s carolina sign

Day 10 of our road trip was driving from Raleigh to Charleston. I was impressed by the landscaping along Rt 95 in North Carolina. It looks like a high-end golf course with formal plantings of trees and shrubs and flowers. I thought of my parents making this drive in their annual post-Christmas snowbird exodus from New England to Florida. 

As we neared South Carolina, we started seeing billboards for Pedro’s South of the Border. It seemed like some kind of theme park or something. The signs certainly wouldn’t win any awards for political correctness… they were kinda Frito Bandito-y

The logotype seemed familiar from when I was a kid. I know I’d seen bumper stickers with that name and design way up in New England — back when bumpers were metal and people used them to brag about their travels. Sometimes places would put a sticker on your bumper in the parking lot, while you were inside. A place did that to my father’s ’66 Impala once; he was pissed. He was never a bumper sticker guy!  

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south border

I didn’t stop on the highway for photos; this is a Google Maps screen grab. These ubiquitous signs just screamed “tourist trap”!

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The billboards become more frequent as we got closer… “Ten miles away!” and “You’re almost there!” They were like the old Burma Shave signs — not that they told a story, but they built this sense of anticipation. We crossed into South Carolina, saw the park and the 20-story sombrero tower on the northbound side — and then the billboards were gone. I missed them.

Charleston had been side-swiped by a hurricane a couple days before we arrived, and there were piles of fallen branches and palm fronds on sidewalks. The entire placed felt like a damp sponge — and our first hotel reeked of mildew from the second we stepped in the lobby. I went in search of other accommodations — and insisted on doing a smell-test before we checked in anywhere. We zipped over the bridge and had dinner at a brew pub, where Mtuseni watched a soccer friendly on TV… and I made friends with a pint.

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charleston bridge

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On Day 11, we walked around Charleston, checked out the nice homes along the water, and had lunch at some funky Mediterranean place among the shops on King Street.

We knew we’d entered the South by seeing palm trees — or, actually, the state’s iconic palmetto trees. I learned this after asking a woman at a tourist center, “Why is this called the Palmetto State?” I thought palmettos were a cookie or praline or something! Evidently they’re mini-palm trees.

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palm church

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fountain pair

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It was in the 90s. Muggy, soupy. Like trudging through a hot tub. Mtuseni skipped the downtown market, preferring to sulk on the sidewalk. He’s like Goldilocks; he hates the cold and the heat — basically he prefers it to be about 74 degrees. Always. 

The market was pretty neat, with some interesting stuff. But it was stifling. We hopped an air-conditioned shuttle back to the garage, hopped in the car, and drove down the road to Savannah.

Charleston was pleasant enough — like Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Good for a day. We hardly took any photos; nothing really grabbed us. Maybe we shoulda gone to Pedro’s!

 

mgb bench

One day I’m gonna break down and get progressives. The coal miner’s specs on the forehead thing is getting ridiculous!

 

nc line sign

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There was nothing spectacular planned for the ninth leg of our excursion — but it gave us one of my favorite experiences of the whole trip.

I’ve always liked the Buddhist saying, “After enlightenment, the laundry.” Essentially, everyday life goes on no matter what other big things are happening. And after a week of iconic sites and experiences in New York, DC, and beneath the surface of the Earth — in a stretch of relentless, record-breaking heat — it was definitely time for some laundry.

I found a laundromat on a tired, low-rent business strip in Troutville or Roanoke. It doesn’t matter; it was all so nondescript and uninspired. The place was crowded and hot, and the TV had evidently been modified to produce a volume that could carry across a football stadium. And it was playing Jerry Springer!

I dumped the clothes in a machine and escaped the din to stroll around outside. Mtuseni sat in the car with the AC. He usually hates air conditioning; even he’d had enough of the heat.

I love old roadside signs. They seem like ghosts of better times and the failed hopes of business owners. There’s a melancholy to them. The area around the laundry had several — and many more along the entire street.

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dunkin alley

Looks like nobody runs on Dunkin’ in Roanoke — or needs autos in Troutville. Or… wherever.

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blank arrow sign

I love these old pointing-arrow signs. Did they work? Were people hypnotically compelled into the business? This arrow leads people nowhere now.

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As we got into the South, there were far more churches than in the Northeast. And religious signs! Giant ones. There were a lot of signs on roadways telling me to repent. No thanks, I’m good.

I remember one TV weather forecaster talking about “a balmy 74 degrees for church services this morning” — on a random Sunday in the fall. In Boston, the forecaster might mention that on Easter, but never just in general. Being a heavy-duty Christian, Mtuseni was fine with it all. It made me feel unsettled, as I knew that church and politics are closely entwined in this region. As a gay Yankee, I already had two strikes against me here.

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jesus

Growing up Catholic and being an altar boy, I’ve seen plenty of Jesus statues. This one kinda creeped me out. He looks lost and confused and hot.

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After the laundry we headed out for North Carolina. We named the GPS Bianca, after the woman who was tearing up the courts in the US Open that fall (and eventually won it all). Mtuseni was watching a match and said, “Ahh, Bianca is becoming a problem!” He’s so fickle; he rooted for whoever was up game by game! 

The GPS had sometimes been unable to keep up with complex exits and interchanges as we zoomed through urban highways. Hence, that cold Google Maps voice became Bianca. And she became a problem in North Carolina.

I had an idea of where we should be heading, and was surprised when Bianca took us off the highway and onto a secondary road. It was beautiful country, much prettier scenery, so I wasn’t too bothered. Then she made us turn onto a winding country road with small farms and woods on either side.

Again, lovely. I was thinking of James Taylor singing, “In my mind I’m goin’ to Carolina.” At the same time I was confused. With many more miles to go, what were we doing on some country back road? I was getting ready to turn around and reset the GPS, when we came up on a small stand of empty, weathered buildings. 

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grocery strip

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I love old, abandoned buildings more than I love old signs — and pulled into a gravel lot to take some photos. After a few minutes, a van pulled into the lot. I got nervous, thinking it might be some grizzled farmer in dirty overalls holding a shotgun and yelling, “Git off my property!” 

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cedar grove trio

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Instead, it was Mattie Rose, a retired nurse and the sweetest, most friendly woman. She lived down the road and was driving to practice piano at her church nearby. Seeing me taking pictures, she wanted to tell us the story of this little enclave. Mattie told us we were in Cedar Grove — which I hadn’t noticed from the nearby post office — and she’d lived there all her life. 

She told us all about the buildings. What old Mr. Pender sold in his grocery and how she’d buy penny candy there as a kid. How everyone got stuff fixed at Oliver’s repair shop. The piano player who played for famous evangelist Billy Sunday. The office of the attorney who prosecuted Al Capone! 

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grocery store

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auto repair

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Mattie talked about how people would sit around outside and talk, and everybody in town knew everybody. She explained when the businesses closed and the periodic ideas to do something with the buildings, which always fall through. I think they should be left just as they are. 

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lawyer bldg

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I’m fascinated with ghost towns and long-vacant buildings, because they were once full of people living life. I’d love to spend a year traveling through the Southwest documenting them, discovering what they were like in their heydays.

I’ve taken photos of many old buildings over the years, but never got to hear their history. Mattie Rose made those proud, lonesome skeletons come alive with her childhood memories, warm smile, and soft drawl. That odd detour gave us a nice, serendipitous surprise. 

Mattie wished us well on our trip, and we said goodbye and continued down the road. In a few miles it linked back to the highway and we sped along to Raleigh — not seeing anything special at 75 mph, but with happy memories of Mattie and Cedar Grove, North Carolina. 

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cedar grove

 

caverns video

A year ago this Sunday, we left DC to begin the southern leg of the Long-Distance Dad road trip. But rather than head straight south, we went west to check out the Shenandoah Valley and enjoy a little more scenic route.

The map indicated a town called Front Royal, Virginia as the Gateway to the Shenandoah. Since I’d made no plans other than drawing a yellow highlight on the area on my map weeks earlier, we stopped in for some tips.

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front royal train

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Front Royal is a lovely little place with a historical Bedford Falls kinda downtown that you know was bustling back in the day, with a local department store and hardware store and one-screen cinema. Luckily I got to experience this in the 60s in my hometown, before malls destroyed small community downtowns everywhere. 

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Historical downtown street in Front Royal, Virginia

Old downtown street in Front Royal. Many of the shops were empty.

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A woman at the information booth gave us directions for good views without driving up into the mountains. And she recommended we stop at the Skyline Caverns. I’d never been in a cave. Mtuseni has been at the Cradle of Humankind site in South Africa.

Check out our Instagram greeting from the caverns!

The caverns were very cool. In fact, they were downright chilly! I’m glad I asked when we got our tickets and changed into long pants and a jacket.

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Underground room in Skyline Caverns, Front Royal Virginia

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Underground lake in Skyline Cavern, Front Royal Virginia

Underground lake in the cavern. The colored lights really made the features pop. 

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I can get a little claustrophobic, but figured if I got antsy I’d just turn around and head back out myself. Not! As our tour guide advanced deeper into the earth, he would turn off the set of lights behind us. Pitch black! There was no option but to go forward. Luckily it was so beautiful and amazing — and the young guide was so good — that I never got freaked. Though at one point I did think, “Shit, we’re underground. There’s like 300 feet of rock above us!”

At one point the guide turned off all the lights. Absolute darkness. I mean, cannot-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face dark! He explained what would happen to a person if they were stuck there alone in the dark: They would gradually lose one sense after another over time. And eventually their mind, though he didn’t say that.

I thought of those Chilean miners and Thai soccer kids trapped underground for days and weeks. I wouldn’t have been the hero in those situations. I would have been one of those characters from those 70s disaster movies — who panics right away and the rest of the group either bitch-slaps me… or leaves me behind to die because I’m sucking up all the oxygen and generally bumming everybody out.

But I survived — and it was one of the most unique experiences of the trip!

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cavern path

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The gift shop above the cavern was classic… aisles of cheesy schlock that would entice any kid — or adult with no taste. It reminded me of old gift shops when we’d spend summers on Cape Cod in the 60s and 70s… and probably hasn’t changed much since those days. It was actually nice to not see overpriced corporate merchandise as you find in most tourist sites. (Hello, World Trade Center observatory! We’re six weeks away from that experience.)

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gift shop 1

Dream catchers, local jams, stained glass ornaments, geode slices… on knotty pine shelves? It don’t get more classic than that!

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magnet map

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gift shop sale

We didn’t have time to rummage through the canoes.

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gift shop stones

For 4 or 5 years I asked Santa for a rock tumbler set from the Sears catalog. He never came through. I really wanted to fill a bag. They were cheap!

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I was surprised at how beautiful the Shenandoah Mountains are, but that’s why we went there: I wanted to see them. After driving down the valley, making out cars atop the mountain range along the Skyline highway, we pulled into some crap hotel in Troutville, outside of Roanoke. (This was my pick for worst hotel of the trip … mainly for the thin dirty towels and a couple roaches in the bathroom.)  Supper was really bad Pizza Hut pizza. The cosmopolitan choices of New York and DC were behind us. We had entered the South.

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shenandoah mtn

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mall selfie pair

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For our last day in DC, we walked from our hotel to the train station. Mtuseni’s Metro card never worked; he was always trapped at our destination and had to ask an attendant to let him out. Hahaha. He always looked so sheepish!

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U.S. Capitol building dome in Washington DC

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Saturday morning after Labor Day, the city seemed pretty quiet. Congress was impressive, though our guide zipped us through a little too quickly for my tastes. We couldn’t see the House or Senate chambers because I think they were in special session or something, probably prepping impeachment docs. 

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U.S. Congress rotunda dome inside in Washington DC

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As always, Mtuseni took photos of everything, including every giant painting in the rotunda.

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Great Fall in U.S. Congress building in Washington DC

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Paintings in the Great Hall of the rotunda of the U.S. Congress in Washington DC

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Back home this past summer, Mtuseni watched clips of John Lewis lying in state on TV. I was glad that he had the experience of being in that room… and learning about Rep. Lewis and “good trouble” and the civil rights movement. Your sense of self feels larger when you see a faraway place on TV and know you’ve been there. Maybe it will inspire him one day to help advance change in South Africa.

On the way out of the lobby in Congress I noticed a passage to the Library of Congress, so we followed it. It was not on my agenda. What a surprise… it’s stunning! I had no idea. 

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Painted vault ceiling in U.S. Library of Congress in Washington DC

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Decorated vault ceiling in Library of Congress in Washington DC

I’ll definitely come back to the Library of Congress to satisfy the closet research geek in me.

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exact man

The walls of the library are lined with quotes about knowledge. This one hit home for me.

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cong library pair

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supreme steps

It was cool to see the Supreme Court, but standing on those white marble steps on a late summer day is blinding and hot as hell!

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After the library we got lunch at the many food trucks that line the mall (and don’t do much for photographic aesthetics). Mtuseni wanted to try the rental scooters that were zipping around everywhere. I had no interest in breaking any bones, so I let him go.

I asked a woman riding one how much they were. She said 25 cents a mile. I thought, “Great, how far can he go? It’ll be like 4 or 5 bucks.” He drove off, grinning with his new toy and a little bit of freedom from me.

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mtu scooter

Freedom!

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I explored the Smithsonian Castle. It was nice to have a break from white marble, and the gardens in the back would have been perfect for a cappuccino, glass of wine, or a nap.

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Smithsonian castle in Washington DC

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smith sign

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smith dragonflies

Dragonflies in the Smithsonian Castle garden. A symbol of change and transformation, I was happy to see them.

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I walked up to the Lincoln Memorial and waited for Mtuseni to roll up. He had gone back up to Capitol Hill, then to the White House, just zipping around. He’d been in DC for a conference a few years earlier, so he liked being able to see the area again on his own. 

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Lincoln Memorial statue n Washington DC

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mtu dream space

Pretty cool for a South African kid to be standing on the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

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lincoln steps pair

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Later, waiting for the world’s slowest shuttle bus to the Metro, I got an alert on the scooter app that my card had been charged. The woman on the street was wrong. It wasn’t 25 cents a mile, but 25 cents a minute! Mtuseni’s little scoot around town cost me over 30 bucks!  

Mtuseni complained about his terrible park service sandwich the whole trip — and I will forever gripe about that damn Lime scooter ride!  

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the lime

Arghhhh…. that damn scooter!

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Compared to New York, our time in DC was less hectic, with a great hotel and no parking worries. I could spend a week or more there, exploring every corner of every museum. I was sad to leave, but the next leg of our adventure awaited — the South!

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Washington Monument and reflecting pool in Washington DC