There’s a 350-year-old tree on the campus of the University of North Carolina, known as the Davie Poplar. It’s over 100 feet tall, and if you were able to climb to the top of it (you’re not) you could see the heart of Chapel Hill, Franklin Street, and all the restaurants and stores that line it. Some of these places have been there for decades, but others are almost brand new, pizza joints, clothing shops, art galleries, museum stores. It’s here on this main block where students and our town denizens go to eat, drink, march by on Halloween in their glorious costumes, and where bonfires are built when we celebrate our national championships.
This is the juxtaposition Chapel Hill is: that just a few yards away from an ancient tree that’s older than our country is a dress store and a noodle shop.
And this is its allure. UNC is the first public university in the country, and to this day offers one of the best educations – for any price – you’ll find anywhere. Novelists and Nobel Laureates, distracted by literary and scientific thoughts, have been known to bump into other by accident, apologize, and move on, kicking through the red and orange leaves of fall like students themselves.
It’s been this way, more or less, since 1795 – except back then the town did not have wireless, free bus service, micro-breweries, or nationally-recognized award-winning chefs.
The summers here are warm, and easy-going, and the town itself feels emptied out; parking places are easier to come by, as our reservations. But come fall around 30,000 students arrive, and life changes as the town becomes lively. Football, and then basketball, happens, sometimes-snowy winters, blissful springs, and street fairs and music festivals, and the best books and the best beer to be found. Season to season Orange County, North Carolina and its prized towns of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough offer the visitor, the student and its residents its own brand of magic, an American dream.