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Hugging Caronlina’s coast

There’s nothing romantic or fabled about route 17. No literary cult perpetuating an iconic status. Nor can it be denied that poverty laps at its shoulders. The 17 strings together a series of pearls running north to south along the Carolina coast and offers an honest take on the American by-way. New Bern, Wilmington, Charleston, Beaufort and Savannah can all be reached by the I-95, but route 17 is an unconventional route combining southern regality with southern reality.

We pick up our rental car, a white Ford Focus with Rhode Island plates, and feel immediately at home on North Carolina’s open back roads. We can’t miss the Atlantic shores of North Carolina while in this part of the state, the rental fellow informs me and so we head east on a detour from the 17 to the Outer Banks. It feels premature to verge off course at Elizabeth City but places like Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nag’s Head summon.

Judging by the endless rows of colossal beach houses, North Carolina’s coastal community is wealthy. The barrier islands’ towns are not so much towns as commercial centers. Yet the setting of the grey ocean, whirling sands, dead straight road and millions of spindly pilings imparts a certain mystique.

The state announces on its vehicle plates that it was ‘First in flight’, a reference to the Wright brothers’ 1903 aviation experiments at Kitty Hawk, our first stop. The high dunes and strong winds provided the perfect conditions for their initial gliding experiments. As we amble around the mammoth granite monument on the mount dedicated to the Wright achievements, the site feels rigid and austere yet also compellingly free. Its openness sets the stage for free flight. The sandy banks were historically the “graveyard of the Atlantic” but at the turn of the century had become the runway for flight.

Back on our own runway, route 12 over the Outer Banks, we fit in a visit to the Bodie lighthouse, a boldly-striped icon for these islands. After a cool first night in a turquoise-tinted seaside motel, Whalebone Junction directs us inland again. We stop on Roanoke Island, home of the first English child born in the new world in 1585. The island hosted a short-lived colony of 116 men, women and children. After a supply ship was sent back to England and delayed three years, the colony was never seen again. Theories abound about whether they were slaughtered by or integrated with the natives and about the fate of new-born Virginia Dare, a fate that may forever be a mystery—perhaps until the locals volunteer for DNA testing. The story of the lost colony was dramatized in 1937 and the production has played every summer since in the outdoor theatre of Manteo on Roanoke.

Joining up with route 17 again at Williamston, the prized lighthouses of the Outer Banks, particularly the black and white barbershop swirl of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, are omnipresent as lawn ornaments. Often we are the sole road-users. For the most part, the 17 feels an isolated route. Only when slowing down to read the historic markers alongside the road (the font is too small to read at speed) does 55-mile per hour traffic suddenly emerge from nowhere.

We are greeted by more markers (with overwhelmingly large font!) in the town of New Bern. Situated welcomingly on the Neuse river, it is not unlike its Swiss namesake. The town exudes a well-ordered tranquility and conservative pride in its heritage. The local police cars sport ‘Proud to wear the bear’ emblems. America rediscovered its history several years ago. Nearly every town along route 17 declares itself “historic,” erects historic markers and directs visitors to its “historic district”. New Bern boasts “the birthplace of Pepsi” and the 18th century Georgian Tryon Palace that briefly served as the state’s Capitol.

Reclaiming an identity through history has for the south been in large part about Civil War heritage. Interpretation of the Civil War has recently generated a great amount of heritage tourism in the Carolina’s. A complete Civil War trail with interpretation at historic sites was initiated in 2005 in North Carolina (see North Carolina is proud of its historic and continued contribution to the armed forces. This state has sent more troops to Iraq than any other, a towering roadside poster on route 17 proudly reaffirms. In this it parallels the Civil War when it sent and lost more troops and materials than any other Confederate state.

Moving south like Civil War soldiers, or Northern Aggressors as Southerners still maintain, we hit Wilmington and are brought back to an 18th century pace of life. A tour with Charlie, an ex-Amish farm horse, is a nice departure from all the hulking, gas-guzzling, customized pick-up trucks with which we have shared the road. Strolling along the Cape Fear Riverwalk, this is where the south has started to feel like “The South”: slow, sultry and self-assured. The perfect setting for an extended lunch. The coastal stretch along the 17 is known for doing great things with crabs and crawfish (crayfish). We indulged in divine crab-stuffed portabella mushroom topped with Monterey Jack cheese at the Pilot House overlooking the Cape Fear River.

It cannot be denied that a large portion of America’s poor reside here. Clusters of mobile homes landscaped with permanent yard sales face the road. Interspersed are large, well-presented mobile homes and on Sunday John Deer lawnmowers purringly betray the sound of true suburbia. There are plenty of abandoned houses too. All of them with generous wooden verandas typical of the south. I slow down at each overgrown gingerbread-spindled porch because I get a silent thrill at seeing old, dilapidated houses, fantasizing about their potential and my new life as a Carolinian. Why? Because despite the evident poverty, there is an overriding ease with which life is lived here, a warmth emanating from the people, and a tropical breeze to envelope you in the evenings.

