Archive for the ‘South Carolina trips’ Category

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 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.

I did my first Tour of Myrtle Beach a little over two years ago.  In the spirit of investigation, I decided to revisit the place.

Let me clear two misconceptions about Myrtle Beach.

  1.  The main attraction, whatever that attraction is, is probably not the beach.
  2. Not everybody who visits here is from The South.

So I drove down here on a Tuesday morning to check it out again.  I looked for a place to park our Honda for 28 hours.   I discovered free parking at a public boat launch near the northernmost spot of the Myrtle Beach “Grand Strand.”   My mission was to bicycle the forty or so miles south to the end of the Strand, spend the night there, then bicycle back the next day.   For almost all the way a bicyclist can weave through residential streets.  Only on a couple short sections did I have to get out on the main highway US17.


For a guy from Chapel Hill it is very easy to generalize about the people here.  I am sure those generalizations are mostly mistaken.  Next to my car I talked to two guys that were discussing fishing tackle.  The shorter white guy was from Vermont, maybe about sixty years old.   He said he spent three to four months a year in Myrtle Beach.  He loved it in the winter, but could not stand the summer heat.  The taller guy, an African American, had a large white Ford pickup with Maryland plates.  He said he and his wife had been visiting Myrtle for twenty years.  Their children had now gone off to college, and they recently moved here full-time.  He said he was sick of cold weather and loved the summer heat.

A quick look at airline schedules into Myrtle Beach Airport is telling.   People from Up North come here a lot.  There are daily non-stops with relatively large airplanes from Niagara Falls (Buffalo), Latrobe Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh), Atlantic City NJ,  Boston, and New York La Guardia.     There are TWO airlines offering non-stops from the Toronto area.

But most people probably drive here, usually in large vehicles, frequently towing something.  I saw Ohio, Ontario, New York, and Pennsylvania license plates constantly.    Instead of towing something, people often drive their motor homes.  This area seems the world’s capital for motor homes and other giant travel vehicles.

For three years in about 1966-69 my parents owned an eighteen foot travel trailer called a Zipper.  When I was twelve or thirteen years old my parents drove down to Myrtle Beach from Virginia Beach, taking me, my three siblings, and our dog Inkie in our Rambler Ambassador station wagon towing the Zipper.   I do not remember why we came here, but they were always driving us to some historic attraction someplace.   The trailer must have looked something like this.


I remember vividly staying in Myrtle Beach at an enormous oceanfront private campground.   And they still exist.    They still take up huge amounts of expensive oceanfront land.   On this trip I saw at least five or six of these places.   This first one has a Christian theme.




Myrtle Beach is not a place for pedestrians.  While the oldest part of Myrtle Beach does have a small boardwalk area filled with kitsch, the real action is out on US17.   Instead of the typical beach town street or boardwalk filled with touristy stuff, here there is an eight lane highway filled with touristy stuff, while the traffic whizzes by at high speeds.







The term “local” and “visitor” might be difficult here, as a lot of people live here part time.  Many people seem to share a cultural and maybe political affinity.   I did not see a single presidential yard sign, except for the dozens of Donald Trump signs.  Make America Great Again, he says.


Inland from Myrtle Beach there are still huge amounts of barely used vacant land.   This is perfect for building golf courses.    People come here from all over just for the golf.  I did not bicycle through many of the golf course communities since they are mostly accessible only from the main highways.   I did go by at least one golf course.


I had a nice ride through the streets of beach towns.    In much of the area, leafy neighborhoods with small houses come within a few blocks of the oceanfront, where the high rises begin.






In the middle of North Myrtle Beach, where high rises along the ocean go on for miles, all of a sudden the development just stops.  There is about a quarter mile section completely cut off from the rest of town, and it looks mostly empty.   On the north side, a high fence extends out as far as the beach, clearly trying to keep people in or out.  After I pushed my bicycle around the fence, this is the view from the inside.


Atlantic Beach, South Carolina was chartered by a group of African Americans in the 1930’s and is still a separate town.  Prior to desegregation, there were many beach areas up and down the East Coast set aside for African Americans.   This is one of the few such towns left.   On this Tuesday in March,  Atlantic Beach stood mostly vacant and quiet.





I got back on the street grid, bicycling down the coast.   In these neighborhoods bicycles with fat tires would be a great transportation tool.   And I did see a few.   Much more common, however, were gasoline powered golf carts.   They were everywhere.



I wanted to bicycle down as far south as the beach road would go.  The motels furthest south on the Grand Strand strip are in Garden City Beach.    I found a room at this place for a reasonable price.


