Fun with Highways: North Carolina

Today our “primary highways” series brings us to the state of North Carolina.

Crossing from Virginia into North Carolina on I-95 (which I most recently did in 2009 under cover of darkness), one gets the sense that “now we are really in the South.” It’s perhaps a combination of the vegetation, terrain, but especially the name “Carolina”.


That particular trip involved traveling southward along I-95, and then later returning to the state near the coast on US 17. The contrast between the different corridors was quite apparent. The US 17 corridor, when when it was not exactly on the coast, was surrounded by shorter vegetation in a lighter shade of green. As we got closer to Wilmington and I-140, it was hard to tell whether we were in a quiet coastal region or in an outer suburb with lots of highways but relatively little visible development. From 17/I-140, we turned onto I-40 and headed north. But if I the time for a proper visit, I would have continued up US 17 back towards the Outer Banks.

One can talk a particularly scenic trip through the Outer Banks on North Carolina Highway 12, which stitches together many of the barrier islands via bridges, causeways and ferries with fantastic views. The road goes through the Hatteras National Seashore. It also goes through Kitty Hawk, often credit as the location of the Wright Brothers’ first flight, though it was actually in nearby Kill Devil Hills. One of the most prominent landmarks, in addition to the continuous stretches of beach, is the Hatteras Lighthouse.

The Outer Banks are part of a beautiful and quite fragile environment, and one that is quite prone to being hit by hurricanes and subject to storm surges and flooding. Consider this breach of the islands and the highway that occurred in 2011.

[Photo from NCDOT on flickr.]

If we leave the Outer Banks and head northward and eastward on I-40, we eventually come to the Raleigh, the state capital and one of the main cities of the Research Triangle together with Durham and Chapel Hill. The Research Triangle is home many technology companies (both in the Research Triangle Park and beyond), and is anchored by Duke University, University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University. These schools are also known for their basketball teams. Raleigh is a much larger city and the center of state government, and sports both an inner and outer beltway, I-440 and I-540 respectively, though the latter is only partially built. Durham, to the north and west, looks from images as a grittier city that might attract my interest, especially with the old tobacco-factory buildings that have been converted to mixed use.

[GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

It is also home to a large and vibrant African American community with a long history of successful businesses and a neighborhood once dubbed “The Black Wall Street.” It was also a center for early Civil Rights activity including some of the earliest “sit-ins.” Already in decline by the late 1960s, the neighborhood appears to have been torn apart by the construction of the Durham Freeway (NC 147) through the center of the city. It is a familiar sounding story (like the Cross Bronx Expressway in New York).

From Durham, I-85 and I-40 run concurrently to the city of Greensboro. Greensboro includes one stretch of I-40 which is signed with no fewer than six different highway numbers.

From Greensboro, we take I-85 south and west towards Charlotte, the state’s largest city. Charlotte has become a major banking center, most notably it is home to “way too big to fail” Bank of America. It has prospered and underwent a major construction boom with a large jumble of post-modern skyscrapers.

[By Riction (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons]

The Bank of America headquarters in Charlotte is the “tallest building between Philadelphia and Atlanta.” It is the one with the green lights on top in the photograph above. This sculpture, Arnaldo Pomodoro’s Il Grande Disco sits on Bank of America Plaza. It is known locally as “The Disco Wheel.”

[Photo by Antonio Viva on flickr. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)]

Bank of America is having its shareholder’s meeting this week, and a large protest is expected tomorrow to coincide with the meeting, presumably converging at this very plaza.

We return to Greensboro and head west on I-40. The development becomes sparser and the landscape more hilly and scenic as we approach the Blue Ridge Mountains. And more treacherous as well. We turn onto I-240 to the town of Asheville.

While I have not yet been to Asheville myself, it sounds a little bit like the resort towns here in northern California, with music, arts, and old-style downtown turned upscale, and new-age types. But for me it is most notable as the home of the late Bob Moog, the great synthesizer pioneer and of our heroes at CatSynth. Asheville continues to be the home of Moog Music, Inc, which makes both hardware synthesizers and one of my favorite musical iPad apps, Animoog. The independent but related Bob Moog Foundation is building a museum and cultural space in Asheville, and they are involved in education outreach and teaching students the science and art of electronic music with programs, with specific efforts in western North Carolina.

We conclude by turning north onto I-26, a relatively new and quite spectacular highway through the mountainous border region between North Carolina and Tennessee. The highway, which opened in its current Interstate form in 2003, winds it’s way through mountain passes, alongside cliffs, and even through a tunnel. This video gives a sense of what it is like, even though it is traveling in the opposite direction, from Tennessee back to North Carolina.

