Unlike many cheerful people in suits and fancy hats last Tuesday, I rode the 6:30 a.m. Piedmont-bound train as a way of actually getting somewhere.
Sure, it was fun to realize that I was on board the first train to ever leave Raleigh's brand-new Union Station, but it was also hard not to laugh at the large group that boarded with me, rode for twenty minutes with huge smiles on their faces, and then got off in Cary while saying, "I think I'll do this again!"
By the time my train pulled into the station in High Point—one of the three major cities, along with Winston-Salem and Greensboro, that comprise the Triad, where I was to spend the day—I'd mostly forgotten about these intrepid history-makers.
The sidewalks in downtown High Point are wide—too wide, maybe, given that I only counted a handful of other pedestrians. For two weeks each year, though—one week each in April and October—retailers, designers, and decorators flood the streets for the High Point Market, a semiannual furniture exposition that attracts furniture professionals (less so consumers) from all over the world. The city completely transforms, with everything from pop-up restaurants to temporary transit systems springing to existence to accommodate the seventy-five thousand visitors to a city of one hundred thousand.
My first few minutes in High Point were spent wandering between the vast showrooms downtown, and trying to get a look at whatever might be for sale within the "Furniture Capital of the World." I was dismayed to discover that people like me who don't work in the furniture industry aren't allowed inside without an appointment, but there was one place I knew I'd be welcome: The Red House, "Where Black People and White People Buy Furniture."
A small family-owned furniture store, The Red House was featured in a 2009 commercial that went viral thanks to its jarringly cheerful declarations that it is a furniture store "for all people" where "we can all just get along." The store mainly serves people from around the state rather than around the world.
"People might come in here and buy a T-shirt," sales manager Richard Pina says. There's furniture, too, of course—everything you'd need to fix up a decent house, from sofas and bed frames to appliances and lighting fixtures.
I checked out some more furniture-centric places further north, including the World's Largest Chest of Drawers and the Bienenstock Furniture Library, before stopping in at Krispy Kreme for a late breakfast. (Since the donut chain originated in Winston-Salem, which isn't easily accessible via train, this is the closest I actually came to visiting the second-largest of the Triad's cities.) I then hopped in an Uber and headed east toward Greensboro and Furnitureland South in nearby Jamestown.
If The Red House had everything I might need, Furnitureland South had more furniture than I could possibly imagine. The 1.3 million-square-foot complex calls itself the largest furniture showroom in the world and attracts customers from as far as Saudi Arabia and Dubai. One room had twenty-five styles of home theater seats. Another had an enormous fish tank-headboard combo for sale for $60,000. The most disorienting room was on the first floor: the world's largest Subway, a predictably well-furnished sub shop and one of the only indoor places I visited in High Point that didn't smell like expensive wood.
The furniture industry made High Point what it is today, but the city's downtown "Catalyst Project" stands as its way of saying that it can and does exist for fifty non-Market weeks a year. When it's complete, High Point hopes to have added 15–20 shops, 250 residential housing units, and a new $35 million stadium that will be the home of an Atlantic League of Professional Baseball team called the High Point Rockers.
Next, I Ubered to Greensboro, but a train from downtown High Point to downtown Greensboro would have cost $7 and taken about twenty-five minutes. The contrast between High Point and Greensboro is immediately obvious: Far from being a two-week-a-year town, Greensboro is an urban area of 270,000 residents and home to seven colleges and universities, including UNC Greensboro and North Carolina A&T University.
I first stopped in at Old Photo Specialists on Elm Street to visit a friend and get a look at hundreds of antique photos and the equipment used to restore them. The downtown seems to be full of vintage spots like this—the biggest regret of my adventure is that I wasn't able to visit Elsewhere, a quirky-looking museum and artist residency housed in a former thrift store, because it's only open on weekends.
My trip to the Triad took place during the World Cup, so my first priority after visiting Old Photo Specialists was finding a place to watch the end of France's semifinal match against Belgium. I entered the first bar I saw outside of Old Photo Specialists, Little Brother Brewing. After taking a look around and introducing myself, I was asked if I'd like to try one of their beers.
The honest answer was that yes, that sounded great. The honest answer was also that I am twenty years old and really would like to not get my employer in trouble. As I sipped on a delicious house-brewed club soda, I talked with brewmaster Steven Monahan about the brewery and Greensboro's bar and brewery scene generally.
The impression I got is that Natty Greene's is a big draw for out-of-towners, but bars like Joymongers, Preyer, and The Bearded Goat are where locals go. Hops Burger Bar is a bit of a hike from downtown but came up quite frequently—most notably because in 2015 TripAdvisor named its burger the best in the United States (an honor recently bestowed upon Al's Burger Shack in Chapel Hill).
Before I left Little Brother, I asked the bartender what I should see while I'm in Greensboro.
"We've got a kickass science center," he said. "I haven't been yet, but I've heard it's great."
"Kickass" is maybe the third compound word I would have used to describe the Greensboro Science Center, after "brand-new" (thanks to a $20 million renovation in 2011) and "family-friendly." I arrived shortly before it closed, meaning I was unable to feed any penguins, couldn't read much about weather and dinosaurs, and didn't see a show at the OmniSphere Theater. I did have enough time to nearly trip over a peacock in the outdoor zoo area; according to an employee, "they just kind of roam around" outside the cages containing alligators and red pandas.
My Uber driver to the Science Center insisted that I visit the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, so I rode back downtown and stepped into the center at around 5:20 p.m. This was an hour after the last tour of the day had left (Greensboro's museums really should be visited in the morning and afternoon), but I was lucky to run into Center CEO John Swaine in the lobby.
A main draw of the Center, he told me, was the original lunch counter where the sit-in movement kicked off in 1960. It began on February 1, when four African-American A&T students refused to leave a Woolworth's after being denied service. Four days later, some three hundred civil rights activists had joined them, along with copious media attention, bringing downtown Greensboro to a standstill. By the end of March, the sit-in movement in protest of segregation had spread to fifty-five cities in thirteen states.
Perhaps it was the talk of the lunch counter, but I realized soon after leaving that I'd forgotten to eat. I turned to M'Coul's Public House for dinner, enjoying an Emerald Isle chicken before wandering back out into the streets to kill time before my 8:30 p.m. train home. Most of the places I wanted to check out were closed by this point, but I passed by lively crowds of people spilling out of Elm Street's many bars and restaurants.
By 10:30 p.m., I was back in Raleigh waiting for a behind-schedule Florida-bound train parked at Union Station to get out of my train's way so I could get home and sleep. We ended up sitting just outside Union Station for half an hour—the sort of delay Amtrak employees assured me was normal for the opening of a large new station. A drink would have been nice.