It was a balmy 31 degrees outside with the high to reach 48. Looking like Ralphie from A Christmas Story, Jess had stuffed herself into the last of five layers of clothing. Apparently she didn’t hear me from the east wing of our dollhouse that it was sweater weather where we were headed. I threw on my favorite flannel green surplus jacket, black leggings, camps socks, and duck boots. Being a North Carolina native, I knew what I was getting myself into. We went back and forth for a few minutes about the weather then hopped in the car. Eastern North Carolina was on the horizon.
Earlier in the week, my soul craved the countryside and my stomach had a hankering for BBQ that Raleigh lacked. I texted my buddy Sam, who happens to be the best pitmaster in the Southeast, saying, “Yo! I’m headed your way Saturday and want to eat BBQ, drink beer and adventure in the woods! A. Will you be there? B. Do you know a good spot where we can frolic like bad asses.” He replied, “I can handle all of the above.”
I was slapstick happy to introduce Jess to the best whole hog BBQ in the state and to Sam’s epic storytelling. The sun beamed from the sky as we coasted down I-440 to NC-121, navigating our way to Wintersville, NC. I allowed Jess to control the music. She told me of her disdain for Taylor Swift but love for Niall Horan. I called her out for her obvious double standard. She changed the subject.
By the time we arrived Jess had stripped a layer and blamed me for giving an inaccurate reading of the temperature. I felt fabulous and skipped my happy rear right through the doors of BBQ heaven. We mulled over the menu for a few minutes as I explained to Jess why they didn’t serve biscuits. “Cornbread, Jess. You eat cornbread with BBQ,” I said to her as I clapped my hands on each syllable to emphasize.
Our plates of whole hog, baked beans, collards and cornbread didn’t last long. Jess opened more windows into her life so I could peek in. The more she told me about her story, the more respect I gained for my unicorn roommate.
As we wrapped up our conversation and boxed up the scraps we had left, Sam slid into the booth. Sam’s stories are as good as his BBQ, so I couldn’t wait for him to get going. When Sam speaks, I feel like I’m on a front porch sipping bourbon and watching fireflies. After captivating us with a tale, he invited us out to roam his land and pecan orchard. I was already grateful he stopped by the restaurant to say hello, so his invite was like dessert at the end of a five course meal. We didn’t turn it down.
Jess and I followed Sam along the backroads through Wintersville. My deep, country heart was on the verge of exploding. Growing up, there was nothing I loved more than running through the mountains at my grandparents’ house or taking long drives through the country with my dad. This was the medicine I needed before 2018, and I know Jess needed it, too.
We were greeted by Sam’s pup Jack. “He is rather healthy,” Jess said as Jack waddled over to us fiercely wagging his tail. Sam shared why Jack gained his old-man weight. We weren’t sure whether to laugh or offer a sympathetic “oh no”. Sam’s comical delivery made us chuckle so we just rolled with it.
After a quick tour of Sam’s garage, which so sweetly reminded me of my late grandfather’s, we hopped on his side-by-side to explore the land. We rode in silence for the most part, soaking in the landscape and listening to Sam as he played tour guide. All I could think about was spending a day walking through the creek on a warm, summer’s day and finding the perfect tree to climb.
Driving down the country road to the house with the sun beating down on our faces, Sam made sure to emphasize that we were always welcome to visit and enjoy the land. Jess and I looked at each other with childlike stars in our eyes and immediately planned to return the next week. We hoped he was serious.
The sun was about an hour and a half from dipping behind the earth, giving us just enough time to check out the pecan orchard. Sam’s buddies recently restored his late grandfather’s pecan-harvesting machinery and were out gathering and sorting pecans. It was everything I’d hoped for when we pulled up to the 9-acre orchard.
Pecans still lingered on the naked branches of the trees but the majority had long since met the earth. We were coming in on the tail end of the harvest. Jess and I watched as they sorted through the pecans as the little tree nuts made their way down the conveyor belt of the cleaner. After observing for a few minutes we hopped in to help. Jess actually worked like a human. I acted like a sneaky squirrel hiding pecans in my cheeks.
We stayed until the very last pecan fell into the bucket. Our stomachs hurt from laughing at Sam’s epic memories of spending time on the orchard as a boy. They were memories that only a kid growing up in the country would understand, and I smiled knowing I did.
It was time to leave as the sun was making its final descent. We said our goodbyes, thanked Sam a million times over, and followed the sunset back to Raleigh. The day was perfectly imprinted on our smiles and hearts.