THE NORTH CAROLINA COAST - SOUTH
This is the bridge that takes us over the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway to Sunset Beach, from which fact you can gather that we are now in North Carolina.
I was glad that I'd crossed over into North Carolina. What with one thing and another, South Carolina got me down. I had done a brief count of the radio stations to which I'd been listening in Myrtle Beach, now that the CD player had packed up. Of the 20 stations on AM, 17 of them were broadcasting religious programmes. Not that I have anything against praising God, I hasten to add, but any nation that spends that much time and effort praising God has a serious problem.
Many people in the UK are fiercely critical of Muslim extremism, but they don't have a clue about the Christian extremism that exists on the western side of the Atlantic and which is even more of a problem.
The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway
I was destined to follow the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway for a major part of the next leg of my voyage. So what can I tell you about it?
Well, for a start, it's 1200 miles long, and runs from Norfolk up the road here in Virginia down to Key West in Florida. The purpose was to create a 12-foot channel for small commercial vessels and pleasure craft to navigate the eastern seaboard via a system of sheltered creeks, man-made canals and isolated bays. By following this route, they can avoid many of the risks associated with off-shore navigation, such as fog, storms, running down, and pure carelessness. This was a major requirement of local industry at the time, with pulp mills and the like springing up all the way along the shore.
And although the AICW was founded in 1938, the idea is nothing new. Original proposals for such a canal (albeit from Massachusetts only as far south as Georgia) were laid before Congress by Albert Gallatin, Secretary to the Treasury, on 4th April ... er ... 1808.
It fell into some kind of disrepair but a revival was sparked in the late 1990s with a special interest group being formed to lobby government to reinvest in the waterway.
But all of this is about to change. Pleasure cruiser users are the latest group to fund the bushbaby's war to steal Iraq's oil. The maintenance budget for the waterway has been slashed to ... er ... zilch for the current year, and is unlikely to be restored.
How long the waterway can continue without maintenance is anyone's guess. Already, the depths recorded in certain places are as little as five feet. There are reports of boats continually running aground, and several feight operators have been obliged to reduce the tonnage of their boats, making commercial operation less economic. This not only further threatens operations on the waterway, but puts more strain on the environment, with more wagon trips with more fuel consumed and more pollution emitted.
You only have to read some of the history round here to realise the damage that the shifting sands can do. Already, charts are out of date as the sand encroaches upon marked channels. One really good storm could put paid to the waterway for good, and then I suppose the early-retired sunseekers really would have to fly south for winter.
It's certainly a leisurely way to travel, for the cruisers and for the traffic that has to stop and let them pass. You can tell this by the traffic queue that built up while this small boat was passing the bridge. And bearing in mind the maximum speed limit imposed on small craft, you need to be wealthy and early-retired to undertake the voyage.
Many people in fact do some fabulous bird impressions, going south in winter and coming back up north in the spring.
Which reminds me - why do birds fly south in winter?
Well, it would take too long to walk.
But unlike birds, the 21st century migrants live on board their boats down in Florida. It's cheaper than buying a condo, and more reliable than building a nest.
Having said that, I almost forgot to tell you about Sunset Beach. And, frankly, I needn't have bothered to remember. For there was nothing to say. But one thing I ought to say was that just after that boat had passed out of view but before the bridge closed, there was this most tremendous thunderstorm and most incredible rain. I can't recall seeing rain like that for a long time.
One thing about North Carolina - judging from a road sign I saw, you don't get imprisoned for littering. That was quite a comforting thought.
A little way further round the coast, I came across this interesting machine. It's a marine dredger, complete with what looks like a steam auxiliary motor (but I bet it's not, it's probably a diesel). It's this kind of thing and several of its brothers which are charged with the responsibility of keeping the channel of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway at a navigable depth so that the traffic can pass.
But, of course, not for much longer. This in fact looked already like it had seen much better days, as if the budget had been squeezed for a couple of years already. My first thought in fact was that it had been laid up for years, not just the two or three months to date.
Now, there are two ways into Wilmington from the coast. There's the 133 by the river, or you can take the ferry from Southport to Fort Fisher and drive up along Cape Fear into the city.
