I had been to Columbia,  the capital city of South Carolina on a couple of occasions, but I had never been all that impressed.  I figured I just had not looked at it hard enough.

My newlywed parents and infant older sister had lived for two years 1953-55 in Columbia, where my father had a job teaching Spanish at Columbia College.   I was born just a month after they left Columbia for him to go to graduate school in Colorado.  (He quit that after two years and we moved back to his hometown of Norfolk/Virginia Beach, where he got into the car business.)  Quite a few times during my upbringing Dad had told me about the social life in Columbia at that time, that “people at cocktail parties always ended up talking about The War.”   And The War he was referring to was not the recently ended World War Two, it was the Civil War.    My late father was from Virginia and my mother is from Texas, so they were both Southerners.   Still, I asked Mom about Columbia just recently and she said the same thing, that the young faculty at the college were mostly from somewhere else, and they were all surprised at the amount of conversation about General Sherman.

It seemed the southwest side of Columbia might be interesting.   I drove down there four hours from Chapel Hill and parked my car thirty something miles from downtown Columbia, in the twin town of Batesburg-Leesville.    There is a Walmart near its downtown where I felt safe leaving my car.   I took out the bicycle.

 

NORTH Carolina has lost a lot of the atmosphere in its small towns because the NCDOT has put four lane highways right through the middle of most of them.   South Carolina, on the other hand, has built roads with a more nuanced view.   Batesville-Leesburg is nine miles from I-20, but otherwise the town is accessed only by two lane roads.   It allows the town to feel more like a town and less like a strip mall. Even the Walmart fronts a two lane highway.

I had just started biking but it was already time for lunch.   I had actually been to Batesville-Leesburg on one previous occasion and had had great barbecue at Jackie Hite’s.      I was on my way to there when I passed the Inside Out Cafe .  It had lots of cars parked outside, always a good sign.   I really wanted something healthier than pork fat, so I thought I would give this a try.

The staff of the restaurant could not have been nicer and the chicken salad sandwich was delicious, enlivened with bits of fresh grapes.   It was the kind of place women of a certain age would go for lunch.    There was a pleasant outdoor patio on the back.    Christian images were all over the walls.

 

 

The bathroom wallpaper was New York City.   It took me a minute to get this, but this is about 9-11, right?

 

One young woman in particular seemed to be in charge.   I heard her say something about having gone to culinary school.   She had a T-shirt with this quote on the back.

 

The front of her shirt was more direct; three icons and the words:  PRO-GOD

PRO-LIFE

PRO-GUN

 

ok…

After lunch I had a nice time watching a freight train pass in front of the restaurant, then climbed back on the bicycle, heading out of town.   It would be nineteen miles down the original US-1 to the next, larger town of Lexington.

 

 

 

The bike ride to Lexington was fine, really.   I eventually managed to get onto some secondary roads.

 

Lexington has grown considerably in the past few years, new subdivisions in the growing sprawl around Columbia.   I really like a coffee with milk, a latte, in the late afternoon.   I found a coffee house just a couple of doors down from the courthouse in downtown Lexington.    The coffee was nice, the service professional.

Only after sitting here a while and reading my Kindle did I realize that this coffee house was owned by, or served as an extension of, a particular church.     Religious art was on the walls.  People at the next table were three women talking to a guy who I realized was a pastor.   He had ridden his motorcycle to the coffee house, which was full of people on a Friday afternoon.

 

 

It was a pleasant atmosphere, no one bothered me, and after reading for a while I got back on the bike and threaded through miles and miles of Columbia suburbs.     I had to go on major roads because all the residential streets were non-connecting.   The bicycling was not that pleasant and neither was the scenery, although I did stumble on one nice piece of googie architecture.

In an African-American part of West Columbia I rode by this place, the Best Hash & Rice in S.C.     Someone was smoking meat in the parking lot.   At four-thirty in the afternoon I just was not hungry.

 

There was a bike lane on a wide highway, which made it reasonably safe but not pleasant as I saw downtown Columbia in the distance.

 

I first rode into the Congaree Vista neighborhood, which is a group of recently renovated former warehouses.    Like many such areas that are quickly redeveloped all at once, there were a lot of chain restaurants.

 

Still, there was a brewpub that looked locally owned, and I stopped so I could figure out what to do next.    I sat around a bunch of preppy looking young people and enjoyed a pleasant beer.     I found a reasonably priced hotel room about a mile away, in the center of the original downtown.

The Sheraton Columbia is in a very narrow seventeen story former bank building from 1913.

 

 

The University of South Carolina is a pretty large school, and downtown Columbia now seems to be mostly a college town, with the benefits that brings.    One of the 1970’s office high rises has been converted into student housing.   Later on that evening I went out, determined to have a seat at a bar and a healthy meal but at a reasonable price.  I had felt that on these bike trips I had to quit having $70.00 dinners.   Just two blocks down the street, at Main Street Public House I had an $11.00 Margherita pizza and two $6.00 glasses of wine.   Everybody was watching college basketball on TV.

