Saxapahaw has developed a certain kind of double life since the summer farmers’ market began here five years ago. In the summer, it becomes the quirky destination for folks from the hinterlands, who descend upon the village once per week from the distant burgs of Chapel Hill and Burlington to enjoy local music and local food before returning home and spelling the name of the town to their friends who’ve never heard of it before.
Somehow the Saturday bustle carries forth all week energetically, making Summer in Saxapahaw an odd kind of frenzy very unusual for a place of its rurality (if you will).
But then August ends, and except for Octoberfest, Saxapahaw becomes still again. It’s now–the quiet of Autumn–when I, like a holiday host whose guests have gone home, breathe a sigh of relief and settle in with my neighbors for the winter. This is the time when I get to know the character of this place.
Before I launch into discussion about the community of Saxapahaw, I have to issue the caveat that I am not, in any sense, a legitimate local. That’s not to say I wouldn’t like to be, but I don’t qualify. Jeff and I, the shopkeepers here at Saxapahaw General Store, came to participate in the community here last June, but we still live in Chatham County, by virtue of the housing collapse. We’re out-of-staters originally. We still put beans in our chili dogs.
But we have come to care for this place and for the people we’ve met here–be they bonafide locals or fellow interlopers. And while it may sound mystical, my experience has borne it out that folks are drawn to geographical places for specific reasons–as though the spirit of a place speaks, and its people respond.
When I spend time at the store and when I venture out to explore the village, I’m often struck by the diversity of backgrounds, occupations, places of origin, and cultural contexts in the people I meet in and around Saxapahaw. And it’s true that only a fairly blended place could produce such a schizophrenic business as a gas station that serves sea scallops and sells local produce. As I have come to know Saxapahaw, I have come to understand that the unmistakable spirit of a place so diverse (and, at times, at odds) is revealed in what is common among them.
It is now, in the calm of Autumn, when I find myself asking, what is the connective thread here? Why have we come together–local or not–in this place that has no gated communities, no foreboding neighborhood entries, no walled estates? In a place that sits on the way to other towns, and as a convergence of roads, what, for that matter, makes us a distinct community?
To be sure, geographical place is marked by those people who inhabit it over time. The people may move on or die off, but I’ve noticed that the space holds their essence. Saxapahaw bears that out for me. I don’t know anything about the Sissipahaw tribe, though I’m certain that research would prove fruitful here. I do know enough about the Quakers to understand that their peaceful yet fiercely independent spirit has marked this place.
That independent streak–to judge even from the store’s staff–runs deep here in this fiercely Libertarian corner of the North Carolina Piedmont. Here, as much as any place I’ve lived or traveled, folks defend their right to be true to themselves. In many cases, folks have come here to be left to live their lives as they wish, outside the reach of suburban convention. There is little nod to conformity–no interest in keeping up with the Joneses–and people have consistently surprised me with their individual complexity. Stereotypes are shattered in this place where appearances are tossed aside in favor of direct human contact. I am both delighted and humbled by the number of times my default assumptions about a person have been dead wrong.
Quaker society has become synonymous with peaceable existence, and with its Quaker ancestry, it’s a trait that also whispers its presence in Saxapahaw. People have significant differences of opinion about all sorts of things, and their independence makes them unafraid to share those. But Saxapahaw is not a violent place. I’m sure some of this is our American pragmatism at work; as a mill town, folks have grown used to coexisting peaceably here, of necessity. As Jerry, town philosopher disguised as a cynic, put it once, “We’re your neighbors. Like it or not, you have to put up with us.”
So here we are. Quietly, a couple of thousand people live in their spaces, very near one another, interacting sometimes at the dump or at the General Store, and all at least quietly tolerant of one another. In a way, this is the American spirit in its raw form–people of all stripes pursuing independent lives in parallel structure, each to his own, and on our best days willing to have our assumptions reformed by those around us.
In the stillness of Autumn, when the crowds of summer have gone home, I have learned it’s that spirit that has drawn us here to Saxapahaw–and no matter what we appear to be, our journeys have converged meaningfully at this unlikely crossroads.