Mar. 11: Charleston

[posted to the Wheeled Migration Yahoo Group on March 11, 2005]
Greetings from "The Most Historic City in the Country!"

As you already know, I rode back through Savannah Monday morning and got a new bolt for my seat, plus a spare just in case, and I stopped at a gelato shop to send you all an e-mail.

I had asked around quite a bit about whether bikes are allowed on the big Tallmidge Memorial highway bridge across the Savannah River. Civilians said no, police officers said yes. When I got to the on-ramp, there was indeed a sign prohibiting bicycles and pedestrians, but the police were right that no one objected to my crossing. The view of town wasn't as spectacular as I had thought it might be ("Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" says the town's squares are visible from the highway bridge, but that must have been the earlier bridge this one replaced) so I wasn't tempted to disobey the other signs and stop to take a picture.

Once in South Carolina, I could finally understand why the city was called Savannah: the coastal plain between there and Charleston ("The Lowcountry") is a marsh with tall grass that at a distance looks a lot like an African savanna. The city is so full of trees that I hadn't seen the resemblance. I was surprised at how quickly the water was flowing through channels in the apparently flat marsh ... until I saw one flowing backward and realized I was watching the tide go in and out!

I'm always a little unsure about distances when I cross from one state map to another. The South Carolina map is drawn to a larger scale than any I've used yet, so that places are closer together than I expect. It was a nice surprise when I reached my campground outside Bluffton, SC early in the afternoon! I took a nap and watched some TV.

I mentioned to the campground's owner that I was having trouble finding fuel for my stove. Folks down here evidently don't have much trouble with their cars' fuel lines freezing, so they don't need to stock Heet in auto-part stores, let alone every corner gas station. I tried looking for Sterno as a substitute, but few people have heard of it and no one seems to know where to buy it. However, the owner returned a few minutes later with a big bottle of denatured grain alcohol labeled as sootless stove fuel left over from when she and her husband had owned a boat with an alcohol stove in the galley. She gave it to me for free. A few minutes later I found a big fiberglass batting on the ground -- I think it had blown in on the wind -- and helped myself to a pinch for a new stove wick. My last wick got rained on right after I ran out of fuel, so I couldn't dry it out, and squeezing it would ruin it, so I had to toss it and was considering using Spanish moss until I could find more fiberglass. Anyway, I'm back on hot food!

It rained off and on overnight and still couldn't make up its mind Tuesday morning, so that I was tempted to stay put for another night -- the price was hard to beat. What got me moving was the forecast of frost for that night; the campground offered no shelter from the wind, and the social hall was locked at night, so I couldn't take refuge on its comfy sofas. In that regard, at least, I thought I could do better down the road. So off I went.

The rain stopped around 10:00, but the wind kept gusting all day, so that I revised my route to avoid a three-mile-long bridge. This meant that I didn't pass through the historic town of Beaufort, but I can live with that omission.

Toward the end of the day I rejoined US-17 (the main road from Savannah to Charleston), and I pulled into the town of Point South. The cheaper of two campgrounds had better shelter and was farther from the Interstate, so I was well satisfied. For another $25 I could have stayed in a hotel with an indoor, heated pool, which was tempting, but I reasoned that $25 could buy a lot of breakfast at Waffle House at 4 in the morning or whenever the cold woke me up!

As it turned out I stayed warm until 6:00, just half an hour before dawn. I crawled onto my bike and was in the warm restaurant in minutes. It was not a happy morning at the Waffle House. Near as I could make out, the shift that had just ended had left an overflowing dishwasher and a filthy grill for the new shift -- just one cook and one waitress to handle the morning rush -- to clean up. The food was OK anyway, and I was glad to have it.

I followed US-17 all the way into Charleston because there was no other option. The drivers were remarkably generous considering how little they had to offer me. I'll do my best to take a better route out of town! The day's ride was 63 miles; I could have stopped sooner, but Charleston's two hostels were calling me.

The two hostels were started independently about two years ago, half a mile apart, by women in their early 20s fresh out of the local college. Both are managed by other twentysomething women, and they offer similar amenities at similar rates. I thought it would be neat to stay at both of them, but I had no intention of actually doing so... it just worked out that way!

I went to the Historic Charleston Hostel when I rode into town because it had better reviews online. It's a very small place, just 14 beds, and 10 of them were taken by an Alternative Spring Break group from a community college. I got the last bed Wednesday night, and there were no vacancies for the following night, so I called over to the other hostel and made a reservation there.

I was exhausted from the long ride and went to bed early, but the spring break crowd was up late playing a heated game of Monopoly, and the walls were thin. After a few hours I put my earplugs in and was dead to the world... slept great! The hostel provides free grits, which the college group's advisors prepared with cheese, and they gave me their leftovers.

When the manager learned I was going down the street to the NotSo Hostel that night, she told me all kinds of nasty rumors about the place. She wasn't trying to get me to stay -- she didn't have a bed to offer me, after all -- she just had a grudge left over from when she lived there, under its original management. I checked out the accommodations before checking into them, and her info appears to be out of date at least, if not completely unfounded; in fact I liked the second place better and signed up for two nights on the spot. I'm afraid her cattiness makes me think less of her and her establishment... but hey, she's got a lot of responsibility and she can't be over 23. I was pretty catty at that age myself. And here I am gossipping to all of you...

I grabbed some lunch and spent the afternoon sightseeing, but since I'm neither a Civil War buff nor an architecture aficionado, I had trouble grasping Charleston's charm. I can see it's up to its ears in history; I can see that it has a hodgepodge of Gothic, Colonial, and Victorian buildings, but that doesn't float my boat like Savannah's canopied streets and stately parks. I wore my church clothes the whole time I was in Savannah because I felt like a T-shirt and warmup pants wouldn't be appropriate. Charleston doesn't feel that way.

The NotSo Hostel is a much larger place than the other: more beds, more bedrooms, larger rooms, thicker walls. In addition to the college students on spring break, there are a number of professionals -- a general surgeon, an EMT, a teacher -- applying for or temporarily filling positions in town. All sorts of people.

I did a little more sightseeing this morning (Friday) and then took the rest of the day off. I'll investigate happy hour tonight and catch a tour tomorrow morning on my way out of town. Wish me dry days and warm nights! --Ben