I was watching TV one Saturday night when I was 14 and had just changed schools as a result of my parents separating less than 18 months earlier. My amazing Dad had just moved from our house in London to St Lucia i.e. 4000 miles away, and I had just fallen in love for the first time. I was basically at the peak of my teenaged angst when I came across a programme featuring a random group of
smartarses friends my age exactly; a girl who had just moved town and school and was therefore trying to get along with her grandmother who she thought hated her and cope with being abandoned by her parents who’d sent her away while trying to appear normal so she could make friends, another girl who was massively insecure about her looks and had bad taste in clothes who therefore hated the gorgeous trendy new girl who was everything she wasn’t (in her eyes of course) and who the best friend she had a crush on, had a crush on. Other characters included the aforementioned best friend, a film geek and classic romantic who loved happy stories and whose parents’ marriage we knew (but not he in episode one) was in very rocky waters which would undoubtedly scar him deeply when it hit the fan, and a cheerful funny wisecracking friend who just wanted to enjoy life and for the people he cared about to be happy, who could always be relied on to tell the truth when necessary – whether the hearers were ready or not.
Something in there resonated with me and when one of the too cool to talk to me earlier girls invited me to lunch with her crew, and they had all also happened upon this programme which they also thought was amazing and ‘so real’ a relationship that would last a lifetime was formed, and me and Ms-too-cool-for-school are still friends to this day. I was about 25 before I had a problem which no episode/scenario in Dawson’s Creek could help me understand and/or solve. Yes, seriously. Thankfully, it was a one-off and I later discovered Being Erica, but it was a difficult time let me tell you.
As these things are important to obsession-prone teenagers, we always knew that our all-time favourite TV show, whose lens through which any and every aspect of our lives could be analysed, was filmed in a small American town in North Carolina called Wilmington. The location of Dawson’s Creek was part of the appeal. A world away from our concrete jungle were friends who rowed a boat to get to each other’s houses, and like any TV show they had their stock sets. However unlike your Queen Vics or Central Perks, most of the stock locations were usually outside, and the cinematography often quite stunning; the creek, pier, ruins, the houses set on the water, the grass/steps in front the high school.
For years after they’d stopped making new episodes we’d have a girly night in to watch a classic episode or 5 from the third series (the best one! Well, the one where Joey and Pacey get together…the first series is actual TV gold) and after regressing fully forgetting jobs, ex-boyfriends, family dramas, crazy friendship situations and other stresses, we would often turn to each other and be like ‘We should totally visit there!!’ but Charity has never really lost her too cool for schoolness and while more in tune with my inner geek, I’d like to keep the tiny amount of street cred that I have. And thus it remained the thing to say but never actually do.
Then last year, as 30 approached, after one night like so many DC nights before of declaring that the only valid demonstration of love will be the purchase of a free standing wall in the centre of town on which I can be free to artistically express myself as I choose without fear of being oppressed by over-privileged elitist racist schoolmates. Even if previous attempts to silence me have forced me to channel my anger into an all-out rage against the small minds in my small town and the system itself and my whole friendship group is energised into a full fight with The Man which almost brings the system to its knees. But yeah, if you didn’t watch it, you missed out. Perhaps the storyline’s idealism ignited something in us, perhaps it was the valiant effort which was not wasted (she gets the right guy!) even if the small minds – despite being exposed – technically won. Perhaps it was the turning 30, but this time our usual ‘dude we should totally go there’ was finished with ‘let’s do it. Let’s stop saying we’re gonna do it, and actually do it!’ Thus it was that we decided a year ago that in spring 2013, we’d go and see the sights where they filmed Dawson’s Creek.
At that stage, the plan was to go to New York for her 30th birthday, and do a roadtrip down to Wilmington. At that stage, we had no idea that I’d soon be living on the other side of the ocean but thus it was that a random holiday idea turned into a treasured reunion. When I shouted ‘boo!’ at Charity in the middle of Washington Dulles International airport, I was seeing one of my best friends, on whose sofa I had gossiped til I’d fallen asleep on so many weekday nights, for the first time in 6 months.
