South East USA Road Trip

May 2021

May 22nd – Day 1

An early start leaving Brooklyn at 6.45am….out over the Verazzano Narrows Bridge crossing to Staten Island, on to the New Jersey Turnpike, over the Delaware river on the Veterans Memorial Bridge…greeted on the opposite side by a giant silver Jesus sparkling like a religious disco king. 9am and we pulled in to New Castle, Delaware, parking in the shade of a row of trees with lush grass rolling out beneath them. An attractive small town on the banks of the river only 6 miles from Wilmington, the Historic Centre contained in just 4-5 blocks filled with 17th-19th century buildings. An hours walk, still quiet, early morning, took us around most of it….tended gardens crowded with huge blooms, grass a rich green…luminous against a backdrop of red brick. Dog walkers circumnavigated the green. The only sound birdsong. A blissful start to our roadtrip. Two ladies unloading two dogs from their car, keen to chat with us about the town, pointing out the small library with its yellow wooden doors. We searched for a coffee shop but none to be found so we sat on a bench overlooking the Delaware river to eat apple muffins out of brown paper bags.

Leaving Delaware, skirting the city of Wilmington…crossing in to Maryland State, through Baltimore, stopping in Fredrick for lunch. A bustling small city, architecturally pretty with a busy Main Street lined with antiques stores and restaurants…packed on a Saturday despite this still being Covid times. Masks worn indoors but free on the streets. We sat at a sidewalk table, ate typical American fare loaded with fries. A beautiful ginkgo tree, allegedly the oldest and largest in the US tried to stretch it’s limbs beyond the confinement of shouldering buildings. Away from the busy shops we strolled through quieter streets lined with old brick houses with porches and shutters. Gardens bursting with green, a war memorial park and a peaceful walled public garden. We followed a streetart trail then followed the river, running through the centre of town, lined by well tended lawns and trees. Outside the tattoo parlour where he works we fell in to easy conversation with John, a taxidermed two headed calf and giraffe in the window. Warm and naturally genial, John had lots of stories, told us how he got in to tattooing through drawing a lot as a kid, researching then making his own tattoo tools.

And on again crossing in to another State; West Virginia…driving to Harper’s Ferry through historic Bolivar. Pretty but full to the brim with visitors, they come for the scenery and the rafting on the Shenandoah River, packing out the streets and restaurants. Nowhere to park without having to walk a few miles in high humidity up and down steep roads. Picturesque but wished we’d passed through midweek.

Back on the road for an overnight stay at an AirB&B in Martinsburg stopping en route to buy things for breakfast; a teen in a Santana t-shirt was hiding in the garden chairs preparing to leap out; Dave not batting an eye when the kid jumped out too soon expecting to scare his mum. Quite the conversationalist…he followed us to the checkout, chatting all the way, telling us he’d never listened to Santana but loves Imagine Dragons. Our room for the night is private and quiet, at the back in the garden, an extension to the main house with its own bathroom and kitchenette. Shed cicada skins in the wisteria but only a couple of cicadas hanging out. I want to see a swarm, this apparently the big year for them. They’ve been waiting 17 years to come out from underground..they deserve to show off.

May 23rd – Day 2

Up, breakfasted and out by 9am we hit the road for Dinosaurland. Dave: “Dinosaurland had better not be really good.” Me: “I want it be really crappy! Falling apart!” Shabby neglected roadside America is frequently more fun than the curated, pristine parks and asphalt paved attractions. Nostalgia in years of peeling paint, worn well loved handmade eccentricity, the more intriguing because someone had the idea and the presence of mind to follow through on a personal fantasy. Built in the 1960s Dinosaurland is great fun…I posed in the mouth of the giant shark being entangled by a giant octopus, sat in the palm of King Kong. We laughed at fighting dinosaurs, one loosened from his steel mooring, indignantly toppled…broken but re-imagined as a fallen defeated beast.

To the Blue Ridge Mountains to drive along the ridge of them, entering at Front Royal to follow the 105 mile Skyline Drive. Regular lookout points with names like Big Meadows, Pinnacles, Elkwallow, Swift Run Gap…..gave opportunity to pull in and soak up the glorious vistas. Large hawks riding thermals…hunting, vigilant, plunging in to undergrowth for prey. Butterflies trembling through yellow wildflowers, perfect clouds among dazzling patches of sunlight. Baking hot by midday but a pleasant wind rippled the trees. We pulled over to eat a packed lunch just beyond Mary’s Rock Tunnel Overlook where in 1932 workers dynamite blasted a 610 feet long tunnel. Leaving less of a scar on the 3,500 foot mountain by going right through it. It was such a new thing at the time that tourists would visit just to drive through it. We sat for a while on a low stone wall watching the raptors glide above a rolling landscape of mountains.

Leaving the Skyline drive, exiting Shenandoah Park near Waynesboro we found more bonkers roadside America; Dinosaur Kingdom II in Natural Bridge, Virginia. Built by Mark Cline who wrote a surreal comic book and then recreated it: “It’s 1864. Them wacky Yankees is at it again! Tryin’ to use living dinosaurs as weapons of mass destruction against the South.” We entered on a wooden walkway through a rotating wooden drum, into a re-imagined pioneer town full of tricks and illusions, walked the sprawling grounds, through trees and scrub encountering dinosaurs fighting soldiers, a praying mantis pulling a stagecoach, haunted houses…off its head brilliant…we loved this place, we love the people who create them.

