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A Use for Kudzu

Wednesday, 4th July, 2001

I remember North Carolina with awe and joy from the summer of 1999. I felt very much at home in the soaring hills and swirling landscapes around Boone and Asheville and Columbus, which reminded me very much of the Pennines of Yorkshire, but wonderfully and joyfully unspoilt.

I still feel privileged to have seen some of the incredible landscapes that have materialised out of travel through North Carolina. We trailed the Blue Ridge Parkway for a great swathe of the state, straddling the mountains and defying the slopes. The Eden on the hills above Columbus is still unparalleled in my experience. I expected much from a return trip.

In 1999 we had travelled south, discovering the scenery around Charleston, West Virginia and never leaving it until sparser parts of South Carolina. I remember starting off from Charleston one sunny May morning and wondering where we'd been transported to in our sleep. It had been a pretty drive in but it was a stunningly beautiful drive out.

Heading north from Georgia a year later, we didn't see any of this until Lenoir. The city sign pointed out that Lenoir is the furniture capital of the south, but it should have read the beginning and end of real scenery. It was as if by magic that just as we saw the sign the hills started sprouting up around us. Rock faces sprang up at the roadside, the road started to weave and wind and we started to drive in three dimensions for the first time really since leaving Tennessee.

This catalyst city was our destination for the day. Our hosts were Carole and Paul, who live nestled in and amongst contoured roads with a wonderful mountainous view over the greens and bunkers of the Cedar Rock Country Club. Houses here perch on hills or lie in valleys, with everywhere the cloud drenched hilly landscape that I'm so used to in Yorkshire. Their house is huge, designed by Carole and built relatively recently. Everything about the place is beautiful and spacious, just like its surroundings. I can't think of a single house where I've felt more space about me.

Carole and Paul are a friendly couple, full of the selfless hospitality that seems to fill the south. We weren't strangers, having met the summer before in Boone, when they had kindly showed us around the bright little town known as Blowing Rock, tourist trap for half of the year and ghost town for the other. Nonetheless they opened their house and their hearts to us and they played a large part in keeping the magic of North Carolina alive for me.

Rather than travel further after such a drive, we relaxed over dinner and then adjourned downstairs for chat. The clock ticked on and we ignored it. In the end it was sleep that put an end to our talking and were it not for the call of the pillow, we'd be talking yet. Other than the stories we swapped, our local tale of interest sprang from the breakfast table.

Kudzu is an Asian import that can grow up to a foot a day. It was introduced to the southern states in the 1930s as a means of guarding against soil erosion. It worked wonders in its given task, but soon demonstrated that it would cause more trouble than it was worth. The megalomaniacal flowering shrub, if left unchecked, can take over entire forests and bring down power grids. After technology has shown itself incapable of wresting control back to mankind, the latest weapon in the anti-kudzu arsenal is the good old fashioned sheep, the lawnmower of old.

Possibly the biggest problem with kudzu is that there is almost no use for it. In fact most people doubted that there was any use at all, but eventually a firm in Greensboro found a way to turn it into breakfast jelly. We sampled some on our toast and found it a tasty, if rather bland, addition to the breakfast menu.

We said our goodbyes to Carole and Paul too early, but we had to hit the road again on our trek towards the nation's capital. Another meetup of players was scheduled for Washington, DC and we had a couple of days of driving to get there. With just over four hundred miles to travel, we wanted to put as much road behind us as possible, so as to leave an easy and quick route into the bustle of Washington. The road north could have taken us through a selection of the biggest cities in the country, but we wanted to avoid them, in favour of quieter countryside. Philadelphia and New York City we could work around, but Washington was too big a draw to miss.

Our overnight stop came in Virginia, just south of Richmond. Heading north up I-95 over Falling Creek, it did indeed seem as if more than the creek itself was falling. The whole east coast was being deluged by what seemed like half the Atlantic Ocean. Before we'd started out this summer, Florida had been experiencing dangerously over-dry weather. With our arrival, the drought had lifted to demonstrate traditional Yorkshire rain. We didn't see it, but I can only guess that the statue of General Robert E Lee looked like it was sweating over the continued attack against all memorials Confederate.

Was he looking north to Washington? The old capital of the Confederacy is a mere hundred miles from the capital of the United States. It seems that such a proximity could be likened to gloating. Maybe all the rain was hiding tears too.

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