 

I could say that I spent the next day looking around the interesting parts of Columbia, maybe finding Columbia College or my parents old neighborhood, wherever that was.   Or maybe exploring early 20th century residential neighborhoods like Shandon.   But I did not.    Cloudy skies were predicted but the reality was a cold rain.    It rained quite hard that morning; when it stopped briefly I had no choice other than to get on the bike and start riding west back toward Batesburg-Leesville.    After about six miles the rain started up again and I ducked into a Krispy Kreme doughnut store.    I sat there quite a while, eating my doughnut and drinking my decaf coffee, watching the West Columbia world go by.

 

The rain finally stopped.   I headed out.   I passed this interesting building.

Yes, I eventually biked back to Batesburg-Leesville, and the Walmart parking lot, and our white Honda.   But something happened that bothered me.    I have been doing these kinds of bicycle rides since I was about twelve years old, fifty years ago.   I have often bicycled in a way that pissed off some motorist, and they would say something.  The anger was provoked.     But until three weeks ago, 140 miles from here on another ride in Dillon, South Carolina I had hardly ever remembered someone showing unprovoked visceral hatred towards me and my bicycle, whatever that represents.     In Dillon, a pickup truck honked at me and some angry words came out of the window, I cannot remember what they were.    But I clearly was not stopping traffic; there was no traffic around.

Fast forward three weeks and I was on US1, just a mile or two from Batesburg-Leesville, which had a wide shoulder and I was not slowing down traffic.   Two young men in one of those jacked up pickup trucks intentionally roared by me very closely.    The man on the passenger side give me a very vigorous and intense one finger salute.    I had done nothing to him.   Thirty minutes later the same truck roared by me once again, trying to come close and scare me with their loud non-mufflered engine.

As a past middle aged white man with decent social skills, I pretty much can go anywhere and do anything.   This gives me a tiny sliver of knowledge of what it is like to be hated for something one has no control over.   I feel for those less fortunate than me.   I hate to blame this on Trump, but has he somehow inspired people to act on those politically incorrect thoughts that they previously kept bottled up?

Robeson County NC does not get much good press.  It is one of the poorest counties in North Carolina.   Wikipedia describes its population as one third white, one third black, and one third Lumbee American Indian.    The state of North Carolina recognizes the Lumbees as an official Native American tribe, although the federal government offers only limited recognition.

I had remembered all the press coverage Robeson County got back in 1988, when two Lumbee Indians took over a newspaper office at gunpoint, to protest local corruption.  One was Eddie Hatcher.  After he was imprisoned many radicals considered him a political prisoner.  He had a very complex story, broke the law in other ways, and was in and out of jail.  He died in the state penitentiary in 2009.

I knew Robeson County has had economic setbacks.   Until 2001 most of the world’s supply of Chuck Taylor All-Star basketball shoes were made here.   I really did not know anything else about the place, except the land would be flat.

The county seat and largest town in Robeson County is Lumberton, population 22,000.   It is 125 miles south of my home in Chapel Hill, on I-95 near the South Carolina line.   I parked our car in the Walmart on the far north side of Lumberton at eleven on a Tuesday morning and pulled my Surley bicycle out of the trunk.

 

I hatched a plan in the car on the way down.   I decided to ride south towards Dillon, South Carolina, maybe seeing the tourist trap South of the Border.    Ultimately the route came out like this:

The north side of Lumberton was much more prosperous than I expected.  It was a beautiful day.

 

The American dream; perfect lawn,  a pickup truck, and a front porch with American flag pillows.

 

The older parts of Lumberton

 

Downtown Lumberton was pleasant, but the only building that seemed full of people was the courthouse.   While it looks brand new, I learn it is a 1975 renovation of an older building, with a new facade in 2005.   The building looks depressing,  like it is celebrating its power to imprison its citizens.

Other parts of downtown were attractive but mostly unoccupied.

There is this nice modernist building.   It used to be a bank but apparently is now empty.

After I bicycled across the Lumber River there were miles of poorer African-American neighborhoods.   After that, the landscape opened up.

Trailers across the landscape.

The office of a religious radio station was this nice piece of modernism, sitting alongside the highway.

 

The highway passed across the occasional swamp.

Twelve miles south of Lumberton is the town of Fairmont.   Over on I-95 (on another trip) I had seen a sign  “HISTORIC DOWNTOWN FAIRMONT, NEXT EXIT”

I wanted to see what the commotion was about.  Despite the sign, Fairmont, population 2600, did not look like anything special.

 

This semi-abandoned house must have been attractive in its day.

 

South Carolina was just a little further down the highway.

 

When you enter South Carolina annoying rumble strips appear on the side of the road.

 

I got to Dillon, South Carolina in time for a late lunch at a restaurant with an unusual name, especially for rural South Carolina.

 

 

My steak and cheese sandwich was quite good.   I asked my server about the restaurant’s name; she said the owner, who is from the country of Jordan, had first moved to Massachusetts, then to here.

After lunch I bicycled around Dillon, population 6,600.   One of Dillon’s claims to fame is that it is the hometown of former Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke.    He played in the Dillon High School band before becoming class valedictorian and going off to Harvard.    While at Harvard, he came home summers to work at South of the Border.

`

 

 

There was no decent place to stay right in town so I found a room at the Quality Inn out near the I-95 interchange.    I still wanted to bike a little more so I cruised around on the farm roads outside of town.

 

BC Steak & BBQ is one of those Southern places with a big buffet of greasy meat and vegetables.  I got mine To Go and ate in my motel room next door,  so I could have my dinner with the wine that I had bought at the Food Lion.

