car, this time we went on a coach tour. It was a one-day tour organised by the Mecklenberg Parks and Recreation Department. The trip was to Transylvania County, in the moutains of far west North Carolina. The attraction? The area is famous for its waterfalls. What can I say about the trip ... it was a continual series of disasters. The first sign of trouble was the numbers - these trips are normally organised for eight people or less, but over 50 had booked. The next sign was when the coach (bus) arrived. It was, lets just say, uninspiring. The trip to the mountains wasn't anything to write home about, farmland is the same anywhere I guess. Into the mountains and in the distance we got to see the first waterfall, probably several 100 feet. Just past Hendersonville there was a small hamlet with the sign "Home of the Hobbit", certainly looked like hobbit territory. Much of the area looked much as it did when the pioneer's first settled, very rustic and very quiet. Finally arriving at the Pisgah National Forest Ranger Station, in the middle of the famous Smokey Mountains Forest.
This is where things went wrong. As we were pulling into the ranger station the bus suddenly skewed into a ditch, suffering from a snapped steering column. The tour guide ferried everyone in his 8-seater minivan into nearby Brevard where we were due to have lunch - as you can imagine, this took quite a few trips. In between all this he then had to find a replacement bus for us, not an easy task in these backwoods. Lunch was at the "Sagebrush", a burger and steak restaurant chain, done out in a western theme decor. They've recently opened up in Australia, tho' under a different name (which I can't recall).
After lunch it was back to the ranger station to see the waterfalls. By this time things were well behind schedule and only a couple of falls were on the intinery. The first one we arrived at was the "Looking Glass Falls" and they were quite spectacular. Not a big fall, it had a 60-70 foot drop and was 30 feet wide. Walking to the base of the falls, one was surrounded on both sides by moss covered rocky walls, with a mist of cold, mountain fresh water blowing out from the falls. Looking the other direction you could see the creek rushing away, the water white as it passed over the shallow, rock covered creek bed, and glittering in the reflected sunlight.
Then onto the next falls. The "Sliding Rock Falls". Alas, the carpark there was closed and there was nowhere for the bus to stop, so we were reduced to driving slowly past. As we drove back down, the road followed the stream and it was quite beautiful, glittering in the light, small falls, rapids and white water rushing over and around rocks and boulders in the stream bed.
The other thing that March heralded was spring. Unlike in Australia, spring there is a very noticable change. It's a lot rainier and a *lot* greener. Throughout winter the only green is on the pine trees and the dull looking grass. Come spring and everything blooms into a riot of colours, as the formerly dead-looking trees and shrubs cover themselves, overnight, with a blanket of blossoms. White, red, pink, yellow, green - virtually every colour of the rainbow. And a few days latter they all started falling. It was as if it was snowing again, a multi-coloured snow. With the blossoms falling, revealed was the new season's growth of green. Rich greens everywhere. It's amazing how much change could happen over just a few days, from bleak, black skeletons of trees, to green, lush and leaf-covered.
With the warmer weather, we started going on walks around town, seeing the colourful gardens, the old-fashioned (and sometimes old) homes and the brightly coloured birds everywhere. Even found the local swimming pool, which looked like it'd been abandoned for years. In addition to going for walks, we have also gone on a few drives to the lake shore and walked around there. Lake Norman is quite beautiful and photogenic, especially if there's a little wind and the sun is just right. No swimming there, but there are lots of watersports - fishing, jet skiing, boating, canoeing and much more. One of the spots we went to was Jetton Park. Done out really neat, with walking trails, beaches, picnic/bbq areas and more. You can even hire bikes to ride around the park, or just lie down on the grassy banks and relax. In april we returned for a picnic/bbq.
Despite the US having such a seemingly great devotion to religion, it was a surprise to find that Easter there is not a public holiday. Still, the college had a mid-term break, so we made the most of it and did some more sightseeing. Having travelled north and east, the next direction was west, into Lincoln and Gaston Counties. It was a quite windy day. No, it wasn't windy, it was *WINDY*! Did make for a pretty neat view of Lake Norman with all the waves and "surf". First stop was the McGuire Nuclear Power Station. Had a look at the "Energy Explorium", sorta a PR thing for the power company that owns the station and Lake Norman (which is artificial). It's the largest fresh-water lake in NC and has more shoreline than the combined coastal shorelines of both North and South Carolina.
Driving south we came to Mt Holly, famous for St Joseph's, the oldest still standing roman catholic church in NC, built in 1843 for a group of irish immigrants. It's no longer an active church, but it's well preserved and recently renovated. Unlike the "newer" churches, it's made roughly out of wood. They say inside you can see the ground below thru the gaps between the floor planks. By the mid 1880's it was "abandoned" in favour of a nearby abbey and cathedral, which was our next stop.
Belmont Abbey was simply amazing. Over 120 years old, but walking around you'd be sure it was much older. It's now a catholic college, but the original cathedral is still there - tall spires, lot's of statues and carvings .. oh, and the obligatory stained glass windows of course. Neatly tended shady gardens everywhere, fountains and the works. The abbey was founded and run by the Benedictine monks. Wonder if there are any vineyards there? The Benedictine's in europe were famous for their wines.
The final day of sightseeing (for this newsletter) was the Charlotte trip. That started with the Hezekiah Alexander Homestead. A house built of stone in 1774 and is the oldest surviving building in NC. Alexander was a signer of the "Mecklenberg Declaration of Independence". There are other buildings on the site, as well as a stream and lots of shady, colourful, scented trees and plants. Walking around you it's hard to believe you were in the middle of a city. On the same site lies the Charlotte Museum of History.
The to the city centre; we drove around the historic "4th Quarter" a bit, full of victorian homes before parking at Marshall Park. Quite nice. Lots of ponds, bridges, trees, a big fountain and the water was coloured a most intense "water-like" blue colour. Even had some geese playing around in the water. Wandered around the city centre for an hour or so before having a most forgettable lunch at a Burger King (same as McDonalds). At least I wish it was forgettable, least it was clean.
Next stop was the James Polk Memorial. "Who is James Polk?" I hear you ask. There was a 20 minute video answering that question. In the mid 1840's, most of the US newspapers had that headline. He was an underdog contender for the presidency and became the 11th president. He oversaw the annexation of Texas, tried to buy California from Mexico - when they refused he invaded and took not just California, but also New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado (a total of over 500,000 sq miles). He also swiped a chunk of Canada. For some reason he's a hero here. The memorial is a fairly accurate reconstruction of the home he was born in, using the remains of buildings of the same era. It's a big contrast to the Alexander homestead. While that was large, stone and quite extravagant, the Polk homestead was a small log cabin, caulked with mud. Simply furnished, with two rooms on the ground floor and an attic for the kids. Definitely the other end of the social scale. Polk was one of eight US presidents who came from NC.
Driving north from the memorial, we passed through the "exclusive" part of Charlotte, even one place that called itself a manor! Just north of was a less affluent part of the city, a *lot* less affluent, showing the great contrast that one doesn't see in Australia.
After all the sightseeing it was time for tea (dinner). We had a voucher for the "Outback" restaurant chain. It has "fake" Aussie decor and meals. The food was wonderful - quite tasty and large servings, but not exactly I would call aussie cuisine.
Went to another of the "Artist Series" performances, this time it was to a rather noisy mine group. I always thought of mine as in Marcell Marceau - that is, silent. Not quite the case here. As usual with this series, they did several acts, some were good, some bad, some funny and some tragic.
And that's it for yet another newsletter.
Davidson, North Carolina,
3rd May, 1997.
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