We spent 3 days exploring Washington; checking out the White House of course, where we took an unseemly amount of pictures which was to become a theme of the trip. We saw the devil’s playground (IMF headquarters), the Newseum (awesome. Go if you can), the Lincoln memorial, the US treasury, the Jefferson memorial, the US capitol, the Franklin D Roosevelt and Martin Luther King memorials which were both fabulous yet lovely and highly recommended. We caught up with an old friend of mine and then…
We went to pick up the car. This was the test. We had maps, accomodation, hoodies, snacks, planned a route, and obtained an international driving licence. It was now time to hit the road. As Wilmington was approximately 15 hours away, we had planned to leave Washington 9ish and be in Charlottesville, about 2.5 hours away, in time for lunch and a quick tour of Monticello before driving for another 3-4 hours and stopping off in Smithfield, NC. However, it didn’t quite turn out like that. My deep mistrust of the satnav, plus ‘our’ inability to work it, plus American inability to signpost properly meant that by lunchtime we had not gotten as far as we’d hoped and remained 90 mins away from Monticello.
We stopped in Culpeper, Virginia, a weird small town which was ‘historic.’ What exactly was historically relevant or interesting about it was not at all clear but we would soon discover that this was completely normal. Most of the towns on our lap were in fact ‘historic’. But perhaps we’d simply stumbled into an unsignposted historic region. Oh, in case you think we were being snotty urbanites when we classed Culpeper as weird. Weird isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just…uncomfortable. Like the kid at the second petrol station we stopped in who asked me an endless stream of personal questions (while his father bought petrol) from the second I got out of the car, until 3 seconds before I got back in. While the normal-seeming cashier reassured me that he was an autistic but harmless kid, too many horror films set in small American towns (and I don’t watch horror films as a rule) made the exchange nevertheless tense; I had started wondering at which point I should start making up my answers. I usually like kids but we were after all the archetypal ethnic foreigners in Virginia aka the old south. This petrol station was however far friendlier than the first one we’d stopped at, which Charity noticed doubled up as a gun shop and in front of two unfriendly-looking white men with guns in the American south was not on her list of good times to get out of a car. I always knew she was making up those Triad connections. After grabbing some lunch at a Peruvian All-American Diner, Charity calmed down when she realised we weren’t the only non-white people in the restaurant on the way out; there was a black woman seated just by the door who we hadn’t spotted on entering.
We hadn’t planned to stop in Culpeper I chided her as we drove out, somehow comforted by the open plains of the motorway. We had been driving along nicely, when I had looked at my phone for half a second. Slightly on edge driving on the other side of the road in a foreign country for the first time, she therefore quite naturally mistook my gesture as a signal to take the next exit and promptly did so. No sooner had I discovered that I had no new text messages did I find we were heading to a random place just off the i29 motorway.
Some hysterical laughter later (‘Why did you turn?! I said we were goin straight for 10 miles!!’ ‘But I saw a sign!!’) we were marvelling at our surroundings. If like, me and Charity, you’ve perhaps watched Thelma and Louise a few million times, that’s actually a surprisingly accurate image of our journey. We drove along humungous empty and nearly empty motorways, through beautiful plains and the views were often long – we could literally see for miles and miles (like 50!!) ahead of us which coming from the Caribbean and England, we both found mind-blowing. Not keen on veering too far off the itinerary, we duly stopped at Charlottesville to visit Monticello, the home of American President and Author of the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. His home is an amazing mix of museum, stately home (I imagine…I’ve never actually been to one…) and national heritage site. If you ever nearly get the chance, you should definitely opt to visit.
