Day-tripping to Saxapahaw

By North America correspondent Nick Kenny

The US Thirsty Traveller has spent recent weeks being whisked up and down the US east coast by Delta Airlines – from Miami to Boston, Washington DC to New York.

Plenty of opportunities for interesting food, beverage and stories … or so you’d think.

But no – setting aside an interesting crafty bourbon-bitters beverage at a fancy old hotel in DC – it’s been all work, airports and Ubers.

This weekend, it was time to escape to somewhere closer to home: Saxapahaw.

What’s not to like about a place 50 mins from home on lovely rural roads, in the
middle of nowhere (sort of), that’s a winning story of redemption of a dying old cotton
mill town with an awesome name.

Try it on: Saxapahaw…pronounced “sax-ah-puh-HAW”… pull it out with a Southern drawl. See? Not only are you relaxed and intrigued, you want to go there and see what’s in store for you (or even literally what’s in The Store – more of which later).

Overdosed on east coast jet-setting, the allure of a relaxed drive to Saxapahaw for exploration, food and beverages was an irresistible change of pace.

Bring on the Southern!

Driving quiet rural roads on a classic sunny Carolina-blue sky day accompanied by
scenery-appropriate music (I made that up, is it a thing?) from the banjo-picking country
music sadness of New Vintage to the The Avett Brothers ’ modern country tunes, was a
start that augured well.

Escaping the manicured roads and estates of the Triangle into the jumbled farmland country west of Chapel Hill (falling down barns, new vineyards, livestock farms scraping by, crops yet to sprout, some optimistic daffodils, and oak trees waiting for warmer times), we crossed the muddy and surging Haw River (fully fueled by heavy recent rains) into the old mill town of Saxapahaw.

After 124 years of operation, the cotton mill here closed in 1994, with the decline you’d expect in a small community dependent on this single economic lifeline … another sad chapter in rural history …

That is until in 2008 “cook Jeff” (a former butcher) and his partner Cameron took on the general store. In tandem with local farmers they plied local products and started serving an ambitious and eclectic menu of freshly prepared meals.

The place, cars and people are without the pretense and aspiration common to the
Triangle. Even the groundhog was calmly and coolly exploring his estate in the middle
of town (a good weather sign if you don’t know it).

The Saxapahaw General Store (“your local 5-star gas station) and food within followed suit with no pretense. A friendly welcome, short wait for a table amid the eclectically stocked shelves of the store (massive jar of jalapenos, high and low end wines, local fresh produce, and daily “must haves” like motor oil and TP), and a leisurely delivery of food that freed up time to catalyze lively discussions over strong hot coffee … was followed by some hearty food.

The eclectic menu reflected the shelves around us. We opted for fare from the
weekend brunch menu and my Eggs Catalan (two eggs on toast smothered in
Manchego cheese and a cream sauce laced with pancetta) was scrumptious.

I assume my better-half’s enormous local egg omelet (laced with ham, asparagus and red onion) was equally tasty … all evidence of its presence having vanished pretty quickly.

My unanswered puzzlement tho’ will have to await some sleuthing on the next visit: what on earth is the connection between a Catalan cheese and an NC gas station (albeit a 5-star gas station)?

This unusual juxtaposition of the General Store’s elements (gas station, no-frills general
store, unabashed warm welcomes, fine food, and semi-remote location) all add to the
allure of an already curiously named place.

Add to this charm the evolutionary add-ons that have slipstreamed in the general store’s local fame – places such as Haw River Farmhouse Ales, the Haw River Ballroom’s burgeoning music scene, Left Bank Butchery (“healing the planet with local food”) and Haw River Canoe and Kayak – and Saxapahaw has earned its revival.

Jeff and Cameron continue to play a key role in this sustained rural revival, now with the opening, in the former cotton mill, of the bustling Eddy Pub (“seriously local food”) co-founded with another local couple.

Post brunch we took the dogs on a gentle meandering riverside path (part of many trails
in the area) to exhale some calories. The sun shone, the birds sang, no hustle and
bustle was evident – other than the river bullying along next to us.

We can’t claim to have “discovered” Saxapahaw … that happened a when word spread
quickly around the Carolina Piedmont about the fine food at the General Store (even
the New York Times got in on the act back in 2012!), but this did scratch a long-term
TT itch of which I’m sure we’re all guilty – delaying trips to the interesting stuff in your
own back yard at the expense of glamorous away travel.

While TT still loves to travel to far-flung interesting spots, he’s now energised to slow down, and discover more of what’s on the doorstep.

Stay tuned. And go on … you know you want to … say it one more time; Saxapahaw.

As the Store notes: “you’ve come to the right place”.

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