Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Stop By, Cause I Need Your Money"
North Carolina

From Waynesville to Cherokee, North Carolina, U.S. Highway 19 weaves between fog-draped chasms and tree-capped peaks. But often on this Smoky Mountain route, man-made tackiness interrupts the natural beauty.

For more than 20 miles along the winding and sometimes steep grade highway, roadside shacks hawk everything from moccasins to souvenir tee shirts, to ceramic plates, to pottery, to Indian rugs, to costume jewelry. Masquerading as antiques, rusted tools and farm implements clutter unkempt lawns and gravel driveways. Countless items are available for sale, brazenly advertised in big letters on barns, cinder-block walls, and billboards.

Barbecue stands, casual restaurants, neat little single-story motels, and bed and breakfast inns compete with the vendors for prime highway exposure. The number of roadside establishments overwhelms, prompting travelers to dart their eyes from side to side, if only to investigate this tourist driven panorama.

At Cherokee, North Carolina’s gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and home to the Cherokee Indian Reservation, Native Americans beneath headdress and feathered garb sit beside tepees pitched on the asphalt parking lots of decrepit gift shops. Acting as bait for the heavy tourist trade, they agree to pose for cameras—for a fee—before directing visitors toward the merchandise. Undoubtedly, an emphasis on commercialism has enhanced Cherokee’s economy. But the profit-geared street side displays overshadow the town’s true Native American heritage.

A bold message posted on one billboard facing U.S. 19 might serve as the official motto for area merchants. It reads, “Stop By, Cause I Need Your Money.”

from 2004

Monday, February 15, 2010

Way Down Yonder In...Treasure Island
Treasure Island, Florida

I first heard the Dixie Chaps last November, during a visit to the Treasure Island post office where a recording of their lively arrangement of the Dixieland classic “South” fluttered across the room like a windswept envelope. In response to my inquiry, a postal clerk nodded toward a speaker on the wall. “Oh, they’re a local band,” he said. “They play at the Bilmar Hotel every Wednesday. “

Our group arrives at the popular Bilmar just before sunset on a balmy June night and locates an available table in a courtyard formed by sturdy stucco walls and decorated with palm trees and tropical shrubs. One side of the courtyard opens to a swimming pool where, this evening, motel guests lounge on inflatable rafts or slam oversized beach balls. Steps from our table, at the hotel’s beachfront lounge, a handful of patrons relax at wicker tables with beers and mixed drinks. Through sliding doors left ajar, I can see a clarinet and a trombone resting on stands beside a trio of microphones.

The aromas of char-grilled beef and baked fish waft on the warm sea breeze as servers dressed in tee shirts and shorts carry plates laden with entrees, sandwiches, and salads across the cobblestone walkways toward an outdoor cafe.

Ten minutes after our arrival, the band begins with an up-tempo song reminiscent of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street jazz halls. Comprised of five senior gents, the Dixie Chaps continue with “Basin Street Blues,” followed by “Jeepers Creepers.” They perform for nearly an hour, alternating soothing rhythms with swinging sounds.

Seated at an iron table beneath a palm in this courtyard on a sultry evening, I feel lonesome for the Crescent City. I recall the horse drawn carriages inching past Jackson Square, the warm, powdered beignets and steaming chicory coffee at Café du Monde, and the brassy tunes spilling from the dim old clubs onto the narrow streets of the French Quarter.

Then suddenly, a laid-back melody performed by the legendary clarinetist Pete Fountain comes to mind. “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” Yes, Indeed.

from 2009

Monday, February 8, 2010

Carnival Motor Inn
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

From the small lobby, I observe scratched guest room doors equipped with heavy-duty deadbolts. I notice worn carpeting and corroded railings in the breezeway. Traveling without motel reservations on an autumn weekend, we ask to see a guest room before checking in at the six-story Carnival Motor Inn on Ocean Boulevard.

Dad and I ride the shaky and slow, dim-lighted elevator to the third floor and another well-worn breezeway. I’m about to discount the Carnival Motor Inn as another rundown motel among a string of aging oceanfront properties when I realize that 30-plus years of exposure to the salty sea air has had a corrosive effect on some of the surfaces. But as we enter Room 301, I retract my initial assessment. The basic double-bedded room is spacious and very clean. It has a mini-fridge, a microwave and anything but a basic view.

Through oversized windows, we’re greeted by the Atlantic Ocean—two tones of blue with foaming whitecaps atop four-foot waves. A private balcony overlooks the motel’s swimming pool and the beach immediately beyond that. Next door, the 21-story Best Western Carolinian seems close enough to touch.

Like so many mom and pop motels that survive along coastal resort communities, the Carnival Motor Inn offers no-frills accommodations at low rates. Certainly, the room has seen its share of traffic, but a few scuffs on the furniture and a few stains on the carpet won’t affect the quality of our visit. And we can’t complain about the price. Last night we spent $44 and some change for a room overlooking the parking lot at a Motel 6 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Tonight at the Carnival, the off-season rate for our room is only pennies more, at $45. But here, of course, we’re paying for the ocean view.

from 2008

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Myrtle Beach
South Carolina

We exit Interstate 95 at Florence, South Carolina and join U.S. Route 501 for the 70-mile journey south to Myrtle Beach. Despite a dense pack of vehicles, many of them sporting license plates from neighboring states and likely hurrying toward an autumn weekend getaway, traffic moves steadily at the posted speed limit.

I expect to follow a route littered with super-sized souvenir shops, pottery warehouses, craft stores and maybe a few 12-foot alligators on display in rickety roadside cages. And I spot one such place, a gaudy behemoth of a fruit and souvenir stand, painted red and yellow, and reminiscent of Florida’s back roads. Otherwise, the route follows a series of small-towns with predictable occupants, like Hardees, Walgreens and Sleep Inn, except for the “official” Myrtle Beach welcome centers. I count six of the welcome centers, each of them official, each of them offering discount tickets to the local attractions, and each of them promising the cleanest washrooms. Five billboards, each one with a bold arrow pointing toward the entrance, flank one of the official welcome centers.

I remember little since my last visit to Myrtle Beach nearly 30 years ago. I can recall driving north on Ocean Boulevard, past a wall of high-rise hotels that prohibited any view of the Atlantic Ocean, and I remember the abundance of restaurants and golf courses. Back then, we simply drove through the town, stopping only at a beachfront Holiday Inn for a peek at the ocean.

Today, as Highway 501 merges into Kings Highway (U.S. 17) at the heart of Myrtle Beach, a hodgepodge of souvenir shops, restaurants and amusement arcades collide. Here, miniature golf meets seafood restaurant, meets tee shirt emporium, meets pancake house, meets tattoo parlor.

Across from the beach, a wooden roller coaster and a Ferris wheel soar five stories into the air. Long-faced employees with arms folded lean against the doorways of the souvenir shops that rub elbows for blocks along Ocean Boulevard. They wait as tourists stroll past, many of them showing little interest in the merchandise. The hotels are packed so tightly along Ocean Boulevard that, through the car’s windshield, I have trouble deciphering their signs or addresses. However, I happen to locate the aptly named Carnival Motor Inn, a six-story motel about a mile south of the central hodgepodge, but in an area no less crowded.

from 2008