People are the heart of travel destinations. From the waitress at the restaurant to the owner of the bed and breakfast, the hardworking people make the destinations comfortable, exciting, and memorable. Throughout 2021, I sought out those people to learn their stories and write their praises.
Over the past several years, I had drifted away from engaging with locals for the sake of speed – it’s much quicker to get in and out of a restaurant if I don’t tell anybody who I am. But exploring a destination in this manner was like finishing a scavenger hunt – I was left with a weak story to tell.
In 2021, I slowed down. A lot. I went beyond simply asking more questions, interacting with locals, and jotting down names. I started interviewing people. Interesting people. Really cool people.
Most of my Year in Review lists feature 20 items. Although I met lots of cool people in 2021, I only have a story to tell about 15 of them. Next year, I plan to meet more, do more interviews, and write more articles about their lives.
I would never try to rank people by their coolness. Instead, this list is in order of when I met these awesome people on my road trips.
Pat McConaghy in Fort Pierce, FL
I’m not a fan of sunrise – I personally think anything before noon should just be illegal. But when I learned Fort Pierce, Florida was known as the “Sunrise City,” I decided I needed to see it. As I walked out onto the paved jetty, I found myself in the company of fishermen, pelicans, and a lone bicyclist.
The sun was just thirty minutes above the horizon when Pat McConaghy – adorned in bicycling attire and a helmet – sat on a bench not too far away. He pulled a cup of bird seed from his bicycle and began tossing handfuls to the small chirping birds. Every time the seed scattered across the concrete path, more birds would swoop in for a taste.
“I do this almost every morning,” he quietly told me while feeding the birds. It wouldn’t be a bad way to start the day.
Rob Masone in Rock Hill, SC
Rob Masone has been cooking since he was five years old. A native of Rock Hill, South Carolina, Rob has traveled around the world as a chef. After spending a few years between Columbia, Raleigh, and Fayetteville, he finally settled back in his hometown in a historic building where he opened Kounter.
I had the opportunity to interview Rob while he prepared food behind the counter in his modern chic restaurant. He greeted everyone as they walked into the restaurant and suggested they sit at the counter. The counter – meticulously restore and preserved during the restaurant’s opening renovations – is the place where the Friendship Nine staged a sit-in during the 1960s segregation.
“All of this is about passion,” Rob told me while torching a dessert right in front of me. He wants to drive traffic to the counter where they can enjoy a fantastic meal and take in the important history that happened there.
Selena Keleman in Fort Mill, SC
Selena Keleman has a real estate license. She’s not a chef. She doesn’t cook any. “I just sprinkle suggestions,” she says with a laugh. When she opened Fish Market Bar & Grill at Baxter Town Center in 2008, she hired the best chefs and collected fresh ingredients.
Large tables under the shade of even larger white umbrellas were scattered across the patio pavers. Trees waved in the gentle wind. I felt like I was sitting on someone’s patio rather than at a restaurant.
“I want to create an atmosphere of relaxed dining with an elevated cuisine level,” Selena told me. She succeeded – the atmosphere was comfortable and food fantastic.
Stephanie Stuckey in Atlanta, GA
I drove into Atlanta on a Thursday afternoon – it took nearly an hour to drive six miles through the suburbs northwest of downtown. I considered myself lucky to find a parking space behind Manuel’s Tavern. The restaurant and bar has been around since Manuel Maloof bought out a deli shop in 1956.
Stephanie Stuckey is the granddaughter of W.S. “Sylvester” Stuckey, the man who built an empire with “a borrowed truck and a $35 loan.” It was her family’s legacy of the famous Stucky Stop and pecan log rolls that brought me into Atlanta for an interview. Three hours later – after we devoured fantastic food and a beer or two – one of the best interviews of the year ended with a memorable quote.
“Stuckey’s is not a brick-and-mortar location,” Stephanie told me. “Stuckey’s is the road trip.”
Alycia in Clayton, NC
I love a mocha latte. It’s my go-to caffeinated beverage when I visit local coffee shops. I’ve even learned how to make them for myself when I’m at “home.” But one thing I’ve never mastered – and I’m not particular about – is the latte art.
