One would have thought a month would have been enough time in advance to book plane tickets. It was initially planned that we would fly down to Florida for Christmas and New Years, spending about two weeks there. Well, as they say, "the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray" and this was no exception. I rang every travel agent in the phone book - and virtually every seat was already booked flying down to Tampa; the only ones left were first class - almost four times the usual rate. At that price it would have cost over $US1000 for the two of us! Well the contingency plan was to hire a car and that was considerably less painful - under $500 for two weeks - and had the bonus that I get to see more of the country on the way down.
An important part of seeing the sights in a particular area is the local Tourist Information Centre. The advertised one in Davidson seems to be just a chap sitting there telling people, "Sorry, we don't have anything. You need to try the one in Cornelius." That's a neighbouring town. Actually a suburb of Davidson, or the other way around. Davidson-Cornelius is really just one town of about 10,000 people split into two suburbs, and the whole thing surrounded by miles of forest and the lake. Managed to find one in Cornelius and that was quite.
One thing I miss over here is a decent cup of tea. The place is a nation of coffee drinkers, but as for tea, you'd be hard pressed to find a indigenous drinker and most of them drink a local version called "iced-tea", which isn't really the same thing. You go to a social function and you'll find coffee for the adults and cordial (kool-aid in the US) for the kids. Tough luck if you can't stand the taste of coffee like me. Anyway, right next to the tourist centre was a neat "botique" style shop selling lots of different varieties of tea. The next quest is to find a decent electric kettle. Using the microwave just doesn't do it. Which I eventually did.
Tried the Davidson College Presbyterian Church to see if that was any better. As you can guess from the name, it's attached to the college, although few students actually go there. I don't know if you've ever been to one of those fancy cathedrals, big elaborate buildings, lots of columns, stained glass windows and fancy stuff inside. Looks like a museum. Well the service was like that too - formal, quiet and about as much life as a mausoleum. Nice architecture though.
Thanksgiving day was pretty much a non-event .. my girlfriend had just had her wisdom teeth out. I did cook a special (soft!) meal and we had a nice and cosy candle-lit dinner.
Started to do some serious local sightseeing. Saw some of the historic sites (and other attractions) around Huntersville, a nearby town with a long and famous history. In additon to that there was all the driving we did along the country roads with the pleasant and enjoyable country scenery .. pretty much the same anywhere in America, Canada, England or even Australia .. well maybe not the latter so much since everything was a lot greener and damper than in Oz. Some of the things we saw included;
* St Marks Episcopalian church at Mt Holly, built in 1886. A tiny little place, "quaint" is the best word I can think to describe it.
* Hopewell Presbyterian Church, built 1831. This one was a LOT bigger, almost cathedral size. Lots of local history associated with that church - and buried in the graveyard too, including the grave of General William Lee Davidson, a revolutionary war hero and whom Davidson - town and college - was named after.
* Latta Plantation, the oldest surviving cotton plantation home in the area. Used to be over 100 slaves there at one time and it was built in 1800, yet is still in excellent condition. Looks big on the outside yet has only four rooms, two hallways and stairs to the upper floor. It's done out as a museum. Had a tour guide dressed in period costume who filled us in on the history and traditions etc of the times. The property was damp, dark and misty - not because of the history, just the weather. On the property was a transplanted log cabin, the oldest structure in the region, dating to the early 1700's as well as a fair few other structures, some original to the site, others reproductions and others moved there from elsewhere in the county.
* Carolina Raptor Park. Not a zoo so much as an animal shelter and hospital. Only recovering or permanently injured birds were on display .. hawks, eagles and the like. There was a 35 min walk and we had a tape player with a recorded guide on it. All the avaries were big and spacious and widely spaced along trails in the forest.
* Then we tried to find the ruins of Maj. Davidson's home ("Rural Hill") - he was a famous local identity involved in the civil war. Despite getting a big write-up in the tourist stuff and having a monument at the intersection to the road it was on, when we eventually found it it was just a few brick ruins, and columns covered in grass etc on someone's farm.
* Some of the other sights we quickly checked out (it was getting dark) was Holly Bend (1850), Cedar Grove (1831) and the Hugh Torrence House and Store (1770) - one of the oldest structures in the region.