A few miles further along the road for a late evening walk to the stunning Natural Bridge in the town named after it. 66 metres high situated in a limestone gorge, the remains of a cave roof or underground river tunnel through which the Cedar Creek once flowed. It was the sacred site of the Native American Monacan tribe. George Washington allegedly visited it as a young surveyor in 1750. We fell in with a couple walking to the small waterfall at the end of the trail, they told us about the trailer park they managed, how badly covid has hit people economically in their community. They asked us historical questions about England, not all of which we could answer, fascinated that we’ve travelled so much. They were good company, interesting and curious. We parted ways at the falls, it was getting dark and our stomachs grumbled for food…walking back through this huge natural arch of rock at dusk, absolutely beautiful.

Stopped at a Krugers to top up on our breakfast supplies and enjoyed a surprisingly good dinner at the edge of the supermarket car park, a place called ‘3 Little Pigs’. I ordered a Santa Fe salad with grilled chicken. 
The waiter: “It’s Mexican chicken, is that ok?”
Me (confused): “I don’t care where it comes from.”
Waiter: “It means it’s spiced…with Mexican spices.”
Me: “Oh. Sure.”(Looking embarrassed)

Wound up the day driving 20 minutes to Roanoke to see the Roanoke Star at the top of Mill Mountain; the world’s largest free standing man-made illuminated star constructed in 1949 by the Roanoke Merchant’s Association to promote the Christmas shopping season…and really worth seeing. Apparently it lights with red and blue but shone a dazzling white at our visit. Some of the original red neon tubes still exist, but the white and blue sections have been replaced. Three young people started talking with us when they heard our British accents…amazed at how many States we’ve been to and how much travel we’ve done…it’s a recurring theme…a lot of British people travel far, most likely because we’re from a small island grey with cloud for large parts of the year.  Leaving the humming star we stayed overnight at Radisson Country Inn, a basic business style roadside hotel but comfortable.

May 24th – Day 3

Driving Roanoke to Charlotte today. Packed up the cool bag with home-made sarnies. Song of our roadtrip morning ‘Mah Mah (chicken pot pie)’ by Leopards.  Reading out roadside signs to each other as they flew by on the highway; ‘Healing Strides’ (“trousers? Oh – it’s a horse place”), Naff Road (“you should live there”), ‘Queen Anne’s Revenge Tattoo Shop’…”Frustrated? Jesus Offers Peace!” A large sign declared ‘The House of Stars’…but bewilderingly sold sheds. A disconcerting sign announced “15% off heart worm tests” followed closely by “Concerned? Jesus can be trusted!” There’s a lot of exclamations lining American highways. The further South you go…there’s a lot of Jesus. Crossing in to the State of North Carolina, we took a detour to Winston-Salem, to the historic part of town referred to as Old Salem, settled in 1766 by a Moravian community. We walked around timber houses and mansions, elegant lawns and a wildflower garden, leggy and vibrant. A 7 foot tall tin coffee pot built in 1858 by a pair of Moravian brothers to promote their shop…an unlikely fable tells that it was once the hiding place for a Yankee or a Confederate soldier during the Civil War.

Following local attractions listed on Roadside America and Atlas Obscura we left Old Salem and in to Winston-Salem to find the only surviving Shell Clam gas station in the US. Standing on the corner of Sprague and Peachtree Streets, the 1930s bright yellow promotional clam structure (the 1901 UK brand design was a mussel shell) is now abandoned. Its bent wood and wire framed stucco design contained an office and a bathroom and stayed open until the 1950s; it’s now on the National Register of Historic Places protected by Preservation North Carolina.

Stopping again in High Point, the self named ‘furniture capital of the world’ to ponder on the giant chest of drawers standing by the main road. A furniture manufacturing town for over 100 years, the 40 foot high structure first came about in 1926 when it was known as the “Bureau of Information.” Restored in 1996 in it’s current design it’s actually a clever disguise for an office space.

On to the city of Charlotte, chosen as a destination because of the Mint Museum. We checked in to our AirBnB in a modern apartment block, parking the car in the garage then negotiating a convoluted sequence of private car park entry, lockbox, code to a lift, another security code to the apartment. Managed by a company rather than an individual, the bedding was frayed, covered with hairs, dust neglected in their ‘Covid deep clean service.’ Managed by a corporate company rather than an individual. We walked a short distance to eat at the South End Asian Food Market situated in a pleasant square with a popular ice cream shop opposite. Long lines of people waiting to be seated or waiting to buy ice creams…these were the first places to eat we’d found open.

