Talkative twin provides Southern experience

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Editor's note: Matt Wittmer is a Cape Girardeau native and an avid cyclist. He is helping to plot a bike route from Canada to Key West, Fla., as part of the East Coast Greenway. Wittmer's portion of the ride started in September in Washington, D.C., and will end in Key West in November.

"The day is a woman who loves you. Open." That's the beginning of Richard Hugo's poem "Driving Montana." It's been my mantra through South Carolina, which is blessing me with beautiful rides and the friendliest people this side of North Carolina. They wouldn't admit it, but these states are like lovely, talkative twins, nice to look at and hard to tell apart.

Any trip is a journey through landscape. Only the locals, though, can unlock it. I can observe the Gullah women making baskets, but if I don't engage them, I'm left with a pretty picture and no caption. As a result, one leaves with little more than the tourism guidebook impressions he brought. It's the difference between the map laid out on your kitchen table, and you actually moving through the map.

Now the bike, my mule backpacked with 48 pounds, draws people like deer to corn. It's bait. I get questioned routinely, exiting convenience stores to find somebody's curiosity covering it as heavy as Southern morning dew. They want to know. They have concerns. I take that crack in their courtesy and politely pry it open with questions of my own.

It all started with the Southport ferry captain, Mary Beth. My camera got me up on the bridge and into the steering room. She was born in the Bahamas and had never lived more than a shell's throw from the sea. Mary Beth's husband, George, was a sailor too. They had a den full of nautical books and a comfortable guest bed.

Then there was Judy. She talked fast, washed my clothes and put some fillets on the grill. Her words came out like ocean breeze, punctuated with a knee-weakening, syrupy turn of phrase.

Next came Emery, short-stepping out of a bar in Georgetown with white circles for eyes and a face red as a fire engine. He'd caught 60 pounds of shrimp that day.

Before I knew it, I was at his place thumbing their heads off. I ended up on his couch. After an early breakfast of shrimp and grits, we were out on Winyah Bay, the watershed of five rivers and one of the healthiest estuaries around.

I stabbed 12-foot-long bamboo poles at 20-foot intervals into the soft mud of the shallows. Others were doing the same and from a distance theirs looked like faint acupuncture needles dangling in the air.

Wanda made bait balls of clay and fishmeal, one for each pole. I circled the boat around and brought Emery in as best I could, babying the motor just so. We moved down them methodically as he tossed the net, but it wasn't our day. No matter. The bay was mine now, lodged in memory like those wooden rods.

The South is an oral culture. It's always told stories to remind itself what it is. I think folks are attracted to the traveler for the same reason. He doesn't belong. He doesn't judge. He won't tell. At least not to anyone they know. Although down here, it's in their DNA. These people would talk to the live oaks and the pines if they could get something back. I just happen to have ears and a head that nods.

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