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North Carolina Travel Guide
Hog Days in Heaven: Hillsborough, NC

I once spent some time in the Hillsborough jail. Actually it was only overnight and for an offense of so little consequence I’d feel silly now even mentioning it. Two years later I was summoned back to the very same courthouse for jury duty. What a great country.

And what a great town, Hillsborough, North Carolina. I ducked out on the jury thing with some lame excuse related to “professional obligations” (right), but in retrospect I wish I hadn’t. I don’t know, but maybe some big important trial came up. I imagine myself sequestered with eleven of my noble peers, struggling with moral and forensic complexities, sending out to Lou-E-G’s for tuna melts and milkshakes, anything we want. Nights would be spent at the peaceful Inn at the Teardrops (“Since 1767”), walks beneath the gentle rustle of the fall twilight, past the Eagle Lodge on King St., up Churton, by Kelsey’s Korner and the Mercantile Center, conversing with the locals, but not about the trial.

Hillsborough is at once typical and atypical of small-town South. It’s got a Wal-Mart. I-85 clips through, thus ample fast-food franchises and a curious little amalgam of trinketry shops anchored by an ice-skating rink called the Daniel Boone Village, which no one can adequately explain. The KFC has a buffet that’s a big hit with the after-church crowd; the old independent barbecue house just closed down.

To call Hillsborough a “sleepy” town would be imprecise; there always seems to be a certain low-level energy circulating these streets, and an earnest, decided bent toward the historical. In fact, Hillsborough is just lousy with State Historical Markers – more per square block I’d wager than any town from Salem to St. Augs. You’ll learn all you care to know and more about such characters as Moses A. Curtis: botanist, Episcopalian priest, corpse. You’ll learn that the Village of Occaneechi was located here on the gentle banks of the Eno, a popular stop along the Great Trading Path, inhabited ca. 1680-1710, and visited by the explorer John Lawson in 1700. But none of these make for particularly alluring tourist attractions these days. And, if anything, Hillsborough – a town where the high-school girls have big open faces – is a town that seems to try just a trifle harder.

Which would explain why for one twenty-four-hour period each summer, a very dramatic transformation comes over the town. It’s called Hog Days. I’d never been in attendance for Hog Days before, but I’d meant to be and the time had come. No longer a resident of Orange County, of which Hillsborough is the county seat, I was prepared to return to Hillsborough of my own volition.

****

The fact is, Kathy – my cohort, and a damned talented photographer – and I had been thinking pig for several weeks. It had all started when, in my capacity as a sometime cub reporter for a local weekly, I was sent out to cover the pig races. Kathy came along to preserve the moment.

The event was something called the Winn-Dixie Rib Cook-Off and Music Festival, held at the rock ‘n’ roll amphitheater they put in a field the other side of Raleigh. It featured ribateurs from eight states and Canada, KC & the Sunshine Band and Frankie “Sea Cruise” Ford, just to name a few. But it was a side attraction, Robinson’s Famous Racing Pigs, that I’d come to see. It was just the sort of choice assignment the news desk generally shuffled my way, and I went imbued with a sense of mission: It was to be a muckraking job, exposition of the horror that surely was the life of a pig bred to run.

Being from Arkansas, Kathy is pretty comfortable around pigs (some suggest a bit too comfortable; but judge not, I always say), and I’ve certainly been around my share. But down on the farm they don’t tend to show you a lot. Get them out in public, though, and boy-howdy will they ever posture. Frankly it was bit unsettling. The juxtaposition of swine on the oval and ribs on the grill wasn’t lost on this reporter, let me tell you.

Oh, I had it all figured: piglets wrenched from mother’s teat, cruel and rigorous training, shoat slavery in our midst. You stampede seven times a day around a 150-foot track wearing a polyester placemat with a number on it, coaxed ever onward by hostile wagerers, and to what end? Your racing days are over; barbecue sauce, buddy. Soo-ey.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the track: We met John Capobianca, pig-racing magnate and a hell of a nice guy. “Cap,” he insisted. “Just call me Cap.” And as much as I wanted to maintain my best Mike Wallace, I did call him Cap. I also called Percy (Cap’s favorite), “Percy,” and Tammy Faye Bacon I addressed simply as “Miss Tammy.”

I liked Cap and I liked his pigs – there was a genuine and mutual affection between them that was infectious. Percy, Cap and his dog all travel together in a camper, with the ret of the pigs in commodious tow, and I had visions of them headed on to the next gig, in Spartanburg, say, or Wheeling, WV, singing along with the radio, counting Volkswagens on the interstate.