May 25th – Day 4

Walked in to the main downtown area, skyscrapers and paved squares, statues, acres of glass. Standing outside the Bechtler Museum is the wonderful Niki de Saint Phalle ‘Firebird’ sculpture which for obvious reasons has been nicknamed ‘Disco Chicken’. We didn’t have time to visit both and The Mint Museum was my main reason to visit Charlotte…an ingenious contemporary building with an incredible collection; we spent several hours looking at spectacular art. But back out on the street, Charlotte is a strange city…neither of us really know what to make of it. Great museums but otherwise little personality; too new, too sterile, too planned. The bane of American cities; the ubiquitous scooters abandoned everywhere. Took the city train to 36th St NoDo; a student/hipster neighbourhood. Ate vegan at ‘Oh My Soul’…one of the only open places to eat; a delicious bean burger with spicy kale salad. Another hot humid day, everywhere quiet, places closed. With so few people travelling it can’t be worth opening…a lot of small businesses sadly won’t survive this pandemic. A few street murals along North Davidson Street but with not much going on we rode the train back to Bland St and chilled out for the evening. Two nights was a night too long in Charlotte for us…but the art was fabulous.

May 26th – Day 5

Another driving day, leaving Charlotte, across Northern Carolina to Asheville…a roadsign “Erectile disfunction is treatable today!” Ironically, 2 minutes further we were driving on Cox Road. Just before reaching Chimney Rock we pulled over to explore an old arch span bridge now repurposed as a garden bridge. Originally built in 1925 across the Rocky Broad River; when a new bridge opened in 2011 locals joined together to save the historic one, creating the 155 feet long Lake Lure Flowering Bridge. A few miles further we headed up to the top of Chimney Rock in Chimney Rock State Park. Outside of Covid times this landmark must be packed with visitors. You can walk 500 wooden steps to the top of the 315 foot granite monolith or cheat and go in the elevator (we did), then a short set of steps up for views over Lake Lure and Hickory Nut Gorge. There was the usual giant American flag flapping in the wind above us as we clambered across the top of the rock with only about 8 others…among them Jagdish and Badsha. He was filming himself “For my YouTube followers! Here I am in South Carolina!” …. all of us shouting back “You’re in North Carolina!” I hope that’s the recording he uploaded. A funny character “I’m an actor, here’s my card!”…he and his wife originally from Gujarat in India but have lived in New Jersey for 34 years. Badsha was lugging his tripod around for him, a huge smile on her face…laughing and chatting with everyone. They posed for a photo, we posed for them…fun people. There were several trails, we took one that wound down, under jutting lumps of rock, almost crawling at one point, past a seated lookout point named ‘The Opera Box’ eventually leading to our hire car.

We stopped en route to Asheville to picnic on sandwiches by a river. We pulled in at a small place called Batcave to buy stamps at Batcave Post Office.  We drove by hundreds of farmed apple trees…apples everywhere. In a small community called Ebneyville we drove around to find Muffler Men, fibreglass statues manufactured in the 1960s and 70s as roadside marketing giants…many of which are now in private hands standing outside old barns and grain silos. And two giant fibreglass cows huddled in the corner of a field, surreal in this bucolic landscape.

Arriving in Asheville, we parked and wandered around. Talked to street musician Timothy, busking with his electric violin in front of a giant iron outside the 1926 Flatiron building…and to Debbie sitting on the step of her store with her giant poodle Myles. The town has a laid back hippy vibe. There’s an old Woolworths with the original soda fountain lunch counter, the rest of the building now dedicated to a gallery known as the Woolworth Walk. We had a look but the art and crafts were geared heavily to tourists. There’s plenty of small shops and restaurants and I can see the appeal of the city; easy to walk, friendly, arty and liberal. A 75 foot obelisk, a monument to the elaborately named confederate soldier and slave owner Zebulon Baird Vance, was being removed from one corner of Pack Square. I looked it up, it was to be demolished rather than stored, but to be honest it was an ugly blot on the landscape with no artistic merit and no other reason to be celebrated. Nearby was a bronze angel commemorating Thomas Wolfe and his novel ‘Look Homeward Angel’. We considered paying a fee to enter the pinball museum and play pinball for a while but it was late in the day, due to close, visited the Grove Arcade instead. Built in the mid 1920s also known as the Asheville Federal Building, it’s the size of an entire block. Attractive inside, to English eyes nothing really looks that old in America but they’ve done a good job of this. On further reading we learned that it was originally planned as a skyscraper but plans were abandoned, which explains the blocky sprawl of it, it’s now shops and restaurants at ground level, offices and apartments above. We didn’t linger, hungry we ate at ‘Tupelo Honey’ a chain restaurant with excellent food full of flavour and an inventive menu and outdoor seating. Most folks seem comfortable eating indoors but we’re not ready for crowded indoor dining just yet. Anyone who went through Covid in New York City at the height of the pandemic when it first hit, would appreciate our reasoning.

About a 30 minute drive out of Asheville we checked in to our fabulous Airb&b in Hendersonville…an inventive garage conversion attached to the main house set among trees and flowers. We were amused by the Acton E3 bus blind on the wall…I used to ride that bus regularly when we lived in London. The owner has British ancestry and he’s proud to display it. Welsh and Scottish flags, a Union Jack, lots of beautiful paintings and drawings many depicting Scottish Highland Terriers…his favourite dog breed, he has two. There’s a lot to take in but it’s tasteful and wonderfully eccentric which is what we always look for in places to stay. Who would want a featureless hotel over this?! We relaxed on the giant bed, sprawled out sleepy from all the driving and sightseeing…booked in for 5 nights we looked forward to some down time staying in one place, indulgent lie-ins and a chance to sort out some stinky laundry.