The next event on the cultural calendar was "Christmas in Davidson" (4-6th December). Apart from the obligatory seasonal things like big old men dressing up in red clothes and with a predeliction for playing with small children, there were bands, horse-carriage rides, historical displays, drama presentations, craft displays and so forth. The "Carolina Renaissance Players" showed up wandering the street, some playing mediaeval musical instruments, other's doing short drams and others just having a ball - like the chap with the ferret hand puppet, he was so good with it it actually looked alive. They are a local mediaeval re-enactment society who have a one or two month long festival in early autumn, alas it finished around the time I arrived. The music presentation was quite varied as well, there was flute and harp music, traditional southern music, folk music, a rock band and of course christmas music. Sure was a lot of people there, maybe over 1000. Hard to tell since they were scattered along the main street and in the shops. As I expected it was a rather mixed bag. One place didn't even open, others offering music and refreshments had just a plate of cheap biscuits (cookies) and taped music. The band only did three songs before stopping cuz the keyboard froze from the cold (it was in the evening and well below freezing). But there was plenty of great stuff. The harp and flute music was good, it was great to hear some olde-style southern country music and there were some pretty neat displays - even a gnome museum! And the Renaissance Players just plain stole the show.
In the continual quest for a half-decent church, we tried the Davidson "United Methodist Church". Huge crowd, something like 400, but despite that we liked it. The preacher was good, he stuck to the bible and didn't wander off into politics. A story he told really contrasted with the church we first tried. Let's see if I can remember it. It was based in Mark 12:41-44. Once upon a time (*grin*) there was a rich kingdom, with a rich city and a rich king. In that city there was a huge and majestic cathedral, it's spire reaching up to the clouds. There was a legend which said that if someone made an offering that truly pleased God then the heavenly choir would rejoice and amazing music would come down from the top of the distant spire. But it had not happened in a long time. People were becoming disillusioned and so the bishop decided to invite everyone to come and offer riches in a special service. All the rich and powerful came. The rich merchants and nobles (and the not so rich) came up to the altar. The organ played and the choir sang, but there was something missing. Then the king came up and offered his crown - surely, thought the people, this was enough? The organ played harder, the choir sang louder but nothing special happened. Meanwhile two orphan boys from the country approached the city with their two copper coins, trudging through the snow. Nearing the city they came across an old widow, freezing to death. The older boy told his brother to take the coins and offer them while he stayed behind to warm the widow and help her to safety. His brother objected, saying that the woman was too heavy for him to carry to the city, surely they would both die in the cold. But the elder brother insisted, saying this was more important and so the youngster left. Entering the cathedral, just as the service was ending, he was overawed by all the rich and powerful there. Yet the choir was silent, the organ had stopped playing and people were starting to leave, dejected, dissapointed. He snuck up and quietly placed the coins on the altar. As the coins dropped onto the altar a truly majestic and heavenly music filled the cathedral. God had finally received a worthy offering - the brother struggling in the snow, willingly risking his life to save a "worthless" old widow. [As I edit this for the web page and reread what i wrote back then, I am saddened because as we were leaving Davidson, that church had just decided to spend many millions $ on a new pipe organ].
I've spent longer than I intended relating that story (with my own embelishments), but I thought it very neatly described not only the problem with much of christianity today but also illustrated the contrast between the different churches I have been to here. There was one with a glorious building, but no life in the church, then there was the church that had life, but was focused on how much money people could give, on how much "you" could do for that church. Then there was the third one, where the focus was on worshipping God, on giving yourself to Him .. which is as it should be. A church of people worshipping God, not just warming the seats and doing their sunday duty or a church of people wondering what they can do for God. Mind you, the Davidson Methodist church isn't perfect, it has it's flaws, it's misdirections, but for all of them it's a much more healthy church - one that has grown by over 1000 members in the past five years. That's also something I find hard to adjust to, that there are so many churches in the US with thousand's of people attending each week, while in contrast, back in Australia, most churches are lucky to get into the hundreds.
A lot of people have asked what I did during the day when my girlfriend was working, well I went for walks around the town and the nearby area, did the housecleaning and cooking, surfed the net, read and spent a lot of time working on my family tree (the details of which can be found elsewhere on this web site, in fact they constitute most of the bytage here).
The College has in addition to the main campus, another on the shores of Lake Norman, predictably enough called the "Lake Campus". Went there for a look around and a walk in teh forest and along the lake front. Despite being called a campus, there's nothing built there, just a large slab of lake frontage that the college owns where it has yaughts and other stuff there for water sports, picnic/barbie areas and the like. Very quiet and peaceful - it's a long way from any habitation and mostly forested with pine trees and the needles (leaves) absorb any sound other than the wind in the trees. Spent a pleasant few hours walking through the forest and along the shoreline. There was even a small beach, but way too cold for a swim! One amusing note, there was a sign saying the place was under video surveilance, didn't see any cameras tho'.
