Folly Beach, it’s called, and it’s a wee little town – village, maybe? – just outside of Charleston, South Carolina, and it became, quite surprisingly, the highlight of my trip to South Carolina one chilly February over the space of only a week.
In my typical adventurous – some may say naive – fashion, I opted to do minimal research on this tiny new location, considering I was really going for their annual tribute to Mardi Gras, aptly called ‘Folly Gras’. Always in search of a party, a social event, or any reason to don my most colourful costumes, there were no further requirements other than showing up and having the time of my life, sharing with thousands of other joyful, costumed revellers.
I arrived early in the morning of Folly Gras, setting up shop at what appeared to be the only proper hotel in town, The Tides. Perched high over the sandy beach at the edge of the main strip, which consisted of only about three blocks, I took a deep breath; where were all the people? Had I gotten the dates wrong, perhaps? Was this a ghost town? Being Canadian, I’d somewhat gullibly assumed that February in Folly would be mild enough for a swim; not so. The air was cold and the sky grey, the streets just about deserted, with the exception of the occasional middle aged couple, sauntering along holding hands, sporting matching hoodies or sweatshirts.
The Tides greeted me with a lively atmosphere in the lobby of what I could only assume would be soon-to-be party goers in search of the seemingly elusive Folly Gras parade later that day. Perhaps it would be a wild one, after all? I rushed to my room to change, hurriedly unpacking my rainbow bustle, fluffy boot covers, rainbow wig and the rest. I would fit right in!
Have you been to Mardi Gras, I mean the real one, in New Orleans? If not, here’s an opportunity for a side note: it’s big; to quote Trump, ‘yuge’, even. It’s days – weeks! – of celebrations and revelry, costumed debauchery and music, and in typical New Orleans fashion, anyone in attendance is invited or even encouraged to come exactly as they please: Storm Troopers, Batman, Unicorns and Meticulously-Placed-Socks are a-plenty, and nobody would dare bat an eye. It had been a year since I’d attended the real deal, and now I was determined to see this event play out in my new favourite beach town for their annual Folly Gras.
Once costumed-up, I proudly let my rainbow-coloured fluffy unicorn flag fly and marched proudly onto the street where the parade would begin. I looked around at the somewhat subdued, fairly small crowd and noticed the strangest thing: not a single person was in costume. Should I go back and change? Would it be best to duck my head and – ahem – blend in with the crowd? No, I thought, why not embrace this and become a part of the parade, instead? It was decided. I would take over Folly Gras.
The parade began with hand made floats and raucous music, much to the delight of the somewhat subdued crowd. People stopped to get pictures with me, and I was noticed by a slicked-back hairdo of a guy with a wry smile. He approached, his walk confident. “Come over here,” he persuaded me with an ever-so-slight-Southern accent, and gifted me with several strings of brightly coloured beads. After I thanked him and a chat, he slipped a card into my hands. “Don’t forget to vote for me as the next mayor of Folly Beach!” And like that, he was gone, schmoozing his way through the crowds, stopping to run his fingers through his coiffed hair and pose for pictures with delighted soon-to-be voters.
After a short period of time and somewhat reserved cheering, the parade came to an abrupt end, and party-goers dispersed along the main drag to the various pubs and side streets, in which bands played as though in competition with each other. The party had truly begun, and I was delighted to be right in the centre of it all.
It was interesting, being in this tiny town in South Carolina, dressed up like Rainbow Dash on LSD, and the attention I managed to draw from the crowds. People asked where I was from, and when I replied, simply, “Canada”, the questions and exclamations came in. “Which part of France is Canada in?” One asked. I studied him for awhile, unable to make much sense of that question, let alone come up with a witty retort. “The North,”I replied, dryly. “Oh my gosh! Do you know Celine Dion?” Another asked. “Where in Canada?” A hopeful fella asked, his interest very obviously piqued, “Ottawa,” I answered, wondering if he knew of my little city, which happened to be the capital. “Oh! Awesome! I have a friend in Vancouver,” He let that hang in the air for a second before following it up with, “His name is Mark. I wonder if you know him?” I stared, blankly, for a moment. “I happen to have a friend called Sarah. In Los Angeles.” When I realized he wasn’t quite catching on, I turned and left, a rainbow sparkling hurricane in a crowd of drunkenness.