May 27th – Day 6

A lazy start but hankering after a walk in greenery we drive to Pisgah National Forest not far from the town of Brevard…actually recommended to me back in New York City by one of the soldiers who gave me my covid vaccination! She hoped to get married here…and it’s a gorgeous place. The sky was overcast but I welcomed a cooler day and the shadows played under the trees…a drizzle of rain made everything vivid. We’d come specifically to the Cradle of Forestry…easy trails but a great history. Started in 1898 and run by Dr Karl Schenck, chief forester of the Biltmore Estate, this was the site of the Biltmore Forest School, the first of its kind in North America. Not all of the buildings were open due to covid restrictions but we were able to explore inside several restored school buildings, follow paths to see the 1914 logging locomotive engine called ‘Climax’…able to clamber onboard into the train driver’s cab…and follow the trail past glorious magnolia trees to the old sawmill. We both loved the wooden shingle clad buildings, the beautifully crafted interlocking timbers, the crooked timber fences around shaded pasture. Sadly the forestry school came to an end in Pisgah when Vanderbilt and Schenck fell out in 1909 and he was dismissed from the Biltmore Estate…but Schenck continued to teach his students until 1913 from various locations, often travelling with them; his theories on sustainable forestry a lasting legacy of his teaching and research. We stopped to see the 60 foot high Looking Glass Falls before leaving, a lot of rainfall so a substantial cascade over the rocks…just beautiful.

May 28th – Day 7

Drove to Craggy Gardens in the Blue Ridge Parkway. Just as we parked and went in to the ranger station, cloud rolled over the mountain and threw down a torrential downpour. We bought cheap waterproof ponchos but waited it out when the rain got heavier and visibility too reduced. Within minutes the rain cleared and the sun dazzled… immediately rendering our ponchos superfluous…but the effect of the rain on the trail was fantastic timing. Mist wreathed through the rhododendrons… not due to flower for another few weeks but creating a gothically gnarled tunnel which we clambered through over rain drenched rock and mud…passing earlier hikers making their return, soaked to the skin, caught out at the top when the rain had hit.

Delicate ferns clung to branches, steam rose from rocks as the sun’s heat pushed through. Everything green was luminous. A short trail, just over half a mile, up to the top of the mountain, rock slabs shored up with timber, not steep but wary not to slip…and at the Pinnacle the panoramic views across the Blue Ridge Mountains were startling. At just shy of 6,000 feet, the wind tussled around us but thankfully rain held off.  The fresh air was invigorating, freeing, it felt raw and we would have loved to stand here alone, in the wild excitement of it all. Clouds scudded, falling low, pillowing over mountaintops. Nature has such capacity to heighten mood; it’s the greatest drug. Back in the car and driving down we stopped in at the Folk Art Centre…a well known stop featuring local crafts to a very high standard…weaving and pottery, jewellery, paintings. On to Asheville to eat at a burger place where we got in to conversation with two young men; both studying to be statisticians. Back at the Airb&b we met the owner Christopher who invited us in for a drink…his walls completely filled in every room with paintings, illustrations…we had a long interesting conversation where it became obvious he was better versed on British history than we were.

May 29th – Day 8

Started the morning in Flatrock, coffee and pastries from Flatrock Village Bakery and a wander in their adjoining shop called The Wrinkled Egg. A feathered footed cockerel crowed outside as he pecked with his friends perilously close to a bbq smoker. A grouse ran by.  An American man waiting for his family asked me where I was from, introducing me to his wife and kids when they joined him. We drove to Highlands…kind of by mistake considering my original route in the opposite direction but it worked out well. Stunning scenery, driving higher in to mountains, cooler air. Stopped at a huge roadside antiques place…with huge prices but a cool old school bus rusting around the back of the building. 

Further in Highlands, we stopped to eat sandwiches by the side of a beautiful lake; ringed by stacks of kayaks, canoes and small paddle boats; a blissful place if not for the passing cars every few minutes. Drove on to a covered bridge which had been restored and led to a pottery studio in a barn; a family learning to wheelthrow together and a stack of pots cordoned off on a set of shelves where birds had nested in the ceramics. Surprising exhibitions in the adjoining gallery; skateboards and classic cars, and local artists… part of the Bascom crafts guild. On to Brides Veil Waterfall where cars once drove in a semi-circle beneath it but now thankfully only pedestrians can walk through.  America is built for the car, understandably with the miles sprawling between each place…but it caters too much to this with too many places immediately accessible; where your feet don’t even need to meet ground to see magnificent landscapes…and I believe people suffer for that, the lack of connection.

May 30th – Day 9

A drive around Lake Summit, following winding country roads through pretty neighbourhood houses and under rusting raised railroad tracks. We passed a Baptist church with an Israeli flag, drove through Saluda and saw a place called ‘Tickle Family Health Centre’.  On through beautiful forest scenery at Bear Creek and to Tryon to see a Nina Simone mural and her childhood home; empty but cared for by a group who have come together to preserve it with the idea of it being used as a community arts place rather than a museum. An idea we both like.