 

The next morning I woke up and watched Morning Joe, then packed up and pushed out.    I had always associated South of the Border with Dillon SC, but SOTB is not really in Dillon, it is six miles north of Dillon on the North Carolina border.

South Carolina has a libertarian streak that attracts North Carolinians:  motorcycle riders are not required to wear a helmet, it is faster to get married here, and most fireworks are legal.   I am not sure why someone built and then closed down all these tittie bars.  These places were north of Dillon and just south of South of the Border.

 

Topless Reflexxions Bar

 

 

 

 

I thought everybody knew about South of the Border, but my friend Lyman, who is from Louisiana and Texas, was clueless.    It is probably the East Coast’s most famous tourist trap, begun in 1950 as a place to buy fireworks and beer, when neither was available in adjoining Robeson County, North Carolina.  Its now politically incorrect signs of a “Mexican” named Pedro appear nearly every mile for over a hundred miles in either direction on I-95, preying on the New York-Florida car traffic.    For over sixty years it has included restaurants, motels, and an amusement park, among other stuff.    I think most of it now looks dated, built at a time when there was NOT a McDonald’s at every I-95 interchange.  Maybe today it can be considered folk art.   Approaching it by bicycle on two lane route US-301, one gets a different perspective from than from I-95.   The signs start many miles away.

 

 

 

 

 

Then I stumbled onto the real thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I only slowed down to take pictures and kept pedaling.   Continuing up US-301 just beyond SOTB there is the very small town of Rowland NC.   It reminded me of something my late father told me, that US-1 was the original north/south highway from the Northeast to Virginia to Florida, replaced later by US-301.   That was replaced by I-95.    Each highway has motels that reflect the era in which they were built.    Rowland NC, on US-301,  has several motels from the nineteen fifties.   I somehow doubt that now many long distance travelers stay in these places.

 

 

Did they put up this fence so the locals don’t know who is sleeping with whom?

 

Earlier in the day, just north of Dillon,  I had seen other motels.

 

 

 

 

North of Rowland NC I pedaled up US-301.    This road closely parallels I-95.    For a U.S. highway, there was hardly any traffic, a car every five minutes or so.

 

 

How many songs talk about a crossroads?   Robert Johnson channeled by Eric Clapton of Cream:   I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees.  

For the last few miles into Lumberton, even though there still was no traffic on US301, the road closely followed I-95 and I could watch the truck traffic.  It was a gentle peaceful ride, in a noisy sort of way.

 

There is a levee that surrounds central Lumberton, so I could finish the ride into Lumberton on a bike path.

 

 

Mardi Gras translated from French means Fat Tuesday.  In New Orleans it is both a season and a day.   The celebration is a ramp-up; parades and parties start shortly after New Years Day and continues for over a month.  Activity increases in intensity until the culmination on the Tuesday before Lent.

Mardi Gras Day, that final Tuesday, is the biggest party day of all.  It is a daytime event that starts early and ends early.   Some locals pride themselves on starting the party at a very early hour, say 6:00 AM.    Most of the party is over by 5:00 PM.   Parades go on all day.

One of the most mysterious parts of Fat Tuesday is the Mardi Gras Indians, African-Americans who dress up like American-Indians.    Supposedly they do not actually “parade; ”  they just appear, usually in poor African-American neighborhoods, unannounced, to do symbolic battle against other “tribes” of “Indians.”  The Indians are men that have spent a year or more sewing their own costumes.

I had never seen a Mardi Gras Indian on Mardi Gras Day.   The only time I ever saw these MG Indians was at a funeral for one of them back in 2015, which we learned about from the local alternative newspaper.   I took this photo at that 2015 event.

 

 

The first parade of Mardi Gras Day is Zulu, run by the elite of the New Orleans African-American community.  Zulu starts at 8:00 AM in an African-American part of the city but soon joins the usual parade route through Uptown New Orleans.

I was in New Orleans with my wife Tootie and her sister Kathryn.    We of course wanted to see the Zulu parade, but also wanted to catch a glimpse of Mardi Gras Indians, if possible.   Maybe if we bicycled into that neighborhood we might see an Indian?   We would have to put on our costumes as well.   Mardi Gras is much more fun if one dresses up, “masks.”

Driving a car in the city on Fat Tuesday is pretty much impossible so a bicycle can be quite handy.    We were staying in our friend’s upstairs guest apartment near Louisiana Avenue and Magazine Street.    It was 6:15 AM as we put on the sheep outfits that Tootie had designed and constructed.

We had three bicycles, two of which our friend graciously allows us to store permanently in New Orleans under her house.   Mardi Gras beads were draped over her fence.

We decided to start in only partial costume, and add the fluffy sheep fur later in the day.

On our way bicycling to The Hood we passed through the much wealthier Garden District where at 6:45 AM we stumbled onto this impromptu appearance of the New Orleans Baby Doll Ladies; already dancing through the cool morning, accompanied by a loud and raucous brass band.

 

 

Led by this guy.

We crossed St. Charles Avenue and bicycled on into neighborhoods areas I have hardly ever visited.    I had felt scared to go in these African-American neighborhoods but it all seemed welcoming on Mardi Gras morning.   At 7:15 AM I followed Tootie and Kathryn up Jackson Avenue as people were staking out their spot to watch the Zulu parade.

