Charleston and Coastal Carolina

Thursday morning, the 14th, dawned sunny and pleasant. After breakfast, I walked my bike down the cobblestones to River Street and boarded the ferry to Hutchinson Island. Crossing the island on local roads took me easily to US 17 where it crossed the Little Back River across dropping most of its traffic in Savannah.

The weather remained pleasant for the first day that I needed the sun block. There was not much difference in the road, rumble strips and all, but most of the traffic favored Interstate 95, or seemed to be crosswise. An overpass carried US 278 over me about halfway to Beaufort, so I did not have to deal with the people going to and from the golf resorts and the outlet shopping centers of Hilton Head Island.

As in Georgia, I spent the day in rolling woods and farmland, but I could see the wetlands to my right sometimes.

Only 64 km after leaving Savannah, I found myself waiting outside my host’s apartment. Leon Nevins was a Marine EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) specialist. He arrived from work shortly after I settled in to wait for him. He whipped up supper while we talked shop about military matters and the places we had traveled. His new wife is also in the service, stationed not far away. He was planning to go see her the next day, and I could sense that he was anxious to do that.

We were both up and out early, he to work and I to Charleston, 114 km away. By now, I was tired of US 17, because it offered no change of scenery, and the rumble strips continued. Covering the last two miles on the West Ashley Greenway felt like moving to another planet. This multiuse path runs straight parallel to US 17, a few blocks south of the highway. Trees and Spanish moss formed a curtained wall on either side, interrupted only by occasional houses or the back gate of a horse farm, but no commercial property. The trees were set back enough that their roots were not pushing up under the asphalt. Tree roots made most of the separate bikeways south of Charleston very uncomfortable.

My host in Charleston was awesome. Melissa Jenerette is one of the most travelled people I have ever met, and she goes to the most interesting places. The room was clean and private. Over dinner, I learned that she had been in Charleston and her neighborhood for many years, so she knew a lot about the area. She offered to let me stay an extra night, so I could tend to the deferred maintenance on my bicycle.

Saturday, I rode to the Charleston Bicycle Company back on US 17. They replaced the worn rear tire, my worn front brake rotor and drive chain. I have been getting tremendous wear and performance from the components on my bike:  12699 km on the loaded rear tire, 30,300 km on the front rotor and 2,500 km on the chain.

Twenty-five years before, I had lived “West of the Ashley” north of Melissa’s quiet, shady neighborhood. Spread into woods, swamps and wetlands, the settled suburbs of Charleston have a charm of their own, distinct from the colonial-era city that gives the area its name. Banyans, magnolia, and cypress share space with oaks and poplars. If it weren’t for the homes, I would have thought myself in a botanical garden.

I did not want to leave, but I did have a destination. Sunday morning, I made my way through downtown Charleston to the new bridge over the Cooper River. When I had lived here before, a single span with no shoulders carried all the traffic. The crosswinds were terrifying and the irate drivers no less so. This time, a dedicated multi-use bike path took me up to the south span of the new bridge. Soon, I was back on US-17, shopping for supper and breakfast in Mount Pleasant.

It was not a day for covering much distance, only 57 km. I chose the Francis Marion National Forest, because the next place to camp was too far away. Once I left the main highway at Wando, I found myself alone on two-lane roads deep in the forest. Clouds threatened, but the forecast did not include rain. Google Maps led me up Halfway Creek Road to Route 45 in Shulerville. It felt later than it was, thanks to the clouds and trees blocking the sun.

The Honey Hill Recreation Area was about half-filled. I found a campsite right away and settled in to make supper. There were only outhouses, but I wasn’t sweaty, and I had a reservation at Huntingdon Beach State Park the next night, where I knew there were showers.

Camping in a National Forest in a “primitive” camping area means that there are no RV’s, and no bright lights. The only noise was from some teenagers goofing off across from my campsite. They left before I turned in. The silence was wonderful, but I was surprised by the amount of light pollution illuminating the forest at night. Without the clouds, it might have been darker, but I needed my eye shades, even in my tent.

The next day, Monday, 18 February, I covered the 93 km to Hutchinson Beach State Park easily, stopping in Georgetown to enjoy the sights, and to visit the Gullah Museum. This town is a mix of antebellum architecture, maritime and colonial history, and Gullah culture.