I sat alone at a cafe on the outskirts of the main drag as the chilly drizzle started to come down, alone in the crowd of otherwise normally-dressed folk, still donning my fluffy rainbow attire. I opted to keep the mask on as I ate, just a regular Saturday afternoon, nothing to see here, folks. On my walk back, I saw the would-be Mayor scooping ice cream in a wee little parlour that looked brand new. He waved me in with a grin, a double scoop in hand, drunk as can be, and walked over to offer a sideways hug. “Don’t forget to vote for meeeeeee!” He exclaimed like a child, albeit a drunk one.
It wasn’t until the day after Folly Gras that I got to know the proper Folly Beach, and I mean the off-season, tourist-less version. The Tides hotel was swiftly emptied out, it seems, within the night, and the chilly vast beach empty, the angry Atlantic churning against the shore. Time to explore the wee little strip of land that I had no idea I’d fall in love with.
The day was so quiet, I opted to take my time wandering the street, poking in to the many souvenir shops that, despite this being out of season, stayed open in hopes for someone like me, the rare tourist, to pay for a few token trinkets. I took a lazy, long, and utterly delicious brunch at a little nook off the main road called the Lost Dog Cafe, soaking in the busy, homey atmosphere and lively conversation around me. The walls were plastered with images and cartoons of dog-everything, and the wait staff took no issue with my sitting for hours, jotting notes and observations, overheard conversations and ideas as they came to me.
It was that night that I opted to dress myself up and buy myself a cocktail, a task I had long held myself to perform in each of my travels. No matter where, no matter what, I would take myself out and force myself to enjoy the solitude. The hotel bar was empty with the exception of a couple engaged in animated, focused conversation in the corner and one person at the bar. Still, I sat and requested a glass of wine, urging myself to sip slowly, enjoy the moment, and not be embarrassed at my solitude or over-dressed style. After a few tentative minutes, I took myself outside, wrapping my shawl around me from the cool evening wind, imagining a slew of places to pop into, perhaps find a live band, or friends to meet. Only one appeared open, The Crab Shack, and I reluctantly toddled in, stilletoes and all, to be met with interested looks from the few patrons huddled inside.
At the Crab Shack, I sat at the bar yet again and ordered food – probably crab? – and tried to bide my time watching the television overhead, which was airing the Presidential Debates, at this point in time it being Bernie Sanders and Trump. The numbers were up; Sanders was the clear winner. I whooped with delight, being the Socialist Canadian that I am, and promptly put my flailing hands down at my sides, embarrassed. “Around these pahhhts,” Said a southern drawl beside me, his face largely hidden under his cowboy hat, “We keep our political opinions to ourselves.”
It so happened I was sat between a retired Colonel, and a US Federal Deputy Marshal who went by the name Pepper. To this day, I don’t know if that’s his real name. We ended up chatting and laughing the evening away, sharing our stories – mine hardly seemed anywhere as interesting – and it was time for me to head to bed. Pepper rushed to hold the door for me. That southern charm, I thought, as I skipped back to the hotel, delighted from a surprisingly lovely evening.
My last night in Folly Beach happened to fall on the Folly Family Reunion, or something thereabouts. Pepper had invited me to meet some of the locals at none other than the Crab Shack – I suppose there weren’t a lot of options, anyway – and I happily joined in. Walking into the room adorned in white fairy lights, I was greeted by convivial salutations, greeted with handshakes and two-cheeked kisses, met with a joyful reception one would imagine only being reserved for old friends. Here I was, a complete stranger to them, and yet I was welcomed as though I, too, was a part of the Folly Family.
As I was gearing up to leave, in walked one of the most beautiful, elegant older women I’ve ever seen. She was sporting a head to toe fur coat, and under it a velour suit the colour of wine. She put out a perfectly manicured hand to mine and said, “Hello, Dahlin’. Such a pleasure. My name’s Shugah.” Both charmed and a little bleary by this point, I repeated, “Sugar? Like the sweetener, Sugar?” She smiled, “Not Sugar, dahlin’. It’s pronounced Shu-gah”. It’s pronounced ‘Shu-gah”; I would have to use that the next time I ordered a coffee.
Leaving Folly Beach early the next morning, before the sleepy winter town could wake, I took a moment to gaze out at the ocean one last time. Behind me stepped a middle-aged man with dark, thick glasses on. “Have y’all enjoyed your stay here in Folly?” I nodded, and replied, “I can’t wait to come back one day.” He slipped me his card. “I run the local real estate agency round these pahts; y’all can give me a call when y’all return.” I turned the card over, to see his company name was Giddy Up Real Estate Rentals.
Folly Family, I will be back. Giddy Up, indeed.