After spending Christmas day at home Michelle and I packed up the car and headed due south on 15-501. Although we were unable to visit Natasha in Tampa, Florida as we had initially intended, we still had a great time in Charleston, South Carolina and several other places along the way.
We stopped first at Mepkin Abbey, a community of Trappist monks just north of Charleston. As I have written in several previous posts, I have been spending a great deal of time reading about and becoming more interested in the monastic life, especially that of the Cistercians. The monks of Mepkin Abbey belong to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (commonly known as Trappists) and were founded in 1949 by monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky (of which Thomas Merton was a member from 1941 to 1968). Michelle and I arrived at Mepkin Abbey shortly after 3:00 in the afternoon and at first seemed to have missed any possibility of visiting the church or the monastery grounds. After spending several hours strolling among the beautiful gardens, enjoying the warm weather, and walking the labyrinth we were in the end able to join the monks in choir for Evening Prayer of the Holy Family.
Less than an hour down the Cooper River from Mepkin Abbey, we arrived in Charleston, South Carolina. Known as the Holy City for its skyline dominated by prominent centers of worship as a testimony to the religious liberty for which Charles Towne was celebrated since its founding in 1670 we certainly found it to be a relaxing city full of beautiful homes, interesting historical sites, and–of course–excellent food. We started out our visit at Boone Hall Plantation, continuously farmed since the late seventeenth though it has changed hands and fortunes many times in those 330 years. Beautifully situated along the river, approached by a half mile drive canopied by more than 200-year-old live oaks, and complete with many of the original outbuildings, visiting Boone Hall provided us a good basis for understanding the plantation system that was itself the basis of Charleston’s wealth. Nine remaining brick slave houses included a cultural presentation of the Gullah culture (West African creole developed in the United States) as well as the lives of the enslaved African upon whose backs Boone Hall’s rice and cotton wealth was earned. The house was superbly decorated for Christmas making the elegance of the estate even more opulent.
The elite of Charleston extended their wealth through shipping; to this day Charleston’s port is the US’s second largest on the Atlantic. To protect this several forts were built, including Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter, both of which we visited as a way to understand the history not only of Charleston but also of the South. Within sight of Fort Sumter, we visited the Edmonston-Alston House in Charleston, owned and still occupied by the same family since 1838. Besides strolling through the residential neighborhoods, seeing the oil lamps flickering on most front porches, and sampling many local seafood dishes, we also really enjoyed the 70° days with ample sunshine.
On the return trip we went through Columbia, South Carolina and Charlotte, North Carolina. Although we did not visit a great deal of South Carolina’s capital since 1786, we toured the state house and an historic canal. In Charlotte, we spent most of our time at the fascinating Levine Museum of the New South carrying us beyond Charleston’s glory days before the Civil War (which always seems to be called the War Between the States here) into the reemergence of the South that has seen Charlotte and Atlanta rise as two of the most important economic cities in the United States. Although the weather turned cool and windy on us in Charlotte, we still did enjoy walking around the skyscrapers that give uptown Charlotte a truly urban feel.