Through Columbus, driving by a sign for ‘Kangaroo Golf’…which I wish was literal and by another declaring the Eastern continental divide. Up in to the community called Black Mountain; a busy tourist area, packed today but we just came here to see the Roberta Flack mural painted by the same artist as the Nina mural; Scott Nurkin who painted a series celebrating North Carolina musicians…there’s a trail of them known as the North Carolina Musicians Murals. And everywhere we drive there are Baptist crosses, simple nailed pieces of wood often with another small cross on top of the larger cross…because there’s never enough crosses for Baptists and never enough ways to sin or repent or have your ‘Blood Redemption Secured’. We never did work that one out. Trying to figure out how to read them; is it up and down and across or left to right to receive the full wrath of the Lord…a crossword puzzle of crosses. Back in Hendersonville later in the day and out for pizza with Christopher who owns the Airb&b, we ate indoors unmasked…the first time since March 2020…it wasn’t a busy place, it felt good. Drinks at Christopher’s later, meeting his wife Lori…their two Highland Terriers Wallace and Darwin tumbling playfully at our feet. AirB&B can lead to some great encounters when the hosts are sociable and interesting. We shall miss this place, a great base to explore and relieved that we chose it over Asheville.  

May 31st – Day 10

We leave Hendersonville to drive to Charleston. Back on the road and crossing another State Border in to South Carolina, to Greenville to find Poinsett Bridge. Up and down the same road a couple of times passing a perfect stand of fir trees, a reservoir but no road signs for the bridge. Finally found it tucked away down a side road. It’s the oldest bridge in South Carolina built in 1820…and out of 5 people visiting…3 of us were English.

Driving on to find another bridge in the small community of Landrum in Greenville County. Near to an old grist mill, built in 1909, Campbell’s Covered Bridge spans Beaverdam Creek and is the last remaining covered bridge in South Carolina. Heartwarming to see these old landmarks preserved and loved.

Not a cross but another Church sign: “Sin is like a credit card – enjoy it now but you’ll pay for it later”. They’re a miserable judgemental bunch. And following the interstate further we pass a roadside mattress store: “Celebrating 47 years! Save 47% Family owned!” Dave remarking: “They’ll be screwed when they celebrate 100 years.” On to Greenville where we stopped to eat sandwiches by the River Reedy which runs right through the city centre; known as Falls Park on the Reedy. A stunning natural landscape to have thundering straight through the middle of your city.

Further down the highway we arrived in Charleston, dumped the car and went straight out to ogle at the huge mansions in the historic quarter. Founded in 1670 by Charles Town and a major slave trading port in the 18th century, it’s withstood hurricanes, smallpox, civil war, great fires and pirates; Blackbeard took hostages here in 1718…releasing them in exchange for medicine. Now it is one of the most touristed cities in America. The slave picked cotton created huge wealth for a small section of society, slave markets were established in the early 19th century…being close to a port slave smuggling was common even after legal importation of African slaves ended in 1808…domestic slave trading boomed in the city. It’s an ugly past to have ownership of…the mansions are beautiful but it’s hard to dissociate how the wealth to build them was created. The streets were quiet and not many places to eat were open…if they were, they were packed. Back at the hotel restaurant, we ate indoors…getting a little braver, ‘She Crab’ soup drizzled with sherry, a local specialty… it was okay but too rich, perhaps better without the sherry. It feels like a sleepy city, with things closing early but perhaps that’s more to do with the impact of covid and less visitors.

June 1st – Day 11

There were tents set up in the nearby park each one for an artist displaying their art for sale. Some hefty prices; I appreciate the time it takes to make art but was still surprised by what some were charging…not hundreds but thousands of dollars for amateur art and photography. We were distracted by a young man called Alan, training his dog Chief. Convinced he was a dog trainer but in fact he’d had a lot of issues and got the dog as a therapy animal. Incredible skills. Alan was deeply religious and talked to us for some time about how his life had been changed. Personally I think Chief was more of an influence; their bond was so strong. A young guy with a Husky pup walked over asking Alan if he was a trainer; telling him he’d spent $3,000 for 3 weeks training which had made no difference.  People here must have more money than sense.
We visited the Unitarian graveyard, we like graveyards, always historically interesting, almost always atmospheric. Trees hung thick with grey haired Spanish moss and incredible palms grew among headstones. 

Wandered in to a local crafts/art building but most of it not to our taste and aimed at tourists. It was packed with people, none of who seemed to be buying…just walking through one end to the other. We exited out of the side before getting pressed further in. Walked by the Slave Mart which allegedly we should only refer to as ‘The Market’…nothing like distancing yourself from your history; 40 of them used to exist within a few blocks radius. We chose not to go in, we’ve visited many civil rights sites across the US and slave trading sites in Zanzibar, France and the UK. We bought lunch from the hugely popular Brown Dog deli, took our food down to the river where we sat on a beach watching boats sail by. A group of women from Texas on a nearby bench got in to conversation…a mother with her daughters and daughter-in-law on a girls trip. The tallest of the group laughing and telling us ‘They’re all Trumpers, I’m the only one who’s not!” The others laughed good humouredly…I can imagine the disagreements that must have gone on between the family…same as how Brexit has caused similar with our own. Life has turned a fast revolution of the wheel in the last few years. Slowly walked the streets back to the hotel where we lounged and recharged for a couple of hours before heading out again at dusk to explore the other side of Charlotte; a bit more edgy, lively, peeling paint, a few closed up run down buildings…two car prangs within two blocks, streets sealed off by police. One of the collisions appeared to have been caused by a police car running in to the back of another car. People delighting in watching that particular chaos. We bought slices of pizza from the take out window of Sabatinos across the road from the hotel. 

