Day 6. NC/SC: prayers, good manners, rednecks, carriages

by Kevin May

By morning my swearing faux-pas seemed to have been forgotten. Dennis was in bright and breezy mode and ushered me into the kitchen to meet his wife, who was busy preparing breakfast: “Hi there! I’m Sandi! Isn’t this all amazin’! You know, I just love to cook!” Before me stood Pam Ewing in a pinny, her bouffant hair glued precisely into place, and startled wide eyes made panda with slaps of eye-shadow. “We’re almost done! It’s cherry blintz and baked eggs! It’ll be ready in five minutes! You do like baked eggs, don’t you! Dennis, fix Kevin some of our proprietor blend coffee! Take a seat through there! I’ll be right with you!” If ever a situation called for the f-word, this was probably it but I bit my tongue and smiled a glassy smile.

The small dining room had one place laid for it. I took my coffee through and sat down. The inn had four bedrooms but I was evidently the only guest. Dennis hovered as Sandi brought the food through and filled my glass up with juice. It looked like a slab of clean chamois leather with a road accident on the side, but I was up for trying anything and began to dig in.

I can’t be precise about exactly where the fork was – it had definitely entered the food and might even have begun the journey back towards my face – when I heard Dennis cough politely. I glanced up to see the two of them stood with heads bowed. I was able to stop the fork short of entering my mouth before Dennis started saying grace. It would be an exaggeration to say that the food was cold by the time he had finished, but this was no short, sharp prayer. It was more like a Liturgical Collect and all the weirder for the fact that neither of them were joining in the eating. I really don’t think that I had made a very good impression on them.

I set off into the hanging wisps of mist that still enshrouded the mountains and soon found myself behind a truck with a small sign on the back reading “Warning. Stay back 200 feet. Not responsible for broken windshields.” It wasn’t clear whether they were prepared to take responsibility for the fact that the sign only became legible when you got to within 10 feet of the back of the vehicle.

More stern warnings greeted me as I crossed the state line. Americans seem to have a thing about litter or – more accurately – the lack of it, especially on the highway. Every state has signs advising that any litter dropped on the road will be met with some penalty, usually a fine. Once in South Carolina this obsession reached its apotheosis with signs reading “Penalty for littering. $1000 or prison.” Envisaging that any cellmate in a South Carolina prison would be likely to come from the less savoury end of the human spectrum, I wound up all my windows lest any scrap of paper escape accidentally. I had no desire to share slopping out with Mr Big of Rednecksville.

There was no reason to doubt the seriousness of the threat if the case of Regina McKnight was anything to go by. She was a 22-year-old cocaine addict with a sub-normal IQ who had fallen pregnant. When the child was stillborn in May 1999, traces of cocaine were found in its system. The mother was now serving a 12-year sentence for homicide by child abuse. South Carolina was clearly an authoritarian place that had little time for excuses.

My first stop was Pickens, a small and perfectly presentable place boasting an imposing county court house with huge Doric columns. Or perhaps they were Corinthian, or even Ionian, I couldn’t be sure. I changed some travellers’ checks and went shopping, managing to pick up a cruet set with “Hi, y’all from South Carolina” tastefully engraved on the side of each pot. The reaction of the people who served me in both the bank and the shop to my use of please and thank you suggested that those two words didn’t feature massively in the local vernacular. My next town was Liberty, home to Miss South Carolina 1995 1996 1998, with room on the welcome sign for one more year to be added at a future date. Another sign in town announced “Liberty. Where neighbors become good friends”. I was fairly sure that they weren’t taking the piss.

I decided to head for Abbeville, an old southern town founded in 1758. It had been both the birthplace and the deathbed of the confederacy. It was here that the first organized meeting to adopt an Ordinance of Secession had taken place, and it was also where the final meeting of the Confederate Council of War had been held. It had a beautiful old town square, bordered by brick-paved streets. I made my way to The Village Grill just off the square and arrived at 2.15pm, just before last orders for lunch but long after any pretence of Southern Hospitality was on offer. Feeling about as welcome as a streaker at a Papal Mass, I was at least able to hone my skills at catching flying menus, plates and beakers of lemonade.

It was interesting driving around the town to see the amount of red white and blue that decorated the homes of people there. There were a few confederate flags, as through much of the south, but far more of the Stars and Stripes. This town was now more than glad to be a part of the Union. Patriotism reaches levels in the USA that I have only seen come close to being paralleled in Australia, so I assume that it has something to do with the age of the country. Being American is a serious business and is something that is at the front of the consciousness. Europeans have inherited their countries, cultures and traditions whereas Americans constructed theirs from scratch and largely within living memory. In the space of a few generations, they have gone from a hopeless band of outcasts to the most powerful, rich, and influential nation that the world has ever seen. This is not a legacy that the people of America feel they receive, it is one that they own and actively take part in. The flag is more than colors that represent the country, it is a symbol of what Americans get up in the morning for, and they genuinely love it. Even the most disenfranchised still live the dream.

South Carolina seemed markedly poorer than the plush country club bit of North Carolina that I’d been to. As I drove cross-country towards Columbia, several old battered pick-ups passed me with kids or animals riding in the back. Two of them had the word “Redneck” emblazoned where the front license plate usually went. It was not a term that had pejorative connotations everywhere and, for some, it summed up their way of life. I’d heard a number of theories concerning the origin of the reference but a guy at a gas station outside Salem Crossroads told me that it came from the way they never washed their vehicles and so had to lean out of the window to see where they were going. Whatever its true derivation, everyone agreed that these people became renowned for having sunburnt necks. There’s got to be an advertising campaign for Ambre Solaire somewhere in that.

