I’m convinced this city was too beautiful to have been real. Mansions, river walkways, old twisted trees, and candy stores on every corner make Charleston a living fairytale.
As I crossed the border from Georgia to South Carolina, I looked up at the dark storm clouds blanketing the sky. A lot can change in another few miles, I reasoned. Though the weather did change by the time I arrived in Charleston, it wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for.
I thought I might have driven into a waterfall or the center of a hurricane the rain was pouring down so fast and hard. The gutters were filling up, the streets were flooding, and my windshield wipers on full speed barely provided a glimpse of the road in front of me. I pulled over into an Italian restaurant hoping that the rain would pass by the time I’d finished eating lunch, but as I sat staring out from my seat at the window it seemed the rain only got heavier.
After the meal, sitting in my car I searched for things to do in Charleston on rainy days. Several museums with weak reviews made the list along with the aquarium and a shopping plaza. I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy a museum while imagining my car being submerged and floating away, so I decided to try for the market. It was only six miles from the restaurant and the motel I’d booked.
When I arrived at the address I’d found online all I could see through the rain was a Forever 21 and people hurriedly crossing the street while clutching inverted umbrellas. I turned around and returned to the motel disappointed that my only view of Charleston would be the flooded streets.
When I got back to the motel I checked the weather online and saw heavy rains forecasted for the entire east coast for the remainder of the weekend– the remainder of my road trip. No Charleston, no hiking, no sight seeing on the road, I thought and considered driving the fifteen hours back home in a day. And then I saw a sliver of light poking through from my second floor motel room. Within a half hour the skies had cleared and even though dark clouds still loomed in the distance, I thought I’d be safe for at least a little while of exploring.
Not knowing anything about what to see in Charleston except for the market I’d found earlier, I headed in the same direction. After parking I realized that I’d read the market closes at 5:30 and it was already after 6. I thought about turning back, but figured I may as well make the most of the parking fee and take a walk down the street.
Just past the rows of high end clothing stores, I started to see giant mansions surrounded by wrought iron fences and lush gardens. It seemed that every house had a historical marker in front of it. I passed a sign announcing that I was in Charleston’s “Museum Mile.”
Normally I keep my camera zippered away in my purse and only take it out when I’m certain I’ve found a good shot. There’s nothing like carrying a camera around your neck or in your hands to announce to everyone that you’re a tourist. My safety on this trip has been no accident; I blend in as best as possible and I’ve been asked for directions in just about every city. After a few blocks of repeatedly pulling my camera out of my purse I decided I’d hold it discreetly since it seemed every square inch of Charleston was a postcard quality picture.
I had no map, no idea where I was going, where I was, but I must have been somewhere important because I kept passing by rows of houses I was certain must be filled with all the art from the galleries in Santa Fe. Museum quality mansions rose above the gnarled and moss covered oak branches and palm trees. If I didn’t see so many people walking dogs or sitting on their porches beyond private residence signs I wouldn’t have believed that people could live in such beautiful buildings.
And if these rows of homes and gardens weren’t enough, I came upon a river walk with beautiful views of the water on one side and even more mansions fit for royalty on the other. A giant pink spotted bird whose wingspan reached the length of my arms flew by close enough that I could feel the breeze of its wake on my shoulder. I have no idea what sort of exotic bird it could have been. Had someone told me it was a stork bringing a baby to the newlyweds who had painted “Just Married” in curly red letters on the rear windshield of their car parked along the river, I probably would have believed him.
Along the river I entered a park with a pathway leading under an archway of branches. Wooden benches of various sizes invited community and conversation.
When I passed down an unevenly cobblestone covered street, I half expected to trip and wake up just before hitting the ground. I was certain I’d really fallen asleep to the sound of the rain in my motel room and had only dreamed of this beautiful city that became more unreal around every corner.
I wandered away from the river and toward the store lined streets and began passing candy stores on every corner. If heaven is a place that exists, it will smell like the inside of these stores. I couldn’t resist going in even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat any of the milk filled creations. Each store featured rows of glass cases filled with dozens of varieties of truffles, chocolate covered marshmallows, chocolate encased Oreo cookies, homemade gelato and ice cream, fudge cut into chunks so large that I thought at first they were thick slices of pound cake, fresh taffy, and southern pralines. I politely declined the free samples and stood in the aisles inhaling the rich scent of all of these delicious creations combined.
After resisting the urge to buy something in about three stores, I saw this sign in the distance and smiled:
I was ready to forget my lactose intolerance to buy something in a store with my name (so what if there was an extra L, who’s counting?), but when I passed by the open door I realized that it was either going out of business or coming into being. Based on the sign in the window I’m going to bet it was the latter:
That’s not to say that I didn’t cave in and buy a few truffles several stores later.
I had made up my mind to get one of the giant pieces of fudge and promised myself I’d make it last longer than it took to drive home. Knowing myself well though, there was no way it would make the car ride back to the motel let alone all the way up the east coast. I settled on two tiny dark chocolate banana truffles from River Street Sweets. The man behind the counter ensconced them in tissue paper and gingerly handed them to me saying, “They’re on the house.” This was definitely a dream, I thought, thanking him profusely.
I savored every bite of the truffle even though they were small enough to devour in a single gulp. I bit into each four times and admired the rich fudge filled center as the pieces melted in my mouth. If they were enough to make me sick later in the night they would have been worth it.
The sun was beginning to set so I found my way back to my car and returned to the motel. I’m still not convinced that this beautiful world of mansions, ornate iron porches, tree lined parks, blue rivers, exotic birds, and heavenly confections existed anywhere except my imagination.