We met some great people in Charleston…Alan and his dog Chief, the family on a women only trip and Gordon, originally from New York, doing maintenance work in the basement of a house on a really humid day. We got talking; he was in the US Navy for years, stationed in several countries. Speaks Japanese, a little rusty with his German. Super smart on world politics and geography, planning to rejoin the navy as soon as he can “There’s no age limit as long as you pass fitness.”

June 2nd – Day 12

Take out breakfast from a local place called Caviar and Bananas. Heading for Savannah. Cut our visit to Charleston short by a day as we felt we’d seen everything we needed to. More roadside fun…a realtor sign I misread as ‘Bill Hurtes Reality’...seemed harsh. A Piggly Wiggly and “Charbroiled thick burgers” at Hardee’s employing now, as all the fast food chains seem to be. Sign on bonuses of 500 to 1,000 dollars, hourly salaries of up to $11-14…still too low.  A signed yelled “El Cheapo Gas Prices!” …and so you wouldn’t miss the opportunity… “Ahead on the right”. Another introduced “Stump Man! You find them I’ll grind ‘em” Leaving Charleston a day earlier gave us extra time to visit Beaufort 90 minutes away, the turn off named ‘Polite Family Lane’. In Beaufort we wandered Main Street. More stunning houses and trees with Spanish moss hanging over wealthy residential avenues.

Lunch at Blackstones then after more wandering we met native Texans Pam and David Taub who invited us in to their historic house when they saw us looking at the bunting outside. Built around 1770, they used to show it regularly on the local historic house trail. David went to read and take his afternoon nap while Pam proudly showed us around; photos of her old show dogs, family photographs going back a few generations…telling us stories about her daddy working at the Texaco gas station as a young man and winding up buying it. “He provided well for my mother at last.” Her ex show dog a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel called Chadwick Hpnotiq Blue, following at her heels, doleful eyes watching us. A huge Christmas tree crammed full of patriotic decorations left up year round because she loves it… “My favourite colours are red white and blue.” Her physiotherapist turned up for her appointment and he chatted with us too, they’d obviously known each other a long time…he gently made fun of her and they laughed together warmly. One hell of a character, we love meeting people like this.

On the road to Savannah.  Calling out the roadside signs to each other…all food related…the hell fire and brimstone of Northern Carolina left behind. “Best banana pudding on earth!” …”Don Machete Mexican food!” …”Peaches. Pull off!” Drove in to Savannah checked in to our hotel for the first night, dumped everything and hit the streets…Ive wanted to visit this city for a long time. First impressions are that it has a very different feel to Charleston; less touristy….though there are plenty here…but more lived in. Slightly scruffier around the edges which really suits it. We walked to the riverside and then up through the streets to find the childhood home of a favourite writer Flannery O’Connor. Went to the Colonial Park Cemetery, closed before the start of the Civil War so no Confederate soldiers buried here, though soldiers from before have tombs and there are over 700 Yellow Fever victims of Savannah’s 1820 epidemic. Walking through a sequence of beautiful garden plazas we found a Thai food place on a quiet street with outdoor tables.

June 3rd – Day 13

Started the morning at urgent care with a big bite rash on my back…had recently watched ‘Painting with John’ (Lurie…a brilliant TV series)…I’m now paranoid about tick bites and Lyme disease. They didn’t know what sort of bite it was but we dodged through early morning rain to a pharmacy to get the prescription filled, two women queuing behind us that looked dressed for a night out at Studio 54 in the 80’s. Breakfast at ‘Sentient Bean’ and the rain suddenly threw it down. Luckily passed within minutes and we drove to Jekyll Island to visit Driftwood Beach.  A beautiful sight but a long drive out of Savannah at an hour and 45 minutes. Sun silvered trees, tangled roots, twisted branches scoured by the salt wind…scattered like weathered sentinels. The trees are victims of soil erosion at the northern end of the beach, resulting in them dying and falling, eventually deposited on the south end of the island. Many of them stand upright…a ghost forest.

Back towards Savannah we stopped at Wormshole Historic Site, catching the last hour before it closed, driving the magnificent avenue of live oaks draped with Spanish moss, branches meeting overhead. We parked to walk through the late afternoon light to see the tabby ruins; the remains of the colonial estate of Noble Jones 1702–1775. Tabby is a type of coastal concrete, a mixture of oyster shells, lime – produced from the burning of oyster shells – sand and water. Jones along with James Oglethorpe, was one of the first settlers to arrive in Georgia from England in 1733; the name Wormsloe allegedly taken from the English Herefordshire village of Wormelow Tump (supposed to be the burial place of King Arthur’s son). The tabby ruins are cordoned off under the trees, the oldest building in Savannah…some of the structural walls, foundations and chimney still standing. Walking further in to the trees, palms and ferns pushing through undergrowth searching for sun, we looked out across the salt marsh lakes where fallen trees rotted and crumbled still tangled with silver moss. Just outside of Savannah we ate shrimp and grits, collared greens… at a restaurant on the water called Pearls Grille…expensive for average food but popular with locals.
Back in the city we walked around Savannah in a soft warm rain and the glow of street lights.