After that little walk in the woods, winter finally decided to show it's face, nightly temperatures started dropping below -10C and the daytime maximum reaching single digits. Seasons in the US here occur at different times to Australia - and I don't just mean they are 6 months different. Winter starts on the 20th december in the US, while summer in Oz starts on the 1st december. On the last day of autumn I got to see my first snow fall. Okay, no big deal to the locals, but it was the first time I'd actually seen a decent amount of snow fall - enuf that it stayed on the ground for a few hours afterwards. The same storm brought 4" of snow to Atlanta!, the city they made such a fuss about during the Olympics because it was too hot. Hotlanta indeed! That actually brings up another feature of the weather there .. summer in the Carolina's may not be all that much different from that here (tho' the summer that that's gone past here has averaged 95F where I live), but winters are a lot colder. A good 10-15C (18-27F) colder than Sydney and we *never* get snow here in Sydney. Never!
A few days before Christmas we set off for Tampa, Florida (where my girlfriend's family lives) - a 1050 km drive. Spent most of the first day just driving, passing through South Carolina, Georgia and into Florida. South Carolina is a pretty lightly populated state, at least along the interstates (freeways). The whole state seemed to be just mile after mile of pine forest. Around sunset we passed over Savannah River, the river seemed to glow in the settng sun. At least I think it was the sun - upriver from where we crossed is a big US plutonium manufacturing plant (of the same name) and it has a pretty bad pollution record. While in South Carolina we passed by Switzerland (which I was sure was in Europe) and a strangly named town called Coosawhatchie. Not entirely sure how it's pronounced. The part of Georgia we went through was even less populated than SC - there was simply nothing (apart from the pine trees, that is). We crossed the Florida border and stopped for the night at St Augustine.
St Augustine. A pretty amazing place with a very long history. It's the oldest continually inhabitated town in the USA and at times has flown the flags of England, Spain, the Confederate Union and the USA. Everything there is so old, dating to 1565. We spent the entire day wandering around and seeing the sights. The main street is virtually the same as it was 300 years ago, only the names have been changed (tho' presumably not to protect the innocent). America's oldest school-house, the oldest drug store, the oldest wooden house, the oldest fort .. the list goes on for ever.
The highlight of the town is the Castillo San Marcos, built in 1672 by the Spanish to protect their South American interests from the "piratical english". In all that time, despite many attempts, the fort has never been successfully attacked - a pretty remarkable record considering the huge array of pirates, navies and armies that had come against its walls. One thinks of the USA as a centuries old nation, yet the fort and the town around it didn't become american "soil" until 1821, prior to that time (apart from a short stint in english hands) it was spanish territory. Even then, the Spanish only lost the town as war spoils in a war they lost - in Europe. If not for that, much of Florida would today still be a Spanish colony. The Fort itself was made of a wierd natural "rock" which was cemented sea shells. Inside the fort it was damp and dark, with moss and maiden hair ferns growing everywhere. The dungeons even moreso. One dungeon was unsealed recently after being sealed several hunded years ago, only to find bones in there. Local legend has it they were human, the National Parks insist otherwise. A lot of history in that fort, Spanish, British and American. I can't really do the history of the town justice - virtually every building was a museum, even the fast-food shops had little museum displays.
Near the Fort is the Basilica Cathedral, site of the oldest Catholic parish in the USA. From there it was a short drive to the Mission de Nombre de Dios. The Mission has a huge cross, several 100 metres high and an old shrine that could have been taken, rock and moss, from Europe; a small stone building, covered in moss and ivy, shaded with trees and a small cemetry out the back. Next- door to that was the Fountain of Youth, site of the first spanish landing at St Augustine, so named because the site was originally discovered by Ponce de Leon, not long after Columbus, while searching for the legendary fountain of youth. There is indeed a fountain there, abiet I doubt it has any miraculous properties - several hours after drinking from it I was suffering nausea!
