Loaded up with souvenirs and t-shirts and the like, we left Charleston and headed back for Columbia. "Why?" you may well indeed ask.
Well, that answer was easy enough to work out. And it was to do with a casual conversation I had overheard on the Friday evening.
Thanks to the now sadly-departed Onion River Radio and also to The Broadcast Web, to which I used to listen, I had gained an affection for a few modern American bands, such as From Good Homes, Semisonic and Widespread Panic. I've downloaded buckets full of music from the various websites and bought several CDs on the strength of it (who says streaming radio is killing music? I've put tons of money into bands I've heard on Onion River Radio). So, when someone said on that Friday night that Widespread Panic were playing at the Three Rivers Festival in Columbia, South Carolina on the following Sunday evening when I was within a couple of hundred miles, well, do you really think I was going to miss out? Absolutely not.
Meanwhile, on a note of digression, if anyone knows of a decent streaming audio station with a decent choice of classic rock music, then so I can get some decent music again.
Back to the plot. The concert was due to start at about 5:00 pm so 2:00 pm saw Itzé and me hit the trail for the thrash back up the Interstate to Columbia, via a brief stop at a "Subway" for a sort-of late lunch.
The person who had arranged to meet us in Columbia didn't show up at the appointed time so we were left to work out for ourselves the venue. That wasn't so difficult. Normally, one just simply flags down a squad car or a taxi, but in the absence thereof, we stumbled upon a taxi company office where the radio operator pointed us in the right direction. An unguarded office car park provided a suitable parking space, and Robert is your father's brother!
After having already made one retreat to the car to fetch my money, and another to deposit my camera due to the "no photography" notices and the body searches
(why I didn't send Itzé in and throw my camera over the fence to her I'll never know. Next time I'll dig out my digital camera that looks like a fountain pen - don't ask about that.) So having sorted that out, we had a really good wander around the festival, inbibing the atmosphere and looking at the merchandise. Forget the food, though. I don't find anything appetising about burnt bits of dead animal, and the smell gets right up my nose (in more ways than one).
The concert was, I have to say, disappointing from a couple of points of view. And the points of view being one of the disappointments. Nowhere was there a good view of the stage. From the grass bank upon which we were stood, I saw very little, and Itzé saw even less. And I don't understand the logic behind having the band play in broad daylight, unless there was something ridiculous like a 9:00 p.m. curfew. And, of course, not to mention the fact that John Bell can't sing to save his life, and he is even worse live than it is on disc. If he can sing, then so can I, and I'm determined to pick up the mike.
On a positive note though (well, we are discussing music), the gig was extremely enjoyable, even though I didn't know all of the set (and you can see the set list to the left). They played "Pleas" and "Big Woolly Mammoth" but I was disappointed, if not to say depressed, that they didn't play Pigeons, Little Lily or Rock, some particular favourites of mine. But what they did play was extremely well-done.
Another memorable moment or two (and it certainly was!) was being assailed by a midget in a jester's hat, who every so often came past attacking me with a pair of flourescent batons. Far out, man!
So when you consider that one of their gigs in Chicago later in the year sold out in 5 minutes, and that a gig down the road in Atlanta turned away 90,000 potential attendees, and when you consider that for the 2006 festival, there was only really the Little River Band (which reminds me, whatever happened to Mick Matthews?) that might have tempted me out of my shell, and then not very much, then I cannot believe just how lucky I was to get to see "Widespread Panic" this weekend. The chances of them timing their appearance here at Columbia with my appearance here at Columbia - well, you cannot even calculate the odds on something like this. I was sooooooo lucky and I knew it.
I wrote to Widespread Panic asking if they could let me have or let me link to some photos of the gig, but they never replied. Consequently, you'll just have to do without. You can listen to some music, though.
After this, however, a major and terrible disaster.
I put a CD of the group into the car stereo, and it immediately seized. No amount of anything managed to make the stereo play any CDs at all. And I still had over a week to go before coming home. This was a real crisis.
So, with this bad news ringing around my head, we went back to Rhys and Gretchen's. Here we stayed up half the night chatting, and then went to bed for a couple of hours.
At 3:00 we woke up, and I drove Itzé back to the airport. She had an early-morning flight so that she would arrive in Mexico City in time for work.
Did I tell you about Columbia Airport? It's probably the most bizarre I've ever seen. All Doric columns and imitation marble floors, as you can see in the photograph on the left. It's absolutely splendid. There can't be many examples of modern architecture quite like this.
I was sorry to see Itzé go, though. We'd had a pleasant few days together and done some interesting things and seen some interesting sights. I spend far too long on my own, and it was really nice to have the company, even if I meant that I didn't use my dictaphone.
Back outside, I decided to take another photograph of the airport - only this time the outside. You can see that it looks just as good from the outside as it does from the inside.