I wonder if anyone can guess which route I took?
But first, a brief observation. One thing I can say about Wilmington was that there is a classic rock station, on 103.7 FM. I came across it just as they were playing "Carry On", so that's one thing I suppose I should be grateful for. But why is it that every classic rock station in the world plays "Bohemian Rhapsody"? That must be the worst track that has ever been written.
The only good thing about it is that it talks about me.
You don't believe me?
Well, what else can "Cortina landslide" mean?
And another thing. Why do they always play "Hotel California" too? That must be the second worst classic rock track ever recorded? All we want now is "Sweet Home Alabama" and I'm going back to Myrtle Beach for the religious revival!
So, all together now -
"Sweet Home, Alabam'"
"Play that dead band's song"
"Turn those speakers up full blast"
"Play it all night long"
Good old Warren Zevon, hey?
So, did you guess my route correctly? After all, what would a holiday be for me, without a ferry ride or two (or three or four)? I'm a Pisces remember.
North Carolina is a ferry traveller's dream. Absolutely, And I couldn't wait to get myself a go. So in the company of Master Bates, Seaman Staines, and Roger the Cabin Boy, I took to the water.
And I almost did, as well. As I sped onto the car park, they were already beginning to cast off. They saw me coming and held off for a moment while, in my best "Sageunay" fashion, I slid sideways across the car park and up the ramp onto the deck. As soon as I finally ground to a halt, they weighed anchor.
Apparently it was something like a couple of tons.
Rather like the Irishman who took a set of scales with him to see "the Wizard of Oz". He'd been told about the song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Weigh a Pie".
You can see here on the left just what the ferries look like around here. Small, poxy, and totally unsafe. That is, from a European point of view. From a North American point of view, it's just like any other outer island ferry. But nevertheless, could you imagine trying to get a passenger licence on a ferry like this in Europe?
What was even more impressive was the fare - like "nothing". Quite a few of these ferries are free.
I had found this to be rather puzzling. I had always understood that the USA was all for the free market economy, abolishing preference, state subsidy, government assistance to industry and the like, opening it all up to fair competition.
Of course, maybe that only applies to countries where the USA would like to establish a market presence. Not in the USA, where they don't want companies from foreign parts to compete on anything approaching equal terms with United States companies.
Remember the "ports" scandal of early 2006? The United States tried to make out that it was a terrorist issue but
You need look no further than here to see exactly what the USA thinks about free market competition in its own internal market.
The river here at Cape Fear is the entry to the port of Wilmington, which is maybe 20 miles upriver from here. Wilmington is a superb deep water harbour and major sea port of quite some significance. A quick glance at any map of the eastern seaboard will tell you why.
Furthermore, there was a direct railway line from Wilmington up to the Confederate capital at Richmond, and which also supplied Lee's Army of Virginia and the Confederate Army in the Shenandoah Valley. Now, you understand the significance of the port, and why the Federal forces in the Civil War were so keen to blockade it, if not capture it.
If you look at this photograph, you can see how narrow the river is here. Both banks are clearly visible. But width of course isn't everything by a long way. You also need to take depth into consideration.
And you can gauge the depth of the river by the size of ship that sail up it. Rather like this one in fact. This photo on the left gives you some idea of the size of the ship that can sail up river. And you will see later some graphic evidence of how large a ship can be yet still make it to the city centre.
But the ship that you see here, it steamed past the ferry terminal at a rapid rate of knots and you can see that it's probably not even 100 metres away from the shore. Now, if I hadn't have been preoccupied manouvring the car into its appointed place on the ferry, I'd have taken an even more spectacular photo that that which I took on Sullivan's Island. Instead, I had to "encourage" the driver of this boat to chase that ship up-river for a bit so that I could get a decent shot.
The CSS Raleigh
Somewhere underneath these waters are the remains of a Confederate ironclad, the CSS Raleigh - not to be confused with the ship of the same name that worked around the North Carolina coast in the early part of the war and later on the James River.
