At the Savannah Amtrak station, which is significantly larger than Columbia’s. I lie down on a bench, put my stuff sack of clothes behind my head and try to nod off for a bit. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A” is playing ever so softly over the speakers, just intrusively enough to make sleeping not so easy. There is a television set in a far corner airing CNN.
The station starts filling up again—people for a train south that leaves before mine. This lasts perhaps a half-hour and then the station is empty again but for me, one other guy, and the station employees. It is quiet. I get a Snickers from a vending machine and nap again.
The train ride to Charleston is only a couple hours. The scenery is absolutely marvelous. Everywhere is marshy and swampy wetlands. Wide open vistas punctuated by large clumps of reeds and grass; glass-smooth, placid waters meandering between; all of this bounded by trees, and sometimes the trees take the place of those clumps of grasses, and what I really want to do instead of sit in the train is canoe over those waters, amongst the rushes and reeds and trees with a set of binoculars, just scoot around happy as a clam, nothing important to do, nowhere to go, but just maintain an equilibrium, feel at one with the world, push my way lazily along, the oar dipping into the water on one side and then the other, and then just _______________ But I’m on a train, with a definite destination, and despite that I’m excited to arrive.
Charleston immediately strikes me as a shit hole. But then I realize of course that I’m not in Charleston, but North Charleston, about ten miles from the city. At least there is a bike lane littered with glass, sand, rocks and rubbish. It takes some time, what with my battered bike and all, but eventually I arrive in town. I stop at The Daily, the most quality cafe in Charleston in my opinion, and a go-to spot for coffee and breakfast unless one is planning on milking the wi-fi, in which case that person will be sorely disappointed because there is none. But the coffee is good, and the food is excellent. The food in Charleston outshines the coffee by a large margin. And if one needs any reason to go to Charleston it should be for the food. The culinary scene has been exploding for some time, and is still continuing on that trajectory.
The Daily is located on King Street just on the edge of where one would want to be downtown. It is optimally located in the same lot as Butcher & Bee, which makes sense since it is basically an offshoot of that most marvelous of sandwich shops and brunch places. Butcher & Bee probably tops my list of favorite places to eat in Charleston: spacious and welcoming ambiance, lots of light, short, simple menu, incredible food, great bread, fair prices, courteous service. There are shelves with various books on cuisine, cooking and pretty much anything food related. The tables are mainly communal in style, and there are tables and chairs for seating outside.
While in The Daily, having my first decent espresso in a while, I ran into an old acquaintance from Annapolis. This was the only time I would see her while I was down there but, how wonderful that the world so large can sometimes be made to seem so small. We shared brief life stories, she promised to recommend some places for eating, mentioning one while I was there—Leon’s, which I did go to—and then I never heard from her again, despite sending an inquiring text. Que sera sera.
I was needing to find the NotSo Hostel (a place I heartily recommend to stay at while visiting) and so bid Mel an adieu. The hostel is several blocks down Spring St. and I was to discover didn’t open for bookings until five. This meant that I was needing to kill some time, something which had become standard practice for me over the past couple of days. Of course, when bicycle touring one doesn’t often find it difficult waiting for things because, really, there is nowhere to be nor anywhere to go; time is of the littlest essence. The hourglass has been smashed, and the sand thrown into the wind. What meaning has it then?
I spent some of this time “waiting” in the Karpeles Manuscript Museum, which is on the same street as the NotSo Hostel, though located closer to King St., so I had already cycled passed it. The museums, there are in fact twelve, are scattered all over the country in historic buildings. The one in Charleston is particularly interesting and immediately eye-catching in that it was originally a Methodist church built in 1856 in the Greek Revival style inspired by the Temple of Jupiter, which no longer stands, in Rome. Once I caught a glance of the six columns supporting the front entablature and pediment I couldn’t tear my eyes away, and knew that I would have to come back and investigate. The library of documents and manuscripts that makes up the content of the museums is the world’s largest private collection. The current exhibit at Charleston’s location was focused on the War of 1812. In fact, there was even one of only two extant copies of the original manuscript of the Star-Spangled Banner on display.
There were only two other people in the museum when I entered, not counting the sole employee. Ed, the employee, was warm and welcoming, and interested in who we all were. Clearly he doesn’t get many visitors which leads to a natural curiosity about who we are, where we’re from, why we’re there, etc. Coincidentally, the couple that was in the museum with me were from Washington D.C. After they left Ed and I had a bit of an extended chat. The usuals were mentioned. He was, as so many people of his type are, interested in my trip. Thought it was the grandest, most important thing, etc. When he was younger he had traveled around North America three times, big looping trips of a combination of hitchhiking and walking as far north as Alaska. Says he lived in Europe and Africa for many years as well. We talked about society and knowledge, by knowledge I mean self-knowledge, the type one gets from traveling, and existing outside one’s “comfort zone.” At one point we were talking about the great mass of people who’ve never exposed themselves to this type of thing, who live there lives in their own private, gated world where nothing goes amiss and everything is just so, and he articulated something which I believe I had recognized but never consciously thought: talking about these people, he said they were, “people who don’t even know what they don’t know,” meaning that these are people, mostly because of their lack of life experience, who are unable to fathom anything beyond the simple world that they’ve put themselves in, or have let themselves be put in. It’s not just a matter of simply not knowing some thing(s), but goes deeper still. It is being completely and utterly unaware that there is some other thing to know (or not know). In short, it’s ignorance. By traveling, by exposing oneself to that which is beyond one’s own scope of knowledge, or insight one begins a transformation. It is a little perhaps like growing wings, and then those wings growing ever more strong, so that as one gains experience he is able to look down from ever loftier and loftier heights, and, thus, see more, be aware of more, know more.
Too, when I re-read this phrase of Ed’s an Alan Watts quote springs to mind: “There was a young man who said, although it seems that I know that I know, what I would like to see is the I that knows me when I know that I know that I know.” This is a comment on the conscious, and one’s attempt to get at the “self” which can never be done. While these two statements refer to two different groups of people—those who are hopelessly ignorant, and those who, despite its impossibility, are determined to get to the bottom of themselves—there seems to me enough overlap to justify their comparison (not that I should need to).
Ed’s a great man, and it was a shame we didn’t get to spend any more time together because we got along well, and I could see that he would make an excellent friend, but perhaps when I’m back down there in March he will be at his station, and I will walk in, and we will talk again.