Every time I see the pair of electric green palm trees glowing in the night off Highway 55, just past the midpoint between my childhood home in Harnett County and my grown-up home in Wake County, I worry that I have finally lost my mind. They sit at the dip of a long, slow slope, suggesting an oasis just past the county line.

“Have I been on the road too long?” I have asked myself more than once while leaving the city for the country. “Is that a mirage? Am I at last hallucinating over sweets?”

But the inevitable sights of turn signals and break lights or cars sneaking out of a driveway and onto the busy road break the spell, reminding me that what was a desolate strip in my day has now become one of Harnett County’s chief tourist lures, on par with Raven Rock State Park and, well, little else. From early spring until the autumn begins to slide into sweater weather, cars pile in the wide gravel parking lot for the same feature attractionnearly 140 flavors of ice cream, crammed inside a dozen freezers in a building barely fit for a single family.

Scott Wilson started Sunni Sky’s fourteen years ago in an abandoned barbecue shack on a then-lonesome stretch of blacktop that runs from the fringes of Fuquay-Varina through the heart of Angiertogether, the two towns that form the bulk of my childhood memories. He began the business before his two childrenSunni and, yes, Skylarwere teenagers; their childhood portrait has been on one wall since the start, a silent marker of just how long business has been booming. Both kids, Wilson proudly tells me, now work with their dad.

Wilson had other stints in the restaurant industry, including in the ice cream business, before deciding to set out on his own. He even came close to closing a real estate deal for his vision near a shopping center in Durham, but at the last minute, he went looking for another locale, something that felt more like home.

He found it, too. On the second Thursday in June, relatively cool in spite of the late date, dusty coupes wedged between pickup trucks parked at odd angles and little stone benches dotting the weed-laced grass. Children shimmied into white chairs on the porch alongside their parents, and teenagers in cutoff shorts and tank tops shared ribald jokes and ice cream cones between the front door and the highway, one every bit as active as the other.

Inside, a militia of ten teenaged employees, all in uniform, managed the madness of a crowd so dense it suggested a mosh pit. “What would you like to sample?” they’d ask one customer at a time, racing between coolers to grab a thimble-sized serving of cake batter or Nutella, dark almond or whiskey. The floor behind the counter was so slick with melted milk and water from serving spoons that I watched one worker take two quick steps and purposefully slide six feet to secure the next sample. He did it with an effortlessness that suggested it was his move, his trademark for the summer. It certainly caught my eye.

During the last decade, Wilson has stumbled into perfect, cheap publicity campaigns. His “Cold Sweat” ice cream, made from a fiery mix of three peppers, earned him national media attention, especially when those who dared eat it had to sign a legal waiver. Its successor, the extract-laced “Exit Wound,” earned another round of attention. And the boundless variety of Wilson’s constantly updated flavors seems to renew interest every season.

When I finally shuffled my way to the counter and asked for my sample, I indeed requested the “Cold Sweat.” I signed my waiver, ate the stuff, and asked for “Exit Wound.” I signed another waiver, swallowed back the heat, chased it with a spoon of vanilla, and, at last, placed my actual ordera double scoop of caramel praline and crumb cake, please.

I went back outside, took a seat on a bench, and marveled less at the sticky sweets and more at the delighted crowd, all smiles and stuffed faces. It was a quintessential snapshot of summer in a place that, as a kid, I knew well but could have never imagined in this wayas an oasis, as a tourist attraction, as a de facto community center for folks looking to spend a night outside, all because of one man’s ice cream dream.

With this season’s DISH, we consider four other area frozen treats and what they offer or say about our region. From cool Southern desserts turned into ice pops and the sweet shops that offer extravagant dishes for dogs to an empire of Mexican paletas and an outlet of booze-laced milkshakes, each delivers a very different kind of decadence.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Blizzard Warning”