From the past to the future. After St Augustine it was the Kennedy Space Centre. Talk about crowded, there were a LOT of people there. Skipping the crowds we went on a coach tour of the base. Went past the Vehicle Assembly Building, largest building in the world. Deceiving tho', from the distance we were at it didn't look exceptionally large. Then we went past two launch pads, one with a shuttle on it (which launched in mid January). Got to stop at a viewing area where we could get out and look at the launch pad with the shuttle on it. Pretty far away though. Thankfully I had the right lens to get a close-up shot. In the other direction was a beach and then the Atlantic. Pretty nice view too. It surprised me to find that the whole of the Space Port is also a National Park - Cape Canaveral National Park (I think), so apart from a few roads, launch pads and the NASA buildings, the whole area is covered by mangroves, small lakes, low lying vegetation and lots of birds.
Then it was on to the Saturn-Apollo Memorial Centre, which opened the week before we visited. It's a multimedia and hands-on exhibition of the history of the Apollo and Saturn missions. Inside there are lots of audi-visual displays, movies, theatrical displays, hands-on exhibits and much more. Of course, as a museum, it had a lot of "relics" there too, a lunar rover, spacesuit, splash-down capsule, the last surviving Saturn-V rocket (the only spacecraft currently in existance that could reach the moon) and heaps more. They had a recreation of "Mission Control" that reenacted the first moon landing and another of the actual landing on the moon - and how it almost ended in disaster. There was just so much to see its impossible to describe it all. Last port of call at the Space Centre was the "Rocket Garden" - which is exactly what it sounds like, a whole lot of old rockets of different types arranged in a park as if they were growing there. Sounds silly, but it looked pretty neat.
After that we drove virtually due west across Florida to the west coast of the Peninsula and Tampa. On the way we passed Christmas, not the day but the town. As for Florida, it is *very* flat. The highest point is only a few hundred feet and it's all sand. In fact you could describe it as a "sand-dune on steroids". The climate is warm and humid - even in winter. Pretty much like Brisbane (Australia) actually, although in winter is can get a lot colder - it has snowed on occasion and several weeks after we left it got well below 0C and everything froze.
Christmas in Tampa. Walked around the neighbourhood looking at all the christmas light displays. Unlike Australia where you may find the occasional house with a string of lights in a window, over there they make a really big production of it, many strings of multi-coloured lights, often shaped into some message or form, floodlights, displays and so forth. Actually looks rather pretty.
Boxing Day isn't a holiday here (it's only observed in countries of the Commonwealth) so it was business as usual. Usual for me meant sightseeing. We went to Ybor City. It originally was a seperate city from Tampa, established last century in an attempt to bring the cigar trade to the US (and away from Cuba). The business was quite successful for a time, but in the 1930's it crashed and the area turned into a slum. Recently it's historical aspects have been developed, a museum put up and so forth. Even so, outside the small tourist area you can see the slum area - a big shock to someone from Australia. Oz may have its low class areas, where crime etc is "rife" if you believe the tabloid press (which I don't), but that's nothing to what slums are in the US. You don't even feel safe driving through them - in fact the police recommend if you have to that you lock your doors, aparently there have been cases where people have pulled up at lights behind a car, another pulls up behind, wedges them in and then guns are pulled out. Still, the tourist part was done up pretty nice. Visited the University of Tampa's main building. Used to be the Ybor Hotel (no, it's not in Ybor, it's in downtown Tampa, just built by the guy who built Ybor City). It was donated to the uni about 100 years ago and it's a pretty spectacular edifice. Gold and silver coloured minarets, it looks like it had just came out of "Arabian Tales." Then a long scenic drive around Tampa with views of the city and Tampa Bay.
Visited nearby St Petersberg Beach. Much teh same as most warm climate touristy beaches, like Australia's Surfer's Paradise, including the fact that it's an artificial beach, rebuilt with dredged sand after it threatened to disappear.
St Petersberg looked nice so we decided to spend a whole day looking at the sights there - there's not all that much to see in Tampa, it's just like any other city with a big suburban area. St Pete tho' (as the locals call it), pulls out all the stops. Apart from the expensive tourist traps (which we avoided), there was still a lot to see. When we got there there was a pretty extensive and thick fog - something that is pretty characteristic of the city since it's really just a sand bar (like Surfers), in fact a few days before the fog was so bad there was a 31 car pileup on one of the bridges. We visited the St Pete Historical Museum. It had a display on the early history of flight (even had Quantas mentioned, as the oldest airline in the world still flying), then there was a sizable exhibit on the "history of the region", ranging from paleontology to the 1990's. Some pretty amazing stuff in there - not to mention a few curious ring-ins like the egyptian mummy and shrunken heads. Plus a cultural display on the various cultures that have contributed to the area.