Fun with Highways: South Carolina

We continue our tour of primary states with a visit to South Carolina. It is an interesting state, and if Google Analytics is to be believed, we have quite a few readers there (South Carolina has been in the top 15 U.S. states for visitors for a while). It is also a place I personally visited in the recent past.

We begin on US 17 as it exits Charleston on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, otherwise known as the “Cooper River Bridge.”

This beautiful bridge opened in 2005, and its clean modern geometry is in stark contrast to the much more traditional architecture of Charleston. I could help but focus on it even when surrounded by the historic buildings of the city’s waterfront and shadows of the Civil War. I think it’s a great addition to the city’s skyline. One of the other things I most remember about Charleston is that it was hot and humid in August, which suited me fine. The heat and humidity was personified by the ubiquitous Spanish moss.

Heading north on US 17 past the bridge, the landscape and texture changes dramatically. Small commercial buildings dot the side of the highway sporadically as we enter the Lowcountry. For a while, the highway is close to the coast – it is really 17 rather than US 1 that is coastal highway in the southeastern U.S. – as it winds between forests on one side and coastal islands and marshes on the other.

As the highway approaches Myrtle Beach, one can stop at Brookgreen Gardens, which has a large collection of sculptures in a landscaped setting. Their focus is on a combination of sculpture by American artists and local flora of the Lowcountry region. Most of the sculptures were figurative, but within this context there were a variety of styles and subjects, including some that combined abstract and modern elements.

The second sculpture (with the three female figures and the squares) is St. James Triad by Richard McDermott Miller. Unfortunately, I don’t have the information for the first sculpture.

In the Monday (January 16) Republican debate, the “I-73” corridor was mentioned, though I cannot recall amidst all the ranting what the context was. But a quick Internet search suggests that the unbuilt I-73 is supposed to begin at U.S. 17 just north of Myrtle Beach and follow SC 22 and then split off and head northwest, crossing I-95 and then into North Carolina. It looks like there is not only a “future I-73” in the Palmetto State, but also a “future I-74”. Who knew?

Back in Charleston, one can head west on I-26 towards the interior of the state. We cross I-95, which crosses the state as part of its role as the major north-south highway along the east coast. It does cross Lake Marion on a long causeway, where an older bridge next to the highway serves as a pedestrian walkway and fishing pier. Traveling over the causeway in 2009 heading to Charleston, I assumed this was an inlet rather than an inland lake, and did not realize how far away we were from the ocean.

[Pollinator at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons]

Back on I-26, one eventually gets to Columbia, the capital and largest city. A spur, I-126 takes you from the main freeway into downtown.

[Photo by silicon640c on flickr. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)]

The view above is from Finlay Park overlooking the downtown skyline. It is a relatively recent feature of the city, only about 20 years old. The main library in Columbia also dates back to this time, and features a very modernist design. And only a block away on Main Street, the Columbia Museum of Art, with the sculpture Apollo’s Cascade in its front plaza.

[Photo by huggingthecoast on flickr. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)]

[Photo by sayednairb on flickr. Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)]

These elements stand in stark contrast to the city’s more traditional architecture, starting with the state capital itself; and also to some of the darker moments of its history. Columbia and the surrounding area were devastated at the end of the Civil War. It does not seem like there are many scars left in the city itself (readers, please correct if I am wrong about this), but just outside the city US 76 are the eerie ruins of Millwood Plantation.

We continue northwest from Columbia on I-26, eventually veering off onto I-385 towards the city of Greenville in the northwest corner of the state. The highways goes all the way into the downtown, where it continues as a “business spur” that ends at US 29. A few blocks south is one of Greenville’s major features, a natural waterfall that runs through the town center:

[By CantoV CantoV Yousef Abdul-Husain (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.]

The region around Greenville and Spartanburg has a reputation as being more conservative even in a conservative state. Admittedly subjective, but probably an effect of the proximity to Bob Jones madrassa University. But Greenville itself does have a progressive community that we hear about through a friend and fellow blogger Daisy Deadhead, and even its own Occupy movement, which you can read about.

And, finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention Barnwell, South Carolina. It’s a bit out of the way, due south of Columbia and due west of Charleston, but it is the birthplace of one of my musical heroes, James Brown. I am proud to have what I am sure is the only computer-science doctoral dissertation that cites him as a reference.