My train was not to depart from Columbia’s Amtrak station until 2 a.m. This unfortunately is the only available departure time for trains from Columbia to Savannah. In Savannah I had a four hour layover before departing for Charleston at 8 a.m. I was to arrive in Charleston around ten.
I had to be out of the motel by 11 a.m. There was time to kill, and a lot of it. This was probably not the most thrilling day of my life. Mainly it consisted of walking, sitting, sitting, walking, pushing my bike… Much time was spent at cafes. A ramen shop for dinner late. Leaving the ramen shop with still more time to kill I thought I might make a visit to The Whig, North America’s Greatest Dive Bar (this is according to their website). The reviews for it are pretty outstanding, actually, so it seemed a … the necessary place to grab a drink while still in town.
Pushing my bike up Gervais St. from out of nowhere, like a specter, swoops down Terrence, a rather sparkling, spectacularly ebullient character. He was just like the Christmas tree on the state house lawn: sparkling with myriad lights, his words fizzing like champagne, crackling like pop rocks. He was curious about my bike and trailer. It’s always a pleasure answering questions about my trip to those curious. So much better than the mute-mouthed stares I receive from the majority. Anyway, after answering Terrence about what I was about he excitedly went on to regale me with his ideas for cycling up and down the east coast—an item he wished to check off his bucket list. He thought this might take him a couple years, to which I told him likely not unless he was planning on making a lifestyle out of it. He seemed to think cycling across the country would take the same, so I really don’t think he had a strong grasp of time and distance in general. At the end of our little chat he wished me luck, and told me to stay safe and blessed. Often when on the road it takes very little to lift one’s attitude. Most often a kind phrase such as in this case is all that’s needed. I’ll never see him again, most likely, but that little phrase of his will always be remembered.
The Whig was only another couple of blocks up the street, and shortly after my interaction with Terrence I was locking my bike and trailer up to a railing just outside. The bar itself is located in the basement of a building. Whether it was a hotel or an office building I couldn’t say; I hardly cared, really. All I remember now was that it was a rather large concrete edifice on a street corner.
Walking inside I was greeted by a smallish, dimly lit, not-quite-yet-crowded-but-on-its-way space. It effused an aura similar to that of the basement of The Brewer’s Art and The Ottobar combined. A series of booths lined one wall nearby, and there were some tables scattered about the middle of the floor. The bar was a short way off, opposite the entrance. Way off in one corner, through a doorway, there was what looked like someone’s living room. Quite clearly it was not but, sitting at the bar as I then was, peering through the crowd, through the doorway, the room being significantly brighter than the rest of the venue and painted a putrid shade of blue-green, I felt as though I was looking into someone’s living room, but a room that was a separate reality, that was occupied by people doing things in a realm completely isolated from the one I was in. I had the sense that I was watching a movie, or had gained voyeuristic entrance into someone else’s private world. That doorway was a portal. But only that doorway, only that room, and as soon as I looked away I was brought back to the here and now. I was seated at a bar staring at an array of small animal skulls mounted to the wall over a display of bottles of various liquors and liqueurs, all surrounding a sabertooth tiger skull, the centerpiece there. Someone had attached tiny antlers to these skulls which looked like they may have come from a possum or raccoon. But perhaps they were skulls from the rare, and, some might say, mythical Jackalope. Next to a spiral staircase which appeared to go nowhere, disappearing as it was into the ceiling, was a stuffed bobcat carrying a ferret in its jaws, and a pigeon in a black cage. The whole space was suffused by an orange-red light, like a thousand lava lamps going at once. It was a bit like being in a secularist’s most pleasurable version of hell. The only pain wrought by the alcohol and that special person you mistakenly went home with on a night. Perhaps all that was missing were women dressed up as demons prodding at people with candy pitchforks. That I imagine is what the old businessman, slumping over a drink at the bar, his bald pate reflecting the orange light like it was a light bulb itself, was dreaming of. Sitting there, sipping my beer, watching him, the only question that came to my mind was, “How has he not yet fallen off his stool,” and, “will he?”
At the bar I struck up conversation with a guy—I don’t ever bother getting names usually, or I don’t write them down and consequently forget them. As is normal we talked about my trip. Guy casually told me how he had ridden his motorcycle from here, up through Maine, to Alaska and back. It took him two months to cover the 14,000 miles. Said he has a friend who did an equally wild thing by walking from San Francisco to Jacksonville. It seems strange to me that one never hears about these people until he’s off doing the same sort of thing himself. I mean, the only exposure I had to this world was via internet forums and blogs. I don’t actually know anyone, besides my friend Doug, who’s traveled in this way, and Doug’s trips were more feats of endurance than travel.
At any rate, I was off to the Amtrak station after my few beers and tacos. It’s just a small, rectangular building down a dark street. Easy enough to find despite the poor lighting, I guess. I was approached by another old guy. This one originally from the Catskills, but had been living outside of Columbia for the last twenty years. He was on his way to Florida to visit his father for his 92nd birthday this January the 7th. Fantastic. Says he’s still sharp, at least for a 92 year old, even if he isn’t very mobile anymore. Dude-man must have smoked half a pack of cigarettes while we were standing outside shooting the shit. He’s 68 and said he’d been smoking since college. Sounded like it too. I’m surprised he has any throat left. I really loved the glasses he was wearing. These enormous rectangular, metal-framed pieces. Looked like they must have come out of the 60’s or 70’s. Perhaps that was even when he acquired them. We talked for a while, on and off, about nothing in particular. Just chewed the fat like. Normally I hate pointless conversation, small talk, but he had quite an enjoyable presence to him, for the most part. Eventually though, there was no more nothing to talk about, so I went to the bathroom and he started up with a women in the seat next to him.
At last the train arrived, and once I transported my bike and trailer to the far end with the rest of the luggage and got my self settled into my seat the woman next to me, who I may or may not have woken up, decided she just had to talk, so I spent the next twenty minutes conversing with her about my trip and God knows what else. She was impressed by the trip, but then everybody is. To me it’s just riding a bike while towing a bunch of crap behind me, getting frustrated and cursing every so often. There’s nothing particularly momentous or monumental about it. Eventually she shut up and let me nod off for the rest of the ride to Savannah. Amen.