 

 

All was great except we had two problems.    We did not see Mardi Gras Indians anywhere,  and both Tootie and Kathryn felt somehow incomplete without an entire Sheep costume.    We hurriedly biked back to the apartment to put on the full costume.

We were disappointed in not seeing any Indians, but the full Zulu parade awaited.   We biked back to a spot on the corner of Jackson Avenue and St. Charles.    The parade had about forty floats and lasted almost three hours.  The parade organization is over a hundred years old and continues to mock those who mock African-Americans, circa about 1910.   Black doctors and lawyers in blackface and wigs of fuzzy hair with jungle attire like grass skirts.    They toss coconuts from the floats.  Only in New Orleans.

 

 

The St. Augustine Marching 100 is the most famous high school band in New Orleans and is  from the city’s most prestigious historically black high school; Catholic and all boys.

The Zulu parade was immediately followed by the Rex parade, run by some of the city’s white social elite.    We were hungry and only stuck around for one or two floats.

There would be about four more hours of parades on St. Charles Avenue, but we wanted to skip that and bicycle the three miles past the downtown high rises to the French Quarter.

 

There is a restaurant we like at the far end of the French Quarter, near French Market and Esplanade Avenue.  It is called St. Cecilia and luckily it was open.  They had a limited menu for Mardi Gras Day;  Tootie got red beans & rice, Kathryn and I got quiche.   Everybody was in costume.

 

After lunch we locked the bicycles and walked over to nearby Frenchmen Street in Faubourg Marigny, then back to the French Quarter.  There were no organized events,  just general crazyness.

 

 

Tootie

 

This eleven second video taken on Frenchmen Street pretty much sums it up.

 

New Orleans East, Feb. 8, 2018

Posted: February 23, 2018 in Louisiana trips

I wanted to see what would happen if I just pointed the bicycle east from Uptown New Orleans and started pedaling.   I had heard of an abandoned amusement park on the eastern fringes of New Orleans, I picked that as a destination.

It was a beautiful day.    I left our guest apartment Uptown and bicycled downtown, through the Central Business District and into the French Quarter.  Bicycling on one-way streets like Burgundy is quite easy.

 

Down from the French Quarter is Faubourg Marigny.

 

I turned up Franklin Avenue, going away from the river.   This was a direction I had never bicycled before.   I knew things were quickly going to get less picturesque.

Franklin Avenue blends into Almonaster Avenue.

Almonaster Avenue peters out underneath the Interstate 10 high rise bridge over the Industrial Canal.   Google Maps showed another smaller bridge here.

But there were obstacles.

There was no one around, and it was easy to walk my bicycle across this bridge.

Almonaster Avenue continues for many miles the other side of the bridge, passing through partially filled-in swamps, separated from the rest of New Orleans East by railroad yards.    In The Godfather this would be a good place to dump a body.   It looks dangerous to bicycle but there is essentially no traffic on this four line divided highway.

I knew I was getting close to my destination, the amusement park, so I turned north across the railroad tracks, into residential neighborhoods of New Orleans East.    This area was first developed in the sixties and seventies and was mostly white.  Now it is where many wealthier African-Americans live.   According to Wikipedia, both Aaron Neville and Irma Thomas live out here somewhere.

Six Flags New Orleans opened in 2000 but was only open for five years.  They were not really making money, and then Hurricane Katrina heavily damaged it in 2005.     It never reopened.    It is surrounded by locked fences but I could see a rollercoaster off in the distance.

I turned to go back home, bicycling through miles of subdivisions.

Yes,  New Orleans East was heavily flooded during Katrina, but it appears dried out now.    I can only blame the collective racism of the real estate market that so little retail has returned.  There are very few restaurants and grocery stores out here.  This is where Lake Forest Plaza shopping mall used to reside.

I bicycled back across the Industrial Canal, this time on the Chef Menteur Highway bridge.

On the other side, in the Gentilly neighborhood there was this apparently African-American owned coffee shop.   I sat for quite a while, drinking a latte and reading The New Yorker on my Kindle.

This was still Carnival season.   In the Ninth Ward / Bywater some kind of brass band was assembling.

 

 

One more thing.   Did you know there is a First World War monument in a park in Bywater?   White soldiers and black soldiers are listed separately, white solders on the front, black soldiers on the back.   And those not killed in action, what did they die of?   Wounds?  The flu?

 

South Florida, Jan 22-25, 2018

Posted: February 2, 2018 in Florida trips

Despite the fact that I try to travel as much as possible, I actually hate to fly.   Turbulence weirds me out.   Nevertheless $ 127.00 round trip Raleigh/Durham to Fort Lauderdale was too good a deal to pass up.   And it was nonstop, only about two hours on Southwest Airlines.  My friend Lyman had a similar deal from Austin TX to Fort Lauderdale, also on Southwest.  Both of us could take our folding bicycles in a suitcase for no extra charge.

I had a seat on the airplane near the front.  Southwest is a great airline.

 

It was only eight-thirty in the morning when I got off the plane into the warm humid embrace of South Florida air.

I was prepared right away, in the airport, to photograph the multiculturalism that is the Miami / Fort Lauderdale / West Palm Beach area.   However these people really just look like America.

