Sumeet Jain
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18 Dec 2010

Charleston (Part 2)

This is my last day in Charleston. The past week has been wonderful. Charleston is full of holiday spirit, and I am excited to return home to be with my family during this joyous time of year. I’ll be driving back, but more on that later.

Over the past few days, I’ve explored Charleston a bit. Here are some of the highlights:

Fort Sumter

Fort Sumter

This is where the Civil War began. Abraham Lincoln had just been elected President of the United States, and South Carolina had seceded from the Union. Major Robert Anderson, loyal to Lincoln, defended the fort against attack by South Carolina’s militia but had to retreat after the fort was set ablaze. One of the guides’ favorite stories at Fort Sumter is the ironic tale of how, after the war ended, President Lincoln declined an invitation to come to the fort for a ceremony honoring Major Anderson. He had a prior obligation to see a show at the theater, where he was assassinated.

Something about how this story was told made me feel uncomfortable. There was a “told you so” smugness to it, which jived with the strangeness of hearing the South’s position in the Civil War depicted as an heroic struggle against anti-market forces. How should the champions of antiquated beliefs tell their histories? With apologetic tones? I’m not sure, but there has to be a better way than focusing on only those motivations that make ourselves look best.

Visiting Fort Sumter is a must for anyone traveling to Charleston. The fort itself, which sits on its own island some miles from Charleston downtown, is interesting; but the best part is the boat ride back to Charleston. On this ride, one gains an appreciation for the importance of such a fort, which was integral to defending the vital port of Charleston. I also enjoyed the site of Charleston’s skyline against the setting sun, which reinforced the idea that Charleston is a city of churches - not skyscrapers.

Charleston Skyline

Karpeles Manuscript Library

Another must-see in Charleston is this museum of manuscripts, part of the Karpeles museum, which is the largest private collection of original manuscripts and documents in the world. The collection at each branch of the museum changes over time. When I was there, the main exhibit was of correspondence between governors of the southern states and military liaisons before the start of the Civil War.

The elderly gentleman who curates Charleston’s Karpeles Museum is a kind and knowledgeable person. The museum gets few visitors - during my visit, we were the only people in the building. So I benefited from his undivided attention - and gave him mine. He shared a historical gem with me - about a man from India who traveled to various churches in the US to paint murals on their ceilings.

The last remaining piece of his work was at a nearby church, and the curator told me the location. He described it as “an outsider art version of the Sistine Chapel”. I was intrigued and tried to visit the church several times, but they were never open and did not answer their phone. This will be my first stop the next time I am in Charleston.

Geminids Meteor Shower

This yearly meteor shower peaked during my stay in Charleston. Meteor showers are best viewed in dark places, where light pollution isn’t an issue, in the wee hours of dusk. I passed time waiting for nightfall by wandering the streets of Charleston’s French Quarter and historic market district.

I met various people, whom I invited to come watch the meteor shower with me. Everyone seemed genuinely interested, but no one came through. I was disappointed but didn’t fault them. It’s not easy to join the plans of a stranger on a whim. Not to mention my plans included a trip to Folly Beach - 20 minutes away - where it would be dark and empty. And also not to mention that it was a record-setting cold day - with windchill bringing the low to 11ºF. A few people told me I was crazy to want to go in the first place.

Something was pulling me to Folly Beach, though. I hailed a cab and told him to take me to a place where I could see the stars on the beach. The driver was kind and interesting. We talked about the changing world; and he explained to me that change always seems more significant to young people, because they are more prone to presentism than older people who have lived through multiple generations.

After twenty minutes of good conversation, he stopped the taxi in front of the Tides Hotel - a massive establishment that obstructs the view of the beach entirely. I was about to tell him I wanted to go somewhere else - since this was not at all what I had envisioned - but he spoke first, “Trust me. The other side of the hotel is all beach, and you can walk along it as far as you need to. It’ll be dark. And if you get cold, which you will, you’ll have a warm hotel lobby to retreat to.” It was good thinking. I thanked him and walked through the hotel lobby to the beach.

The beach was empty and dark. The sky was brilliant. And it was very, very cold.

I started walking down the coast towards even more darkness, and the sky just kept getting more luminous. I had seen a few stray meteors back in downtown - maybe 5 or 6 per hour - but here I saw as many per minute. It was raining stars, and I was… rapt. I had never seen a meteor shower before.

Folly Beach Photo by Mike Haynie.

It was so cold. I’d brought a blanket in my backpack and wanted to wrap it around me. But I was too cold to dislodge my hands from my pockets. Retrieving the blanket would require shifting my backpack from my shoulders and exposing the back of my jacket to the wind, and I could not summon the courage to do so. I decided I was cozy enough and kept walking. Eventually I found a partially sheltered area and watched the meteors in relative comfort. I was much happier than cold.

After an hour, I feared for my toes; so I retreated to the hotel lobby (and said another silent thanks to my taxi driver). I warmed up quickly and set out again - this time in the opposite direction to explore the streets of Folly Beach. The bars and restaurants had closed. A band was hastily packing up its truck - everyone rubbing their hands together furiously. I asked them where I could get some coffee at this hour. “Bert’s. It’s the only place.”

The short walk to Bert’s includes a couple dark streets, so my eyes again turned upward for a view of the stars at play. I stumbled blindly along the road - occasionally glancing down to make sure I wasn’t walking into a car or anything - and soon arrived at Bert’s. It was warm inside. I gleefully sipped my coffee and chatted about the meteor shower with the other two people there. One of them - Brandon - was very interested, and we decided to go back out for another viewing.

Brandon told me he was a musician. Long-haired, soft-eyed, skinny, a gentle voice. We chatted about this and that, enjoyed the meteors for a short while, and lamented our now cold coffees. He was good company; and I accepted his invitation to hang out at his nearby home. We sat in his basement and talked about cities, music, and the importance of honoring one’s promises.

It was a very good day, full of walking, wonder, and new friendship.