Wednesday, September 22nd we drove into Mt. Airy, NC just ahead of an autumn thunderstorm that had been dogging us since we crossed the West Virginia state line. For a couple of hours we'd been driving in and out of downpours. In one mountain valley the weather would be clear and sunny and in the next pouring rain would make the going treacherous. The final run of road was kind to us, though, and we managed to beat the rain to our hotel on the outskirts of town. We checked into our mediocre hotel room, unpacked the few belongings we brought along for the trip, made a list of the things we managed to, and road-weary we set out to reconnoiter and find dinner in the land of Mayberry.
The drive into town was uneventful if you don't count my fatigue inspired driving. We passed the town water tower, the hospital, the fire station, and the police station before finding a parking spot in the gravel lot beside the post office. I'd just turned the car off when the rain we'd outrun in the mountains caught up with a vengeance. It fell in a straight torrent and we sat listening to it pound the rooftop while we debated what we should do.
The road makes you tired; especially nine hours - a large portion of which was spent driving across the uninspiring landscape of northern Kentucky. Still just outside, mingling with the raindrops, was a town that I'd only witnessed through the sepia-toned episodes of a television show I personally consider an emotional cure-all. Almost every work-related trauma I've suffered has been healed in no small part through visits to Mayberry, NC. I bore the rain to retrieve umbrellas from the trunk and then we set out to get our first real look at America’s most iconic small town from under the brim of an umbrella.
What did we find? A tourist trap complete with Andy and Barney paraphernalia being hawked from countrified storefronts? Maybe we found busloads of wide-through-the-middle Americans clogging the sidewalks while they took snapshots of their snot-nosed kids in front of the Andy Griffith Show opening-themed statue? Actually, none of the above.
Don’t get me wrong, Mt. Airy has made plenty of hype about their native son (according to a local news station fifty thousand visitors will be in the little town today). I kind of feel like it's fitting that they do. In some ways we're all products of where we grow up and if the place makes the man is emblematic of the place. Things get a little more complicated when that man in question is famous like Andy Griffith and the persona that is being honored is fictitious like that of Andy Taylor, the sheriff of Mayberry. Still, without the influence of his hometown, Griffith wouldn't have begat Taylor and through the TV lens and the twisted genealogy I've just outlined, the town benefits from its native sons (both real and imaginary).
Walking down the streets of Mt. Airy you'll encounter various establishments that are mentioned in the television show. There’s a Snappy Lunch Café, there’s a Bluebird Diner, and there’s even a soda shop that claims to be the inspiration for Walker’s Drugstore. Even during these troubled times all of them seem to be doing fine. Maybe there is safety in the shade of the long shadow Sheriff Taylor has cast over the collective imagination.
However, I'm departing from my story about what I found in Mt. Airy. When we stepped onto the soggy sidewalks was a little different than the television rendition of the small town but at the same time, very similar. Mt. Airy is a rugged little North Carolina town. From the post office steps you can see the weathered peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains. On the day we arrived, the ghosts of rain clouds swept down the valleys and thunder rolled off the mountain sides. We walked along Main Street (its actual name) at eight o'clock and every store was closed. We strolled under along the awnings, window shopping like people do in Mayberry. There were kitsch storefronts as I mentioned before: The Snappy Lunch, the Bluebird Café, Opie's Candy Shop, and a few other themed stores but something struck me. Somehow, in spite of the theme, the town managed not to become a theme park. It remained a living, breathing town independent of what American culture would make it into.
We turned down a side street and found the Trio Bistro and Bar, the only place in town to get dinner. Sure, Trio is a chain but it's one of the better ones and literally it turned out to be our port in the storm. Good food and drink go a long way toward soothing the road-weary soul. Tired from nine hours on the road I sat down over salmon and bread and some time before dinner ended I realized I'd really made it. This was Mayberry at its core - outside was wet and cold but inside was safe, inside was warm, inside I had the person I loved most in the world and together we were okay no matter how hard the wind blew. We saw the museums and ate at the soda fountain, hearing stories about Andy Griffith and the things he did when he was a kid…but I found my Mayberry before any of the festivities began. That's the thing I'll never forget about this little trip to the center of America's heart.