The griot at the Gullah Museum had just started his spiel when I arrived. He described the life of the Gullah people and the slaves in the Carolinas in a way that opened the history books to a fascinating perspective. For example, the slaves from West Africa included experts in animal husbandry. They could handle sheep, cattle and horses. As cotton displaced the ranchers, the cattle owners of South Carolina decided to move to Texas. African slaves were the original cowboys of Texas, having brought the cattle west from the coast. When the railroad came to Kansas City, the cattlemen wondered how to get their beef to market.

“How do you think?” the griot said, in the part of a cowboy, “the same way we got them here.” And so, the famous Chisolm Trail and the annual cattle drives began. Most cowboys were African slaves until Emancipation and the end of the Civil War. Slowly, unemployed white men from the former Confederacy moved west and took over the cowboy jobs, but the Hollywood image of the white cowboy does a disservice to what was a very diverse work force on the ranches.

I spent over an hour at the Museum, so I was the last camper to check in before the ranger station and the store closed at Huntington Beach. The tent pegs went into the sandy soil without hammering. I slept the sleep of the truly tired.

The next day I made my way along the coast through the suburbs of Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach. My Warmshowers hosts lived inland, in Calabash, North Carolina.

The 80 km from Hutchinson Beach to Calabash brought more contrasts than any one day so far. The god Aeolus must have heard me cross from South Carolina to the North, because summer turned into winter. The temperature dropped and the wind veered to the north as I approached Bruce and Terry Brown’s house. After the campsites of the past two days, riding through the vast gated community of the Brunswick Golf Resort felt strange. Google Maps got me close, but I only knew I was there when I spotted the red US Marine Corps flag between the US and NC flags on the porch. “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”

Gunny, Bruce’s purebred bulldog, greeted me with the appropriate amount of noise, but quickly settled down after introductions (meaning, he got to sniff my hands and legs). I let him lick the sweat off my legs, and I was his friend forever!

I enjoyed two days of delicious food, good wine, sea stories and pleasant conversation. Bruce and Terry have travelled widely and eagerly shared tales of their adventures.

Bruce generously offered parts and tools, but I only needed a valve cap and a floor pump. I left with the bike in top condition. It was a special treat to wash and dry my sleeping bag in their front-loading machines.

It was only 26 km to Carolina Beach, but it took me until mid-afternoon to ride US-17 and NC 211 to catch the Southport Ferry to Fort Fisher. I booked a room at the Drifter’s Reef Inn in Carolina Beach, one of the few places open in the off-season.

The next day, I started the Outer Banks – well, kind of. The road turned away from the ocean north of Carolina Beach and took me to Wilmington, the largest NC city on the coast. By following bike lanes and neighborhood roads I was able to avoid US 17, pass the University, and make my way to the Jameson Inn. Except for satisfying my curiosity about a city that I had never visited, the day was unremarkable. The room was equipped with a microwave, so I shopped for supper and breakfast at the supermarket next door. The 81 km of the day left me ready for sleep early.

On Saturday, the 23rd of February, I began my ride up the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I had wanted to visit the Outer Banks (OBX) for decades, but had never managed a trip south of Sandbridge, Virginia. I said farewell at last to US 17 at Topsail where NC 210 turned east to the coast. A new bridge took me over the Intracoastal Waterway to Surf City on Topsail Island. It looked like the barrier islands in Florida, except that I was excited to be riding on it. It was also cold, and the stiff crosswind did not allow me to make very good time. NC 210 returned to the mainland at North Topsail Beach, where the island ended. The delta of the New River lay in my path.

The Topsail Shores Inn was not much to look at sitting near a flat shopping center aptly called Four Corners, but it was quiet and well-equipped. If I needed a place to hide and write, this would have been ideal. I walked over to the supermarket, shopped for two days, and did just that.

Monday, the 25th, I was glad that I had a military ID card, because cutting across Camp LeJeune Marine Corps Base on NC 172 saved me 125 km of detour through the town of Jacksonville NC. The base spread across hundreds of square miles of pine woods, creeks and rivers. Every specialty in the Corps trained there, and I rode past bombing ranges with jets from MCAS New River flying low overhead and pulled over for a column of Humvees. I looked carefully at every intersection marked “tank crossing”, but mostly I enjoyed smooth pavement and light traffic that passed me courteously along the road. Runners and bicyclists get respect on a Marine base, not harassment. Something about fitness, I guess. 

But Camp LeJeune was not my destination. I wanted to get back to the Outer Banks. My Warmshowers host was waiting for me with the promise of a salmon dinner on Emerald Island.

Until next time,

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

Jonathan

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