2011 Road Trip Day 10 – Fayetteville to Charleston

7 minute read

Roads: I-95 to I-26
Miles: 227
Time: 4 hours

I started out this morning with a trip to the Airborne and Special Forces Museum in Fayetteville. My cousin’s husband has been in Airborne for the past year or so and he gave me an inside look into what it’s like to jump out of airplanes for the Army. The museum is fascinating and filled with information on the history of the Airborne in the US military as well as the history of the special forces. It’s got replicas of the inside of C-130s, gliders from WW II and other artifacts that give you a sense of Airborne. My grandfather was in the 82nd when he jumped on D-Day and any chance I get to see what that was like is a treat. There is a full 82nd Airborne museum here on Ft. Bragg but that had to wait for another trip.

I left Fayetteville later than I expected but that’s what this trip is for. The plan was always to visit Charleston but I wasn’t sure how many nights I was going to stay. On one hand, there are several other places along the Eastern Seaboard that I’d like to see and investigate. On the other, Charleston is rife with history and charm that warrants more than just a passing trip through town. In the end, I decided to splurge there and stay down on the wharf. By doing this, I could walk to a lot more things and see the old city more fully. I pointed the GPS and the car south on I-95 for the short trip.

The drive through much of coastal North and South Carolina is not geographically interesting, at least not in the way a trip through the Great Smokies in northwestern North Carolina is. The road is almost always flanked with tall pines which only occasionally open up to allow a glimpse of a farm or cotton field. At worst, you may get filtered views of large swaths of harvested pine forests. Logging is apparently still a major industrial concern in the Carolinas.

However, there are plenty of interesting things to see along the road that are not natural, in that they are only a part of nature because man decided they would be. South of the Border is a large shrine to roadside capitalism that of course is just south of the North Carolina border on I-95. I didn’t stop but in reading the history of the place, I probably should have. It began 60 years ago as a 600 square foot stand selling beer to people from dry North Carolina. It’s now the largest employer in Dillion County, SC which probably isn’t impressive on a grand scale but at a local level, is quite a feat. While my trip has been more about historical artifacts and landmarks, it’s places like South of the Border that symbolizes the culture of the Southern road trip. For the entire length of North Carolina, billboards try to implant the idea of stopping at South of the Border as a requirement. This guerilla marketing at the individual consumer level is probably quite powerful if you’re not intent on getting to a particular destination before dark. Or if you have a car load full of screaming kids who want to ride the ferris wheel. With slogans like “You Never Sausage a Place”, you can imagine the angle.

Both NC and SC have a custom of honoring dead State troopers by naming bridges after them. Other states may have this custom but it’s especially prevalent in the Carolinas. Unfortunately, it also seems to happen quite often as many of the bridges between Fayetteville and Charleston are memorial bridges. It’s a constant reminder of the danger State Troopers are in on a daily basis.

I-95 is a fantastically maintained road, especially when compared to some of the Tennessee roads between Birmingham and Knoxville. It is smooth and straight, allowing for the mind to drift away from the pain of being in a car for long periods of time. In the distant past, South Carolina was largely agrarian and there are still signs of this along the road. Cotton is currently being harvested here and while it’s all done mechanically with combines and trucks these days, it wasn’t so long ago that people picked the cotton, people who were enslaved to plantation owners. The history of the South is a tragic one and I can’t help but think of these things as I drive along the roads here.

In present times, people are much more likely to work in a Honda factory than they are on a cotton farm, I’d imagine. South Carolina has a Honda ATV factory which briefly dominates the view when you drive past it. Unfortunately, even the advent of high tech manufacturing has not changed the demographics much in Timmonsville, where the plant is located. Over 25% of the population of the town still live below the poverty line. It’s a largely African American community and it makes me wonder about the industrial changes of the South over the past 150 years.

Once I turned onto I-26, the drive became even more tunnel like. I-26 shoots east and west through the state and on the section into Charleston, it’s lined by trees with the median full as well. There is little to visually distract you from the back of the semi truck in front. The speed limit is 70 but the locals all seem to drive 78-80. Maybe that’s why there are so many trooper bridges in South Carolina. The drive into the city was similar to other cities. Traffic wasn’t as bad as I expected at 5 PM but I had the fortune of going against the grain again. The modern city of Charleston contrasts completely with the feel and the vibe of the section of town centered around Broad Street. The closer you get to historic Charleston, the streets grow narrower, lined with cobblestones occasionally and the buildings begin to take on the feel of French architecture.

I’m staying in the Vendue Inn. It’s quite nice and is housed in historic buildings in the French Quarter section of Charleston. Once I got situated, I walked the streets of Charleston for a couple of hours. The city, at least in this section of town, has a very old world Southern feel. There are many churches along the narrow streets, many with burial grounds that probably date back 300 years. At night, the huge overhanging oaks and low street lights give a spooky feel that is both unnerving and inviting. I feel more literary here as evidenced by this thousand word essay written at 5 in the morning.

After walking around undecided for quite awhile, I ended up at Amen Street Fish and Raw Bar for dinner. The food was fantastic but the service on a sleepy Tuesday night was somewhere south of that mark. There are over 300 restaurants in this section of town so I would imagine it’s a highly cutthroat business. Or maybe there’s just enough money to go around for everyone.

I had a drink at the Rooftop bar at the Vendue Inn which invokes views of the bay and natty visitors laughing gaily over wine and cocktails. What I got was scotch in a plastic glass and an across from some second tier college feel. Granted, it’s a Tuesday night but I felt a little let down by the overall feel of the place.

This trip has been and continues to be intellectual fun. I continue to see new and interesting things on a daily basis. However, I realized last night walking around Charleston that it’s been emotionally unfun. A solitary road trip certainly opens up the possibility of doing anything you like but doing it all alone has gotten tiresome. It’s easier to handle loneliness in a routine at home. Loneliness on the road is acute and constant, an empty hotel room or a table for one ever present. I’m starting to feel slightly desperate for a conversation that rises above the level of “I’ll have the herb grilled pompano and a glass of the Malbec.” I got some of that in DC, Fayetteville and Knoxville when I stayed with friends. But travel is more fun with other people. I’m glad I chose to do this trip but I’m thinking it’s getting close and closer to time to turn for home.