When I visited Boulevard West, the only coffee shop in Clayton, North Carolina, I ordered my typical mocha latte. When I sat down, I noticed an utter lack of any latte art in the white foam. I shrugged it off and enjoyed the coffee while finishing some work.
An hour later, I returned to the counter for another mocha latte. I jokingly pointed out to Alycia the lack of latte art in my first coffee. Slightly flustered, she insisted on making some great latte art for my second cup. Although, she admitted she was horrible at the task. The second cup wasn’t any prettier than the first, but it was still just as delicious!
Jeremy Norris in Benson, NC
In the 1840s, Jeremy Norris’s great, great, great grandfather bought 400 acres of farmland in North Carolina. Originally a land grant in the colony, Norris’s ancestor was only the third owner of the land. Jeremy is now the fifth generation of his family to own the land – which he expanded with an additional 125 acres – where he has built the Broadslab Distillery.
I met Jeremy at the tasting room – a rustic building with concrete floors, a metal ceiling, and gorgeous wood paneling – where I began to learn the history of the distillery. He took me on a guided tour of the original tasting room and current distillery and talked about plans for expansion in the future.
Before leaving, I spent time in the tasting room with T.K. sampling their spirits. I took a bottle of their Appleshine home with me – 50 proof moonshine proofed down with 100% apple cider.
Travis and Bayle Owens in Seagrove, NC
One of my favorite travel days of the year was a journey along the North Carolina Pottery Highway near Seagrove. Dozens of locally owned pottery studios line NC Highway 705 between Robbins and Seagrove – and I visited about a dozen that day.
One of the first potteries I visited was Jugtown Pottery. It was one of the original pottery studios started in the 1850s by J.H. Owens. That’s where I met siblings Travis and Bayle Owens. They told me about the history of their studio and artistic pottery in the region, gave me a guided tour of their production facilities, and posed for a nice photo.
Boyd Owens in Seagrove, NC
When I walked into the one-room studio shop at Owens Pottery, I didn’t see anybody around. Gorgeous pottery filled the shelves and covered the tabletops. Antique bicycles hung from the ceiling and banister of the second story loft. Just as soon as I’d completed a circuit through the small shop, that’s when I met Boyd Owens.
Boyd excitedly told me stories about his ancestors and his dad’s passion for pottery. But in between the stories, he would quickly add, “Don’t print this.” They weren’t solacious stories, just ones he would rather tell himself. When you visit, you really need to ask him about the Signature Owens Red color of the pottery.
David Fernandez in Seagrove, NC
The General Wine & Brew is the first bar opened in Seagrove – a town with a population of just 285. I was the first customer of the day to enter the former pottery studio converted into a bar by the owners, David Fernandez and his wife, Alexa Modderno. With the fondness of a father bragging about this child, David pointed out the stunning countertop they built in the bar – large buttons sealed with epoxy.
It wouldn’t be until near the end of our conversation that I learned David was more than just a bar owner – he was also a pottery and the mayor of the town! It’s not often I get to meet the mayor.
Explore the Christmas Destination series for places to visit, then browse the Holiday Gift Guides.
Nick Mooney in Ramseur, NC
It was a perfect day to visit Millstone Creek Orchards in Ramseur, about fifteen minutes east of Asheboro, North Carolina. The late August weather was cool and comfortable, and partly cloudy skies gave a break from the sunlight every once in awhile.
Everyone was jumping onto flat trailers, using hay bales as bench seats, ready for a trip out to the peach orchard. I met Nick Mooney, the second-generation owner of the orchards, waiting for my chance to hop onto the trailer. In the field, Nick helped people pluck ripe peaches from trees and stuff their white paper bags.
I asked Nick if he could show me an example of a perfect peach. He walked to the nearest tree, studied the fruit for a moment, then reached up and in one twisting motion plucked the peach from the tree limb.
“This is a perfect peach,” he said, holding it up as a specimen peach.
Dave and Tammy Hahn in Hot Springs, VA
Dave greeted me in the living room at the Vine Cottage Inn wearing heavy boots, blue jeans, and a short-sleeved plaid shirt. His face was covered in the stubble of a two-week beard and his eyes hidden behind black-rimmed glasses. He showed me around the charming two-story bed and breakfast, gave me the rundown on breakfast, and let me loose.
