An Outsider in Charleston

IMG_8256I love exploring new cities, even if only for a few hours.  And that’s what I did in Charleston, South Carolina–a petite bon-bon of a city that is almost a caricature of a mythical South.

We decided to leave Edisto Island a day early because we had a 9 am Monday appointment to get a new trailer tire in Charleston.  We did not want to leave Edisto in the early-morning dark and then contend with Charleston’s congested morning commute, so we booked a Sunday night spot at Charleston’s popular James Island County Park campground, much closer to the tire place.  That gave us an unexpected free Sunday afternoon in Charleston.

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George wanted to take care of some chores, so he and Zoe dropped me off downtown and I had three hours to simply wander around the city before meeting up with the campground’s shuttle bus at 4 pm.  Sunshine, good walking sandals, no agenda, camera in hand–sweet bliss.

The first thing I noticed was churches, lots of them, in a variety of colors and shapes, dominating the streetscapes in every direction and giving Charleston one of its nicknames, “The Holy City.”

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My favorite church, the pink French Huguenot.

My favorite church, the pink French Huguenot.

The young and the dead on a Huguenot tombstone.

The young and the dead on a Huguenot tombstone.

Charleston’s other nicknames are “Chuck Town” and “The Big Sweet Grass Basket.”  Not nicknames that make me want to visit.  But if you want a sweet grass basket—this is the place for you—there were vendors selling them to tourists on every other corner.  The basket stands were outnumbered, however, by the horse (and mule) drawn carriages, bulging with tourists and loud tour guides hawking a little southern charm.

IMG_8190Every time I came to a new street, there was another carriage, hauled by one or two beasties patiently waiting or slowly clip-clopping up the street, adding to the fantasy-like atmosphere of another era.

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Charleston is an old city, founded in the 1600’s at the confluence of two rivers joining the sea.  In the early days, it was unusual in that it welcomed immigrants of all religious persuasions (except Roman Catholics (there has to be some group on the outs)), giving it a rich mix of cultures.  It also welcomed lots and lots of slaves, being a main point of entry for slave ships.

In my meandering walk, I most enjoyed the French Quarter.  It pales in comparison with New Orleans’ French Quarter.  In comparison, Charleston’s is a baby-sized area and so much more polite and restrained.  But the houses were colorful and had a decidedly European feel.

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IMG_8202IMG_8205IMG_8206I had expected Charleston to be a lot like Savannah, but it feels very different.  They both are full of lovely old houses with oak-shaded streets, but Charleston is bounded by rivers and oceans, giving it a more wide-open, oceany feel.

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Charleston’s famous Battery, a defensive wall and promenade, stretches along its waterfront.  I found it awash with tourists—all of whom were people-watching and house-gawking—I was the only freak who seemed to notice the dolphins playing in the water.

IMG_8219The Battery area is flanked by ornate antebellum homes, full of high money and southern manners, but with little privacy from tourists’ prying eyes and lenses.

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This tourist is taking a picture of the house interior.  A common sight in Charleston.

This tourist is taking a close up of this private residence–a common sight in Charleston.

Some creepy statuary.

Some creepy statuary.

This house will keeps the tourists at bay.

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Such a strange southern mix, this city that defied the Union and started the Civil War at Fort Sumter, while also prizing appearance, manners, elite social societies, and debutante balls.

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South Carolina Society Hall motto

South Carolina Society Hall motto

Even the sewer covers are attractive.

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There is little visual record of Charleston’s black residents when walking through the old streets.  But I did stumble on this plaque by the courthouse.

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While Judge Waring’s admirers should be rightly proud of his lone dissent against segregation, they left out the rest of the story, which found the plaintiff Brigg parents losing their jobs, the local Reverend who assisted their efforts surviving a drive-by shooting and the torching of his church, and all of them leaving this staunchly segregationist state.  It’s not a pretty history.

Courthouse, within spitting distance of a church, of course.

Courthouse, within spitting distance of a church, of course.

I also learned that Charleston had a significant earthquake in 1886, between a 6.6 and 7.3 on the Richter Scale—a surprise to me.

Confederate Veterans Home damaged by the earthquake

Confederate Veterans Home damaged by the earthquake

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I walked up and down streets.

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Notice the horse and carriage reflected in the window. Inescapable.

