Archive for March, 2018

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 just recently asked Mom about Columbia 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.

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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.