 

Fort Lauderdale is the rare airport that has luggage storage where Lyman and I could leave our empty bicycle suitcases for four days.  I picked a spot in the terminal and put the bicycle together.

 

I bicycled off from the airport to look around.

 

I took about a three hour bike ride, to kill time while I waited for Lyman’s flight to arrive.

 

 

Just south of the Fort Lauderdale airport were a series of neighborhoods exclusively of double and single wide trailers.   They were actually quite nice.   The most predominant license plate on cars parked there,  other than Florida, was Quebec.

A few of the “houses” were a little more colorful.

After leaving the neighborhoods of mobile homes, I bicycled straight west for over an hour, hoping to get as far as the Everglades but I had to turn around because of time.  I bicycled back towards the airport on a bike path that followed a freeway and a drainage canal.

Tootie and I lived in Miami for one year in 1983.  We never saw a wild iguana, not even once.    Now they are everywhere in the petri dish that is South Florida.  They have, as I understand, taken off in just the past ten years.    Along this canal they were more common than squirrels in North Carolina;  I saw an iguana every minute or so.    Most were about three feet long, if you include the long tail.

 

 

Yes, I have bicycled Los Angeles and I swear that South Florida has more freeways per square mile than even Southern California.   One normally takes these walking/bicycling “trails” for peace and quiet, but not in this instance.

 

Part of the “trail” actually went right along the freeway.

I did finally get back to the Fort Lauderdale airport.   Lyman had arrived and we were now ready to go.

The two of us had a pleasant bike ride the five miles into downtown Fort Lauderdale.    I had made a reservation with an Airbnb near downtown Fort Lauderdale in a 1920’s house;  a room with two single beds in a couple’s home.   There was a dead Volkswagen van in the back yard.  They offered us the van for free if we would just take it away!

This is a really nice neighborhood; the only real problem is these tiny houses are worth close to a million dollars and are surrounded by giant condo buildings.    We walked to the restaurants on Las Olas Boulevard for sushi that evening.

 

 

 

Our trip the next day would be to bicycle from the Airbnb on SE 1st Street, Fort Lauderdale to  South Miami Beach taking the inland route through Little Haiti.

 

 

 

We had only gone about three miles when, in a nondescript industrial neighborhood there was a small sign noting “auto museum.”    We would not have seen this except that we were on a bicycle, it was not on a main road.     Of course, we had to stop.    There was a unique doorbell, “please pull cord and wait.”

A woman about our age answered the door.  She was quite nice and said admission was ten dollars, cash please.   We stayed there over an hour and were the only visitors.   We had stumbled onto what has to be one of the largest collections of Packards in the world.  Packard was a luxury car maker from about 1905 until they went out of business in 1958.  There were also collections of anything Packard: miniature Packard cars, Packard child’s pedal cars, Packard hood ornaments, Packard engine parts, it went on and on.

 

Me and a 1938.

Lyman and a 1958, one of the last ones made.

Art Deco hood ornament.

 

Back on the bicycles, we cycled through miles and miles of middle and lower class neighborhoods.

 

I like the look of modernist tract housing.   But what does it look like fifty or even sixty years later?   I speculate these houses with the new wave front porch were built about 1960.  When they were new these houses looked exactly alike.  Not now.

 

 

 

 

 

This neighborhood has the uniquely American situation where even though a city has high housing prices there are some areas where apparently no one wants to live.    It probably has a lot to do with race.  This is a pretty house that needs a lot of love.

 

We stopped for lunch at a colorful Nicaraguan/Cuban place where we split a barely edible Cuban sandwich.

 

Little Haiti is not really much to look at, and we bicycled on through the “Miami Design District” and then downtown Miami.   Downtown Miami is NOT easy or gentle bicycle riding.   It is mostly huge wide roads with fast traffic, intersected by freeways.

On the other hand, the Venetian Causeway, one of several bridges across Biscayne Bay from downtown Miami to Miami Beach, IS gentle and inviting to a bicyclist.    Lyman stopped and helped a guy with a flat tire.  This view is looking back over the area just north of downtown Miami.

 

The causeway connects several residential islands and the roadway has a toll, which keeps car traffic to a minimum.

I really like the section of Miami Beach called South Beach.  It is a street grid, and one of the few places in South Florida that one can blissfully noodle around on a bicycle.   What confirms it is a safe bicycling space?  It is where you see women bicycling around without helmets.

 

The Art Deco architecture is lovely.

Lyman and I stopped at an Irish bar for a beer and pondered where we would stay that evening.   On Hotels.com we found a room with two double beds for just over a hundred dollars including tax.   The “hotel” was a little unusual, however.

 

The room was fine, just like any motel room.   You entered from an outdoor walkway.

 

Although thankfully it was quiet in the sleeping area of our room, right outside our bathroom window was the courtyard of the hotel.  It had Spanish language music blaring and partiers staying up until about five in the morning.   When we went down for the free outdoor breakfast the next morning, the music was still playing

 

 

The next day our plan was to bicycle back over Biscayne Bay,  then over to Calle Ocho/Little Havana, and then to the Hialeah Market Tri-Rail station.

 

 

From there we would take the Tri-Rail commuter train up to West Palm Beach.

Lyman commented that this older Cuban-American neighborhood near Calle Ocho really does look like current parts of Havana!