We went to the "Pier' for lunch - an old pier done up as an entertainment/shopping complex. Pretty impressive views from the top. Visited Fort DeSoto National Park. The nature was wonderful, reminisicent of Cape Canaveral. The fort itself was s'posed to be an old spanish fort in the tourist stuff we had, but it turned out to be a not-so-old american fort. Used to be a big military base there, but it was built out of wood and what didn't fall into the ocean fell down anyway. All that's left now are the stone structures. A few tall towers and the main fort, complete with cannons.
Just before leaving Tampa, we went back to St Pete for a harbour cruise. Went on the Starlight Majesty and spent several hours cruising around the Clearwater area. Very enjoyable. Lots of scenic views. Throughout the cruise there was at least some fog. Sometimes you could see for miles, at other times we went into fog banks and visibility was only a 100 metres or less. Some of the highlights of the cruise included crusing past island wildlife sanctuaries, crossing into the Gulf of Mexico and seeing some of the many mansions belonging to the very rich and very famous. One weird view was as we went past a fog bank: we were in sunlight, visibility for miles, yet only a few 100 metres away there was a bridge, one end clear, the other vanishing off into the thick fog, one could not help but wonder - where the bridge was going to? *insert theme to the Twilight Zone*
The it was back to Davidson. Stopped for lunch on the Atlantic coast at Daytona, Florida, home of the world famous speedway. Drove past the speedway, boy, it is BIG! We ate at a spot overlooking Daytona Beach where cars have the right of way. People were playing in the water, sunbaking at the top of the beach next to their cars and in between was a continual stream of traffic. Didn't look all that safe to me - and if I owned an expensive looking new car, the last place I'd drive or park it would be on a beach catching all the salt spray. Even saw a few convertibles. Some people just have no sense at all. After that we drove on back through Georgia and stayed for the night at Walterboro, South Carolina.
Checked out some of the sights in Walterboro, but alas the old gaol museum was closed. Moved onto Orangeburg, one of the oldest towns in South Carolina. Visited Edisto Gardens, which commemorates a civil war battle at that site. The Edisto River is the longest blackwater river in the world. What's a blackwater river? It's one where the water appears black from decomposing organic material and it really does look kinda black (but doesn't stink). Went for a walk along the trail next to the river, with the clouds and the light rain it was a very dark and brooding but also reflective atmosphere. Peaceful too, a place for quiet meditation, with the background noises of the wind in the trees, the water running by and the wildlife making, well, wildlife noises.
A few days after getting back the "crystal ball forcasters" predicted snow, it didn't happen but something even neater eventuated. It rained most of the night and was well below freezing; by the time morning had arrived a lot of the rain had frozen, virtually everything was covered in a sheath of ice - the paths, buildings, lawns, trees and the sides of the road. Looking out onto it was like looking at a crystal fairyland, as if the breath of the winter king had frozen everything for eternity - or a few hours until the ice melted. Looked quite wierd. I'm used to green scenery, even brown and red, but this time everything was a crystalline white, glittering and reflecting and refracting in the sunlight. The next night the forcast came true and it snowed. About an inch, by my "inexpert eye." Naturally I just had to go out and play in the snow, throw a snowball or two and have fun. Ok, ok .. snow is a pretty new thing to me, you have to excuse me. *grin* The next 6 days or so was pretty cold, about freezing, so much of the snow hung around for a week.
One thing I've noticed about christianity in the US is the impression is that in some ways christianity there is decades behind that in Australia or Europe. By that I don't mean they are immature or anything, just that they are only now waking up to the realisation that they don't live in a christian country, that interest in churches (and the churches themselves) are shrinking, that being a christian and going to church is no longer an accepted part of society and the difference between relying on faith vs reliance on tradition. Things which the church elsewhere has had to face up to (or turn ostrich about) decades ago. The preacher cried out "we no longer live in a christian country!" and you could hear the mutters of confusion and the looks of challenged astonishment in the congregation. I guess there is some good in the realisation you are a minority group - it makes you really examine who and what you are. Of course, there will always be sheep who refuse to think. You get them everywhere. Oh, and it snowed agin on the way back home. :)
And that brings the midpoint of my 6 month stay. It has certainly been an "interesting" two months since I the last report. A mixed two months too. There's been good and bad. Well, life is a mix of good times and bad, so one could hardly expect anything else.
Davidson, North Carolina,
29th January, 1997.
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