When you cross the Wilkes County line, you enter Junior Johnson country. It's beautiful: a green, moss-draped cathedral of steep hills and winding roads, punctuated with country churches and gas stations that look like they were beamed forward through time from the 1950s.
Which is only fitting. The fifties were the golden age of moonshine running, a time when Wilkes County thundered with the late-night roar of modified V8 engines as bootleggers ran from the law. No one was faster than Junior, a bootlegger who went on to become a NASCAR champion and a cultural icon.
And it all started right here on the back roads of Wilkes County, which served as Junior's high-speed Harvard, teaching him the countless tricks of driving fast in a high-powered car loaded with half a ton of illegal liquor. Junior's dad was one of the state's biggest copper-still operators, and his moonshining career started before he was old enough to hold a driver's licence.
“Didn't need one,” he explains. “I wasn't going to stop anyway.”
When I decided to take a grand driving tour of North Carolina, I decided that Junior's place would be my first stop. I had a brand-new Camaro convertible, and I wanted to get lost in North Carolina's deepest, greenest hills and carve its fastest, trickiest roads. What better adviser could there be than Junior, inventor of the bootlegger turn (a high-velocity spin that lets you evade a police roadblock) and central character of The Last American Hero, the famous Tom Wolfe essay that put moonshining (and NASCAR) on the map?
Junior's place looked like something out of a calendar: Horses grazed behind board fences and a black 1940s Ford sedan with an oversize motor was parked in the driveway, as if a midnight run across the state line was in the offing. Junior served me breakfast in his garage, a metal-sheathed building that serves as a combination repair shop and social centre. A stock car stood in the corner, and a picnic table was set with a breakfast of grits, eggs and liver mush (a southern specialty that Junior was raised on). I sat between Clay Call and Millard Ashley, two of Junior's oldest bootlegger buddies.
The walls were hung with faded newspaper clippings and trophies earned during Junior's long, colourful career – speedway wins, a Hall of Fame induction and a highway with his name on it.
Junior himself seemed unaffected by it all. “Junior's just Junior,” Millard said. “Same as always.”
Junior and his friends knew every road in the territory, paved and otherwise. “I've driven them all,” Junior said. “And I've been chased on them all.” I spread out a North Carolina map on Junior's desk and began mapping out a route.
“Head up into the back woods,” Junior said. “Road won't go straight for long.”
I soon found myself deep in bootleg country, cruising past sleepy farms nestled deep in the hollows. I tried some twisting dirt roads, sliding the Camaro through the turns to get a taste of what it was like for Junior, Millard and Clay in the 1950s. Trees blurred past the windows, and a long tail of dust rose behind the Camaro like the contrail of a low-flying jet. I stopped by a creek that moonshiners once used as a water supply. As the engine cooled, I listened to the wind sighing through the hardwoods and the crow of a distant rooster. I was in driving paradise.
It was time for lunch. I stopped at the Brushy Mountain Café in Millers Creek. It was a simple, meticulously clean place that specializes in down-home cooking. (I ordered pulled pork and fried okra.) The café's main claim to fame is the fact that Junior eats there.
Junior's social gravitas is hard to exaggerate. Everyone in North Carolina seems to know him. I got out of a speeding ticket by invoking his name. Like Muhammad Ali or Rocket Richard, he is the ultimate embodiment of a type – in this case, the hard-driving, slow-talking good ol' boy who remained true to his humble roots after achieving wealth and fame.