...in the bottom drawer
I knew I'd lose it so I put it in a safe place, and now I can't remember where it is.

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August 02, 2005 || 10:06 pm
Road trip day 2

423 miles, Savannah, GA to Cedar Island, NC.

Today's mileage is also not that impressive - I spent more time than I would have liked in slow traffic but it was more than compensated for by the last 100 miles.

From Savannah I went to Charleston, South Carolina, famous to me from 'Gone With The Wind' and all that stuff. I had very little expectation of what it might be like, apart from, presumably, very grand. It is that, but the smart, uber-restored downtown areas (all expensive clothes shops, lawyers offices and horesedrawn tourist rides, with what must be extremely expensive private houses) was much less interesting or surprising than the surrounding areas which also must be very old, but which are surprisingly run-down still in a beautiful-faded way, black neighbourhoods with people hanging out on the porches.

The urban structure (again, what a nerd I am) was quite amazing - long, narrow lots where, to make the most of the plots, instead of having a front porch they built verandahs on the long sides, facing a small yard. Such an ingenious way of making the most of the space, giving shaded outdoor space that is private and quiet but with a connection to the street. And achieving an incredible density of occupation while not having all the usual problems of overlooking and lack of outside space. Each apartment in these buildings had its own verandah and connection to the street without gating or direct overlooking of anyone else.

From Charleston I drove up the coast through the incredibly tacky sprawl of Myrtle Beach. Quite dazzling, even at this (for the States) relatively small scale, the crazy-golf courses, diners, beachwear shops, cinemas and so forth, all huge, all neon and enhanced with huge fibreglass representations of sharks, volcanoes, surfboards, animals or whatever might tie loosely into the concept of the establishment.

Despite living here for a year, I still have absolutely no sense of how to navigate these strips. How to distinguish a 'good' restaurant from a 'bad' one, when they are all in garish modern buildings with neon signs and seemingly identical menu 'concepts' - seafood, steak, mexican, oyster bar. There are probably no 'good' restaurants there, but people who visit must be able to make some judgement about which place most fits their idea of a 'good time' or their social class/pretensions. I have no idea how to navigate and decode the signage. And playing Hawaaian-themed crazy golf by the side of a six-lane highway?

I crawled through the traffic trying (unsucessfully) to capture the insane nature of the strip with my camera through my window. Finally emerged after the miles of this conurbation onto a relatively less crowded stretch, but only for a moment before hitting Wilmington. Going over a dramatic bridge into the city was quite a sight. I didn't stop, but the view from the bridge was worth everything, taking in the old 18th and 19th century docks, the huge new cranes and seaport, and the river estuary. The scale of the rivers here - in Savannah, Charleston and Wilmington - is so extraordinary - huge and meandering, you don't know whether you are seeing the sea or the river.

An hour or so later, I got off the highway onto a smaller road, and for the first time switched off my iPod ot enjoy the quiet. Thank goodness, I thought, for the army - for the first, and hugely beautiful, quiet stretch I had was through Camp Dejeune army base - a huge tract of beautiful sandy pine forest, rather like Dunwich forest or North Norfolk, but of course covering an area that was so much greater, with no houses to disturb it. But this was only a taster of what was to come, when I emerged out onto the coastal plain of the Carteret peninsula.

Here, stretching for miles and punctuated only by tiny settlements, is mile after mile of the most breathtakingly stunning natural scenery - for once those words are deserved. Endless creeks and sounds divide the land up into a series of broad, semi-connected sandbars and islands, and the road loops along with bridge after bridge over wide, shallow waterways. The land is completely untouched, tough yellow marsh grass, like my Suffolk home but somehow lusher and more dense, covering the spongy ground, pine and cedar forests on the horizons, and the ever-present clear blue water, expanding out of the creeks to the sea, the boundaries undefined and the horizons endless. I drove for near-on sixty miles through this landscape, almost completely empty and astonishingly virgin.

This area was the very first to be settled (tomorrow I will go through the 'lost settlement' of Roanoke Island, where England's first colonists lived in 1585. I can understand why, when they filmed the 'brave new world' scenes of 'Shakespeare in Love' which presumably are meant to evoke this area, they chose North Norfolk because it is in some ways the nearest England has, but the scale of the land here is like nothing back home. It's so utterly impossible for me to describe (well, without taking more time than the medium of blog seems to suggest) but if anyone wants to come somewhere that feels like you have really discovered a new continent, this is surely it. Those early colonists must have been taken utterly aback - the seas teeming with food, the lush virgin soil, the forests of perfect lumber, the warmth and the light.

I drove on through the tiny hamlets of beautiful old clapboard houses (and their more modern equivalents), their paint peeling in the most picturesque way and their brick pier foundations exposed, to literally the end of the road - Cedar Island, from where tomorrow I will get the ferry to the Outer Banks, the sandbar islands that have been treacherous to ships for centuries and that protect the shoreline here, making the water I passed today so absolutely glassy and still.

Cedar Island had pretty much nothing but at the very end of the road, right by the ferry, it does have the Driftwood Motel and Restaurant, where I am now pitched up for the night. Unlike the Days Inn it does not of course have internet - I checked my email via dialup using their phone line but felt bad to occupy it for much longer so am writing this now and will upload it tomorrow.

A couple of photos from today:

Charleston row houses

Bridge

Marshes on the way to Cedar Island, NC

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