Thomas Jefferson is a vivacious historical character, a truly learned man and also a man of action. He’s one of the faces on Mount Rushmore – you know, the rock with the famous faces carved into because he’s one of the ‘fathers of the nation’ Americans hugely revere. He’s also – like most of history’s A-listers – had his memory sullied by unresolved scandal. Jefferson’s taking up with his wife’s half sister after the wife’s death was always bound to cause eyebrows to raise. That he was a big writer on liberty, the inferiority of black people, a benefactor of the institution of slavery who strongly opposed mixed-race relationships who then took up with a slave thirty years his junior for the rest of his life, kept people talking for centuries. Sally Hemmings was 16 or 17 when she gave birth to their first child, and theirs were the only slaves he allowed freely off his plantation while alive, freeing their remaining two children in death. Yet it wasn’t until paternity tests in the 90s and further investigation that historians began to accept that actually over 38 years, like his father-in-law, Jefferson kept Hemmings as his main sexual companion and fathered all her children.
Having developed a vague obsession (thanks to a year of American studies at uni) with this story and its relationship with the phenomenon of ‘passing’ as the DNA tests were performed on a white family who didn’t know they were the offspring of black ancestors who had at some point ‘passed’ into white society, I was obvs delighted that Monticello was a viable stopover on the way to Wilmington. That the ‘Slavery at Monticello’ tour which runs seasonally for a few weeks of the year was running the week we were doing the road trip was just further proof that God loves me. It was brilliant, interesting, informative, and thought-provoking – which was especially rewarding given that I was already quite well versed in the complexities/paradox of Jefferson’s personal life and publicly affirmed values. A couple of early moments of melodrama where the scholar/guide (living proof that studying history can lead to a cool job!) would ask ‘difficult’ questions of the all-white (except us) crowd who gave ‘pained but frank’ answers, were overcome by a very well spent hour. Dude was awesome. What was really interesting was that he was a white local who studied African-American studies in Atlanta before returning home. A life story which sounded suspiciously interesting but after noticing a surprising number of other English people in the crowd, a whizz round the rest of the grounds and exhibits were just permitted before we headed further south, across the state line, to North Carolina. Thus I didn’t get to hear it. Gutted.
But we continued to head south, me consulting the map religiously to check we were going in the right direction and oohing and aaahing over the scenery while Charity relaxed into concentrating on the road. I will at this point give a very special shout-out to my best friend Charity for heroically driving every single centimetre we travelled on the DC to DC roadtrip; she is a G. G for Great friend for not once on the trip complaining about the fact that I had not passed my driving test in time for us to split the driving as agreed. Just like in the 21st century version of Thelma and Louise as we pulled into Durham, NC we utilised the satnav and our smartphones to find somewhere to sleep.
The next morning involved a heartfelt debate over whether we should use the time we made up to extend our shopping stopover, or spend extra time in Capeside!!! Given that because Charity’s a G we’d actually covered more ground than planned and were ridiculously close to the Ava Gardner museum which looked fab, which we’d planned as the next day’s lunchtime stop-point. We opted to shop. Having been away from large urban centres for 6 months, I was hoping for some quality shopping time with my trendy friend and on our route was only the largest retail shopping outlet in the state of North Carolina! Having budgeted for the spending spree we finally arrived in Wilmington at dusk acting like a couple of overexcited teenagers.
This wasn’t entirely due to the bargainous finds as a result of easter sales and buying in dollars. As we arrived into Wilmington, we got stuck in traffic. As we relaxed into our seats, we cast our eyes around, and to our left, almost at the same moment, we saw the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. The brickwork looked strikingly familiar. ‘Ohmigod!’ We screamed almost unison. ‘Ohmigod!! It’s the high school!! It’s like Capeside High!!’ we screamed hyperactively at each other hand and arms flying around the front seats. After a few more expressions of shock – we hadn’t even arrived at our accomodation and were already seeing the sights – we then looked at one another in shame. Did we just basically jump up and down in our seats like we were actually 14 year olds spotting our fave boy band? Aren’t we educated, empowered female professionals? Shouldn’t we be too old for that? The short answer is no.