And it is the people that greet us with great fanfare when we enter the state of South Caroline: a swarming parade of bikers, helmetless and shirtless, perusing the sixty-mile carnival stretch that is Myrtle Beach and environs.

Although a coastal route, we see surprisingly little of the coast here. The ocean is unapolegetically shielded by strip malls, resorts and beach houses. At Pawley’s Island is it less hyped and we glimpse the first marshlands. Local writer Dorothea Benton Frank’s new book, Pawley’s Island, may put this “arrogantly shabby” place on the map like John Berendt’s book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil did for Savannah, but today it’s sleepy and uneventful on our lunch stop, the perfect cure to follow the foray of Myrtle Beach. 

The deeper south we go, further into the Low Country, the more the motels, restaurants and banks take on “plantation” architecture: a couple of two-storey, simple white columns and an entrance pediment suffice.

Dark has fallen by the time we reach Charleston, the Grand Dame of the South. We venture on an evening stroll and despite the drizzle, or perhaps because of it, Charleston sparkles. Gas lanterns adorn the mansions and their glossed balustrades and broad doors of cut and beveled glass glimmer by their light. It is stunningly gorgeous. My breath is taken away and the void is filled with the luscious scent of jasmine cascading over fences. The general feel of the place is of a confident charm and serenity.

One of Charleston’s most interesting historical features is the side porch and balcony. These so-called single houses have facades the width of a single room and side verandas on two levels that run the depth of the house. To add to the authenticity, street furniture such as the elegant carriage stepping stones have been retained in front of many of the more refined homes. 

The morning brings with it a torrential downpour, flooding the covered market in Charleston at its eastern end within half an hour. After purchasing an antique bracelet and wading through knee-high waters we find sanctuary in the King Street shops, a blend of specialty, high fashion and luxury stores and eateries, many catering to the student population or serviced by them.

The road south beckons once again and the sun partially returns as we cruise through the marshy countryside between Charleston and Savannah in the early afternoon. The misty air above is replete with heady and moist diamond droplets. Their suspension is the only barrier to the sun bursting through as they encapsulate the sun’s shine. It is not unlike Venetian light in high summer.

At the roadside Gullah artisans, descendants of African slaves originally from Angola, peddle their woven sweetgrass baskets. The town of Beaufort presents a starkly contrasting lifestyle with its wealth of photogenic antebellum homes and smart art galleries.

For a short distance the 17 merges with the 95 Interstate and becomes a four-lane highway with an unaccustomed 70 mile an hour speed limit. Veering off again to follow the 17, it soon reclaims its trusted personification of a main street through town, this time through Ridgeland. And then Switzerland which is no more than two houses and—caught by a lucky glimpse right—an astonishingly beautiful lane lined with “live” oak trees and draped with Spanish moss.

It is the Savannahians who emphasize the “live” when describing their gorgeous, moss-festooned oak trees billowing over their graceful squares. I found this curious until it was pointed out that Savannah is surrounded by plenty of dead oak trees that are also a defining feature of the swamps. An urban composition devised in 1733, the 21 squares of historic Savannah anchor the city in a framework of dignified regularity, providing ideally spaced, shaded axes that guide the requisite walking tours at a pleasant pace. Strolling through Savannah is the most agreeable way to get acquainted, though a trolley tour is perhaps the best way for a tourist to get their bearings. Our trolley commentator had a minor obsession with parking lots and how gravely wrong they were to pull down beautiful squares and put up parking garages. But he reveled in reporting that Savannah has repented and bundled efforts to restore, revamp and reanimate every historic crumb remaining. In some ways it feels like a film set and all the locals and tourists have been hired as extras. Then again, maybe it’s because everyone here is so accustomed to being in the movies.

“I been in Forrest Gump,” the friendly fruit-stand man beams. “I hadda drive a ’54 coffee ‘n cream Chevrolet towards that runnin’ boy.”

“Forces of Nature, Something to Talk About, and in The Patriot I was a featured extra. Ben Franklin, you see me with them glasses.” He tweaks his thumb and forefinger over his right eye and offers a sampling of boiled peanuts—salty, mushy green peanuts boiled slowly for several hours. He continued listing his extra achievements, frame by frame and after a week in the south I am able to lean back leisurely and uh-huh and that right? in a southern drawl.

I’ve become attached to the 17 and feel as though I am parting from an old confidant as I head back north speedily up the I-95. As soon as I’m home again, I’ll be renting Forrest Gump and The Patriot.

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