The Our State stories that mean the most to me
I made about 200 articles, videos, and podcast episodes over 10 years with the magazine. Here are the ones that stick out.
Next week, I swear to you, we’ll be back to our regular, weirdo programming here. But for now, on my last day of work at Our State, I just wanted to tick off some of the stories that hold special meaning to me. I started freelancing for Our State in 2011. From 2015 until 2019, I was the senior writer there. That meant I got to go everywhere and anywhere in North Carolina for a story, and then work with an insanely talented group of editors and photographers to bring those stories to life. (Seriously, read the masthead, those are the people who make Our State magical.) My writing slowed down toward the end of my time at the magazine as I moved to other positions, but I was blessed to have a dream job for the better part of four years. If you’ll indulge me, then, here are the stories that I remember most:
Eight days on the Cape Fear River
This is the big one. It’s been five years since “A Long Way To The Sea” was published, and I still get emails and Facebook messages from people who are interested in paddling all 200 miles of the Cape Fear River just like Kemp, Chris, Andrew, and me. It’s the longest story that I ever wrote for Our State, the last time the magazine has done a gatefold (that’s magazine speak for long, folded page which, in this case, was a pullout map of our journey), and it won the magazine’s first and only CRMA award. (Props to Andy Busam, Jordan Cauley, and Andrew Kornylak, who did the technical and video work that landed us a nod for “multiplatform storytelling.”)
The actual trip took place over eight days in April 2016, and the story came out that November. In the intervening time, Hurricane Matthew hit Eastern North Carolina, causing some of the worst flooding along the Cape Fear in a generation. Then, the next year, the Wilmington Star-News broke the story that GenX, a toxic chemical, had been discovered in the river, which provides drinking water for a quarter-million people. In retrospect, our trip came at a particularly innocent moment for the river, and it’s hard to imagine putting this story together in the same way even a few months after I wrote it.
“Just because you can’t disprove it, doesn’t make it true.”
There are true stories, and then there are stories that you want to be true.
In 2016, I went to the small town of Rhodhiss to write a story about something that had been presented as fact for decades: The local textile mill had made the material that went into the flag that had been planted on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. But that story started to unravel fairly quickly, because real proof was impossible to find. The moon flag story was a point of pride for hundreds of people in and around Rhodhiss. Understandably, the fact that there was no hard evidence didn’t change anything for the people who believed that they were connected to a seminal American moment.
A few years later, I did a similar story and podcast episode about the artist Selma Burke and her quest for recognition. She’d maintained, for a very long time, that the imagine of FDR on the dime had been stolen from one of her sculptures. Once again, there was no hard proof, but that didn’t make her story any less inspiring to people. Both stories showed me that any story gains even more power through repetition. The longer it’s told, the harder it is to prove wrong, even if the underlying facts can’t be found.
North Carolina stories that happened outside North Carolina
I think, and I could be wrong, but I THINK I’m the only writer who has gone on serious Our State reporting trips outside of North Carolina. The first was a bus ride that took me and some rowdy Appalachian State football fans from Winston-Salem to Montgomery, Alabama and back in a whirlwind 24 hours. The second was for this podcast episode, where I tracked down the police officer who caught Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph. That officer, Jeff Postell, left Murphy for suburban Boston, where he carved out a new life. If you want evidence that reporting trips are not glamorous, consider how this one went: I landed in Boston, was whisked away to Boston College, spent some time with Jeff as he worked, then rode with him to his new hometown of Taunton, Massachusetts, watched him at a city council meeting there, had late dinner at my hotel, went to bed, woke up the next day, rode back to Boston with Jeff, sat in his office and interviewed him for three hours, then went immediately back to the airport and flew home. I had five minutes of unscheduled free time, so, no, I did not visit Cheers.
Farming isn’t what you think it is
I know, Our State isn’t a business-oriented publication, but whenever I could, I always tried to follow the money whenever I was reporting out a story. People could spin fanciful tales, but once you started asking them how the thing they were doing was actually making money, the story got more real and more truthful.
To that end, there’s nothing that can turn from romantic to real more quickly than a farm story. There’s the story of Jeremy Norris, who started making moonshine with his corn because it would allow him to save his family’s property. There’s the story of clary sage — a very specific crop grown in a very specific area — that farmers depend on because it’s only thing that come close to growing tobacco in terms of revenue. And then, up in the mountains, there’s the farm owned by Dr. Frank King, which includes giant deer, yaks, bison, camels, and other exotic animals. He’s the visionary, but it fell upon a chain-smoking former rodeo clown to make that farm actually, you know, work.
