When my brother was 19, he and two friends took a road trip across the U.S. He called me as they were crossing Illinois.
"How's it going?" I asked.
"We're having a great time, but none of the restaurants serve biscuits or sweet tea, and you can't smoke anywhere," he reported.
"Come home immediately," I said. "You have obviously traversed into a foreign country - or hell."
Never miss a local story.
At the time, we were both connoisseurs of sweet tea, biscuits and tobacco. I never thought that my state, home of Tobacco Road, would enact a smoking ban. My brother's road trip was just 10 years ago, and today it is illegal to smoke in N.C. bars and restaurants.
I am not a smoker anymore, but the ban still bothers me. It bothers me on behalf of other smokers, who are systematically being defined as second-class citizens even when their second-hand smoke is restricted to outdoor areas.
While I quit mostly for my health, because my kids need me around, I also quit because smoking no longer matches the image of successful adulthood in our society. I'm not saying that it should, but I also don't believe that all smokers fit the stereotypes.
A smoker can be educated, successful and even physically fit. Most smokers I know are courteous enough to step outside without having to be commanded to do so.
What bothers me about the smoking ban, though, is more than just the isolation of smokers. "Tobacco Road" is a term whose origins will soon be as obscure as those of "Tar Heel," something that, despite its undeniable legacy in North Carolina, both newcomers and natives will have to learn about in history books. (The term, used as a title of a book by Erskine Caldwell set in Georgia, migrated north to refer to an area of North Carolina, especially when referring to college basketball.)
As a girl who grew up on a tobacco farm, this makes me sad.
My earliest memories are playing see-saw on the tobacco trailers and leaping row-to-row over freshly plowed fields.
As a child I was aware only of the majesty of the tobacco plant and the status of the tobacco grower in my community.
Tobacco in its natural state, before it is processed into cigarettes, is remarkable. The fuzz-covered leaves of a mature plant are as thick as leather, and the plant itself is several feet tall - taller than I was as a child.
When it was time for harvesting, or "priming," the heavy, warm fragrance of curing tobacco blanketed the farm.
My dad would head out early one fall morning with the trailers full of cured leaves, and return in the evening with a stack of hundred-dollar bills. It was magical.
Despite my nostalgic childhood scenes, I am aware of the ugly images so readily conjured by tobacco.
My grandfather's truck sported not only a "Pride in Tobacco" bumper sticker but also a brown streak of dried tobacco juice down the driver's-side door. Our ceiling was yellow over the kitchen table, where Dad sat and smoked.
Uglier still, I've had family succumb to cancer and other smoking-related diseases. My brother still smokes, and I have no doubt that our choices will catch up with us someday.
But they are our choices, and we as citizens have a right to defend them. Smoking is a choice, and a bad one at that. But whether to patronize an establishment that has a smoking section also is (I mean, was) a choice.
North Carolinians have a rich history in tobacco production and a longstanding debate over the dangers of tobacco consumption.
But to focus on either of these topics for too long is to lose sight of the real problem: whether government should regulate smoking in bars and restaurants. I'm a grown woman, with my own stack of hundreds, and I can choose how to spend them.
For us to support legislation on an issue that we could control with our own wallets is wrong. Some things are just better in their natural state - no matter which state you're in.