Archive for January, 2013

South Florida remains one of the most interesting places in America.   I am not saying it is a great place, but it certainly is an interesting place.   Like the rest of America, it is becoming broken up into various strains of red and blue, not to mention all the ethnicities involved.   This ride would take us across the Overseas Highway.

The weather on this trip was amazing.   Broken clouds, every day low of seventy,  high of eighty.

Sam went with me for much of the way on this trip.    We biked off Saturday morning directly from the Fort Lauderdale airport, going south.  Our destination the first night was in South Miami Beach.   The second night was Key Largo, third night at Donnie’s place in Marathon, and fourth night in Key West.    My bike speedometer clocked 180 miles total in four days, plus we cheated with a thirty mile bus ride across a particularly remote and dangerous stretch of highway between Homestead and Key Largo.   I returned to Fort Lauderdale airport the fifth day by rental car from  Key West, picking up Sam in Marathon along the way.

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South Beach is one of my favorite places in Florida.  The Art Deco district extends about thirty blocks, with buildings well preserved, and amazingly uniform.  Tourists and locals here represent every ethnic group, except straight white mainstream Americans.   Whenever you saw someone who seemed to fit that description, it turned out to be an Italian tourist.    The bartender at the Club Deuce told Sam that the “American” girls hung out down the street at The Clevelander.    We stayed at the Penguin hotel.

Sunday we rode through downtown Miami, then Coconut Grove, then further through wealthy neighborhoods south of Miami.    There is a nice bike path running through this stretch.

Sam, between Coconut Grove and Coral Gables

Sam, between Coconut Grove and Coral Gables

Thirty miles south of Miami, as you approach Homestead and Florida City, the now agricultural area becomes poor and working class.    We caught the bus to Key Largo in the Walmart parking lot in Florida City.

Sunday night in Key Largo we went looking for somewhere to eat.   Across the canal from our motel  was a bar / restaurant.    Everybody was watching the NFL game.  A couple about my age both wore a Harley t-shirts.    Nobody seemed to be eating, so we tried another restaurant further down the highway, walking in the dark.

The hundred mile Overseas Highway from Key Largo to Key West covers a stretch originally connected by the Overseas Railway of Henry Flagler., which was destroyed by a hurricane in 1935.    There are parts of the old railway paralleling the modern highway where it is now used as a delightful fishing pier / bike path.

Bike path bridge, Overseas Highway

Bike path bridge, Overseas Highway

At the Seven Mile Bridge, south of Marathon, the signs fail to tell an unknowing visitor that the parallel bike path stops after three miles!     I had to turn around and go back, then go across the bridge on the main highway.

Seven Mile Bridge, three miles long

Seven Mile Bridge, three miles long

Bike path to nowhere

Bike path to nowhere

Stopping for a beer Monday afternoon on a long stretch of highway, I had a delightful conversation with two fifty something guys.    One was a steelworker from Gary, Indiana; the other was from Ontario someplace.    They both described the quantity of stuff that could be trailered down to the Florida Keys from way up North.    The Ontario guy swore that his friend brought, from Canada, a large boat on top of an SUV, all towed by a forty-two foot motor home.

Donnie Allred

Donnie Allred

Tootie’s brother in law Donnie Allred and family own a delightful spread in Marathon, complete with every boat and fishing implement you would ever need.   We had a very tasty steak dinner there on Monday night.   Because of the tight schedule, I left there early the next day for Key West.

Key West

Key West

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Key West has an altogether different vibe.    After a hundred miles of open water and roadside buildings, you suddenly find yourself in a city.    Densely packed with old wooden buildings, Key West is a singular place.   It even has housing projects.

I had vaguely heard that Key West had wild chickens.  Getting up to leave at six thirty on Wednesday morning “when the rooster crows at the break of dawn”, this guy was standing in the middle of a major intersection, crowing away.

Key west rooster

 

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Chase City Jan 2013 015

Because I am looking for urban spaces to discover by bicycle, I do make it my hobby to visit as just about every city and town within a hundred and fifty miles of Carrboro.   I have not seen everything, for certain.   I do not do a lot of background research on the places.  I record my immediate impressions.

Having said that, Chase City, Virginia is unique.   It is sixteen miles north of the North Carolina / Virginia line, about eighty miles from Carrboro  I cannot recall visiting any town of this size and stature that is not served by any U.S. highway, not to mention not served by an Interstate highway.   It is not served by any four lane road.  It has no substantive suburban sprawl.   There is no Wal Mart.  It is at least an hour and a half to any major airport, in Raleigh/Durham, Richmond, Greensboro, or Roanoke.

There are comparable North Carolina towns just over the state line,  like Yanceyville and Roxboro.   These towns have highway bypasses, which encouraged all the  businesses to move out to strip malls on the outskirts of town.  If you drive past Roxboro on the bypass,  it looks hideous.   Strip malls are replaced by new strip malls.  In places like Roxboro, not only are the downtowns left empty,  but many strip malls are left empty, rotting in the sun.

