Thinking back on the long weekend I spent with 11 women in Charleston, S.C., I’m trying to decide when was the moment that we realized we had a whole set of new best friends.
Was it the van ride back to the hotel after our cookout on the beach? When our driver put on “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the lot of us flew into spasms of air-guitar, belting the lyrics at the top of our lungs?
NextTribe is going back to Charleston March 24–27. Join us if you too could use four days of this kind of fun and bonding. More info here.
Or was it after dinner in the home of Charlotte Jenkins, an esteemed chef who specializes in Gullah cuisine, when we all ended up dancing like our 1970s selves to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” along with Jenkins, her sister, and daughter?
Or was it a couple days after we’d said goodbye, when we sent 172 texts on our text chain in a 24-hour period that alternately poked fun at each other and expressed how deeply we felt connected?
Or all of the above?
The conventional wisdom is that it’s difficult to make friends at this age. We’ve written about it many times, in fact. But I’ve seen firsthand the exception to this presumption. On all of our NextTribe trips, I see women bonding in remarkable speed, but I have to admit, I’ve never seen a group come together as quickly and as powerfully as I did on our four-day excursion in Charleston last month.
It all started as we walked to dinner the first night. We’d already had some laughs during our walking tour with the hilarious Therese Smythe of Two Sister Tours. Therese, a lifelong Charlestonian, seemed to know everyone we passed. “Oh that’s the mayor,” she might say. “I’ll hear about this later.” When her husband rode by on a bike, she waved with a casual, “Hello, George. Heading home?”—a line we all parroted. We were very honored that Therese asked us over to her house for drinks after our tour—something that never happens, I assure you. I think it was the energy of the group that prompted the invitation. But we couldn’t go because we had another insider-y engagement.
I think is was the energy of the group that prompted the invitation. But we couldn’t go because we had another insider-y engagement.
Linn Lesesne, a sorority sister of mine at the University of South Carolina, happens to own the best hotel in town: the Wentworth Mansion (and I thought that before I knew she was the proprietor). We were staying at another of her hotels, the Kings Courtyard Inn, right on King Street, and made our way to the grander Wentworth for a private tour and then dinner at the hotel’s award-winning restaurant Circa 1886. Somehow we got ahold of some wine for the stroll, which we carried in paper cups. As we ambled through the cobblestone streets, we devised a drinking game . . . because why not? We’d stop for a sip any time we saw a horse-drawn carriage, a historic plaque, or a bright pink azalea bush. All of which meant we were stopping to drink a lot.
We were in stitches and pretty tipsy by the time we got to the Mansion, where we were greeted with a tray of delicate champagne flutes. With glasses in hand, we followed Linn through the gorgeous brick structure, which had been built in 1886, and ended up on the rooftop cupola for a 360-degree view of the Holy City, as Charleston is called. We took in the majesty of the sky, which was becoming thick with muscular dark clouds, and then ran for cover when the rain started spitting on us.
At the Big Table
For dinner at Circa 1886, we had our own room, with a massive rectangular table. When we all got our drinks, I raised my chardonnay and said, “I see it as my job to make sure all of you have fun. But on the other hand, my father always said if you don’t have a good time, it’s your own fault. So, everything has been put in place for you to have an excellent adventure, and it’s up to you to take it from there.”
My father always said if you don’t have a good time, it’s your own fault.
The group took up the challenge with inimitable spirit. We went around the room so people could introduce themselves. We found out that Michelle had sung at the Vatican, and Liz had been not just a pilot for Southwest Airlines, but a captain. Both elicited all the appropriate ooh-ing and ahh-ing. We learned about the connection a pair of sisters, Carolyn and Patty, had to Brazil. One had lived there when she was 16; the other had her second wedding there—in the rainforest.
We were pretty well behaved until we got to a woman who was Kristen-Wiig funny and who shall remain nameless because she complained about her husband and left us with the suggestion that she’d be happy for someone to take him off her hands. From there came jokes about auctioning him off, which somehow led into quips about setting up our kids to get married and photo-sharing of eligible bachelors and bachelorettes. Later, Tammy’s dramatic declaration—”I want a cabernet that burns my throat” as she clawed at her neck—became a punchline for the weekend.
Saturday the bonds drew tighter, as we all piled into a van for a visit to a plantation—one I had chosen because the emphasis is on the African American experience rather than on the privileged life of the masters. Afterward, we stopped at the Sullivan’s Island home of a college friend, Barbie, which has views that stretch from her long dock on the Intercoastal Waterway all the way to the regal Ravenel bridge back into Charleston.
After lunch of she-crab soup, collard greens, and fried chicken, we listened to Susan Boyer, a bestselling author whose mystery books are all set in the South Carolina Lowcountry. I love that she didn’t publish her first novel until age 51—proof positive that so many of our dreams can still be accomplished. Then Barbie and I demonstrated the fine art of shagging, for those who weren’t in the know. By the way, “shagging” in this context has nothing to do with the British definition, but is a boppy, jitterbug-like dance that pairs perfectly with beach music and is widely practiced in the Deep South.
