Thursday, July 22, 2010

Charleston to Florida

We got up, and we got out, leaving the creepy motel as quickly as we could. Now you may think – they serve hot breakfast, and have a pool. What exactly made this place so creepy? Were there pictures of little children cut out of magazines posted along the top of the walls? No – no there were not. So what was it then?

To be honest – I couldn't tell you. Let's just say, for sake of argument, that we didn't leave out of fear, but because we wanted to get to Charleston as early as possible.

Rolling into Charleston at eight thirty in the morning is the perfect time to arrive. The visitor centre is just opening, and the big girls who work behind the desk are feeling at their most cranky, having been ripped out of pleasant dreams only moments earlier. Yes, they're a lovely bunch, most of the time – but speak to them when sleep still hangs in their eyes, and all you get is a few highlighter marks on a pull out map. There is no information, and no idle chit chat, just here you are, there you go.

Still – those marks were starting point enough. Rainbow Row, the Market, and the Battery. The main places of interest in Charleston.

We found free street parking (being Sunday, all street parking was free) and wondered who these people were that were paying ten to twenty dollars for the lots, half full even at this early hour. Probably the same people who pay for wifi at the airport.

Rainbow row. This is the most photographed part of Charleston, and it's obvious to see the second you step up. Everywhere you look there is a tourist, or a large group of tourists, holding one or more cameras. Many cameras all snapping away at the sides of these buildings painted in bland, unobtrusive pastels. Now, they were all different colours, which is what is said to make this little strip so wonderful but:

I had not ha a good sleep in ages, we lost our relax day in D.C. because the manager of the motel failed to honour his bargain to lower the price for an extra night, and as such I was tired. Not just tired – but I'd been on the move for months now, and it was all finally coming t a head. Maybe it's that the sky was grey. Maybe it's that the sun was on the other side of the town, making any and all photos of these coloured houses more muted than they already were, or maybe it's that I was just cranky – but I tell you what, I could not have cared less about these houses.

Yes yes, pretty and all. Katherine like them quite a bit – but they were just houses. They were like the homes you see in Eastern Canada – except the ones there are vibrant, and beautiful. This? What was the point of all this?

Half an hour from that moment I would drink a large lemonaid, hydrate myself, get some sugar in me, and Charleston would become a magical wonderland of delights. Sadly, that was still some time to come.

As we walked towards the battery, people were snapping away with their cameras, and I wondered what it was that they were seeing that I wasn't. What were they taking pictures of? I could see elements I wanted to shoot but they were too far hidden by the angle. Or far too dark. There were fans over porches, and there were red striped chairs behind white washed rails, but nothing was within reach of my cameras lens.

I walked down the street, wondering where all the southern stereotypes were. I wanted big men in suits under those porch fans, drinking lemonaid, freshly made, screaming, “I declare.” I wanted women in their fancy dresses, and big hats, walking down the streets. I wanted – something that made this place feel different from anywhere else I had been. This was The South, dagnabbit, and I wanted it to feel that way. Never mind that my interpretation of Southern America happens to be set in a fictional nineteen fifties.

Looking at the canons, and the guns facing out to sea at the battery, I wondered if I'd travelled the world too late. I'm sure there are hidden gems still out there, but the ease of it all... well, nothing is supposed to be easy, is it? Were we to travel to small towns far off the path, and risk Deliverance style ends, we might surely be welcomed into some obscure American homesteads – but to play safe, well that will only ever get you so far. So here we were in Charleston, appreciating it for what it was, as a man dressed as a pirate with a voice like Bill Clinton led a tour for paying visitors. A horse and buggy pulled another group through the streets, pointing out banks, and pubs, and churches along the way.

It may be that the town seemed so empty because it was Sunday. With more than two hundred and fifty churches in the area, Charleston is a city that takes its religion quite seriously. And there it was. Everything I had wanted to see, all at once.

The pretty ladies in their Sunday best were walking up the stairs as a cacophony of church bells started to ring with no rhythm, an no song. 10:07 they began, and who knows when they ended. The whites entered the church, while the black men rounded the back to garden, and sweep up the mess. Standing on the porch a large man in a pink and white pinstriped suit welcomed us, and tried to usher us inside. It was the fictional nineteen forties right here on the corner of Church and Broad. But it wasn't. It was real. It was two thousand and ten. And it seemed, with eyes straight ahead, as if time had stood still.

I desperately wanted to go inside. Not because of any religious reasons, but because it was a cultural experience. And because we had been invited by a preacher whose largeness made me think he would be of the screaming persuasion, The type who talks in all caps and exclamation marks.

Though I was dressed in shorts, and a short sleeved shirt, it was still alright. Katherine looked far more the part, in a lovely red dress, and straw hat which fit right into my vision of the past. But she would have none of it. Even just to look around, and take pictures, she avoids churches. And if there happens to be something going on inside, well then it's a fight just to pause and look through the door.