And then, a weird thing. In contrast to my usual custom, I'd parked the car head-first so that we could have access to the boot when it was parked. When I returned, I began to reverse out of my parking spot. Suddenly, someone banged on the back of the car. I was sure I hadn't hit anyone but nevertheless I stopped and put my head out of the window ready to give someone a piece of my mind, and I saw the security guard.
"What were you doing just then?"
"Just now. With your camera."
If ever a more stupid question had been asked, I hate to think what the response would have been.
This was probably neither the time nor the place for a smart answer. But don't forget, it was 4.00 a.m, I hadn't had much sleep, and I was tired. Add to that the fact that I can be really obnoxious when I set my mind to it. Right now, I wasn't in the mood to disappoint anyone.
"Well, I know that this might come as a surprise, but I was actually taking a photograph."
"Because I'm a tourist and I'm sightseeing, and I think that the airport is a very fine example of mock-Doric architecture that deserves a wider exposure."
"Oh" he replied, and wandered off again.
I shan't tell you what I said as he was leaving, but some of you surely know the scene in "Smokey and the Bandit" where the horn on the police car driven by Jackie Gleason and Mike Henry sticks on, and they are stopped by Alfie Wise at the traffic queue. If you are able to lipread, then you will be aware of Jackie Gleason's opinion of the situation. Mine was the same.
All of this reminds me of another incident nearly three years earlier when I was outside the Los Alamos Nuclear research Laboratory, where I encountered another set of incompetent guards.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again. What in the wide, wide world is the USA coming to, when the simple act of taking a photograph involves a visit from a security guard? How can a major nation have such a total and collective paranoia? We Brits have lived with terrorism for nearly 40 years. Surely the Americans can't have this hang-up about it. After all, didn't they fund the Irish terrorists via bodies such as "Noraid", and give them save havens and asylum when they fled the UK after committing their atrocities over here?
And look at the measures the UK is going to with regard to terrorists and terror. The UK was blown to bits by the IRA and no-one in government turned a hair. There's no terrorist threat to the UK yet there are all these restrictions coming into place.
It really makes me think. There's something else going on in this world, and it's nothing to do with terrorists. Terrorism is just a smokescreen to hide whatever else is happening, and this culture of fear has been generated by the politicians for some nefarious purpose of their own.
On that note, I went back to Rhys's and back to bed.
BACK ON THE ROAD
Next morning, or more correctly, later that morning, I woke up and went for a chat with Rhys and Gretchen. I hadn't planned to stay, but you know how it is. I can talk for ever if I have an audience, and Rhys and Gretchen are such nice people. It was about 4:00 p.m. when I finally got myself under way.
A brief visit to Harbor Freight - ever known me pass up the chance to visit a tool shop? - and then heading south-west in the general direction of Georgetown. As an aside, that's another good reason for coming back to visit Rhys and Gretchen. There's a Harbor Freight right at the end of their road!
I'd travelled a fair few miles before I had a sudden flash of realisation. My phone! The battery had gone flat during the morning and I'd put it on charge. And that's where it was right now - Rhys and Gretchen's living room! A quick u-turn saw me retrace my steps (but through the city centre this time) back to pick up my phone, much to the surprise of everyone in the house, and then back once more through the city centre out onto Highway 76.
A brief pause en-route while I helped someone with a flat tyre on their trailer - all of this meant I was getting even further behind my timetable. There was no way I was ever going to make Myrtle Beach before dark.
But I tried. Even though bizarre things kept on interrupting me. Remember a short while earlier I was talking about draconian penalties for minor offences - how about this? The penalty for littering is a thousand dollars and prison. Bloody Hell! No wonder Cool Hand Luke came to such a sticky end. This sign on the left is near Sumter, South Carolina, right by the Manchester State Forest.
There are some frightening statistics on the number of prisoners in the United States. One in nine black men aged between 20 and 34 is in prison.
But this news report totally misses the point about the purpose of American prisons. Most of the crimes for which periods of imprisonment are given on this kind of scale are those that affect the poor - shoplifting and so on. The poor have in general turned their backs on the Republicans. They see the Republicans as being the party most likely to cater for the wellbeing of the rich, and so the poor are more likely to vote Democrat.
And if you have received a prison sentence in the USA, then in general you are no longer eligible to vote. It's a shocking and frightening way for the Republicans to ensure their continued hold onto power. They concoct crimes and savage sentences of imprisonment to disenfranchise the Democrats. It's almost as bad as OUSA (the Open University Students Association).
From here I drove along the 76 almost to Sumter, when I turned onto the 261 and headed south in the general direction of Georgetown. I remember thinking that if it hadn't been for Widespread Panic, I'd have been and gone from here about 36 hours ago. Ah well! I put my foot down.
A few miles down the road, I stopped again to fuel up. I'd driven past all the cheap petrol stations, but when I really did need to stop, it was at an expensive one. Never mind, though, they advertised "home-made ice-cream", and although I don't eat animal products, I will occasionally have some ice-cream!