Our guide was a salty character whose bare feet reminded us of a sea-faring hobbit.
Our boat ride to the uninhabited Caper’s Island was scheduled to last three hours, which prompted some of us to sing the Gilligan’s Island theme song as we made our way along channels that run through salt-marsh grass, catching sight of dolphins along the way. Our guide was a salty character whose bare feet reminded us of a sea-faring hobbit. He knew his flora and fauna and at one point pulled up a trap to show us stone crabs and blue crabs. We felt like students in a high school sex education class as he showed us the difference between male and female blue crabs. Apparently males have two penises, which led to all sorts of snickers and speculation of how lucky the she-crabs are (the ones who don’t end up in the soup).
While our guide made our Lowcountry boil (with shrimp, sausage, corn, potatoes) right on the beach, we were free to explore. We reveled in the switch up—a man scurrying around preparing dinner while we relaxed and cavorted. With the sun sinking over this windy, deserted beach, many of us felt extra liberated. I skipped and twirled, and others ran around like little children on their first encounter with the shore. Caper’s is known for a section of beach called the boneyard—a collection of dead, sun-bleached oak trees that were lost when the saltwater took over the forest there. The eerie, dramatic shapes heightened the sense that we were temporarily living in a parallel universe; someone compared the underside of roots visible on a toppled tree to the iron throne on Game of Thrones.
The driver who met us at the marina after our adventure was good-natured enough to find a Spotify station with plenty of songs from our youth, which is how we ended up belting “Bohemian Rhapsody” for a good portion of the ride (that is one long song). There was even some dancing in the aisles, which I might have started.
Let the Ribbing Begin
One indicator that you’ve gone from casual acquaintances to close friends, I believe, is when you can poke fun at each other. That definitely was in full swing by our gospel brunch on Sunday. We easily moved from joking about the overly unctuous maître d’ who was a bit too touchy feely for our liking (on the good side, he did bring us a round of champagne) to joking about each other’s foibles. Courtney ribbed Ellesor about spilling jelly on the nice white table cloth, someone gave a Texas woman a hard time because she couldn’t stop talking about her new boyfriend, and everyone made fun of me for a cheesy, Vogue-like pose I’d made for a photo. At some point the talk turned to famous people we’d met, and Patty won the day with her story of sitting on Kid Rock’s lap on a bench at the Jersey shore. She even produced a photo. Score!
Patty won the day with her story of sitting on Kid Rock’s lap on a bench at the Jersey shore.
By the time we piled into Ellesor’s SUV (with two of us sitting on the floor in the way back) for our drive to the home of the Gullah chef, we chatted, cursed, and laughed as if we had all gone to grade school together. We knew about each other’s children, jobs, divorces, remarriages, vacations, eating habits, music preferences, and we got each other’s humor.
Spirits were so high that it was natural to fold Chef Jenkins, her sister Rita, and her daughter Keisha into the good times. Chef Jenkins talked about the simplicity of Gullah cuisine and the spices used to bring out the flavors of the fish, cabbage, and rice she prepared for us. We loved hearing about the sisters’ growing up years, learning about the evocative paintings on the walls made by local African American artists, and getting Chef Jenkins to sign her cookbooks. Then someone turned on the Marvin Gaye, and we turned a beautiful family home into our own Studio 54.
On the way back to the hotel that night, the song that got us all riled and hoarse was “American Pie” (so many long songs, so little time). Some kept the party going with tequila shots in the hotel lobby till late at night—or so I’m told. The photo above of a group with shot glasses perched like beaks on thrown-back heads is the evidence.
It’s been almost two weeks since we finished our adventure, but not a day has passed that we haven’t checked in on each other. Not with bland niceties, but with real stuff: photos of how days were being spent—several images of painted toes in front of bodies of water from the Texas gals—art projects, a video of a fox in the snow caught on Ring, concerns about illnesses, moves, and work stresses. For inspiration, Sherry shared a story about a woman who started a vegan diary at age 57. Some of the exchanges were fairly intimate—about sleeping arrangements with spouses and sex-fest-induced bladder infections.
“Do you stir the soup with a vibrator?” Kelly asked.
Sherry posted a recipe for “Cooter Soup” from a cookbook she bought at the plantation, which prompted a string of off-color jokes.
“Do you stir the soup with a vibrator?” Kelly asked.
“OMG. This thread is hilarious,” Courtney responded. “I go offline for 30 minutes and come back to my tribe talking about cooters and vibrators.”
“You are the most hilarious, funniest women ever,” Ellesor wrote.
“There’s just too much material here,” Kelly posted.
“This photo sums up the whole trip perfectly,” Courtney said, attaching an image. “It needs to be part of the story.” And so it is.