Along the way: The semi-sunny Southeast

For the first time in my life, I understand why people flee south in the winter. And while Christmas was fairly weird with lit-up palm trees, and we badly missed being with family, I could get used to a new warm winter weather tradition.

But it hasn’t been all sun all the time since my last Tin Can Travelogue. Starting with:

November 10 – 23: North Carolina, mostly beaches

Great Dismal Swamp

Great Dismal Swamp Canal

Doesn’t the Great Dismal Swamp sound like a marsh? It’s nothing like you pictured it! That’s because George Washington and his pals hatched a plan to drain it, log it, then farm it. The venture failed, but not before the swamp was partially drained and logged and a canal was built; so we went hiking instead of canoeing. It’s now protected as one of the last large wild areas on the east coast.

Hattaras Is lighthouse NC

Hattaras Is.

Currituck Is lighthouse NC

Currituck Is.

I’ve always had a romantic image of the Outer Banks and their legendary lighthouses, and we loved visiting them. But my best takeaway from our meander down this coastline was getting a feeling for these narrow barrier islands: the shifting dunes, the grey, wet taste of the wind, and the threats of beach town development. They have to keep moving the lighthouses, many of them, because the coastline is constantly being reshaped. Parts of these islands are awful miles of beachy McMansions and fast food, and then you’re in long stretches of protected wildlife refuge. I imagine it’s packed with people in the summer, and deserted the rest of the year when the weather is unforgiving; in our time here it was more of the latter.

Of course that wind is the reason Orville and Wilbur came from Ohio to test their flying machines. At the Wright Brothers National Memorial near Kitty Hawk you can stand where they launched the Wright Flyer into the wind, and walk to the markers for their first four flights that morning—each one a little further than the last. Based on a coin toss Orville flew first: 12 seconds and 120’; Wilbur piloted the fourth flight for 59 seconds and 852’.

Wild horses of Corolla Beach, NC

Corolla Beach

One east coast tradition that is foreign to me is driving on the beach, which turns out to be fun if you don’t really know how much trouble you can get into! We drove up Corolla Beach on Currituck Island to look for the wild horses—a real high point for me, having fantasized about finding Misty along with most other 7-year-old girls. They’re descended (the horses, not the 7-year-olds) from the mustangs left in the 1600s, when the Spanish came exploring.

Johnnie Mercer's Pier, Wrightsville Beach NC

Johnnie Mercer Pier

USS No Carolina battleship, Wilmington, NC

USS No. Carolina

We liked the smallish town of Wilmington—it’s not touristy and there is stuff to do. Like walking the Johnny Mercer pier and shell hunting at the beach, exploring a WWII battleship, and hanging out like locals at the Wilmington Bluegrass Festival. The music was terrific actually and the people southern-town friendly. Further south, we didn’t detour to Cape Fear, but we did rent the movie.

November 24 – December 2: South Carolina, more beaches

Hunting Island State Park SC

Hunting Island

Hunting Island State Park SC

Palm tree forest

Crossing into the other Carolina, Hunting Island was our first experience exploring fantastic semitropical palm and pine tree forests; it’s one of the few undeveloped Sea Islands in this region. We spent evenings shooting wetlands full of photogenic birds and walking gorgeous deserted beaches.

Charleston "single" house

Charleston “single” house

Then we spent Thanksgiving week in Charleston, a prosperous small city of stunning architecture, good restaurants, and many tourists. But we made our own home sweet motor home Thanksgiving dinner: grilled turkey breasts and root veges, stuffing with (store-bought) gravy, and (store-bought) pecan pie!

The homes in old Charleston are lovingly restored; this is one of those beautiful neighborhoods that used to be filled with middle class families, but now only the wealthy can afford. We biked a big loop around and through town; and we got to walk the city’s architecture with a seventh generation Charlestonian who knows where the bodies are buried. So to speak.

I have no idea why I’m so fascinated by military history. But just as I can’t seem to ignore a nearby fort, I want to visit old war ships we find; like the USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier that’s now home to lots of vintage warplanes.

And it was in this region, especially at the Penn Center in St. Helena, where we were learned a bit about Gullah Geechee culture—the traditions and language rooted in the customs of the slaves brought from West Africa to work the plantations of the Lowcountry and surrounding Sea Islands.