While I felt I was missing out on some spectacular experience, which may or may not have led to faith healing [note: it would not have, for that you need to meet at the ol' van, down by the river, just before midnight – or something like that, I'm sure] it was for the best. Every moment spent here was a moment later we would finally reach our destination of Port Charlotte Florida.

Before leaving we hit up the market, which is where the giant lemonaid came from, which changed my view of this town far more than the church scene did. There were shops with various spicy condiments, horseradish jelly, and the finest peppers this side of wherever fine peppers are grown. There were stalls with art, and collections of baseball cards – Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio.

Fans spinning over head tried to cool those walking below, with little effect. The drink tasting of pure lemon curd fulfilled that goal. And as we walked we stopped to look, try a deep fried peanut here or there, and then headed on.

Back at the car we plugged in our destination, looked at the estimated arrival time of 9pm, and cringe. Twelve hours ahead of us, and we still weren't quite ready to leave the state. Not when there was an outlet mall only minutes away.

I may have said time and again that I hate shopping. But I contradict that whenever I find a store I like. It's not that I hate shopping, it's just that there's not much I enjoy shopping for – couple that with my desire to spend as little money as possible, and you've got yourself a reluctant shopper. Even at the outlet mall, as Kath checked out stores for shoes, I wanted to kill myself. Why had I suggested this? She likes shopping about as much as I do – but she had a reason to shop right now. It made it bearable for her. Sure there was a Chinese food lunch (veggies and butter, beef, and spaghetti – well I ate it was backwards chopsticks, and it came from a place called [something] wok, so it wanted to be Chinese food anyway.) That wasn't enough though.

Then – the Eddie Bauer store. It's possible that fifty percent of my clothes these days come from there. Of all places that fit me, they fit me best. In we went. The first thing I saw? A lime green button up, quick dry, 50 UPF shirt. This must be mine. But thirty dollars... “Get it,” Katherine nudged, also liking it. Fine. There was no choice. A blue one sat beside it, but coming only in XXL, rather than single X, it fit – but far too big. Comparing it, it was larger and longer than the dress Kath had on.

Only the green shirt for me – Shorts, $34.99, now 50% off! What value! What savings. Last time I was in Port Charlotte, before Christmas, I had to throw away a pain of Eddie Bauer shorts that had served me well over the years. They had finally ripped through and died. But here were new ones. I checked all the styles seeing if I could replace the same ones. Finally it dawned on me that these were that style, but while some of the orange inner stitching had remained, the orange zipper was now the colour of the fabric, and the shorts I loved would never be the same again.

Accepting this, I grabbed two pairs. I will not allow myself to have these rip and feel the same upset as when the last died. For seventeen fifty, these were a quarter of the price I paid the last time around. With two pairs, I was now prepared for the American summer – I had only one pair up to this point. On the way to the front I saw flip flops for seven bucks. I'd never worn them, but these looked alright, and were branded with the EB signature. How could I resist?

When I get to Florida, I'll have to take stock of my clothing and figure out what I need, what I don't.

Then – finally – we headed off. The ETA displayed by the GPS reading 11pm for Port Charlotte. It was going to be a long drive into the night. And it was barely after noon.

The drive was mostly uneventful, except for a half hour stop for food. And then hours of nothing once more. Until - “Peach cider, twenty miles.” I followed these signs, Katherine missing them all, giving updates as we drove. “In just seventeen miles we'll be at the cider,” I said.

“How do you know this?!” Her frustration, but also desire for cider that is not apple, getting the best of her.

When finally we arrived, I admitted there had been signs, and that – no – I had never stopped here before, nor, “all the time,” as I may have claimed.

Inside there were five types: peach, cherry, apple, blackberry, and some sort of special grape. We bought one of each. None were all that fantastic, but all begged experimenting. Their dips, and mixes, and sauces – pepper dip, spicy tomato, these were the highlights for me. But they went unpurchased (with free samples and no shame, I made sure to try them all.)

Then it was back on the road. ETA midnight. Great.

I took over driving. And then the rain picked up. From seventy miles and hour, we dropped back to sixty. Then to fifty. Trucks blazed by, every one turned on their four way flashers in an attempt to not be hit, and we just carried on. What else was there to do? The rain broke – it came back – it lessened. Hours later, I had to switch driving with Katherine, and I napped. Then I drove, and then she did once more – the final push. I woke up as we pulled into the driveway, behind another car, just after one thirty in the morning.

Why was there another car? Did my parents finally buy a Florida car? Was someone sleeping in our house? I couldn't be bothered to care. Time for sleep.

As we headed in, turned on the water, and flushed the toilet three times to empty it of rusty yellow water, we noticed all these black specks on the ground. So many. So many black specks. Dear lord, they were ants! Dead ants! Dead ants everywhere. Millions of them. What was more disturbing was the one or two live ones crawling around on top.

I quickly found a broom and made a pile of them on the floor, so as I could use the washroom without stepping on corpses. And then – bladder emptied – we vowed to deal with them in the morning. For now? Now it was time to sleep.

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