Not gonna lie, these stories were fun
Christina Koch, an astronaut born in North Carolina who might someday go to Mars, talked to me from the International Space Station. VERY, VERY COOL. I interviewed Hugh McColl in his corner office way up in the Bank of America Corporate Center, and discovered that the man looked at building real life Charlotte in the same way that you might look at building a thriving metropolis in SimCity. I followed Tiger Woods around a golf course in Greensboro. I drove way out to Eastern North Carolina to ride one of North Carolina’s last cable-guided ferries. I wrote about Bojangles, Guy Fieri, and a beer league goalie who got to play in the NHL. Plus, I got to re-live my former life as a whitewater raft guide, and I massively geeked out on North Carolina’s borders.
North Carolina’s legendary cast of characters
If you want to know the difference between writing a story for a print magazine, and then using that same pile of notes, facts, and interviews for a podcast, may I point you toward the Agnes E. Fry. The Civil War-era blockade runner wrecked off of Oak Island, then disappeared for a very long time until some underwater archaeologists found it again a few years ago. They also unearthed tons of historical records, and for the print version of the story, we all worked together to re-create the narrative of that ship’s final days. But the lead archaeologist, Billy Ray Morris, was whip-smart and funny as hell, which I discovered when he invited me to have tacos with him at a Mexican restaurant in Carolina Beach. The podcast version of the story became the Billy Ray show, basically. It still makes me chuckle.
I also loved talking to Marshall Rauch, the Jewish man who became the world’s largest manufacturer of Christmas ornaments (another print story that ended up being very different than the podcast version). I got to watch Vivian Howard do her thing in Kinston, and I also randomly bumped into Bizarro Kramer in, um, rural Alamance County.
Ken Pompliano, who runs Kenny’s Country Kitchen in Pinebluff almost single-handedly, just talked and talked and talked, and his story invvoled me just getting out of the way. Conversely, Russell Palmer, the mortician who taught Charlie Daniels to play guitar, was very quiet. He did give me two great moments. He handed me his flip phone in a hardware store, said Charlie Daniels was on the line, and told me to talk to him. I also got this quote from Russell, which is more of a statement of fact than a brag: “You can’t embalm a body, and you’ve never played the Grand Ole Opry.”
My other favorites
In 2016, I went to B’s Barbecue, the legendary spot in Greenville, to observe 24 hours in its life cycle. So, I showed up at 10 p.m. and met Dexter Sherrod, the pitmaster, who had already put the first round of charcoal on. We chatted for a bit, and Dexter told me a story about how he’d been robbed at gunpoint right where I was standing. But, admittedly, there wasn’t much going on, and so I went back to my car to sleep for a bit. I set my alarm for 1 a.m., and got back up to watch Dexter add more charcoal. He did that step very quickly, then announced he was going home. I decided that spending the night alone in my car in a vacant parking lot in Greenville, one that had a history of armed violence, was not a good idea. So I set out to find a hotel room. The first place I went to was locked up tight, with nobody at the front desk. Some 45 minutes later, I found another hotel, got a room, slept for a few hours, woke up, and went back to B’s to watch the place get ready to open. Lesson learned: Don’t go to Greenville at after dark unless you’ve got a place to stay.
I loved making every episode of Away Message. In particular, I was thrilled to finally go to Frying Pan Tower, but my favorite story to tell was that of the man who fired a gun in North Carolina, hit and killed a man standing a few feet away in Tennessee, and got away with the crime. Twice. His descendants never knew about this until I tracked them down. His great-granddaughter, Donna Reed, went down into her basement, pulled out a book of family history that she’d never opened, and we both read about his life in real time.
This story, about a man who lived on his own private island, wasn’t my story. But! I got to work on it with James Mieczkowski, who produced it, and Dillon Deaton, who shot it. I merely suggested it, and they took it to amazing heights from there:
Way back when, during my freelancing days, I got to work with Mike Graff, who edited this voluminous story about Charlotte, the city that gave me so much. SPOILER ALERT: I moved. ALSO SPOILER ALERT: Mike and I became good friends.
Finally, this was my first Our State story. An editor called me ten years ago, and asked me if I’d like to write about trains. What about them, I asked? Whatever you want, was the reply. And it all went forward from there.
And now, I go forward from here.