To the land of the million Azaleas,

In the sweet small town of Bakersville, on the top of the mountain lies the world’s largest natural rhododendron garden of which the people are so proud. I had traveled six hours and approximately three hundred miles to be there on that pageant stage, extending our warm greetings from Wilmington and the North Carolina Azalea Festival. It was the perfect appearance to kick off my reign as the Azalea Festival Princess, and I was reminded at every turn of Bakersville’s long winding roads of what lies at the heart of my role. Southern hospitality and passion for the place they call home are what keep this town ticking. In a place without a movie theater, ice cream shop, or a mall, residents here might ruminate on the luxuries that they lack, but instead seem to relish the blessings that they do not.  A man, obviously very important to the community by the way that he was received, addressed the crowd attending the competition on Friday night to thank the Father for everything that He’d given us. Even something as small as new seats for the middle school auditorium that we were seated in was hailed as something precious. What could be more special than a place where neighbor and neighbor are so intimately acquainted that the pageant MC regaled us all with the story of how he and his cute sweet wife fell in love forty-eight years ago? What could be more special than a pageant judge who would take us under her wing when my mother and I were hopelessly lost the next afternoon? What could be more special than strangers, seeing me caught in the morning’s rain without an umbrella, taking a wet backside so I could squeeze underneath their tiny piece of clear plastic? Is there anything so sweet as a girl moved to tears when she is informed that she has won the privilege of representing the rhododendrons that she cherishes so dearly? Wilmington, you are just that special to me. Whether I’m on the stage professing my love for you, or simply sharing you with a newfound Bakersville acquaintance, my passion for my city is not kept quiet. Sitting in Dot’s Cafe enjoying a chilled piece of peanut butter pie, I was hit with a sad, sweet craving for Kilwin’s despite the decadence of the food. Traipsing through the many Bakersville art galleries, as stunning as they were, reminded me of the ones that I love at home, especially Figments. Wilmington inspires me, pushes me to pursue an ever higher caliber of the excellence that it already possesses. And now that I’m home, I know that your arms are held out to welcome me back just as surely as I know my name.

Your Azalea Festival Princess,
Tori Mathew

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