 

Back in 1983 when we lived in Miami,  Tootie and I used to get stoned before going out to eat at the big and flashy Cuban restaurant Versailles; we got off staring at the mirrors.

 

Versailles is still there.  Lyman chose Versailles as a place we could connect and have a late breakfast / early lunch with his old friend Jaime, who lives in Miami.

After a nice meal we had about another forty-five minutes bicycle ride up to the Tri-Rail station in Hialeah.  You can wheel the bicycle onto the train, and the ticket for the almost two hour ride to West Palm Beach only costs $ 6.90.   While the train itself is fine, the stations and other infrastructure looks beat up and done on the cheap, and the train goes nowhere near downtown Miami.

https://farm8.static.flickr.com/7327/16424029012_62430d6e8e_b.jpg

 

We got off the train in downtown West Palm Beach in early afternoon.    We now had a day and a half to bicycle the sixty miles down to the Fort Lauderdale airport, where we had flights leaving the following evening.   Along the beach on A1A the bicycle ride from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale is really one of my favorite bicycle rides in America.    You should plan it like we did here.  Check out the weather, then take the commuter train against the wind and bicycle with the wind at your back!

 

 

 

 

We noodled around Palm Beach on bicycles for a while, before turning south on highway A1A along the beach.   Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh live in Palm Beach.    There seems to be an appreciation for showy wealth.

 

 

The beach road passes between Mar-a-Lago and the ocean.   From the beach side you can see that Mar-a-Lago is really a huge house that was converted to a club.  Gross.

 

 

Once south of Palm Beach communities vary in their displays of wealth, and change from town to town.    The bicycle ride was really pleasant.

About five in the afternoon we crossed a small bridge from the barrier island to the mainland, and looked for a place to get a drink and find a place to spend the night.   This tropical looking restaurant in Boynton Beach overlooked the inland waterway.  We had a good time talking to this guy in the blue shirt.   He lives in the Philadelphia suburbs.   His late parents had bought a small condo years ago here in Boynton Beach and he and his adult siblings inherited it.    He was now trying to sell it because they do not use it enough.

Surprisingly there are not many hotels in this area.   It is all condos.   And the hotels we found on Hotels.com were really expensive, like  $250.00+    From Google Maps we learned of the Tiki Hut Motel, only about a mile from this bar.   Google reviews were positive.   The place did not appear to take reservations over the internet.   I called them on the phone, and while a woman said they had one available non-smoking room with two double beds, they did not take reservations over the telephone either!

Lyman and I quickly finished our drink and got back on the bicycles in the dying evening light.   The Tiki Hut is on the old highway just south of Boynton Beach.   A South Asian looking guy (we presume the owner, we presume that woman’s husband) was blatantly rude to Lyman as he registered and paid.   The price was good, $ 90.00 plus tax.

It is a weird motel.   The room was clean and quite nice.  The windows were openable.    The beds were pleasantly firm.  There was unusual art on the walls.

They had unique figurines around a courtyard.

Later on we walked down the highway (US1) about half a mile to an Italian restaurant.    The food was fine, but not memorable.

We ate at the bar, our server said it was fine if we took her picture.

On the walk home we stopped at a Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robbins for an ice cream.   South Florida is populated by people who came there from somewhere else.  People have to find community where they can.  Here at Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robbins at 9:00 PM these people were doing crossword puzzles.

The Tiki Hut Motel glowed in the dark.

 

The next day, Thursday, was a great day.   We had about forty miles left to the airport for our early evening return flights home.  We bicycled along the coast with a strong tailwind.

 

 

The best meal of this trip was a late lunch on Thursday in downtown Fort Lauderdale.  Just by looking at this place I conjectured from the people standing outside that there was serious eating going on.

Sitting outdoors on the patio, we both got their version of salade nicoise, which was delicious, even though the fresh tuna was totally and unapologetically raw and cold.   Deviled eggs.  Arugula. Deep fat fried green beans.

After lunch we biked the five miles to the airport and caught our flights, stopping on the way to look at the Brightline train station.

 

Postcript from a train nut:

After lunch we biked over to the Fort Lauderdale Brightline station.  Yes, we had taken the Tri-Rail commuter train the previous day.   Brightline is a new service, more or less parallel to the Tri-Rail but on different tracks.   These Florida East Coast Railway tracks go directly to the downtowns of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach.   It is the first significant privately run passenger rail service in the United States in fifty years.   They appeared to have made a major investment.   We bicycled by the station in Fort Lauderdale.   The service had just starting running two weeks ago, but for now only from Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach, a train every hour.   The ultimate idea is to run from Miami to Orlando in three hours.   We had not taken this train because we did not know it was operating.   Amtrak always looks beat up and cheap.   This definitely does not look this way.  The station and the train are lovely.

