Thanksgiving Weekend Day 1: Charleston
It was Thanksgiving in the USA and, I’m ashamed to admit, I wasn’t feeling very thankful. Fretful might be a better word for my mood as I sat listening to a collection of voicemail messages that led nowhere. Our second Thanksgiving this year (we already celebrated Thanksgiving in Canada on October 9th) coincided with our arrival in Charleston, South Carolina. I really wanted to see Charleston; I have hazy memories of it being beautiful from when I was there as a kid. Had we not gone to Philadelphia for a second time we would have been in Charleston a week sooner. Now, the timing for our return to South Carolina’s busy south coast was, in hindsight, probably not the best.
Our first suspicion of this came on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, as we pulled into Givhans Ferry State Park, about an hour northwest of Charleston. At two in the afternoon, we scored the last and only site still available. And we only got it with the stipulation we’d be out the next day. It was full house there for the next four days. Boy, it sure didn’t take long to jump from one reality to the next! After days of camping in empty or near empty campgrounds, we were with dozens of other campers again. We watched the people in a giant RV next to us transform their small site into what looked like a circus: multiple tents, carpets, propane powered spotlights, several folding tables and chairs, strings of patio lanterns and tiki torches etc., and our hearts sank. What were our chances of finding camping near Charleston, without prior reservations and on what was, for a lot of people, a four-day weekend? Probably not so great.
It’s not that we didn’t known Thanksgiving was coming. We did, of course. But neither of us gave thought to how seriously Americans take their Thanksgiving, or how many of them would head out to camp instead of staying at home to eat turkey, or, most importantly, how many campground offices would be closed on Thanksgiving Thursday for “observance of the holiday”. From the municipal James Island County Park, to nearby state parks, to private RV parks, no one was answering the phone. Voicemail after voicemail. And not just campgrounds were closed. We were astounded by how many fast food places were down for the day too. Not that we were planning to eat fast food on Thanksgiving but I’m pretty sure that, in Canada, Taco Bells and McDonalds stay open every day of the year. Even on Christmas Day.
Anyway. My stress level escalating, I managed at long last to reach a live person at an RV park. Oak Plantation Campground: three hundred camp sites, on the Good Sam list. In fifteen minutes, said the girl on the phone, even that office would be closing for the day. I felt doubly lucky. They’d been fully booked but had a couple of last minute cancellations and could get us in. I stopped holding my breath, paid the deposit, and got instructions on after-hours check-in. We had a place for the night.
We drove across the bridge to Charleston, parked within walking distance of the French Quarter and Waterfront Park and set off to tour the tree-lined winding streets and to ogle historic two-million-dollar homes, boutique hotels, and restaurants. November 24th and it was 24C (75F) outside, the breeze carried the smell of salty sea air, the streets were full of sightseers. It felt like a summer Sunday. Yes, Charleston was still lovely.
Two hours later we had enough of the old city and other tourists so Roland found Folly County Park, in Folly Beach, on Google maps. In Folly Beach, a touristy sea-side town, the road to the park is lined with homes, vacation rentals, and businesses, and was busy with vacationers as we drove through. But the park itself sits at the tip of a narrow peninsula with a large wilderness area left intact and the beach was one of the most beautiful we’ve seen since leaving Canada. Getting in was a bit of a challenge though, because the park was also closed for Thanksgiving and the parking lot was gated off with no parking signs everywhere around us. But, seeing people parking elsewhere and going in anyway, we did the same. We were prepared to play the “we’re from the west coast of Canada and didn’t know” card if someone challenged us but no one did. All we got was a warm Happy Thanksgiving! from a guy who was on his way out and that was it. And, on the plus side, dogs are allowed on the beach at this time of year so we let Melo and Pix race and run without worrying about getting reprimanded.
And, since we weren’t expecting much from the big RV park I lined up for the night (though it actually turned out to be pretty nice) we took our time and walked around almost the entire small peninsula. The sun was going down, the water turned the colour of gun-metal in the deepening shadows, and something we first thought were sharks – silly Canadians! – swam and played near the shore as we walked. It didn’t take Roland long to figure out we were actually seeing porpoises and then a local guy walking his dog also said they were either porpoises or dolphins. Whatever they were, there were at least four, arching and weaving in and out of the water like hydra creatures. It was the most incredible and captivating thing and by the time we got our fill of watching them, the sun was almost down so we sat and watched the sunset. Driving to the RV park afterwards to make spaghetti for dinner, I realized that although the day had started on an off note, I was, after all, most profoundly thankful.
Thanksgiving Weekend Day 2: Edisto Beach
The next day brought us another gorgeous beach, this time at Edisto Beach State Park, an hour’s drive from Charleston. The town of Edisto Beach, another vacation destination full of summer rentals and tourist stops, was hit by Hurricane Mathew and was still in recovery mode. Along the main stretch of road, huge mounds of rubble – bits of lumber, chunks of cement, broken outdoor furniture, and savaged tree limbs – lay in front of nearly every house for several blocks. From the beach side, these same houses were randomly missing balconies or their stairs hung in the air and ended two feet off the ground, or bits of siding were torn off. Further, on the way to the campground, we passed woodland that was a tangled mess of uprooted and thrashed saw palmettos, cypresses, and vines.
The state park’s beach campground is closed until next year but we managed to get a dusty little site at the inland one. Even there the forest was still a jungle of broken trees and shrubbery and all the walking trails were closed. Ironically, damaged or not, the campground topped the list as the most expensive place we’ve stayed in since leaving home. And it, like Givhans Ferry, was crowded. We were hemmed in by other people. That night, as we sat by the campfire we built (because it seemed like a good night for it) someone’s fiercely bright LED camper light burned into the backs of our heads and the headlights of a steady stream of cars driving by splintered whatever serenity there was. Even so, we told ourselves we were lucky to have a place to camp since it was only Friday and the start of the weekend.