The view from the ground floor room was great.


I ate that night at the Conch Cafe.   Blackened rib eye and shrimp is not something that I normally order, but it was much better than expected;  the best fried shrimp I have had in a while.

When I first rode by this place at 5:45 PM it had been packed.  At 8:10 PM the crowd was thinning out.  The woman at the bar next to me was telling her companion about her pastor, and how much she likes Barefoot white wine.     Peaceful Easy Feeling was playing on the sound system.



I bicycled back on the sidewalk in the dark the half mile to the motel.


The next morning at 6:55 AM I could hear loud women’s voices outside.  I had left my sliding door cracked open to listen to the ocean at night.  The voices sounded like they were about fifteen feet away.  I got up and shut the door.  About an hour later I walked outside to look at the beach.  They were still there talking.  You can see my room to the right with the bicycle inside.



I bicycled back north.   I had tried this trip to photograph people as I whizzed by.




















Those of you who read my Myrtle Beach blog from two years ago probably remember all the pictures of modernist motels.   I have tried not to do this all over again, but I cannot help myself.    It the one really cool part of Myrtle Beach, and of course, those in Myrtle Beach do not seem to appreciate it.  Most motels look about the same as they did two years ago, including this first one that is in the same abandoned condition.


This one seems being prepared for the end game.


And there are lots of others, some still quite nicely kept up; others tatty and renting rooms by the week or month.   I could have taken many more pictures; this is just a sampling.
















I had gone to the Wednesday practice round of The Masters golf tournament; an event with tickets so scarce that you have to win a lottery to be able to pay a hefty fee to just watch the guys practice.    My friend Tom was gracious in inviting me to this event.  Driving the four hours down to Augusta, Georgia also gave me a day to bicycle around South Carolina on the way home.

Jordan Speith, Ben Crenshaw, and Tiger Woods

Jordan Speith, Ben Crenshaw, and Tiger Woods


There are never hotel rooms available in Augusta during Masters Week, but I found a very low cost space that Wednesday night seventy miles away at the Super 8 Motel in Orangeburg, South Carolina.   Now that I have lived in North Carolina for 28 years and can comfortably call myself a North Carolinian, I can seriously start giving South Carolina a hard time.

It was early April, but the evening was already steamy as I sprinted across the wide but lightly traveled highway between my motel and the Original House of Pizza.   I had biked around town a little before dark, and searched on the internet, and this Eye-talian place seemed to be the safest bet.  And it was really quite nice; the menu had a lot more than pizza.   They even offered “chableese” by the glass.



The next morning I spent about four hours bicycling around Orangeburg and its vicinity.  I guess they do not see a lot of tourists here.    “The Garden City” (population 13,964)  has some lovely gardens along the Edisto River.   I do not take too much offense that separation of church and state is apparently not taken seriously.




The rich people in Orangeburg choose to live out of town in what looks like a flood plain along that same Edisto River; new houses in a new neighborhood,  mostly in a traditional style.     Golf always adds panache to any address; what seems to be the toniest street in town is called Putter Path.  It is right down the street from the Orangeburg Country Club.

houses on Putter Path, Orangeburg SC

houses on Putter Path, Orangeburg SC


Relatively close by, on a different street, there was even a piece of modernism.



I guess some people do not realize that other people may take offense at the idea that the wealthy and white want to live on a plantation!

just outside of Orangeburg SC

just outside of Orangeburg SC


Back downtown there is a Confederate monument.

Caption reads: to the brave defenders of OUR RIGHTS, OUR HONOR, AND OUR HOMES

Caption reads: to the brave defenders of OUR RIGHTS, OUR HONOR, AND OUR HOMES

Despite this monument, the heart, soul, and current economy of Orangeburg seems to be with the African American community.    Orangeburg is the home of two predominantly African-American universities; South Carolina State, and Claflin University.   It is the site of the “Orangeburg Massacre” of 1968, where three African-American students were shot and killed by the state highway patrol in a demonstration over the integration of a bowling alley.


Claflin University

Claflin University





Why, you may ask, did I choose to go to this place?   Because I had never been there.   It did not seem like the kind of place that I would like;  I predicted a place filled with gated communities and golf courses.  Which, it pretty much turned out to be.   That, however, made it interesting, as I got to see how the other half vacations, so to speak.

I got up early in Chapel Hill and drove about five or six hours, pulling off I-95 at the Hardeeville exit, the last exit in South Carolina before the Georgia border, about thirty miles from Hilton Head.   I left the white Honda in a hospital parking lot.   Hilton Head itself is about twenty miles long, if you bicycle it from end to end.    I took the trusty Long Haul Trucker out of the trunk and pedaled off.