“We do all right, don’t we, Percy?” Cap asked, as Percy danced in little circles.

“We’re all right?... Yeah; we’re okay.”

“Percy’s the supervisor,” Cap told me, confidentially.

These pigs were only about four months old, just little buggers, weighing in at around 25 pounds, but, “When they become just a year old,” Cap told the race crowd, “they’ll be pushing 400 pounds. So if you go and get one for the kids,” though no one seemed so inclined, “it’s your own darn fault.”

Robinson’s Famous Racing Pigs is owned by Cap’s longtime friend Carlotta Robinson, and is based in Tampa. Robinson’s has, in addition to eight touring companies, two permanent shows, one in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and one in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

“I’ve yet to find a pig I couldn’t train,” Cap told us. “Just repetition, doing it over and over.” That, and the promise of an Oreo at the end of every oval.

“It’s no secret,” Cap confided. “The pig is fifth in animal intelligence – that’s smarter than a horse or a dog. Plus the horse has a rider to guide it around the track; the dog has that little rabbit to follow. But the pig … neither one.

“But he does have a sweet tooth.” And Oreos are his favorite. So one Oreo is placed at the end of the track. “That’s for the winner.” And then another is crumbled up. “You see,” said Cap with a sigh, “it’s just like life: The winner gets the cookie and the loser gets the crumb.”

Things were starting to get kind of heavy, and, still hoping to salvage something from all this, I thought I’d try telling Cap the one about the guy stranded on the desert island with a pig and a Doberman. After a few months, the guy begins to get lonely, and, gosh darn it, that pig starts looking pretty sexy – all pink and round and whatnot. But every time the guy tries to make his move, the Doberman lunges toward him – obviously jealous of the man’s intentions. This goes on, till one day the guy spots a gorgeous woman out on the horizon, desperately trying to make shore. He swims out, drags her in, gives her mouth-to-mouth, saves her life. “Oh,” she gasps, “you’ve saved my life. How can I ever repay you?” The man scratches his beard for a moment, pensive; cuts a glance at the pig, then the dog, and replies, “Well, would you mind taking that dog for a walk?”

But I couldn’t do it – couldn’t bring myself to tell Cap that story. I placed my bet on pig #4 (Magnum P.I.G.), lost, and sauntered off for another rib, another day.

****

Cap had told me that some pigs live to be 20-25 years old, and no thanks to the aforementioned 12th Annual Hog Days of Hillsborough. The role of the pig in Hog Days festivities is of a distinctly different nature from that we had just experienced. But Percy was now safely down the highway, and Kathy and I had decided to attend the Days with no particular agenda.

Hog Days activities commenced at 6:30 on a sticky hot Friday evening. A stage was set up in the parking lot behind the new courthouse, where we were entertained by the Carolina Heartland Cloggers, Elite Feet and the Bass Mountain Boys, who did a rendition of Bill Monroe’s classic “Footprints in the Snow” that was absolutely to die for.

I should say now that if you’ve got no taste for bluegrass music, maybe the whole Hog Days thing just isn’t for you. Later that night, there were jam sessions around campfires and gas grills, but it’s more than just the playing. I don’t know how better to explain it than to say that Hog Days is just a “bluegrassy” kind of thing. That and a “buddy” kind of thing, as in Budweisers, as in mucho cerveza.

At least that’s true of the preliminary stage, and, frankly, the prelim, assembled over in the Orange County Government Services Center parking lot, is the main event.

I refer now to the Hog Days Barbecue Cook-Off: 32 two-person teams from Orange, Person and Chatham counties and one from all the way over in Rocky Mount, each having been brought either two halves of a pig or a half and a couple shoulders delivered in the back of a golf cart by purposeful men with clipboards and resembling Percy only in the darkest recesses of our  -- Kathy’s and mine – collective conscience. But we were getting over that, agenda-less and all. It still felt a little like dropping by the Goebels’ for bridge … but we were getting over it.

At precisely 6:30 p.m., 6,000 pounds of pig purchased by the town of Hillsborough went on the grills – some the good old-fashioned wood-burning variety, but mostly gas. By 6:35 p.m., Kathy and I had somehow managed to ferret out the very worst bad boys of the whole entire assembly, in the persons of hometowners Roy Neems, Tommy Howard and a rotating entourage. By 6:40 p.m., we’d learned that there were a couple Budweisers “with out names on them.” By 6:45 p.m., we’d had our first taste of Crown. By 7:00 p.m., Roy was plastered.