Far from home and having clearly instinctively forgotten our need to have ‘it’ together, our secret was out. We had played it cool for ages but now we had arrived in Wilmington and the excitement of seeing for ourselves places that felt so familiar quickly overtook any need to not be serious fangirls. It was probably good to have that realisation in the car before arriving because we were therefore able to plan and visit ALL the major sites, answer correctly all the Dawson’s Creek trivia questions on the Hollywood Walk without really thinking, and basically embrace the guilty pleasure-ness of of it all. We didn’t have any more full freakout moments, but there was a little hysteria upon finding Joey’s wall, happy ahhhh’s at discovering Hewlett’s (Dawson’s) creek, hushed silences broken by ooooohs upon arriving at Airlie Gardens (the ruins) and a simple happiness at walking up and down the riverwalk (the pier) which meant that I had to do it twice daily for the 5 days we spent in Wilmington.
In terms of TV vs. reality there were only 2 major shocks:
1) There were like loads of black people in Wilmingon. It’s not London, in terms of ‘superdiversity’ but there were deffo loads of black people everywhere. In Capeside, Massachusetts, the fictional town where the story is set, it’s like an all-white racist town and from our teenage fangirl days we remembered that Wilmington apparently wasn’t very nice to non-white people. To freak us out a little more (but not actually deter us) I’d read up on the Wilmington Coup.
Basically, after some black people got elected to local government in 1898, some ‘conservative’ whites staged the only successful coup d’etat on US soil (JFK conspiracy theory aside). They burned down the black newspaper’s office, forcibly removed the black councillors from office, and amazingly, after three days of fighting, 2000 black people left the largest city in the state at that point, turning it from a majority-black town, to a majority-white town. They then passed a bunch of racist laws cementing their successes and deep race-based divisions which would scar the town for generations until a truth and reconcilaition style committee was set up in 1998! It’s really quite an amazing story, history is truly more incredible than fiction. Check out more here
, but yeah, Capeside is not supposed to be in North Carolina, in the south, it’s supposed to be way up North, close to Boston, which apparently is really white (so my friend who recently moved there from a more multicultural town tells me). I’d be curious to know how those auditions for high school extras went down; ‘high school looking students needed. Er, blacks need not apply. It’s not us, it’s just the story is written by a local about a fictional place like this one, but without black people’? Hmmm Kevin Williamson, hmmmmm.
2) Capeside is a small place where you can walk or kayak everywhere. Ummm, another no. This one buggered us though because we had envisioned all the sights would be in walking/public transport distance. With a jolt we realised there is no public transport. Like in 5 days we saw neither a bus nor a taxi – and not because there’s an excellent underground train network. After the ‘historic’ downtown, Wilmington is like all those other American towns we passed through; spread out, big retail parks, chain stores and A roads everywhere necessitating a car. Charity, again, you rock.
3) There was only one series of Dawson’s Creek. Well, you could be forgiven for thinking that if you check out the images on all the DC merchandising available in Wilmington – and there’s a lot. In the second series (and there are six) the original four character are joined by a brother-sister duo, Jack and Andie, but everything DC-related in Wilmington features the original four only. Which we found strikingly odd. When we asked a professional about it, we were genuinely surprised by the answer; Jack was gay. This is true, but Jack wasn’t simply ‘the gay one’. Jack starts out charming one of the female leads, making her ex crazy with jealousy while introducing her to a world of art and poetry until he writes a love poem that is interpreted as being about a guy, which opens up a can of worms. Even watching it as an adult, it’s a genuinely moving journey to self-acceptance which is ongoing and constantly challenged throughout the life of the show; it’s not a one-off thing, Jack’s processing of love and hate provided Dawson’s Creek with some seriously touching, powerful drama. Although I don’t know if gay people appreciated the representation. Apparently the conservative forces are still in charge of the discourse in Wilmington and the sympathetic portrayal of a teenager coming out as gay didn’t go down well at all and so they conveniently forget he ever existed. Which is a crying shame not least because his sister Andie was this hilariously then tragically neurotic over-achiever who was instrumental in bringing the warring girls together, although representations of female friendship were never quite on point in DC.