Inland, before Hilton Head, the powers that be in South Carolina have invested in wide roads with bike paths.  These roads pass through mostly empty woods and swamps, having the roads ready when new golf courses come.  It gives a bike rider a very safe ride for about twenty miles before the bridge to Hilton Head.


They are a few golf course communities before you actually get to Hilton Head Island.   Developers are clearly starting a community from scratch;  I doubt much was here previously except pine trees.   I guess they can create traditions, or at least pretend they exist.





I arrived onto Hilton Head Island late in the afternoon.  Cycling around that afternoon, and again the next morning, one is constantly confronted with signs about security.   I guess people that vacation here are more comfortable when they think that no one except a privileged few can drive in from of their vacation condo.   Maybe it fits into the current paranoia of our society.   Clearly the schtick of exclusivity sells here.  Cycling would have been even nicer if these gated communities would let a random bicyclist enter.   I am sure I looked threatening.




I spent the night in a random low cost motel on the highway.   Across the big highway, just a ways down from my motel, was a cozy high end restaurant.     There are virtually no street lights on island; it allows Hilton Head to sell itself as an underdeveloped non-urban place, even though the island is pretty much built out.   Hilton Head is almost psychotic in its rejection of urbanism.   One cannot pleasantly get anywhere by walking, except to walk around a neighborhood in circles.    That evening, I pedaled down the highway bike path a quarter mile in the dark before crossing the four lane highway and going into the 843 Bistro, in a strip mall next to a Fresh Market.

I sat at the bar by myself.   The bartender was helpful and almost too conversational.   She said that a big percentage of visitors to Hilton Head come from Ohio.    The food got points for creativity, but the chef was trying a little too hard.


The one area of the island that I really liked was the oceanfront neighborhood near North Forest Beach Drive.   It did not look anything like a planned community, and had the occasional sixties modernist house.   Of the beachfront neighborhoods I have visited all over the entire East Coast, I cannot recall any having an oceanfront strip of houses so completely and comfortably in the shade.   Dune Lane is really lovely.

Houses on the left are oceanfront

Houses on the left are oceanfront


Modernism in the same neighborhood

Modernism in the same neighborhood



The next day, I rode back the way I came.   I stopped for a late lunch at a place in a strip shopping center just inland from the island.   Called NEO, it billed itself as a gastro-pub.   It was expensive but delicious.   The guy had a great British beer selection on tap, but seemed startled at my selection of porter, in that he said a big percentage of his clientele chooses Bud Light.



The hinterlands of South Carolina south of Lumberton NC and west of Myrtle Beach, are filled with miles of flat pine forest, crossed by razor straight narrow highways filled with screeching pickup trucks that scare a bicyclist.



The bicycling on this trip was mostly a downer.  Pickup trucks with knobby tires produce a fearsome roar as they rumble by.   In a trip of one night and two days, however, the three meals were definitely more interesting than the roadside scenery.


After and long and stressful bike ride from where I parked the Ford Focus in Centenary SC, lunch the first day at the J&J Cafeteria in Conway SC.  The meal was a “meat and three”  choice of meat plus three vegetables. $ 6.99.   One overweight woman across from me was chipping away at a bucket of oysters, shuck them yourself at the table.    It looked delicious, I have hardly ever seen oysters served that way at a restaurant.

Guns are quite welcome around here.    This was the men’s room at the J&J.



Forty miles further late that afternoon, I glided into Georgetown, just inland from the coast,.   It is an old town, with lots of structures built in the 1700’s;  a town with aristocratic Charlestonian pretentions, amplified by all the yachts that stop over there on the way north / south.    There is a local commercial fishing fleet as well.



I got a room by the water at the Hampton Inn.  Dinner was at the Rice Paddy Restaurant,  about a mile each way by bike in the dark.    It is a fine restaurant, by any standard.   The talk at the bar was about oysters, yachts,  trucks, and hunting dogs, in that order.    At one point a guy started a tirade on Obama’s position on welfare.    The rest of the crowd grunted, and he backed off.   I still am not sure if this grunt was in approval, or if it was to encourage him to back off politics and go back to having a good time.

The bartender was a short blond forty-something woman, and most people there seemed to know her.    One of a couple of preppily dressed but masculine women would bark at her every half hour:  “Pee Wee, can I have another drink here?”