So having fuelled up the tank, the bad news. Out of ice-cream! Ah well. Then, the even worse news. My bottle of high-energy sugar drink had leaked all over the passenger seat of the car and there was nothing but a sticky, gooey mass where my drink, my seat and my notepaper had been. It just wasn't my day. Rather like George Best I suppose -
Doctor - "Mr. Best - we have some good news and some bad news for you."
"Go on, doc. Tell me the bad news"
"I'm sorry but you only have an hour to live"
"What's the good news?"
"It's Happy Hour!"
By now the light had well and truly gone, and I groped my way through the dark until I arrived in Georgetown. From there, I groped my way through the lack of signposts and then along the coast to Myrtle Beach.
As I approached Myrtle Beach, it was getting later and later. And, as is usually the case in North America, pretty soon all the restaurants would be closed. I decided to give up on the idea of making Myrtle Beach, and find the first motel that I could find where there was a prospect of anything to eat. This led me to the Astro Motel at Surfside Beach, over the road from which was a convenient Italian restaurant the name of which I have unfortunately forgotten..
Now, to be fair, the guy in the motel (an Indian proprietor again, but not one of ... er ... those Indians) did warn me that the only room he had left had not been very kindly treated by its previous occupant. So I wasn't expecting a palace. He told me that the price would be 45 dollars.
When I asked for a discount, he told me that 45 dollars was a discount. Time was getting on, it was getting late, so I took the room. And you can see from the three photos just here the interior of the room that I took.
As I said - chwarae teg - he did tell me about it. But I rather wish there had been a greater selection of motels in the neighbourhood from which I could have chosen.
Now I cannot imagine what kind of tenant they had had who had caused this type of damage - unless he had lived there for a hundred years. Much of this looks like "fair wear and tear" to me of the kind that the owner should fix every five years or so.
It reminded me very much of the motel where I had stayed in Flagstaff in 2002. Now the one in Flagstaff was worse than this one, that's for sure, but I'd only paid 25 dollars for that, not 45 dollars. And there were no added extras on offer either.
But at least the sheets were clean. That's one of the advantages of staying in motels like this in the spring, I suppose.
But one thing I totally failed to understand was the existence of all of these rules.
It didn't say anything at all about trashing your room. Obviously, that must be okay.
So from here, I went across the road to an Italian restaurant for some food.
They must have been waiting for me, as I was the only customer in the place. I had a nice friendly chat about football with the proprietor (whose name was Mike apparently) and talked to his young son while the chef fixed me up some food. I ordered some penne in oil and garlic. On the safe side, I asked how it came.
"It's penne, tossed in oil and garlic" was the response.
Fair enough. Can't get anything less complicated than that.
The meal, well, I suppose I can say that it was the strangest penne tossed in oil and garlic I'd ever eaten. I never knew that oil and garlic came out red and tasted like tomatoes. But I was hungry - I hadn't eaten anything for quite a while, and it wasn't expensive by any means. And it was quite tasty too. I enjoyed that. Then it was back to the Astro Motel.
Next morning, I was up and about quite early (as is my wont in North America). But for reasons different from usual. Firstly, someone was letting off fireworks in the middle of the night, and secondly, the Royal Bank of Scotland phoned me at 5:30. They spend months, if not years, ignoring me, and then phone me up at flaming 5:30 in the morning in the USA.
So having been rudely awakened, I went for my morning constitutional to take some pictures and buy a coffee. On returning, I noticed the police car. Seems that the local boys in blue had come to speak to one of my neighbours. Obviously the motel had exercised its right as referred to above. I wondered what he had done. Drinking out of a mug by the pool, I thought.
As I stood and watched, the conversation became more ... er ... animated, so I took a photograph. Events unrolled a little further from here, and in a short space of time, the feds had the guy in the red baseball cap over the boot of the car and were handcuffing him. It was at this point I remembered Paul's words -
"Remember, they have guns and they voted for Bush"
so I thought that a photo was probably not a good idea at that particular moment.
In fairness, it has to be said that I didn't see anything that the guy in the red cap had done that made the police behave so aggressively towards him. It sems to me that it's not just the government, but everyone else in "authority" who is creating this climate of fear in which modern-day Americans are living. The USA is definitely becoming a weird place to live, that's for sure. It's not very pleasant.
So, where to next? Ah yes, Myrtle Beach. I once read something somewhere that described Myrtle Beach as having the best beach in the USA, and what with me being a Pisces, which means that you are never likely to find me far from water, I had to go to check it out. If it was really the best beach in the USA it had to be something. I remember back in 1999 when I stayed on Long Beach Island - now there were beaches to end all beaches. These beaches were the highlight of that visit (which one day, I promise, I'll write about). Myrtle beach had better be good.
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