The two-lane highway, once filled with the sounds of semis and vacationers, appears to be a forgotten route for most travelers.
Cruising through Mars Hill, North Carolina, to Erwin, the area seems a bit ostracized since the completion of the Interstate 26 corridor nearly 13 years ago.
Interstate 26’s repercussions can still be felt today on U.S. Highway 23: only a few businesses located along the country route have survived the traffic drought.
One of those is LC Market.
The country gas station sat empty for many years before an Indiana couple breathed life back into the building.
The doors now stand wide open during the day with an occasional yard sale happening in the parking lot.
Inside the store, Connie Blankenship, a resident of Mars Hill for 20 years, talks about how U.S. Highway 23 was before the interstate dominated traffic flow.
“Before the interstate, all of the big trucks and all of the semis had to travel this road (to get to Asheville or Johnson City),” Blankenship said.
But the narrow road’s sharp turns proved fatal for many drivers.
Blankenship recalls a semi carrying a load of bricks turning over just up the road from where she stood.
In the winter, those wrecks happened twofold.
“The road would be covered in snow, and you’d finally make it to the top and there would be a tree down,” Blankenship said.
U.S. Highway 23 became notorious for its dangerous curves.
Blankenship estimated about 50 tractor trailer wrecks occurred on U.S. Highway 23 in the 20 years before the interstate opened.
The U.S. 23/I-26 Corridor Association, a group of North Carolina business leaders, lobbied for the creation of the interstate from Sams Gap to Asheville in the late 80s and early 90s.
The Mountain Express reported in 1992 about a brochure published by the association that said, “The 11 miles between Sams Gap and Mars Hill has been a traveler’s nightmare.”
The group was worried Tennessee would complete its side of the interstate before North Carolina would, which would cause the interstate to turn from a four-lane to a two-lane at the state line.
“Danger looms if we do not meet Tennessee’s improvement standards and schedule,” the brochure was quoted as saying in the Mountain Express’ article.
According to Blankenship, a number of residents have left the area over the years due to the lack of commerce and traffic.
“A lot of the people have moved away because this isn’t a main thoroughfare anymore,” Blankenship said. “You’ll get a lot of old-timers around here, but that’s about it.”
Up the road a few miles, Little Creek Cafe is one of the few places to grab a bite to eat. Many “old-timers” loiter around the cafe speaking of the times before the interstate was built.
Owner Theresa Thomas said every morning she can count on the same people to stop by for a cup of coffee.
“If they’re not here, then it’s like, ‘Where are they at?’” said Thomas, who’s been the owner for eight years. “They’re usually off camping or something is wrong if they aren’t here.”
With a menu dedicated solely to country cooking, the Little Creek Cafe is now entering its busiest time of the year.
“In the winter, we usually don’t get a lot of business, but in summertime it does pick up,” Thomas said.
Retirees from Florida account for the majority of Little Creek Cafe’s business, she said.
An occasional Appalachian Trail hiker will venture inside for a bite to eat or to seek shelter from the rain.
With the 13th anniversary of the interstate approaching, U.S. Highway 23 seems to have adapted to its sluggish traffic flow. The area has begun attracting residents for other reasons.
LC Market’s owner, Carrie Seewalk-Bleke, cited the area’s peace and quiet as the reason her husband and her moved from Indiana to Mars Hill, N.C., and opened the desolate country store.
“We just wanted a different place than Indiana, and this was it,” Seewalk-Bleke said.
Email Zach Vance at [email protected] Follow Zach Vance on Twitter @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP