I’d heard many things about The South. I was promised I’d be chased by dogs. That I’d ride on roads with no shoulders, get a yearly dose of bigotry and make the acquaintance of hicks with no teeth. And yet, that that all of this would be curiously juxtaposed with the greatest show of hospitality known to man. Anything less and I’d have been sorely disappointed. Anything more would have been a bonus. Of course, it was Christmas bonus time.
A CHANGE OF PLAN
Two days before I crossed the Mason-Dixon line, a historic boundary that marks the North-South divide, I went rogue. The pre-departure plan was to skirt inland, covering Virginia, The Carolina’s and Florida in as few miles as possible. Well now. At this point in the trip, that had a whiff of the sensible about it. So like a muscular moth to a flame, I added on a ‘few’ extra miles and headed toward the East coast instead.
NORTH MYRTLE BEACH
Here’s a lovely story for you. When I was 19, fresh out of school and eyes ablaze with the wonder of the world, I decided to move to Australia for a bit. There I became BFF-OUIGH (Best friends forever – or until I go home) with a girl named Amy. Although now having represented Australia in rowing at two Olympics, Amy is originally from (drum roll, please) North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. So as soon as I hatched the new route (code word: COASTAL) I thought of Amy, and decided that I’d make her home town the point at which I hit the shores of the Atlantic once more. So ten years after I met their daughter in a country 9,000 miles away, I appeared on the doorstep of Amy’s folks, Price and Barbara, and was welcomed in like a long lost child.
NOT SO DIRTY MYRTLE
Talk to Americans about Myrtle Beach and you’ll become familiar with its reputation as ‘Dirty Myrtle’ or the ‘Redneck Riviera’. Riding in, I could see the roots of such a rep. The main highway is a migraine sufferers worst nightmare. As far as the eye can see are bargains stores, chain restaurants and fast food joints, all announcing the delights on offer with big flashing lights.
But this is one beach book you shouldn’t judge by it’s lightbulb led cover. Get away from the busy highway, just one street over, and you’ll find the reason it became so popular in the first place – a gigantic golden beach, surrounded by tufts of wild grass, punctuated with boardwalks and modest dunes. The day I took a walk along the shore, a heavy fog rolled in, transforming my stroll from the marginally tranquil to the downright serene.
Away from the beach, Price told me that North Myrtle hadn’t always been such a tourist trap. And that in the 70’s, it was just a small town with less than a third of the population of today. He initially moved to the area to spend time at the Meher Baba centre – a 500 acre lake encrusted oasis of calm, dedicated to a man who believed in the pursuit of ‘conscious divinity.’ Set just metres back from a now busy highway 17, the centre remains at North Myrtle, as peaceful as ever, offering rest, meditation and a more spiritual life to those who seek it.
Riding out 2 days later, I saw the whole area through new eyes. I had a deeper appreciation for it’s history and beauty, as well as a fondness for the people who live there. It made me wonder how many towns I’d passed through and decided I wasn’t too keen on, only to miss something more delicate, cowering beneath a brash veneer.
MAKING NEW FRIENDS
If you want some attention anywhere south of Virginia – here’s what to do:
1) Become a woman (this may take more time for some than others)
2) Ride a Pink bike.
I’ve grown used to getting funny looks over the past six months, but the South East takes staring to a whole new level. I seemed to attract far more of an audience than usual at gas stations. By the end of one particular daily ham and cheese sub session in South Carolina, I had six people crowded around, asking questions and arguing amongst themselves as to the route I should take from there. It was really quite touching.
A little down the road from that stop, I pulled into a tiny convenience store at the side of the highway. And it was here I met my new favourite person – Jim.
Little more than a freestanding room, the convenience store was clad in crumbling brick, coated with peeling white paint and complemented by a door clinging to the very last days of its wooden life. As I stepped inside, letting my eyes adjust to a dark interior, I heard a soft southern drawl. “Well hello there missy, where you be a-comin from?” Behind a small counter to my right was Jim. Black, in his late 60’s with tight yet sporadic curls of Grey hair, and a cataract over one eye – he was straight from a work of fiction.
Jim’s question was always one that took a while to answer, but something told me that he’d enjoy the full back story, so I went right ahead and told it. He paused for a moment, considering me closely with his good eye. “Oh Lordy Lordy. I say Lordy Lordy my child. I will pray for you, that I will. I will pray. For. You.” I thanked him, and listened further as he regaled tales from 30 years spent working as a local police officer. “There be some bad peoples in the world, yes ma’m. I tell you there be some bad people’s on this here Earth. And I seen em all.”
Later he produced his wallet, gingerly unfolding it to reveal a tattered, monochrome picture of a woman. He beckoned me to come in closer. “You see this?” he said, that one eye of his sparkling as if it held all the secrets of the modern world. “This be the most beautiful woman in the universe. My Wife” He kissed the photo and touched his chest, just above where his heart was, before adding “I won’t ever have no other one after this one, I tell you. I won’t ever have no other, God bless my soul.”
I felt truly honoured to have met Jim. What a character. What a gem.
WHO STOLE MY SHOULDERS?
Lacking in characters the South is not. Lacking in space to cycle however… The past two weeks have been frought with a struggle to find any sort of shoulder to ride in, or a road that’s quiet enough not to warrant one. Through Southern Georgia especially there was one road to take, and I was sharing it with every other Tom, Dick and Harry. By the time I made Florida, I was mentally exhausted. Spending 10 hours a day being subjected to honks and shouts from passing cars (The Dicks shouted more than the Tom’s and Harry’s) and in mild fear that a truck might get a little too close, is just not cricket, and it’s certainly not fun.
THE BEAUTIFUL BITS
The lack of provision for road cycling, should by no means overshadow what these states have to offer, especially for the naturalist. The Carolina’s and Georgia have an impressive selection of cotton fields and shrubbery. I’ve yet to learn the official name for all the trees I saw in the swamps and forests, but The Beardy oak (Muchos Hairyiculus), the Mr Tickle tree (armus gargantuan) and the Spikey Hand Fan-Fern (Highus Fivus) were among those that repeated most frequently.
For the true lover of a reet good view, however, you best get yourself down to Florida. And to the stretch of Gulf coast between Panama City Beach and Pensacola. It’s stunning. The sand is a shade of white I never thought possible in anything other than snow, and it just goes on, and on. Route 30A, a road that runs right next to the shoreline is no doubt swollen with traffic in the summertime. But as it was ‘winter’ (ahem 21 degrees and sunny) the small, immaculately maintained towns and silky smooth sand bars were all but deserted. Lucky, lucky me.
There’ll be more Southern tales in the first blog post of 2014. I’ve now moved through Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and am hanging out just inside Tennessee, soaking up buckets of Rhythm and Blues in Memphis. With only 3 weeks left to make it thorough the final 7 states, I’ve got a bit of a mission on my hands, but I’m more excited than ever about the final flourish. Fancy that?
Here’s wishing you all a hugely happy New Year. I sincerely hope you have some mischief of your own in the pipeline for 2014 – if not, get onto it, quicksmart.
Go easy on the dizzy water and catch you then,