In Chase City, the Hardee’s is right downtown, on the principal corner.   Sitting there drinking my coffee, I realized that this Hardee’s was a genuine gathering place.  Middle school age kids sat jammed into a booth on a Sunday afternoon, nursing sodas.  Older adults lingered over their meals, and talked to others at different tables.

I assume it is pretty much hopeless for towns to recruit the next large factory, now that mass production has moved to the Far East.  Towns only grow by building businesses themselves, and by attracting people and businesses in small increments.   Young people want to move to downtown spaces..

I predict a future for this town.   Maybe oddball artists will start moving here, a la Marfa, Texas.    On the other end of the spectrum, maybe pretentious rich people will start building more estates in the countryside and use this town as their base.    Maybe some religious group will put their next institution here, like Liberty University has done in Lynchburg.   This town is too unspoiled, and in too nice a location, to remain undiscovered forever.   I only hope when the odd state legislator starts pushing for a bypass, or Wal Mart comes calling, Chase City will realize what a special place it is.

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N Va slash S Carolina 022The flat coastal plains of Darlington County stretched  out ahead of me;  cotton fields and trailers strewn across the landscape.   Was this what Bruce Springsteen had in mind when he wrote the song “Darlington County”?      This is an area northwest of Myrtle Beach, just over the North Carolina line from Laurenburg and Rockingham.

Rural South Carolina revealed two  main themes in my thirty six hours visiting.   One, much of the Southern charm of NORTH Carolina has been paved over by the NCDOT.   South Carolina still has an intimacy that lingers because there are not four lane divided highways plowed through every  town.   Places that outsiders like myself would write off as deadbeat small towns really do have a life, sometimes quite an interesting one.

Secondly, prosperity in the twenty-first century seems to be quite random, except that it is frequently tied to higher education.    This trip began when I parked the car in Darlington and cycled off.   It is a pleasant enough small town with a nice historic district.    But  the downtown buildings are pretty empty, and it unfortunately looked like a place that young people would not want to move to, or stay in.

Hartsville, twenty miles away, looked  prosperous.   I had not expected this, because I had never heard of Hartsville, nor of Coker College.   Nor did I know of Sonoco Products, which makes packaging, and has nineteen thousand employees worldwide, and is headquartered in Hartsville.    Downtown Hartsville had business happening, most seemingly related to the college.    Wikipedia tells me that Coker College is mostly funded by endowments from the owners of Sonoco Products.    Lunch places downtown were locally owned and prosperous.   A non-Starbucks coffee house!   Older neighborhoods were well kept.   Hartsville seems a happening place.

Thirty miles further northeast was Cheraw, my destination for the evening.    I rode through miles of rural landscape.   I stopped in a small store for a cold drink.    Men in hunting outfits and ragged jeans hung around the cash register.

In Cheraw,  I booked a nice $ 49.00 room at the Days Inn.   At dinnertime, I rode the half mile to downtown by bike in the dark.   Cheraw is the birthplace of Dizzy Gillespie; they have a statue of him downtown.   And Cheraw is an old place, with several building dating before 1800.  It is a distinguished looking town.

For Sale, nicest street in town, 4400 sq ft, $ 299,000

For Sale, nicest street in town, 4400 sq ft, $ 299,000

Dizzy Gillespie, Cheraw SC

Dizzy Gillespie, Cheraw SC

There were several restaurants open downtown on this Saturday night.   The nicest looking one was Oskar’s; advertising German food.  It’s bar was a nice place for a solo visitor to  eat and drink  with the  locals.   And the entrance lobby had a jazz duo playing; aging upright acoustic piano and trumpet.  No amplification.  Both musicians sounded  quite professional; the trumpeter a skinny older black man with white hair; the piano player a rounder  middle aged white guy.   If we had seen the trumpeter in New Orleans we would have been convinced this guy was Louis Armstrong’s cousin.   Maybe he had some connection to Dizzy Gillespie.

Eating at a table in the bar area were about five people speaking German, or all things.    Who were these people; executives from the BMW plant in Greenville, maybe?    The Germans seemed to be having a good time.   After a time, the band switched from playing quite professional versions of jazz standards, to quite lame versions of fifties and sixties rock music.    The Germans, who had been ignoring the band, suddenly got interested and applauded the music  loudly and obnoxiously.     When the band played a weak version of Johnny B. Good, one of the Germans started filming the music with his I-Phone.

Sunday morning was crisp and cold.   I took off into the morning light towards Bennettsville.   I passing abandoned factories and houses falling down in the brush.    Along a lonely highway, I found this dead bobcat on the side of the road. I had never seen a bobcat before, even though Wikipedia says they live around all parts of the country, and are not an endangered species.

bobcat, outside Bennettsville

On a lonely highway ten miles outside of  Bennettsville,  I found this great place for lunch.   All you can eat, $10.00; great Southern food.    Everybody was in there for the after-church repast.

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Sunday lunch, 10 miles outside of Bennettsville SC

Sunday lunch, 10 miles outside of Bennettsville SC