IMG_8189IMG_8188IMG_8269IMG_8270IMG_8257I wound my way back to the Visitors Center to pick up the shuttle and ran into the John Calhoun statue.  Most statues are at a reasonable visual level.  Not this one.  This staunch defender of slavery is raised to a godlike height, staring down at us mere (northern) mortals with a disapproving scowl. IMG_8273IMG_8277

I couldn't make out any details of the statue except through the telephoto lens.

I couldn’t make out any details of the statue except through the telephoto lens.

Tents were going up in Marion Square for Charleston’s fashion week, balloons escaped above, and little piggies sparkled.

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People are Strange

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Strange?  Not so much, they were riding for charity.

We spent a few memorable days on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, with odd encounters and over-the-top glorious warm, sunny weather.  We stayed at a private RV park on the waterway, where each site is individually owned and decorated.  You cannot reserve sites in advance, but we knew that we might be able to snag a waterfront site because we were arriving on a Sunday morning, when many people were leaving.  We arrived fairly early for check-in and found limited available waterfront sites due to dock construction.  But, fortunately, one lovely site right on the water had just opened up and we grabbed it.  Yesssss!!!

After we went through the routine of backing in (a bit difficult because of the large truck parked across the street) and unhooking the trailer, George went to hook up the sewer hose and discovered a charming surprise—a spill from the previous occupant’s black tank.  It was a two-foot wide puddle of sodden disintegrating clumps of toilet paper and crap (literally).  Nooooo!!!

What kind of people leave a dump of sewage behind?  Did they think no one would notice?  It’s bad enough having to act as a roto-rooter for your own sewage in an RV, but having to come face-to-face with someone else’s is downright puke-worthy.  After an initial non-reaction from the woman manning the park’s office, apparently a light dawned—uh-oh raw sewage—and she came running over, immensely apologetic.  Fortunately, another waterfront site had been vacated while we were trying to figure out what to do.  So, we were able to move.  Management also kindly offered us a free night. Things were looking up.

Our personal dock.

Our personal dock.

Shortly after unhitching for a second time at the new site, we were approached by a middle-aged brother and sister, who stopped to ask questions about our trailer.  The woman cornered me by the picnic table with a non-stop, one-sided talk fest.  She pulled up her shirt to show me a rainbow of blue and yellow bruises from broken ribs she sustained in a ping-pong game with her brother (“we’re very competitive, you know”) and then went into graphic detail about the effect the painkillers she received had on her bowels.  I will spare you the details.

All this happened within an hour of arriving at Hilton Head.  Ouch.

The new site, however, was exquisite, with its own dock and a view of the harbor.  We spent most of our time just sitting outside, soaking up the warmth and sun, and looking out over the water.

Our morning breakfast view.

Our morning breakfast view out the window.

The RV park had—let’s say an unusual culture, with lots of people in huge Class As and Fifth Wheels who stay there for the whole winter.  They seemed to think it was beneath them to acknowledge short-timers and were some of the unfriendliest people we have encountered on the trip.  You would think we were sporting buboes.

Dwarfed.

Dwarfed.

It’s fascinating how people enjoy a little snobbery even when they are living in what is, in essence, a trailer park.

A park street.

A park street.

This guy was hanging around.

This guy was hanging around.

Herons were a common theme in site decorations.

Herons were a common theme in site decorations.

Little flags adorned many sites.  St. Patrick's Day themes were popular, not sure what this bunny signified.  Early Easter?

Little flags adorned many sites. St. Patrick’s Day themes were popular, not sure what this bunny signified. Early Easter?

Surprisingly, there was a very good restaurant in the park, over the laundry, looking out on the water.  The food was delicious and inventive—much too good for many of its clientele.

View from our restaurant window.

View from our restaurant window.

We went for dinner at sunset one evening and sat next to a table with three grim, moneyed, older couples.  They insisted on having the blinds drawn, “too bright,” complained that the gumbo was “too seasoned,” and loudly pointed out that “some people think it’s ok to wear baseball caps in restaurants, but not us.”  George, two other men, and a woman (all over 50, but the youngest in the restaurant) apparently were causing great irritation to this man by wearing baseball caps and he felt it was his duty to inform them of their rudeness.  I thought he was rude on several counts, but politely refrained from saying anything.  Perhaps I should have informed Mr. Complainer that his liver-spotted, combed-over head would have been greatly improved by a hat and his vein-popping, crusty ankles by a pair of socks.

Sunset over the dock construction.

Sunset over the dock construction.