But I digress. We stayed in this gorgeous studio Charity found on air bnb. It’s called an art studio, and the owners Joan and Al were absolutely lovely with a wicked sense of humour. Joan’s paintings, lots of which were of the beautiful locale, provided a fabulous decor and the area we stayed in – Masonboro – was full-on Creekland. A five minute morning stroll would bring us to our own Creek, just one or two away from The creek, and had we not crashed out like toddlers high on the adrenaline rush of each day, it would have been the perfect spot to chillax in. Joan told us that they get a lot of musicians and artists coming to complete or compile their magnum opus’ in the tranquility and I can well believe it. If I ever write a book and hole myself up in a cabin to do so, I have totally found my spot. I figure I’ll get a discount for a long term stay, for a short term one, it was $100 a night between the 2 of us which we found reasonable for a nice bit of peace and quiet and a veranda just like Jen’s.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that One Tree Hill, which finished far more recently, was also filmed in Wilmington. A teen soap made by the same production company who did DC except it focuses on the normal kids who turn popular rather than the too-smart-to-want-to-be-in-the-in-crowd group of DC, it utilised much more of the town’s style and locations. As Tree Hill is supposed to be in North Carolina, every third step, particularly downtown, has some sort of OTH connection. What Charity and I found to be slightly uncomfortably geeky was that while we had independently decided to do this very un-cool roadtrip, apparently Dawson’s Creek has many disciples who do this all the time. When we decided to head for a drink on a Friday night to the bar which Joey worked in in the sixth series, the bartender told me that they get 2 or three people/groups every week due to the Dawson’s Creek connection. For a TV show that finished a decade ago. Those DC fans sure are crazy.
Indeed, when we arrived at the location we had been told was Dawson’s house, it was down a private road which we asked permission to go down (cos we’re proper sticklers like that yeah) and edged gently closer until we met a large sign telling us this was NOT Dawson’s Creek (duh, it’s his house not the creek!) and was Private Property and it had an angry red circle on it. We’d heard stories from local human as well as internet sources that the homeowner liked to prowl his property with a gun to scare off over-keen fans trying to get a glimpse of his yard. Before you suggest that he was well paid for letting the film crew in for exterior shots, apparently dude bought the house later, KNOWING that this house had been used for the TV show. That I do find ridiculous. You bought a house used in a famous TV show and then got upset when fans started coming a-knocking? Hmmmmm. As we tried to work out whether to go further down the side road, a jeep who spotted our ethnic-looking faces and city slicker registration numbers drove up threateningly and suggested we turn around. Having not even sort of asked permission to drive down the private road, we high-tailed it back to publicland. I still wanted to go back another time but Charity was spooked. It may have been for the best, I think I’d rather miss Dawson’s house than be a story for the field negro.
In short, we had an amazing girly week. We were in full shameless regression mode and had a lot of fun. One of the major highlights was actually Wilmington itself. Dawson’s Creek stuff aside (although the town’s tourist centre was actually a great source of info re that) , it was a pleasant place to spend a few days (if you have a car!); one of those places where people nod or say hello, with a laid back vibe . The weather was nice (snow was so bad when I left New York I wasn’t sure I’d make it Washington), the food was varied and good, and downtown Wilmington had a healthy number of independent shops, even if I couldn’t help but notice how even dissent is manufactured and mass-produced these days; the same smiling white 50s housewives with biting commentary express dissatisfaction on both sides of the Atlantic apparently. For a mysterious reason I haven’t quite worked out, Wilmington also seems to have a well-established, serious reggae scene. Chilling on the pier one sleepy Sunday, I bumped into a couple of black dudes who once they heard my accent started raving about Linton Kwesi Johnson, and other artists I am only vaguely familiar with. I’d seen a number of posters promoting shows that looked really good and the encounter served to only further my puzzlement about the absence of black people in Capeside. That America is one complicated place…