Archive for Sunday, July 27, 2003

Take a swing through the South

Journey lets native son sample comforts of home

July 27, 2003


— Richmond, the final stop on our thousand-mile, two-week Southern summer odyssey, lay just 80 miles to the east. As we stared at the map, we were tempted to take the fastest, straightest road.

But that would violate the rules of the trip -- back roads instead of highways; history and scenery instead of speed.

And besides, a detour to Appomattox would lend some much-valued symmetry to the undertaking. A journey that had taken us by the spot in Charleston, S.C., where the Civil War began, could now record its final official stop in the place where it ended, with Robert E. Lee's surrender in April 1865.

Growing up there, the South never seemed like a spot for summer vacation, except for the beach. We usually headed for cooler climes. But this year, after the coldest of my three winters in Boston, the prospect of a little heat and humidity didn't faze me much. By May, my nose was twitching for the smell of jasmine and honeysuckle, my mouth watering for the taste of hush puppies and homemade biscuits, and my ears were even yearning for the twang of country music on the radio (in moderation).

Thus began a zigzag journey through the South, from the Georgia and South Carolina lowlands through the mountains of North Carolina and finally through Virginia to Richmond.

The route, for me and my traveling companion, Maria, was flexible. The goal was to cover swamps, mountains and the foothills known locally as the Piedmont, while reminding ourselves there's more to the South than boring flatlands. The only guidelines were to favor back roads and consume barbecued ribs and cornbread wherever we found them.

Friendly greetings

We arrived late on a Saturday on swampy, Spanish Moss-draped St. Simons, a barrier island off the coast of Georgia. Cultural readjustment was quick but not instantaneous. Startled by a honk from an oncoming car, I lurched with Bostonian shame over some unknown driving offense. Alas, it was just a friendly hello.

More such greetings came the next morning during the service at Christ Church, an idyllic white building on the island and one of the oldest Episcopal churches in the country. The lovingly kept grounds alone are worth a visit.

Hiker Maria Almond takes in the view of the Blue Ridge Mountains
from a trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Blowing Rock, N.C.
The Parkway offers magnificent views of the Smoky and Blue Ridge

Hiker Maria Almond takes in the view of the Blue Ridge Mountains from a trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Blowing Rock, N.C. The Parkway offers magnificent views of the Smoky and Blue Ridge ranges.

When I visited the area as a child, my interests lay predictably and exclusively with the beach. This time -- thanks in part to our appropriately named guide, Jeanne Pleasants, who led us on a boat tour -- I was far more intrigued by the surrounding tidal marshlands. The shape of the coastline makes for unusually high tides, and in turn an unusually flexible ecology -- like grasses that have learned to sweat out salt, and microscopic shrimp that cling to grains of sand to avoid being flushed out to sea.

After five days of decompression on St. Simons, the driving began in earnest. The next leg took us up the coast to Savannah, Beaufort, S.C., and finally Charleston, that most Southern of cities.

There are must-dos for Charleston tourists -- carriage rides and elegant houses that line the waterfront "Battery," where the shelling of Fort Sumter commenced. But the pleasant surprise was how far Charleston's shopping and dining have come since my last visit six years ago.

For dinner, the catfish with our hosts at Cru Cafe on Pinckney Street was delectable, topped by an elephantine slice of cheesecake at nearby dessert joint Kaminsky's Cafe.

Still stuffed, we somehow made room the next morning for an aggressive sampling of muffins, creamy grits and pear cider at a downtown farmers market.

And on the way out of town, after a stop at the Magnolia Gardens plantation just outside Charleston, we couldn't resist the ribs at Sticky Fingers in nearby Summerville.

At last, a week into the trip, a crumpled napkin stained in barbecue sauce lying in my lap, I was starting to feel at home.

Older homes in Charleston, S.C., reflect their Southern heritage
with large, shady verandas that offer respite from the summer heat.

Older homes in Charleston, S.C., reflect their Southern heritage with large, shady verandas that offer respite from the summer heat.

Seeking the heights

From the swampy low country, we proceeded to the mountains of North Carolina, finding some respite from the heat. We pitched a tent north of Asheville along the French Broad River, running high and muddy from a rainy spring.

We picked Asheville as a base for some mountain hikes, but with the weather threatening rain, we decided to spend our first day in the area at the Biltmore Estate, the gargantuan Vanderbilt home. At $36 per ticket, we weren't sure we'd get our money's worth, but we gave it our best shot, spending nearly all day picnicking and exploring the gardens and vineyards that surround what is supposedly the largest house in America.

Hoping for better weather up north, we struck out a day earlier than planned up the Blue Ridge Parkway towards Virginia.

While most roads take the path of least resistance through mountains, the Blue Ridge stays near the crest, making for winding roads but magnificent views of the Smoky and Blue Ridge ranges.

We tried to stick to our plans to drive an hour, hike an hour, but because of the weather, we often picked routes running down the mountains from the road rather than up, hoping for better views below the clouds.

After two such days on the Parkway and a half-dozen good hikes, we crossed into Virginia, into a portion of my home state I'd never visited before. I'm fond of telling people that because of Virginia's odd shape, there are parts in the southwest of the state closer to eight other state capitals than to Richmond.

Meadows of Dan, a tiny intersection just off the Parkway, isn't just far from Richmond -- it's far from everywhere. But it is quiet and peaceful, and Patrick County, best known as the birthplace of Confederate cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart, has its attractions.

Fortunately, Maria's Aunt Beth knew everything and everyone in town. She showed us a scenic but precarious ledge called Lover's Leap, and she took us around the Reynolds Homestead, the birthplace of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds, now a community center. And once again, we ate well: fried catfish ($4.95) at the Hilltop Cafe in flyspeck Vesta.

At last it was time for the final leg, onto my family's home in Richmond. We were eager to be done, but we didn't know when Appomattox, hardly on the beaten path, would be so close again.

The old, tiny village and the surrounding fields where the armies camped -- Lee's was fleeing Richmond, Grant's trying to cut Lee's escape route-- are owned and operated by the National Park Service. The document formally ending the Civil War was signed here, in the Wilmer McLean house.

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