Many people adore Hilton Head.  It has gorgeous beaches, top-notch golf courses, lots of shopping, and good restaurants.  But, it was not our style–too much traffic, too many people, too many stores.  I rode my bike all around the island’s bike paths one day and had to continually dodge broken beer bottles, fast-food bags, styrofoam food containers, a dead cat, two dead raccoons, a dead squirrel, and aggressive traffic.

The only photo worth taking on my bike ride.

The only photo worth taking on my bike ride.

I was thrilled to get back to our serene little spot on the water and didn’t venture out again.

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After four days, we left for Edisto Beach State Park.  The weather turned cold, cloudy, and very windy—too cold to really spend any time at the beach.  IMG_8150We stayed at the inland part of the campground, which gave us some protection from the wind, so we enjoyed its trails in a dense, gloomy, Tolkein-like woods, where the trees seemed to have faces. 20150314_093642 One trail led to the remains of a Native shell-mound. IMG_8152IMG_8161

There were lots of families at the Edisto campground over the weekend.  In fact, it was full.  One afternoon, we were puzzled by what sounded like a loud, annoying cell phone ring that didn’t stop.  It turned out to be an ice cream truck weaving through the park.  The seven children at the site next to us were eager customers.  The summer weekend campground season has already begun.      IMG_8176IMG_8139

Defensive Design

IMG_7999I had no idea that a military fort could be so beautiful. On our last full day on the Georgia coast, we decided to take a drive north from Skidaway to Tybee Island. We had no specific destinations on Tybee, we just wanted to check it out. Tybee is Savannah’s beach, with a partially funky, partially upscale, southern beach town feel. It has a starkly handsome lighthouse, set off by the red roofs below.

IMG_7918As we were on the stretch of road leaving Tybee, we decided to stop at Fort Pulaski, a National Park Service Monument on the Savannah River’s Cockspur Island. A good decision.

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Moat and drawbridge

Surprisingly, the Park Service allowed dogs everywhere but in the visitor center, so Zoe got to tour the fort also.

You can just see George and Zoe at the edge of the moat.

You can just see George and Zoe between the trees at the moat’s edge.  She wanted to go swimming.

Zoe liked the cannon.

Zoe showing her approval of the cannon.

We walked a trail down to the river bank and then tackled the fort itself.

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There were flocks of cedar waxwings on the trail.

We dodged a flock of cedar waxwings on the trail.

Resurrection ferns.  They are epiphytes like the Spanish moss and live, appear to die, and then live again.

Resurrection ferns. They are epiphytes like the Spanish moss and live on the live oaks.  They turn brown and look dead under cold and drought conditions and then, a few days later, become green again.

The fort’s history alone made it an interesting visit.IMG_8045

IMG_8013Fort Pulaski was part of James Madison’s plan to fortify the coast after the war of 1812. It took decades to build and stood even longer after its completion without being fully armed or manned.  As a result, when South Carolina seceded from the Union in late 1860, Georgia’s governor easily seized the fort, and turned it over to the Confederate States in January 1861.  After Lincoln blockaded the South, Union forces worked their way down the South Carolina coast and moved in on Georgia, eventually establishing troops on Tybee for a siege of Fort Pulaski.  In April 1862, when the Confederates refused to surrender the fort, the Union bombarded it with armament that included new rifled cannons, Parrott guns, which sent bullet-shaped shells spinning out of the cannon, giving greater range and penetration than the standard smooth-bore cannon and round cannon balls used at the time.  The new guns made short work of what had been considered Pulaski’s impenetrable walls and the Confederates surrendered 30 hours later.IMG_7971

IMG_7966IMG_8033After the surrender, General David Hunter, commander of the Fort’s Union forces, issued an emancipation proclamation for the slaves of Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina (too early for Lincoln–he quickly rescinded it).  The hundreds of slaves who reached the fort were freed and it became a southern terminus in the Underground Railroad.

Carved granite steps.

Carved granite steps from below.

History aside, what I found so compelling about the fort was its sheer beauty of design. It may not have been impregnable, but it was stunning for the eyes.  The man responsible, General Simon Bernard, was a French engineer and former aide-de-camp of Napoleon.

The vaulted ceilings and arches gave it a church-like feel.  The dimensions, the symmetry, and the colors were pleasing, almost soothing.  Beautiful form for a brutal function.IMG_8026_edited-1

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Toward the end of the war, Fort Pulaski housed Confederate political and military prisoners, some of whom died there.  It’s now supposed to be haunted.IMG_7993

Skidaway

IMG_7758It feels good to be traveling again.  We headed north from St. Simons back to Athens, Georgia, where our son and daughter-in-law live.  We picked up our generator and some other things we had stashed there, ate like kings (or pigs, depending on your point-of-view), and then turned around and headed back to the Georgia coast.  This time, our destination was Skidaway Island State Park, just southeast of Savannah.

