I go to Charleston not because I desperately want to see it, but because of timing and weather, like a bird blown astray in a storm. After hastily reserving a hotel room, I sit reading the CVB website. It promises, “Everything you’ve heard is true.”
I have heard a lot about Charleston. Everyone has. It is one of those cities you hear about, and read about, and see carefully staged photos of, whether you have any interest in going there or not.
I hover my cursor over tours of Fort Sumter (“Travel back in time to the site where the Civil War began…comfortable, spacious boats boarding daily…”) and “adventure sightseeing plantation tours.” I click on one attraction that claims to be “America’s most photographed plantation,” drawn in by a photo of spectacular live oaks paired with the words “if these trees could talk.”
The CVB has a blog, called Charlestonly, an unwieldy word I spend a bit too long pondering. Is it a self-satisfied portmanteau of Charleston and only, as in, “Charleston is the only place worth visiting?” Or is it an adverb? “She wore her navy-and-white shift dress charlestonly, accessorized only with a tasteful gold bracelet and earring set and a small fluffy dog.” The blog proffers suggestions for different types of trips, including a “Gluten-Free Guide,” a “Guys’ Getaway,” and a “Family Playcation,” as well as one called “On a Whim,” which I suppose is a good description for my own trip. I don’t click on “On a Whim,” but I note its teasing line of text: “Charleston’s cocoon of gentility is a visual feast for anyone who enjoys curious details, secret alleyways, an unexpected pop of blue, and Instagram.” I do enjoy those things. I suddenly hate myself. But maybe it will be wonderful; maybe everything I’ve heard, every advertisement disguised as enthusiasm, is true.
The next morning, I join a parade of vehicles driving in slow circles around the cocoon of gentility, searching for a parking space. After my third turn around a particularly busy block dominated by the Confederate Museum, I realize that a typical trip to Charleston is not the life-changing charm immersion that social media influencers are paid to promote, but an exhausting slog through a nice-enough city packed with far more visitors than its venerable streets can handle.
Finally, I find a garage and abandon the vehicular gridlock to join the pedestrian gridlock, which thankfully dissipates as I turn off the main roads. It is gloriously hot out, and I am thrilled simply to be surrounded by sunshine and palm trees. The city is pretty enough, on certain blocks, as anyone with access to Instagram knows. But it is just that, pretty enough, the city equivalent of how my college dramaturgy professor described Phebe in As You Like It, “the prettiest girl in a town of seven girls.”
As I walk past cemeteries and boutiques, eavesdropping on the banter of the tour guides in the horse-drawn carriages, Charleston overlaps in my mind with other places I have been, like Savannah, a more complex and visually stunning take on Southern charm, and Miami, a more cosmopolitan celebration of color and warmth.
Some cities break free from these trite comparisons, but Charleston never manages to, for me. It is a shadow of other places I have been, and I suspect that without photos, my memory of it would fade into memories of those other places. It might have been different if I had been able to see it without the nonstop sales pitch, the preppy pastel hype. But that’s impossible now, and so, sadly, the real place falls short.
And yet, beneath the relentlessly marketed surface, there are moments that make this trip worth it, more than other check-mark travel experiences like Times Square on New Year’s Eve or the top of the Eiffel Tower.
I will probably forget the King Street shopping district, where historic Smarties-colored storefronts resemble a midscale outdoor mall. But I will remember the patterned bricks and tiles of the alleys that sneak between Charleston’s houses. I won’t recall much of the City Market, a sort of mix of New Orleans’s French Market without its seedy edge and Boston’s Faneuil Hall without its residual 18th century gravitas. But I will still think of the tired gait of the white horse driven by a silent guide, his carriage momentarily empty of tourists.
I will remember one cobblestone street, shaded and quiet, with pale houses and delicate trees, that is far prettier than all those photos that make Charleston look like a child’s birthday cake draped in Spanish moss.
I will remember wandering onto that street, and walking towards the largest building on it, an old slave market. It is a heavy, imposing building, like a fort, with black lettering spelling out MART above the gate on the arched entryway. It is a museum now, and I will remember standing on the cobblestones in the heat, thinking how the word “museum” safely sorts events into the past – as if they’re over, as if they can’t get out and bleed into the present – when in fact they’re not really past at all.
And as much as I love palm trees, their absurd exuberance and the way they bend but do not break in lashing rain and hurricane winds, in Charleston I will remember not the showy splash of the palm fronds but their shadows, black and grey, echoes splayed across the sidewalks.