December 3 – 19: Coastal Georgia (still more beaches)

Skidaway Island GA

Skidaway Is.

Georgia Sea Turtle Rescue Center

Green turtles

We’ve visited Savannah a number of times while Tait was in school there. So on this trip we stayed out on Skidaway Island with the birds and the turtles. Which meant we could spend lots of time biking and exploring the coastal ins and outs, like the little Georgia Marine Education Aquarium. Still, Savannah was fun for eating BBQ and doing a little bar-hopping Christmas shopping (the best kind).

Horton House, Jekyll Is GA

Tabby ruins, Jekyll Is.

There are eight clusters of barrier islands off Georgia’s coast, and many aren’t accessible by car so they’re all but undeveloped, and well worth the effort to get to. Jekyll Island, though it is car-accessible, was a private enclave for the .1% around the turn of the last century: the Morgans, the Vanderbilts and their ilk. Except for the mansions it has a mostly rural feel, and you can cycle the perimeter in an hour or two. It has a wonderful turtle rescue center where you can see the rehabilitating Loggerheads, Greens, Diamondbacks and other native turtles.

Cumberland Is Ferry GA

Cumberland Is. Ferry

First African Baptist Church, Cumberland Is GA

First African Baptist Church

Best of all is Cumberland Island—and that’s saying something considering the beauty of these Sea Islands—which you reach by ferry or private boat for backcountry camping or biking in this protected National Seashore. Or you can head out for a day with a park ranger: exploring the island’s lush, dense maritime forest end to end, learning about its history and ecology; wandering through the First African Baptist Church and the remains of The Settlement, built in the 1890s for black workers; finding clusters of wild horses, armadillos, and birds; and roaming around one old intact Carnegie mansion and the ruins of another.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

American Aligator

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

Snowy Egret

From there we headed inland to the home of Pogo: the Okefenokee Swamp. Okefenokee meant “trembling earth” to the Miccosukee-Seminole people who once lived here—a reference to walking across grasses growing on peat. This swamp surpassed our expectations, with big alligators, otters, turtles, and birds of all sizes and colors; and Pond Cypress, lily pads, marsh grasses, Spanish Moss (which is neither Spanish nor moss), and hardwood hammocks (that’s a dense stand of trees that grow on a rise just a few inches in elevation).

December 20 – 31: Christmas in Florida

St Augustine Christmas

St Augustine

St Augustine Christmas

St Augustine

They really don’t know how to do Christmas down here—no snowstorms threatening to close airports, no Christmas ships with carolers bundled to their ears. But St. Augustine makes an effort. They blanket the town square and historic buildings in lights, so even though you’re in a t-shirt, you can sort of get in the spirit.

Florida has a distinctively different flavor than the southern states to the north, partly a legacy of its roots as a Spanish colony. No detectable drawl (of course this time of year, everyone seems to be from somewhere else). No revolutionary war heroes; very few Civil War battles. And slavery had a slightly different flavor here under Spain—a three-tier system of free whites, free blacks, and enslaved blacks. St. Augustine,  founded in 1565, is the oldest North American town where Europeans came and stayed, with distinctive Spanish colonial architecture. Castillo do San Marcos, the Spanish fort here, dates to 1672.

Tomoka River FL

Canoeing the Tomoka

Tomoka River, FL

Tomoka River

And Florida has some of the best state parks we’ve encountered. Anastasia and Tomoka in particular are fantastic: lush with palms and pines; clean, generous spaces; exotic birds; great biking and canoeing—in the sunshine!

We spent New Year’s Eve further south near the Everglades, where Tait joined us for a few days. But ending this update with the end of the year seems fitting.

I was reading David Brooks’ thoughtful NY Times commentary on The Problem with Meaning this morning. He proposes that a meaningful life is more satisfying than a merely happy life; that happiness is about enjoying the present and meaning is about dedicating oneself to the future. I know we’ll return to the pursuit of a meaningful life after it’s over, but by this definition, our Tin Can Tour has been a very happy time of our lives!


All photos: © 2015 Sue Cummings and Bruce Howard. All rights reserved.

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