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Skidaway takes reservations, but not for specific sites, just the category of site—full-hookups or water and electric only.  There were no full-hookup reservations available when we made ours, but we arrived early and snagged a full-hook up site that had just opened up.  I believe we had the best site in the park.  Enormous, level, relatively private–it was one of our favorite campsites of the trip.

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Although Skidaway is an island, the state park is in the coastal forest bordering the marsh and there is no beach.  Most of the campground sites are large, overhung by live oaks, bordered by palmettos, and alive with birds.  IMG_7826It has a series of trails, from a half-mile to three miles, which made for lovely daily exercise.  IMG_7742IMG_7786IMG_7771Lots of birds, not too many people, campfires at night, a full moon rising through the trees—as I said, it felt good to be in our little trailer world again.

IMG_7823The park has a small interpretative center with information on the area’s history—natural and otherwise.  As I walked through it, trying to quiet the thwack-thwack of my flip-flips so as not to interrupt the Ranger’s talk on poisonous snakes from the room next door, I heard her say, “Whatever you do, don’t walk the trails with sandals or flip-flops.”  No problem, I headed out on the trails fully shod, ankles sprayed with bug dope, so that no snakes or ticks would get near me. IMG_7883

The interpretative center had a birdfeeder out back.

The interpretative center had a bird feeder out back.

This cardinal kept attacking its reflection in the interpretative center's window

This cardinal kept attacking its reflection in the interpretative center’s window

We headed into Savannah one day, but it was too cold and windy to even get out of the car for more than a few minutes.  IMG_7836IMG_7840We parked and tried to walk around but didn’t get much past the parking lot with the hearse ghost tours.  Still, even a drive around Savannah is interesting.  Its historic district is a maze of beautiful old homes and shaded squares, with some grittiness interspersed and around the edges.  IMG_7869IMG_7863IMG_7876IMG_7868IMG_7877The river waterfront’s warehouses have been converted to restaurants and tourist shops.  It gave me the deja-vu-ish feeling that I have had in several gorgeous old waterfront towns that now have look alike tourist businesses–Lahaina, Provincetown, Savannah, Wilmington–as if I’ve been on these streets before, but with a slight shift in light, background, and smell.  They are becoming too much the same.

IMG_7845IMG_7854We did not have any expectations for Skidaway.  We changed our travel plans in Athens, deciding that we wanted to head back to the coast in hopes of warmer weather. So, we booked Skidaway at the last minute, knowing little about it.  It was a good decision.  Despite the one cold day, the weather was pretty nice.  And the campground, which seems like a serene, woodsy oasis, is only about fifteen minutes from Savannah. We loved it.IMG_7791IMG_7810IMG_7796

 

Just Birds (Beach, Birds, Rehab, and … Plans, part 2)

IMG_6221This is a second part of the post “Beach, Birds, Rehab, and … Plans,” but it’s just birds. If you don’t like bird photos, you will be yawning big time on this one.

For me, St. Simons meant birds.  They were everywhere—on the beach, in the marsh, in our neighborhood, and in the village.  IMG_6026They fluttered, called, preened, sang, strutted, fished, hammered, and, at times seemed to pose.  IMG_5412Many nights, we were kept awake by two owls calling back and forth from the dense live oaks in the neighborhood (go to sleep, already!!).

Every morning, the tentative bits of bird song signaled that—although it was still dark—the sun was about to rise.  All day long, their calls accompanied us—the cardinals’ rhythmic chip and liquid song, the doves’ oo-oo, IMG_6478the sparrows’ chatter, and the ospreys’ skreeee—eek, causing the marsh birds to scatter—flying up, circling around, and settling back down.    IMG_6705

The trees and bushes were heavy with berries—especially the red cedar—and attracted a wide variety of birds, fussing and gorging, but elusive to catch on film.IMG_6676IMG_6671

The shore birds were more stolid, hunkered down against the cold or pecking at critters in the sand and waves.  IMG_5369IMG_5378IMG_7497They only became skittish if I got close, so we played a cat and mouse game where I would learn how close I could approach before they took off and moved another ten feet down the beach.