June 4th – Day 14

We’d checked in to a different hotel for our last 2 nights, the first being unavailable…we had a room at the River Street Inn overlooking the Savannah River, on the edge of the historic district. A beautiful hotel, lots of wrought iron, wide wooden plank floors, skylights, old brick and cane chairs. We were waking up, getting ready for the day as a huge container ship passed by the window, just across the plaza but so close it filled our view. A wonderful sight of thriving industry at this old port city. We had a free breakfast at the adjoining cafe given by the hotel for some issues with our room…but it took an hour to arrive…waiting staff bustled between tables wearing black aprons dusted white with the hundreds of beignets being served; deep fried pastries sprinkled liberally with confectioners sugar, traditional to the South. After finally being fed we drove to Bonaventure cemetery just outside Savannah, made famous by John Berendt’s book ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’, later made in to a film directed by Clint Eastwood. It was also the place John Muir, known as the ‘Father of National Parks’ chose as a resting place for 6 days and nights whilst on his ‘Thousand Mile Walk’ in 1867 to Florida and the Gulf. He wrote a chapter about it titled ‘Camping in the Tombs.’ “I gazed awe-stricken as one new-arrived from another world. Bonaventure is called a graveyard, a town of the dead, but the few graves are powerless in such a depth of life. The rippling of living waters, the song of birds, the joyous confidence of flowers, the calm, undisturbable grandeur of the oaks, mark this place of graves as one of the Lord’s most favored abodes of life and light.” Whilst meandering among the tombs our old London friend Tim called us; now living in France, we met in a queue for a plane in Havana Cuba over 20 years ago. We’re all scattered.

Back in Savannah and a 5 minute walk from the hotel, we visited the eccentric Graveface Museum. A museum of curiosities; old photos from freak shows, handmade bizarre mummifications and hoodoo voodoo oddities. A young couple, deep into this stuff based on the quill pushed through his nose, talked with us as we all peered in to a hidden voodoo shrine in the wall…I told them about the time I chased Witch Doctors out of a remote hospital compound in Northern Uganda…they loved it, the nose quill quivering as he laughed. Before going upstairs the museum route took us in to a room full of pinball machines, as many plays as you want included in the $20 each entrance fee. Having missed out on the place back in Asheville and being an ex-pinball machine owner (The Bride of Pinbot), I found it hard to drag myself away. Upstairs the displays focused on cult leaders and serial killers, paintings by murderers…grotesque celebrities. Back outside we walked away from the waterfront, back through the historic district along streets named after Oglethorpe, through the park plazas again to find the Gingerbread House on Bull Street and to see the house which featured in ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’, also a museum but pre-booking was required and we’ve been inside so many historic houses. Ate at Bull Street Tacos which was the best meal we’d eaten on the trip. Simple place, fresh food bursting with flavour. Another hot humid day… we crashed out at the hotel and relaxed in our beautiful room.

June 5th – Day 15

Early start driving to Atlanta. 2,400 miles…our longest US road trip to date. Dave was looking forward to dumping the hire car…which we mistakenly believed we wouldn’t need in a city but not every city is built for walking…we could have done with hanging on to it for Atlanta. Our hotel was in the business district in an old bank with an incredible ornately carved stone staircase. Had we done more research we’d have stayed in a different part of town as the business district had been emptied by covid…offices and most other places closed.

We discovered quite quickly that Atlanta is all about the people…the check in staff were wonderful, the doorman was great fun…minutes after walking out we met a group of people who’d set up a DJ and pop-up store, fascinated by our English accents, wondering what we were doing in the US, what we thought of their city…high energy, welcoming, friendly…no acknowledgement to our age difference…it’s refreshing. Raabia and Shadi were definitely ready to party…another guy whose name I’ve forgotten, tattooed, yellow sunglasses and bright coloured jewels on his teeth…talked to us about his music. And Junior who we met after leaving the museum, just chilling out on a bench looking like a fabulous fashion installation. He’d customised his trainers (sneakers) with spray paint…creative people like him set the trends.

We headed towards Sweet Auburn, walking away from the high-rises and city buildings, under an overpass, questioning our directions…cars flying by…us the only people walking, but then we saw the red brick buildings of the Martin Luther King Memorial; walked in to the memorial park to see his crypt where he’s buried with his wife, fellow activist, Coretta Scott King…the Eternal Flame and across the street the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached as co-Pastor…also the site of the funeral of John Lewis last year. In the park close to the Eternal Flame, speakers were hooked up playing speeches by King, instantly recognisable, incredibly moving. Walking around the corner in to the neighbourhood where King was born and where his family home attracts thousands of visitors.