Charleston is a fascinating city.   It has a big imprint of very old buildings; it was one of the very few relatively large cities in the South prior to 1860. (In the 1860 census,  New Orleans, Charleston, and Richmond were the only Southern cities in the top 25  by population in the United States.)  Charleston stood relatively still for the next hundred and some years.  More recently, Joseph Riley was mayor of Charleston from 1975 to 2016 and managed one of the great American city reinventions in our era.   Riley espoused civil rights and for Charleston to reinvent itself with tourism and higher education.   Charleston in the 1970’s I imagine was a stuffy place, just a little too Southern.  Its architecture was like nowhere else in the world and its society was so conservative that unlike other places (like my father’s hometown of Norfolk), relatively little got torn down in 1960’s “redevelopment.”  Charleston had always had unique food but it was served mostly in private homes and clubs.   Now in 2018 it is one of the top restaurant destinations in America.   Unlike Catholic Savanna and New Orleans, Charleston traditionally was Protestant and certainly not known as a festive place.   Its motto was “City of Churches.”   It had always been military friendly;  local hotheads started the Civil War!  Now people are coming from all over the world just to BE in Charleston.  Someone told me it is where Republicans go to party.     Its biggest problem now is its success.  People who buy houses here are often so rich that they rarely live in them, and the houses sit empty, with their porch lights on.   Is there room left for the locals?

Tootie and I have been to Charleston four or five times in the past thirty years and we agreed that we had seen Charleston; it was not first on our list of destinations for a weekend getaway.   However, I had cabin fever following almost two weeks of sub-freezing temperatures, and I plotted for a reason to drive by myself down to Charleston for twenty-eight hours.

I drove the four hours from Chapel Hill and parked thirty miles out of Charleston near the town of Summerville, of course in a Walmart parking lot.

My plan was to bicycle from the Walmart to downtown, spend the night and ride back the next day.

The Charleston area actually got more snow in this blizzard than Chapel Hill, and even though it was sixty-five degrees outside there was still snow on the ground in places, and even in the streets.

 

While Charleston is generally beautiful many of its suburbs look really awful.   Summerville was an exception, it was built as a summer resort for people from Charleston.

I would be heading into town on state route 61, along the southern shore of the Ashley River through the town of Ashley Forest.    To get there, for about five miles there was a nice bike path along some kind of drainage canal.  Note the snow melting on the right.

Further on I arrived at the crossroads for state route 61.  The enumeration seemed romantic, even if the Dylan song is about US 61 in Mississippi!

While the two lane road winds through about twenty miles of woods and swamps, it was too narrow, with no shoulder and too much SUV and pickup truck traffic.  As a bicyclist I did not feel safe.   There was not much to do but press on.    There were live oaks and Spanish moss everywhere.    I passed the entrances to several large plantations, two of which claimed to still be in the hands of the original owners from the 1700’s.     I wonder how families can hold onto so much land in 2018, so close to a major city.

I stopped for a latte at Charleston Coffee Exchange in a strip mall.   I do compliment the developers, they have lots of native trees growing in the grocery store parking lot.

Back on the bicycle I pressed on through ugly suburbs with the occasional interesting tidbit.

 

 

 

Crossing over the Ashley River bridge, I was deposited me in a poor neighborhood of Charleston proper.   Charleston is on a peninsula, pretty much limiting its core city to a small defined area.  The most prosperous areas are the southern parts of the peninsula, the poorest and traditionally African-American areas are to the north.   These more northern areas seem to be gentrifying or have already done so.

 

 

When you actually get inside the city of Charleston the eighteenth and nineteenth century architecture is impressive.   On previous trips I had seen Charleston’s singular use of a fake front door, blocking public view of a side porch.   The porches almost always open to the south or west, to catch prevailing breezes in the hot summers.    I had seen these doors in the wealthy neighborhoods south of Broad Street.   Now I know these doors are all over the city, including these smaller houses in more recently gentrified areas.

In the smaller houses in the northern neighborhoods just shown,  I find out on Trulia that they can sell for upwards of $600,000.00.

South of Broad,  houses now cost in multiple millions of dollars.  Charleston is becoming La-La-Land.

Charleston is a great city to noodle around on a bicycle.   Nationally, something like eighty percent of urban bicyclists are male. Most experts think this is because men are more likely to be risk takers.   To me and several others a good indicator of the health of a bicycling culture in a city is the sight of women riding bicycles without a helmet.    It indicates that bicycling feels safe.   In these transitional neighborhoods near College of Charleston I saw this in spades.

 

 

I still did not have anywhere to stay that night.   I sat on a bus stop bench and cruised hotels.com on my phone.   I found a room for not much more than a hundred dollars at the Francis Marion, a large red brick 1924 hotel that I remember from previous trips as being closed and abandoned. It is fixed up quite nicely now.   This was the view from the eleventh floor at dusk, looking south down King Street.

For dinner I sat at the counter of Stella’s, a relatively new Greek restaurant a couple of blocks from the hotel.   The two young women sitting next to me were discussing how air fares to Aruba this spring are really low.   After those two women departed, a young couple took their seats and were discussing their experiences with travel to Nepal.    It felt like a different planet from the Walmart back in Summerville where I started the bike ride earlier that day.   I worry about the divisions in this country.

 

I biked back to Summerville the next day.    I saw more parts of the north end of the   Charleston peninsula.

After I left the peninsula that comprises the older city of Charleston I bicycled through a much larger area, about ten miles of continuous unattractive and poor to lower middle class neighborhoods in mostly what is called North Charleston.

The last five miles into Summerville were on this narrow highway, not the most pleasant bike ride.

My wife Tootie’s sister Kathryn had been given a gift certificate to the restaurant Chef and the Farmer, one hundred twenty miles east of Chapel Hill, in Kinston.    The three of us drove over there, ate a grand meal at the restaurant, and stayed one night at the Mother Earth Motor Lodge.