I was headed for Camden which, according to one of my books, was a town where none of the roads were paved so as to be kinder to the hooves of horses. It was also an attempt to be kinder to myself. After racking up the best part of two thousand miles in my first five days, this was a chance to arrive by late afternoon and relax into the evening without having spent most of the day in the car. I pulled into town around five and couldn’t help notice there was no great shortage of tarmac around.

The hotelier was a guy called Jim who came and greeted me in the parking lot as I pulled up, and shook my hand for about three minutes. I asked him about the roads and he confirmed that all the streets in town were just dust tracks, despite all visual evidence to the contrary. He asked me if I wanted a trip in a buggy and, before I could answer, had passed the phone to me with a leaflet advertising carriage rides. I’d booked myself on to a 6 o’clock departure before I’d even checked in.

Five minutes or so before the appointed time, my reading out on the porch was disturbed by the tinkle of sleigh-bells. At first I just dismissed it as part of the general surreality of life in the Deep South, but they soon began to exert a siren effect on me. Without thinking, I found myself getting up and being lured round to the back of the hotel from where the sounds seemed to be emanating. There I was confronted by the sight of a tiny woman trying to reverse a behemoth of a carthorse between the shafts of an old carriage presumably with a view to harnessing it up. The beast was bedecked with bells and ribbons and was having none of it. The woman, who at less than five-feet tall didn’t even come up to the top of the horse’s back, was employing a Sumo wrestling approach to her problem. Hardly surprisingly, it wasn’t getting her very far.

She was dressed in what looked like top-hat and tails and stopped to compose herself as soon as she saw me approaching. “Hi y’all, yooo mus’ be Kev’n” she drawled as she beckoned limp-wristedly to me. “Ay’am Joy, and this here is Beau Ree-gard… that’s Frennch for ‘G’d Looookin’.” She was a buxom fifty-something who wasn’t wildly dissimilar to Barbara Windsor, and spoke with a combination of drawls and spits. I asked her if she needed a hand but she replied that it would be fine. It was apparently the horse’s way of punishing her when she’d not come to see him for a few days (Jim let her keep the horse at the hotel when it wasn’t working and she lived about thirty minutes away). Sure enough, at next time of asking, Beau Regard backed up and within a couple of shakes we were away.

The carriage was from around the time of the Civil War, an event that Joy informed me many of the folks around these parts still didn’t believe was over. Certain types – whose politics were no doubt as tasteless as their historical perspective was clouded – just referred to the war as the “great unpleasantness”. Joy was a source of much local history, but her real specialization was gossip. Soon we were off the main highway and trotting along the side streets. As we approached each house, people came out into their front gardens to wave. Joy knew them all and after an exchange of words with each, turned and filled me in on the backgrounds of each resident and their business.

After some time, we did find ourselves on some dust roads. Joy explained that the local patriarchs, the Buckley family, has decreed that certain areas of town had to remain unpaved so that they could ride their horses at speed, but that was about it. There was something other-worldly about the place, almost quaint. This wasn’t some contrivance designed to trap tourists. This town had been the site of the last legal duel in the USA and also one of the final British victories in the War of Independence, but there was none of the razzmatazz that celebrated some spots with far less significance. It had been used to shoot a number of movies – notably Kate and Leopold and Glory, neither of which I had seen – but there was no reference even to these.

Although I had only asked for the 45-minute tour, Joy decided to extend it to 75-minutes “at no extra charge”. This meant that we could go and see the site where one of the grandest colonial homes of the area had been demolished. Property developers had bought it up and were planning to build something new, but then went bankrupt. So now it was just one huge flattened plot of brown earth. It was this experience that had led to the local authorities slapping preservation orders on all other historical building in the area.

On the way back, Joy regaled me with numerous ghost stories. She was cautious to point out that, because she was a “student of the Bible”, she knew not “to mix dark with the light”, so she always steered clear of such talk. Perhaps it was me who had brought the subject up and I’d forgotten about it.

By the time we had got back and Joy had unhitched Beau Regard, it was almost eight. I was paying Joy as Jim sauntered across the lot to enquire how we’d got on. I was appropriately enthusiastic and everyone seemed happy. I casually asked where would be good to go eat in town. Both Jim and Joy looked at me with puzzlement. Eat? In town? At this time? “Oh, I’m afraid you won’t find anywhere for fine dining around here at this hour.” I said that I didn’t want fine dining necessarily, just something to eat. With sideways glances at each other as if to suggest that they had an idiot-boy on their hands, they suggested I try the gas station down the road where I could probably pick up a sandwich.

Miscalculated again. Last time I had been in central South Carolina had been on a Sunday and I had learnt too late that it remained the only state of the fifty not to sell alcohol anywhere on the Sabbath. On that occasion, I had taken a desperate hundred-and-fifty mile round trip up to North Carolina to assuage my thirst and craving. This time, as a precaution, I had come armed with beer bought back in Brevard NC. I knew it was a Tuesday, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I just hadn’t allowed for the “no dinner later than seven” factor.

I cracked a beer, pulled the Saran Wrap off my egg mayonnaise sandwich and rocked back on my chair on the porch. There was not a soul out now that it was nine. No sign of Jim, let alone any other guests. Joy had pointed out one of the grand houses that was called Kamchatka. It had belonged to a rich lady from the north who had come here to recover from a traumatic divorce. She’d given the house that name because her exile in Camden felt like she’d been sent to the furthest place she’d ever heard of. I think I had some idea how she’d felt.