Like every other team, Roy and Tommy had a secret recipe; and, like every other team, they weren’t telling. We knew only that it entailed Budweiser beer, but the sauce comes much later anyway, and what we had at this point were great slabs of pink pig, resting in customized 25-gallon drums, having begun an elaborate cooking process that would continue through the night at 180 to 200 degrees. First prize was $500.

Memories get a little vague at this juncture, and remain so for about eight hours. There’s guitars and drink and song and drink, and friends stop by to pass the night. Of a Friday evening, Roy and Tommy are normally over at Blind Melon’s Tavern tipping a few there, but so as they won’t feel left out, Blind Melon’s has come to them, all except the pool table. Steaks are grilled on a pony-keg version of the oil drum; the Crown runs dry; more appears; Tommy falls down and gets a little sleep.

A woman named Tony from West Virginia tells us that where she comes from they don’t call them “pig pickins’,” they call them “hog roasts,” and, “When you get married, you have a party that lasts for days and days.” When her brother got married, he had a hog roast on Grampa’s 45-acre farm, and people came from all over (“Hell, they didn’t have to know us; there was a party goin’ on.), and her daddy got so drunk they lost him for three days: “Said he had enough money and was going to go buy him a new Cadillac.”

By and by, they found him in the hayloft. “The marriage didn’t last,” Tony allowed. “It must not have been a good hog,” -- and with that, doubled herself over in fits of giggles.

I asked her if her daddy ever did get that car. “He didn’t need a new Cadillac,” she replied, tears streaming down her cheeks and the Crown about to come up her nose. “He’d just traded his shotgun for an old Dodge.”

****

Cut now to 6:30 a.m., as historic Hillsborough proper begins to rustle – the cocks crow, a radio hums, a store owner displaces some stoop dust. An old sedan filled with Latino migrant workers heads down Hwy. 70 toward the flea market in Mebane.

Somebody’s spinster great-aunt, well past retirement, is rolling biscuits over at Hardee’s.

But a haze hangs over Hillsborough; hovers – the morning light is first refracted, then diffused, enveloped in a great third-world supper fire, the likes of which must surely waken the Occaneechi with its pervasion, an aroma – a swill of smoke, swine, sweat, and a hint of gas – that’ll creep within your cavities and cling to these walls till sometime mid-November, and not at all unpleasant.

But now you must listen: It’s the chop-chop echo, and this story is nothing without it. Hillsborough has awakened, and it listens. Chop-chop … chop-chop-chop. Six thousand pounds of pig have been purchased by a town of 5,000 residents in hopes that this afternoon perhaps 30,000 others will come to call.

Why pig?... Why not?

Chop-chop-chop. Hillsborough awakens to the sound of meat cleavers, a chorus of them, the two hands of 64 men and women in that first curious light, chop-chop-chop, as last night’s pig is ineffably transformed into today’s barbecue, affirmation, repetition. Great, tender, succulent slabs of America’s other white meat are wordlessly offered from the ends of knives – delicious – it’s all very sacred.

Chop-chop, and the day approaches. Trucks roll in pulling shuttered funnel-cake booths. A 15-foot Smokey the Bear lies on a flatbed, one hand lifted to the heavens. Roy and Tommy have nearly, though not quite, sobered.

Chop-chop-chop, the morning echoes chop-chop. It sweeps across Churton and over to King; the new courthouse is filled with it. At the Hillsborough Presbyterian Church, established in 1816, it passes over the headstones of three centuries’ young and old, buried side-by-side, sweeping south and westerly past Ray Motors and the Daniel Boone Village, eluding the interstate, a caterwaul, a cant.

Chop-chop-chop. And to a groggy reporter, removed for a brief moment, it arrives from a distance, gentle and persistent, seeming for all the world like the sound of tiny little hammers hitting tiny little nails, securing shingles atop the roofs of tiny little homes.

Hillsborough awakens.

There’s really nothing more to be said about Hog Days; the rest is pretty much anticlimactic. Maybe 30,000 people do arrive; air-conditioned buses shuttle them over from the Wal-Mart. There’s a frog-jumping contest, all sorts of entertainment, some jumbo show-pigs, including one named Fonzie who once rode all the way to Pennsylvania in a Chevy, slept in a tent and, facilitating himself at rest areas, never once made a mess in the car. Somebody wins the $500 first prize and then all the barbecue is thrown together and sold for $2.50 in sandwiches that you have to stand in line to get a ticket for. There’s funnel cake and fries. The heat picks up fast, the haze lifts, it’s in the 90s by early afternoon. Roy and Tommy don’t win anything, and don’t stick around. They’re red-eyed and beat. But maybe they’ll stop by Blind Melon’s for just one more.

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