We enjoyed it so much that I drove back by myself two days later to take a bike ride.  Eastern North Carolina is called Down East, a vast flat coastal plain in some places as much as two hundred miles wide.  It is the poorest part of North Carolina.   Some towns like Kinston seem far away from “anything.”  Kinston is not near Raleigh or Charlotte or Wilmington, not even all that close to the beach.   New Bern is almost the oldest town in North Carolina and has long been a draw as a historic place.    I decided to bike from the Walmart near Kinston to New Bern and back, on two consecutive days.

 

I drove our white Honda over there on a Saturday morning.   If downtown Kinston seems abandoned and depressed, one reason might be that almost all retail activity has moved almost five miles east, to where the new US70 bypass meets the old US70.     In the Walmart lot I figured they would not bother my car for 28 hours.

The Walmart and other large chain stores in this newer strip mall out near the Bypass have clearly taken their toll on older sprawl closer, maybe only a mile or two from downtown.   The Kinston Mall, on this Saturday afternoon, was essentially abandoned.

Kinston clearly has issues, with manufacturing and agricultural jobs lost and not much to replace it.  Two newer businesses downtown have helped in a small way to put Kinston on the map.   Both were started by Kinston natives.

The first is the Chef and the Farmer and the adjacent Boiler Room restaurants,  and the accompanying reality TV show of chef Vivian Howard.  I ate lunch this day at the more informal Boiler Room.   After miles of semi-abandoned commercial buildings, here in a downtown alley,  on just this one block was activity.    Most of the rest of downtown is empty storefronts.   Life!

Blueberry barbecue chicken sandwich.

The other entrepreneur downtown making waves is Stephen Hill, owner of Mother Earth Brewing Company, almost next door to the two Vivian Howard restaurants.   There was this line forming at the brewery when I went in the Boiler Room for lunch, and when I came out it was still there, only longer.  I asked one guy what was up; he said they were waiting for a “release” of some exotic kind of beer at Mother Earth.

Stephen Hill (of Mother Earth) has done other stuff besides running a brewery.   According to a recent article in the Raleigh News & Observer he has been buying up low cost real estate downtown, fixing it up, and and then renting to artists, usually from somewhere else, who apply to live there at his below market rates.    He also bought this motel two blocks away and beautifully renovated it in 2016 in mid-century modern style.   They fixed up the swimming pool and added a mini-golf course.   Tootie and I want to bring our friends and stay here in the summertime, hanging around the pool.

Biking east from downtown Kinston I rode through at least a mile of depressed and semi-abandoned poor neighborhoods.

Taking the back roads it was thirty-eight miles further to New Bern.   Most of the way the two lane highway was lined with farms and occasional houses across the absolutely flat landscape.

interrupted by swamps and woods.

New Bern is very different city than from Kinston and is slightly larger with a population of 30,000.    New Bern, founded in 1710 by Swiss settlers and named after the Swiss capital, has had second-home visitors and tourists coming to its historic center for many years.    Yachts stop by here on their New York to Florida transfers on the Intracoastal Waterway.  Downtown at night people seemed dressed up.   New Bern also is quite close to several large military bases.

I had booked an Airbnb for the amazing price of thirty-five dollars; fifty-seven including tax and cleaning fee; a bedroom on the second floor of a house owned by a Dutch guy, not exactly in the historic area but only about a mile away.

Despite the fact that his pickup truck, boat, and Honda Civic were in the driveway, he was not home. He was out of town in Detroit, of all places.    I learned from his very cordial and interesting neighbor and caretaker (who lived next door) that he was about sixty years old and lived here because his daughter’s husband was stationed in Fort Bragg (130 miles away, next to Fayetteville.)   He did not want to have to live in Fayetteville.    Sounds reasonable.   He had given me the code to unlock the front door.   So I had the entire house, if I really needed that much space.  Furthermore, he was clearly a neat-freak, so my bedroom and the rest of the interior were spotless.

At dinnertime I biked to downtown in the dark, a nice ride through residential streets.

I had a nice dinner (it cost about as much as the Airbnb!) downtown, and I walked around a little.

I biked back to downtown New Bern the next morning to take pictures and eat breakfast.

I had to have a big breakfast because I knew there would be nowhere to eat until I bicycled about forty miles back to Kinston.    I felt lucky to find a nice downtown non-chain restaurant, crowded on a Sunday morning, with patriotic slogans on the walls.

I rode back to Kinston on a different route, a lot of it on Old US70, paralleling the newer four lane highway.    I nominate Old US70 as the longest straight stretch of road in North Carolina; seventeen miles without a curve.   It had very little traffic; I would ride for ten or fifteen minutes without having a car pass in either direction.   I worried about dogs out here but none gave me much of a chase this day.  I pack two kinds of dog “heat”:   pepper spray and a loud air horn.   In all my rides over the years I have never had to use the pepper spray.   But it feels good to know it is there.

I passed by cotton fields.

While not an authority on the subject, I know there has been a generations-long reduction in the number of small farms.   Out here Down East I keep going back to that VS Naipaul quote about this area:   It was a landscape of small ruins. Houses and farmhouses and tobacco barns had simply been abandoned.   The decay of each was individual, and they were all beautiful in the afternoon light.