“A churning mass of record-breaking, life-threatening arctic air is pushing across the country, so broad that every state except Hawaii is expected to face freezing temperatures by Jan. 7, 2014.” As I make my way down the East Coast, the news is full of headlines like this. DC, Richmond, Durham. I’m one step ahead of the polar vortex that’s gripped the country. Charleston is next and as my Greyhound bus departs Wilmington I contemplate how I’ll spend the five-hour layover in Myrtle Beach.
When I first envisioned these two months city-hopping across the country, I pictured hours of free time. But I underestimated the preparation required for each destination: where I’d stay (a stranger’s couch?), how I’d get around (walking? public transit?), what I’d eat (is there anything remotely, let alone notably, vegetarian?), and what I’d do (museums? book stores?). I love planning. But I don’t want to spend so much time thinking about where I’m going that I neglect where I am. So I compromised between some preliminary online scouting, and letting it all go to see what happens.
But it’s difficult to lean into spontaneity. There’s an urge to sample “the best” of every destination, as if each place has a quantifiable essence. I know I can’t do everything. But I also don’t want to waste anything, which has come to mean that I don’t want to eat at Chipotle if there’s a “charming” local cafe instead. And of course I want everything to be charming, or quaint or funky or authentic. David Foster Wallace memorably calls tourists “existentially loathesome” in our search for authenticity because anywhere we go is immediately rendered inauthentic by our very presence. However, the travel industry is predicated on the notion that every locale has a unique flavor, and you must taste it. I know better, but I can’t entirely shake this mindset. For that reason, I usually snub national chains, even though it’s possible, even likely, that more locals patronize a Starbucks than an quirky, independent teahouse. In any event, this is the attitude I brought to Myrtle Beach, and this is what led me to take refuge in a tacky, seaside coffee shop when I was too scared to keep walking.
It’s cold, but pristinely sunny when I step off the bus. I’m dressed for comfort and warmth as well as purpose (I’m wearing my heaviest clothes so I don’t have to carry them). I walk down Kings Highway in search of a salad place I Googled. Beach shops, fast food chains, tattoo parlors, and deserted miniature golf parks line the four-lane drag. I’m the only pedestrian, and the passing traffic is thin, bleating the occasional honk. It’s lunchtime at Green Grubbin, but I’m alone in the restaurant, except for one woman in neon spandex who scurries in and out, taking her meal to go. Walking back toward the bus station, where there’s supposedly a coffee shop that I can wait in until my next bus, I wonder if it’s the cold weather that’s emptied the streets or if this is just what an off-season beach town looks like. I assume the latter when I reach the Sun City Cafe, and a hand-written sign says it’s closed for the winter. I turn up Main Street, thinking I’ll have to settle for a Starbucks, though I loathe its generic decor, and predictable coffee.
I pass a laundromat, bar & grill, clock shop, consignment shop, and a barber shop called He’s Not Here. A seemingly aimless man passes me, mumbling what sounds like “pretty,” then “baby.” I start to feel self-conscious in my dress and knee-high boots. The consistent honking now catches my attention. An emaciated man hauling a TV in a shopping cart walks by, announcing: “I’m going to watch TV!” I find myself longing to see that green Siren.
The chill is starting to penetrate my layers. I give up on the coffee shop and quicken my pace back to the bus station, finding it closed for lunch until 2:30. It’s 1:40. Another honk. Eager to get warm, I turn in the other direction, toward the beach. Surely there will be someplace on the boardwalk. Just then, a car pulls up alongside me, and the silhouette of a lone man motions me over. I pause. Maybe he can recommend a place for me to go? An open coffee shop close by? But I wave him off, and his back tires skid in the gravel as he pulls away.
The boardwalk is a mausoleum of empty attractions (Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, the SkyWheel, National Amusement Rides) and restaurants (Cool Daddy Bar & Grill, Dirty Don’s Oyster Bar & Grill, Hot Stacks) and bars with lit signs and blacked out windows. Finally, I see what I’m looking for, a neon sign announcing COFFEE. When I open the door, I’m relieved to be welcomed by a teenage girl and older woman.
“Good Afternoon! It’s so cold out there we didn’t think anyone would come in!”
“I’m so glad you’re open,” I tell them. “It doesn’t seem like many places are.”
I order tea and sit down at a table upstairs that looks down over the entrance and counter. Looking around, I find the logo I’d been looking for on the wall above the counter, but instead of “Starbucks Coffee” it reads: “I Heart Guns and Coffee.” A Mountain Dew clock is mounted above the door next to a surf board. A poster on one wall exclaims: “Coffee! You can sleep when you’re dead!” and from another, Mona Lisa returns my gaze.
Not an hour later the older woman frantically approaches, telling me she has to close due to a family emergency. Hesitant to leave, I gather my belongings and bundle up again. It’s after 3, so at least the bus station should be open. As I hurry back, I pass a road that leads directly down to the beach. I pause. I can see the ocean’s horizon, the pavement disintegrating into sand a short distance away, and I’m tempted to take a brief detour. To embrace a moment alone at the land’s edge. But when I sense a passing vehicle linger, I keep going. As I approach the station, the warbling, dissonant sound of a receiver off the hook at the payphone outside greets me.
Two hours later, from my window seat on a nearly empty Greyhound riding down Kings Highway, I stare back at the dry mini-golf moats (Jungle Lagoon, Pirates Watch Adventure Golf, Safari Mini Golf), pastel-colored discount beachwear outlets (Bargain Beachwear, Eagles Beachwear, Wings Beachwear), seafood buffets (Seafood World Seafood Buffet, Liberty Seafood Buffet, Shiver Me Pinchers Seafood) and pancake houses (National House of Pancakes, Plantation House of Pancakes, Woodhaven Pancake House).
Three hours later, from my window seat at a chic, dimly lit Thai restaurant on King Street in Charleston, I watch couples in peacoats and pearls hustle past arm-in-arm. The bartender explains to the men next to me that he’s from Boston, but he’s never experienced cold weather like this in South Carolina. Temperatures are supposed to keep dropping and he’s worried the pipes in his apartment will freeze.
Charleston delivers everything a visitor wants, the whole package: charm, history, comfort. There is no off-season, no break in the performance. There’s no opportunity to see what the town is “really” like when the streets are vacant, and there’s nothing to do but wait for the tourists to come back.
Featured photo from Mike Burton.