Sweet Auburn is an historic African-American neighbourhood which Auburn Avenue runs through, stretching for about a mile and a half in length. The restrictive Jim Crow Laws which enforced segregation in the Southern US states resulted in this area becoming one of the largest concentrations of black owned businesses in the United States. Congregations, social organisations, restaurants and clubs also sprang up. The Rucker Building was Atlanta’s first black-owned office building and the ‘Atlanta Daily World’ founded here in 1928, was the first black-owned daily newspaper. The Top Hat Club used to be here, Gladys Knight, The Tams, B.B. King played the club and in 1905 former slave Alonzo Herndon founded the black insurance company Atlanta Life Insurance…by 1910 he had 42 branches. Over time, sadly the district suffered from lack of investment and was split in two by highway construction forcing many black businesses out. There’s a current programme of regeneration and preservation and plans for more affordable housing for the local people but you feel the weight of sadness when you look at the markers along the main road downtown showing where historic businesses once stood.

Walking through the residential neighbourhood of Auburn Falls we met Peter, who saw us admiring his bird houses and invited us in to his garden. He handmakes the birdboxes, sometimes 12 in a day…and his wife paints them. They were hanging from branches, arranged on painted wooden shelves around the garden, around trees, hanging from his porch. Every one of them painted differently.

Further on from Sweet Auburn we walked in to the inevitable hipster area; bars, clubs, restaurants and Krog Street Market where we sat at communal tables to eat giant Lebanese wraps…the place was packed. A huge old industrial building repurposed in to a fantastic food hall. Ice cream from a small shop on an avenue packed with places to eat and drink, young people hanging out despite the threat of rain; giant recycled outdoor sculptures and street art murals. The rain kicked in and we took shelter along a raised walkway under the overhang of a building, ice cream melting down our hands as the rain started to pour…we got talking to a group of local young people who’d recently successfully campaigned to get their fellow black peer group out to vote…so interesting that we spent two hours talking with them. Motivated, bright, quick witted… agents of change. And walking back through Sweet Auburn along Auburn Avenue NE we saw the John Lewis mural; the dedicated civil rights activist, founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1963 to 1966) and US statesman for the House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death in 2020.

June 6th – Day 16

Last day of our road trip and an art highlight visiting the fabulous High Museum of Art which started out in a large house on Peachtree Street now housed in a huge contemporary building with a permanent collection of 18,000 works of art. A central rotunda flanked by a wide spiral walkway leading you up to galleries on each floor. Our highlights were Anselm Kiefer, Dave seen standing in front ‘Remains of the Sun’, emulsion, acrylic, shellac, burnt clay and sand on canvas (1997). And another favourite artist Gerhard Richter ‘Abstract Painting 849-2 oil on canvas which he spreads with huge rubber squeegees like those used in screen-printing (1997). Emerging a couple of hours later, I bought a Bill Traylor mug from the gift shop and we found a Vietnamese restaurant close by for lunch. A chilled out afternoon wandering and then back to the hotel to pack for an early flight back to New York City the next day….I realised we were leaving Georgia and hadn’t eaten a single peach.

Places we stayed

West Virginia Martinsburg Airbnb The Backyard Bungalow

Natural Bridge Roanoke Radisson Country Inn

North Carolina Charlotte Airbnb Heart of Southend (not great)

North Carolina Hendersonville Studio A Slight British Invasion Airbnb (this place is fabulous!)

South Carolina Charleston

Georgia Savannah

Georgia Savannah River Street Inn

Georgia Atlanta The Candler Hotel Hilton

Places we went

Delaware New Castle historic district

Maryland Frederick Art Trail

West Virginia Harpers Ferry

Virgina White Post Dinosaurland

Virginia Sheandoah Park Skyline Drive

Virginia Natural Bridge Dinosaur Kingdom II

Virginia Natural Bridge Park

Virginia Roanoke Star

North Carolina Old Salem historic district

North Carolina Charlotte Mint Museum

North Carolina Chimney Rock

North Carolina near Asheville Garden Bridge

North Carolina near Asheville

North Carolina Blue Ridge Parkway

North Carolina Blue Ridge Parkway Folk Art Centre

North Carolina Highlands The Bascom Gallery

North Carolina Brides Veil Falls DuPont Forest

South Carolina Greenville Poinsett Bridge

South Carolina Landrum Campbells Covered Bridge

South Carolina Charleston Unitarian Cemetery

Georgia Driftwood Beach

Georgia near Savannah Wormsloe Historic Site

Georgia near Savannah Bonaventure Cemetery

Georgia Savannah Graveface Museum

Georgia Savannah Gingerbread House

Georgia Atlanta High Art Museum

Georgia Atlanta Martin Luther King Memorial

Georgia Atlanta Krog Street Market/Food Hall

More Information

The Muffler Men

Artist Niki de Saint Phalle

The Woolworth’s Counter Sit ins Civil Rights history

John Lewis Civil Rights Graphic Novels ‘March’

John Lewis Civil Rights Graphic Novels ‘Run’

North Carolina Musician Murals

Nina Simone musician

Roberta Flack musician

Flannery O’Connor writer

‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ book

Anselm Kiefer artist documentary

Gerhard Richter artist documentary

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