The salt inlet at the end of the beach was a feeding mecca for a variety of birds scooping up the little minnows and larger mullet.   IMG_7531 IMG_7539This elegant beauty (I assume it’s a tern or gull, but don’t know what kind … I’ll call it the blackdot cheeky terngull) did a beautiful fluttering hover and dive, over and over again.  IMG_7521IMG_7508IMG_7501During our last week on the island, this oystercatcher couple appeared on the rocks.  One sported multiple bands, the other none.  The banded one must be older or stupider, or both.  IMG_7651IMG_7567

On St. Simons, a quiet road runs along the marsh, so it’s easy to get close to the birds without having to worry about being attacked by snakes, gators, or bugs.    IMG_6311IMG_7576IMG_6757IMG_7583IMG_7694IMG_7682

Just birds–but such a variety–interesting, noisy, colorful, entertaining, awkward, graceful, and beautiful.

Look carefully to see the fish this osprey is holding in his talons.

Look carefully to see the fish this osprey is holding in his talons.

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Beach, Birds, Rehab, and … Plans

IMG_7535We are on the road again and just getting back into the sweet rhythm of travel.  But it was not entirely easy to leave St. Simons.  Unwittingly, we put down a few root tendrils in our three month stay that had stubbornly taken hold.  It was a good interlude and we will be back.

St. Simons was not new to us, but this extended visit gave us a new perspective.  I became almost addicted to the winter beach.  It changed–sometimes dramatically–from day to day and, on days when I did not walk its full length, I felt as if I was missing something.  Few ventured out on the bitter cold days, giving me miles of solitude with nothing but waves, sand, birds and sky–always different, with constantly shifting sands and tidal cuts.

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When I wasn’t walking the beach I was bird-stalking–mostly along the marsh.  I am not a birder and have no life list.  But I love to watch and listen to birds and to try to capture them in photos.  St. Simons was a birdy feast.  I never knew what I was going to see from day to day, but felt I got to know some of the resident egrets, mergansers, and herons.

20141203_162428In fact, the birds were so varied and interesting that the second part of this post will be bird photos only, allowing those of you tired of the birds an easy bypass.  IMG_7650

The St. Simons’ people, both locals and visitors, were some of the friendliest I have ever encountered.  We enjoyed our quirky neighborhood–between the King and Prince and the Village–full of old houses, cats, and enough dogs to hold a neighborhood dog parade in their honor.

King and Prince Hotel--good beach access here even at high tide

King and Prince Hotel–good beach access here even at high tide

The Crab Trap, neighborhood restaurant for 40 years

The Crab Trap, neighborhood restaurant for 40 years

Shrimp boat seen from Village pier

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Shrimper

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Cats on a roof.

Dog parade

Dog parade passing by our front door

We made friends.  I came to know the 89-year-old woman living around the corner, her yard man, the oil company guy on the beach, the shell-collecter who hated the cold, the mail lady, fellow kayakers, three different couples from Maine, and a wide variety of people from yoga classes.  After months on the road, where interpersonal encounters are necessarily transitory, the people of St. Simons were an unexpected pleasure.

Spring was trying hard to rear its lovely head just as we were leaving.  The first blooms were zapped by a hard frost, but new blooms kept coming.  With the spring came more people.  Too many for us–we would not like the St. Simons’ summer crowds.IMG_6789

IMG_6810IMG_4484IMG_6929IMG_6782We were ready to leave and fortunately George’s shoulder healed quickly and well.  We lucked out on his surgeon, whose aggressive approach to rehab allowed George to be lifting some weights within six weeks of surgery.  He now is able to do most everything, has good range of motion, and little pain.  We are very glad that we took a break from travel to have the surgery.

That break also gave us a chance to think seriously about where we want to go from here. Originally, we had intended to be on the road for about a year, until May.  After deciding on surgery, and a three-month break for rehab, we continued to think that we would head out west afterwards and travel into the summer.  But, at some point in our down time, we decided instead to head up to Maine and buy a house this spring.  We want to have a place near some water with a little land to indulge in gardening, beekeeping, woodworking, and other long-on-hold interests.  We will take the trip out west whenever we feel like it because, after all, we are retired and can come and go as we please.

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Zoe learned to handle the surf.

Zoe learned to handle the surf.

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Car transport behemoth ship in the distance

 

Last beach walk--beautiful light.

Last beach walk–beautiful light.

We are working our way up the East Coast to arrive in Maine later in the spring.  We will continue to travel, but now with a new home base.