This CSS Raleigh was designed by John Porter, and built in 1864 at a shipyard in Church Street, Wilmington. Launched on 30th April 1864, she set sail on 6 May down the Cape Fear River to a point off New Inlet to attack the Federal ships that were blockading the port.
This first foray down the river with a few other ships caused the blockaders to scatter, but the next day, they regrouped and pushed the Raleigh back up the river, causing her to run aground on Wilmington Bar and break her back.
The iron plates were salvaged, but the wooden skeleton remains below, although the making of a new channel through to the Atlantic has seriously prejudiced her final resting place.
I talk at great length elsewhere about the Civil War, and it's my opinion that it was the maritime blockade that brought the south to defeat rather than the fighting. Once the port of Wilmington was denied to the Confederates in the spring of 1865, that was that. The final battles around Petersburg, Sayler's Creek and Appomattox were by and large just a sideshow, as if the armies were just going through the motions.
I was quite exhausted after all of that. I was glad to arrive at the eastern side. This is the exciting side of the river, as you will see if you read on a bit. But first take a look at the ferry "facilities" here. Absolutely nothing at all. You couldn't even imagine a ferry terminal like this in Europe. Where's the gift shop? Where are the souvenirs? I couldn't help having a smile to myself at all these commercial opportunities on which that the Americans are missing out. Perhaps it's because they don't do much in the way of "tourism" around here. Being quite honest, if there were going to be loads of tourists round here, I wouldn't be here either.
So my ferry just sidled up to the quay, dropped its ramp onto the roadway, and all of us got into our cars and drove away into the distance.
Now, apart from the innate attractions of the ferry crossing, what was the big attraction over on this side of the river that had made it worth my while to come here (ferry crossings, of course, notwithstanding). Well, this is the site of Fort Fisher.
I talk at great length about Fort Fisher elsewhere, so I'll just content myself with saying that in my opinion, this was the key to the South's independence. As long as it remained in Confederate hands, supplies could get in and move up the Weldon Railway to Lee's forces holding off Grant's Army of the Potomac at Petersburg. The south would still have some sort of chance as long as Fort Fisher held out.
When the fort finally fell to the Federals in early 1865, the port and the city soon followed. This strangled the flow of supplies to Lee's troops, and withdrawal from Petersburg was inevitable. The fate of the Confederacy was sealed. So, as you can imagine, this was another one of these "must see" places on my agenda.
Now if I had come here 150 years or so ago, I would have taken the road just here that you can see in the photograph just here. This is what used to be the old post road that led from the fort up along the banks of the Cape Fear River to Wilmington. Today, however, the road takes a more inland route. Which is a shame. Half of the attraction of visiting places is to spend as much time as possible by the seaside. Well, it is if you are a Pisces, like yours truly.
I couldn't leave Fort Fisher without taking a photograph of these trees just here. And I'll tell you why, too. They say that you can tell the direction of the prevailing wind by looking at which way the trees are growing, and that you can tell the force of the wind by how far the trees are out from the vertical. Look for yourself next time you pass an exposed hilltop.
Now these trees are bent over by at least 45°. It's amazing. The prevailing wind blowing off the Atlantic must come on shore at a considerable rate of knots. As the great Bob Dylan would say, "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" around here.
The Wright Brothers of course took considerable advantage of this just up the road from here. What is puzzling me is that no-one else is.
There are all these problems with fuel and energy supply currently in the USA, yet it takes only a quick glance at these trees to understand the amount of wind power that could be generated here if someone were to put up a row of wind turbines. And I haven't seen a single one so far on my travels. I just don't understand the reluctance that North Carolina has in launching itself into wind power.
Well, actually, I do. This is the state of which the senator, Jesse Helms in 1994 is reported to have threatened President Clinton with violence, and "reminded" him of the amount of military installations here in North Carolina should Clinton ever decide to pay the state a visit.
Yes, a Republican senator, and we all know whose side they are on. More wind power means less profit for the oil barons, doesn't it?