I met Tammy after spending an hour sitting in a white rocking chair on the covered front porch. The Michigan native had always wanted to own a hotel. For nearly two decades after marrying Dave, born in Richmond, the two started looking for a boutique hotel or inn to buy. In 2018, they purchased the turnkey property and began a new adventure.
“Buying this inn was a 19-year ambition we turned into a reality,” Dave said. Dave and Tammy Hahn were two of the warmest people I met all year – a couple that I will never forget.
Judith Sivonda in Clifton Forge, VA
I began collecting antique coffee grinders this year. I bought my first antique coffee grinder at an antique store in Georgia – since then I’ve bought almost a dozen. I was beyond excited to learn there was an antique coffee grinder museum in the destination I was visiting.
Judith Sivonda sat with me for nearly two hours at a small round table inside the Museum of Antique Coffee Mills. She had appropriately included a coffee shop in the back of the museum where I picked up my usual mocha latte. After learning about her passion for collecting the coffee grinders – including the fascinating story of the very first grinder she ever collected – Judith took me around the one-room museum to show me the collection.
“One year we took a vacation in a station wagon,” Judith excitedly told me. “We traveled all across Maine, visiting antique shops, and came home with sixteen coffee mills.”
Martha, Bruce, and Amaribelle Crawford in Clifton Forge, VA
Bruce introduced himself as the butler. He kindly carried my luggage to my second-story room. Later that night, Amaribelle turned down the bed and prepared the room for sleep. Bruce and Ameribelle are Martha Crawford’s parents, and they help their daughter run Hillcrest Mansion Inn.
Martha was a trained chef – a talent that is particularly useful when owning a bed and breakfast. My first morning in the charming mansion began with Bruce ringing the dinner bell. He placed the napkin in my lap – a first time experience for me – and introduced each course of the fabulous breakfast.
I spent a couple of hours chatting with Martha about her illustrious life that led to owning the mansion on a hill built in 1911. Working with her parents was a unique situation I had not seen at a bed and breakfast before. The atmosphere, food, and service were some of the best I’d ever experienced.
Martha’s favorite part about owning a bed and breakfast? The people. “”I love to pamper the guest and make them feel loved. If I make you feel loved and needed and want to come back, I’ve done what I needed to do.”
Ken Parker in Bedford, VA
“You know this is a four-hour talk.” That’s how my evening with Ken Parker began. Sitting at a large table in a backroom of the Bedford Boys Tribute Center, Ken began telling me the story of how he and his wife left their home behind, moved to a place they’d only visited a few times, and built a museum dedicated to an important chapter of Bedford’s history.
After a long conversation, Ken took me around the small museum to show the artifacts he had collected. Purple Heart medals. Letters written by the soldiers. Photographs. Every single item on display had a story to tell, and Ken wanted to tell them all.
Ken is proud of the work he has done, but also because of the museum’s location in the former pharmacy. “Their footprints are here,” he beamed. The Bedford Boys had at one time or another walked the very same floor I was walking.
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Pete Barger in Statesville, NC
I ended my incredible year of travel with one of the most interesting interviews. I traveled to Statesville, North Carolina for a weekend of “Battles, Bourbon, and Balloons.” While doing research before the event, I came across a single line that changed the course of my entire weekend. Statesville was once known as the “Liquor Capital of the World.”
On Monday morning, I met with Pete Barger, owner of Southern Distilling Company, to explore the legacy of liquor production in the North Carolina city. “I’m sure people have written about the distillery’s history, interviewed you about making bourbon, but I want to talk about something else,” I started. “Tell me about the history of liquor in Statesville.”
As it turns out, when Pete and Vienna chose Statesville as the location for their distillery, neither of them knew anything about the liquor history. But since then – with the help of a historian at the local library – Pete learned about rectification houses, distribution of liquor by the early railroads, and the prolonged history of Prohibition. “I could tell you we built Southern Distilling here because of Statesville’s liquor history, but that would be a lie,” Pete said near the end of the interview. “”I could tell you we built Southern Distilling here because of Statesville’s liquor history, but that would be a lie.”