One of the guys there was in town to promote his line of camouflage clothing, where the cammo is pictures of oyster shells.   Really.  I managed to snap a picture with my cell phone.

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Dinner was so delicious I even got dessert.

Bicycling the next day was again stressful, as pickup trucks zoomed by on the narrow roads.    Three fourths of the way back to the car in Centenary, I stopped at Kenny’s in Hemingway SC.   Everybody in town seemed to be there for the after church lunch.   All you can eat,  fried chicken, barbecue,  green beans, etc.





I escaped for one night midweek to Myrtle Beach.  The winter wind whipped in the cold.  Even after bicycling up and down the Grand Strand, it was becoming difficult to find a positive thing to say about the whole place.   Almost all the restaurants are a quarter mile from the beach on US 17,  six to eight lanes of American Beauty.  Luckily, you can bicycle on minor roads, only having to go on US17 for short stretches.

US 17, Myrtle Beach

US 17, Myrtle Beach

Myrtle Beach does have dozens of nineteen fifties and sixties motels.   They are an endangered species.   At least ten that I passed were in the process of being torn down.   Others resembled single person occupancy hotels for poor people on the oceanfront, a hundred and fifty dollars a week in the winter.

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This place is in the process of being torn down.

This place is in the process of being torn down.

Still, many of these motels are lovely to look at, and we can only hope that Myrtle Beach can discover that they are really something worth saving.

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Gazing at the map south of Chapel Hill, Aiken, South Carolina seemed as good a place as any for a one night bike trip.    I knew nothing about it, other than one of our vendors from work,  the multinational UPS, had chosen this place to centralize their customs brokerage operation.    Since this is a service traditionally done at large port cities, I assumed that they chose this place because they could hire all sorts of low wage clerical workers.   A pink collar ghetto.    I google mapped Aiken, and saw two hotels downtown, plus lots of inviting restaurants restaurants within walking distance.   Aiken turned out to be a nice place; it has been a wintering spot for many years.  It has Southern charm.   Really.  Just don’t talk politics.

I drove south from Carrboro early, and left the car at a Methodist church parking lot in Leesville, South Carolina, about forty or fifty miles away from Aiken.   I had wanted do some bike riding before stopping to eat, but I could not resist the sign I saw immediately: Jackie Hite’s Bar-B-Q  in Leesville.   Some say that Southern cooking is America’s only true homegrown  cuisine.  If French cooking is finding creative ways to stuff butter and fat into everything, this place takes a similiar tack.   Among the best things in the buffet:  green beans, cooked cabbage, fried chicken,  fried pork cracklings, and pork barbecue with South Carolina mustard sauce.  All were gloriously fatty, but prepared with subtlety and care.  The only eating option is the $ 8.99 all you can eat.   Because the restaurant is so small and busy, food at the buffet gets replenished frequently, and in small quantities.   This may be one factor in why it is so cutting edge delicious.

Jackie Hite's B-B-Q

Jackie Hite’s B-B-Q

Pickup trucks are popular around here

Pickup trucks are popular around here

I have said before that because of the state DOT ,South Carolina towns physically retain more charm than North Carolina towns.   Neither Leesville nor Johnston, which are twenty miles apart,  has service by a four lane road.    But both are towns of substance.   In North Carolina, the state DOT would have ploughed a four lane road through  the middle of both towns, plus probably built a bypass as well.

Johnson SC, Peach Capital

Johnston SC, Peach Capital

Johnston, SC

Johnston, SC

Modernist post office, Johnston SC

Modernist post office, Johnston SC

On the way from Johnston to Aiken, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, I passed a huge gathering in a field.   It looked like twenty somethings, dressed in medieval costumes.  They were hitting each other, it sounded like.   Later, my twenty something staff told me that this was larping, or live action role playing games.  They surmised that these events are held in the middle of nowhere because the participants are ashamed to be seen in public doing this.  It looked like a good time was being had by all.

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Bring your own beer

Bring your own beer

Arriving Aiken just as it was about to turn dark, I found a low cost room at the Hotel Aiken.   The hotel has a big bar scene, but I skipped it to go to Casa Bella Italian Restaurant.    It features old school Italian-American food, with very good Eggplant Parmesan.  Sinatra and Dean Martin play in the background.  It is clearly the fanciest, or near fanciest place in town.   I ate at the bar with a long line of other fifty and sixty year old white guys in oxford button down shirts.  One big group had just come from a golf outing.   I met some interesting and friendly people.

The next day I rode back out of town, taking pictures as I went.

old train station, Aiken

old train station, Aiken