Helms, however, has always had something of a "reputation". Barry Goldwater was reported in the US News and World Reports of 31 January 1996 as saying that Helms was "off his rocker". One anonymous contributor to an internet forum in 1999 remarked that in his opinion Helms was
"probably the most hated man in the U.S. Congress, and that's saying something. He's a living, breathing stereotype for backwards Southern racists. He's very firmly opposed to blacks, foreigners, homosexuals, women, and the First Amendment, and 100 percent in favor of white men, censorship, and tobacco. If he weren't so damn clean-living, he'd be in jail by now, because every reporter in the country would love to nail his slimy butt to the wall. And then he had the unmitigated gall to retire from Congress in 2002 unscathed, unimpeached, and unconvicted!".
Hey, son, don't mince your words. Tell it like it really is!
And indeed, back in April 2006, Helms was diagnosed with a type of senile dementia and removed to a "home". His wife, who visits him regularly, states that he has "some moments of lucidity". Quite.
I have to say that I'm sure that when Neil Peart wrote the lyrics to "Witch Hunt", he had these extremist far-right republicans like Helms firmly in mind.
So, with full credit to Neil, I'll reproduce some of the lyrics here
They say there are strangers who threaten us in our immigrants and infidels
They say there is strangeness too dangerous in our theaters and bookstore shelves
That those who know what's best for us must rise and save us from ourselves
Quick to judge, quick to anger, slow to understand
Ignorance and prejudice and fear walk hand in hand...
Yes - just like the neocons and the B-liarite blazis of the UK.
Now, tell me. What do you think about the sign just here?
I mean, have these Americans no sense of dignity? One can only recall the legendary Dolly Parton concert at Wembley Stadium in (thinks) 1977, as she introduces her musicians to the assembled crowd. "This is my guitarist. He's Randy!" - and the look of complete bewilderment on her face as 70,000 Brits roll around the floor laughing their heads off.
You can picture the scene. Young Randall walks into the English dancing class.
"Hi, everyone. I'm Randy. Who wants a shag?"
The depressing thing though, nevertheless, is that the way things are in the UK today, he would have plenty of offers.
But in the USA, there are names that make English speakers throughout the rest of the anglophone world crease themselves in laughter. I worked for a while in an American company with someone called Clay Shedd and someone else called Randy Poe. Then I had some dealings with a Randy Paynter, but the final straw was when I received an e-mail from someone called Randy Ponce. That was the limit.
Now, how about this for a shop? It's absolutely amazing some of the things you can find on sale in the USA. This is the Strickland Surplus Store on the outskirts of Wilmington.
There were all sorts of things on sale, as you can see from the photo on the right. Forget the aeroplane - I was thinking of the havoc I could wreak amongst my former colleagues with that 105 mm gun. This place was a veritable Aladdin's Cave, and I would have taken many more photos if it wasn't for this torrential rainstorm.
Now, Strickland Surplus Stores has another claim to fame. This was where I realised that, in the middle of a torrential rainstorm, I had locked my keys in the car. How embarrassing.
Luckily, there was some kind of workshop a couple of hundred yards away, so armed with a stiff piece of wire, I set about doing my "Bentilee pond life" impression. It took me about 15 minutes to get in, during which time I was absolutely drenched to the skin.
After this, I gave up wandering around, and went into the city to look for a motel. In any case, night had fallen and it was now pitch black.
It was just coming into Wilmington that my eyesight went again. It did it in Halifax in 2003 and it's done it a couple of times since. I just can't focus on anything. But this time I was prepared for this, and so I pulled over onto a car park and put on the cheap reading glasses I'd bought. That settled my eyes down, and after a few minutes I could get back on the road again, and carry on my search for a motel.
Now, while looking for a motel, I also found something else that is extremely rare in the USA - like service buses. Public transport is essentially a thing of the past over here, but not so in Wilmington. There's a company called Wave Transit that runs a fairly comprehensive service around the city. I was quite impressed by this.
What was unfortunate was that whenever I saw a bus I didn't have my camera handy. And when I did have my camera ready and was lying in wait for one to pass me by, none came by (isn't this just typical public transport?). So you'll just have to take my word for it, or check out their web site.
Anyway, it was just after this that I found a motel.