Plus the beach was the saving thing. Half a mile’s drive from the campground it was open and Melo and Pix were allowed. Walking the long, long, long stretch of white sand we found the most fantastic collection of shells. Scallop, mussel, and razor-clam shells mix with conches and chunks of thick, pottery-like fragments full of tiny holes made by the tides, and with oyster shells that look like dog’s feet, and shells that look like nothing I’ve ever seen. They all lie tossed up on the sandy shore in a seemingly endless two-foot wide belt and jingle when anyone walks through them.
People seem to come there just to sift through and look for treasures and, apparently, they find what they’re looking for because they carry clinking bagfulls away with them. We spent two hours walking along the shore and through the foamy water and came away with some mementos of our own.
Thanksgiving Weekend Day 3 & 4: Georgia
We drove into Georgia the next afternoon in a traffic jam and a supremely irritating fifteen-minute string of car ads on the radio. An irony: ads for new cars blaring at us as we sat pinned in place in a river of barely moving vehicles. We’d turned on the radio hoping for a local traffic report to shed light on why we suddenly stalled, but we began moving again before the commercials ended and we shut it off. We were a short distance from Savannah, heading to another state park for the night, gambling they’d have space.
As we drove, to the right of us, more huge trees lay uprooted or broken. Crappy radio stations or not, my heart went out to Georgia. Forest fires raging through the lovely north, the wreckage of a hurricane to deal with in the south, and, according to some people, a statewide drought as well. Georgia has not been dealt a good hand this year. I wondered if the campground we were on our way to was damaged. We met a couple on the beach at Edisto who told us how beautiful the area around Savannah is and confirmed that the state park, Fort McAllister Historic State Park, was “very nice”. They didn’t mention the hurricane.
Sadly, one of the first things to greet us at Fort McAllister, after the very friendly guy at the entrance booth, was a lot of yellow tape, blocking access to several main areas. In the office, the attendant told us the campground had been badly hit and according to the brochure we got, hundreds of trees were damaged and had to be cut down. The park only recently reopened and, although lots of work has already been done to get it back to some of its former condition, it was still a wreck. Incredibly, this campground too was so full we got one of the last campsites open again and, not an hour later, it was full completely. But it was camping in the midst of what looked like a war zone.
All around us, people were lounging around and socializing, listening to the drawl of loud country music blaring through tinny speakers, seemingly oblivious to the piles of rubble and torn up tree trunks in plain view. Obviously, they really wanted to come camping for the weekend and weren’t going to let anything stop them. Hell or high water.
We took the dogs for a walk on the only trail open and saw how heavily Hurricane Mathew’s hand had struck. In random areas, Spanish moss draping over everything and creating an eerie and fairylike mood, tiny patches of trees still stood untouched as a hint of what the campground looked like before the hurricane tore through. But, mostly, it was heartbreaking.
To make it worse, halfway down the path we passed a swampy area that seemed the perfect hang-out place for alligators. I remembered something I read about alligators eating small dogs and I expressed my concern. I don’t think there are alligators here, Roland said. There’d be signs. Not ten minutes later we saw the signs, at the pier and boat launch, and added alligators to the list of predators we need to keep Melo and Pix safe from.
The next morning, bleaked out a bit by the surroundings, we both rubbed our tiny statue of St. Christopher, patron saint of travellers, and silently wished for a better place to stay for that coming night. St. Christopher delivered. We found Laura S. Walker State Park, still in Georgia, at the edge of Okefenokee Swamp. Roland thinks the swamp is famous but couldn’t remember exactly for what and I didn’t know either. Personally, I think he’s got the Okie from Muskogee song in mind.
In any case, this state park was spared by the hurricane and, after the campgrounds of the previous few nights, it was paradise. The last of the weekend campers were pulling out when we got there and, while the campground was not fully empty, a good selection of open sites sat waiting for us. In Georgia (based on our experience with two state parks) the park office just checks you in, gives you a tag to stick on your site post, and then sends you out into the campground to choose whatever free site you like. It’s a great way to do it and I’m not sure why more state parks don’t adopt this policy – it’s easy to see what sites are open once you’re driving around the campground and cuts out the driving back and forth between office and campground once you’ve picked one. Given free reign, we found a great spot just above Laura S. Walker Lake and felt like we’d won the camping lottery.
The park also has a couple of short trails and we explored both. We didn’t think they were particularly spectacular until, at the end of the second one, we found a boardwalk reaching right over the lake. There was no one else there and we had it all to ourselves. The shoreline still wore traces of autumn colour, tiny marshy islands full of yellow flowers seemed to float on the surface of the clear water and, in mid-afternoon sun, the place was beautiful and serene and golden. It was exactly, exactly what we needed to wipe away our first unfortunate impressions of Georgia from the day before and to see it’s beauty.
We liked it there so much we would have stayed another day, revisiting the boardwalk on the lake, sitting in the sunshine, kicking back, reading and relaxing. Except, Murphy’s Law, we couldn’t because we had a reservation – only the second reservation I made on this trip – at Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine, Florida. A few days earlier, after more than a month of indecision fed by concerns about over-crowded campgrounds with far too many snowbirds everywhere, we got off the fence on whether to go to Florida or not. We’re going. Nervously, somewhat reluctantly, and in a “hoping it’ll be ok” frame of mind but going anyway. Now we’ll be snowbirds too!