Hello from the start of Week 3, where it’s finally starting to sink in that we’re not going “home” – whatever that means these days. I’m writing from North Charleston, South Carolina, where we arrived on Thursday for the second stop of our trip. To say it feels like a different planet from Helen would be an understatement.
That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy Helen – quite the opposite. Both Morgan and I were shocked at how much we loved it even more than expected, from the quaint downtown to the amazing nature on all sides of us all the time. A week ago, I was tramping through the forests of Smithgall Woods State Park, the other state park located about 5 minutes from us. It’s pretty much just a small visitor’s center, some primitive campsites, and a handful of trails. I had decided to hike the Ash Creek Trail, which seemed interesting to me since it required wading across Duke’s Creek, supposedly only about knee high on most days. If you hike the trail in the right direction, this happens very close to the end, meaning you don’t need to be wet for too long. I spoke with a ranger about this, who agreed that this was the right way to go about it, and even went over it with me on the map. It was a nice day, and I brought some extra socks, so it seemed like a fun adventure.
Naturally, I promptly blundered down the trail in the wrong direction, with the actually upper-thigh high creek thoroughly soaking me. As I dripped off on the other side, it occurred to me that this was potentially not right. But I kept walking because I wasn’t going back across the creek. I mentioned the one billion spiderwebs woven across trails in this area last week, but a billion may be an understatement. I was so thoroughly covered within about 50 yards that I walked the rest of the trail waving a stick in front of me several feet to knock down cobwebs and STILL ended up covered. I didn’t see another soul for the entire hike, but anyone who did would have thought I was trying to cast some sort of spell. It was around this time that I also started to see copious amounts of fresh bear poop, and began to walk down the trail talking to myself, making as much noise as possible so as not to surprise anyone or anything.
This went on for what seemed like far too long, and I started to get a bit paranoid that I had gotten turned around somewhere. This was, of course, ridiculous. The layout of the park is such that I could have left any trail in literally any direction and hit a paved road within a few miles. But the woods were so completely quiet, and I had just read that part of Deliverance the previous day, so I succeeded in freaking myself out a bit, for just a minute or two. But make it out I did, and was treated to a nice view of Duke’s Creek from the covered bridge I was supposed to use to start my hike.
Afterward, Morgan and I went and got drinks at the grocery store, as one does. Betty’s pretty much kept us alive while we were in Helen. We were there almost every day for groceries, meat, sandwiches, candy, cold medicine, or some $6 sangria from their outdoor bar facing Main Street. They’ve even got their very own beehive in the store, which we both walked by several times before even looking at.
We had been there 8 days, but dare I say we were starting to feel like locals. We even found ourselves using the “back way” to get “home” to avoid the tourist traffic through Main Street. I felt ready to stay, although certainly not in a dark, damp, knotty pine studio cabin with poor internet.
Our final two days were, to me, a bit of a blur. Literally, in part, as I drove to the top of Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest point, expecting a view of the Appalachian Mountains and four different states. I got this.
It was still a worthwhile trip, with a decent, steep hike along a paved trail to the summit and some real nightmare fuel animatronics in the visitor’s center.
I must also mention our evening of ax throwing. Morgan was fairly deadly from the start and beat my ass so badly we stopped keeping score almost immediately. I, on the other hand, developed a unique talent for hitting the target squarely with the ax handle. While Morgan effortlessly hurled kill shots at dinner plate-sized targets, I made myself feel better knowing I’d still probably end up killing the enemy if I hit him in the head with the handle that hard. By the time it was over, I’d hit one (1) perfect bullseye and broken two (2) ax handles.
It’s probably the most fun I’ve had doing something I’m completely terrible at.
There’s one more thing I feel compelled to mention about Helen, and this comes via the town’s Festhalle, which is the supposed center of the Oktoberfest festivities. We went to this somewhat sad place twice, albeit on weeknights, and enjoyed some mostly mediocre polka music. I have a soft spot for the accordion, which was one of the first instruments I learned to play way back in high school. Even so, most of the performances ranged from low-energy to downright painful, with some exceptions. But the most baffling thing was the omnipresence of the song known as “Pizza Ha-Ha” or “De Pizza Hut.”
It’s basically somewhere between the chicken dance and the YMCA. When the song says “Pizza Hut,” everyone points their hands over their head in a triangle. When the song says “Kentucky Fried Chicken,” you flap your arms like a chicken. “McDonald’s” requires an arch; think the “m” from YMCA. For whatever reason, the crowd loved this – every time a band played this song, people young and old would go positively apeshit. Nevertheless, it was a good time, and I remain baffled a week later. (If this is something you grew up with and understand the origins of, please let me know!)
Thursday was our second travel day of the trip, and we were already feeling like pro packers. Against all odds, we actually made it out of Helen early, even stopping for one last breakfast sandwich at Betty’s. There was no time to say goodbye to the mountains, as our route took us almost immediately into the fields and forests of northeastern Georgia, and then into western South Carolina. It was a five-hour drive, but one that felt surprisingly simple after the trip from DC to Helen. We arrived in North Charleston in the mid-afternoon and checked into our new home.
We were practically giddy. It’s an amazing breath of fresh air, literally, after a dank, dark cabin. It’s a roomy, bright two-bedroom with a decent-sized kitchen, huge backyard, and WORKING INTERNET. Not to be dramatic, but Helen was basically two steps above camping, and we enjoyed the ability to see outdoors, have enough hot water, and be able to walk into separate rooms. It was really satisfying to feel a bit of normalcy on the road. I could wake up early and watch the news while I write without worrying about waking Morgan, and she can stay up late and game and watch TV without bugging me. She’s able to have an office, so I don’t absentmindedly wander into her Zoom meetings, and I don’t have to work laying in bed or on a TV tray outside. Living on the grid, in a home, it turns out, has its benefits.
Charleston is, in many ways, everything Helen is not. On our first night, we were able to walk to dinner and choose from a half-dozen different types of food – NOT including German. In fact, we got some delicious Thai food, if for no reason other than to have something completely different than what we’d been used to. Afterward, we grabbed drinks at The Sparrow, the kind of chill neighborhood bar I’d loved so much in DC. Friday night, we Ubered down to King Street and marveled at the hundreds of bars, restaurants, clothing stores, specialty shops, and the city’s famous Night Market.
Already, we can tell our weekends are going to be pretty busy for the foreseeable future. We both want to make the most of the time when Morgan’s off work, and we certainly did so in Charleston. On Saturday, we started the day at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, a sprawling property on the Ashley River which has been operating in one way or another since the late 1600s. Like pretty much all of South Carolina’s rice plantations, they went out of business after the Civil War because, literally, you could not pay people enough to do that kind of work. This point is particularly driven home when you see the snakes, spiders, mosquitos, and alligators in the former rice fields. The gardens are beautiful, and there was also a powerful tour of the original slave cabins on the property, dating back to the mid 19th century.
It might be worth the trip for the petting zoo alone, which is home to some very friendly free-range deer and goats, along with a rescued raccoon who makes paintings that are available in the gift shop. Christmas is coming, folks, and if you’re looking for something to get us for our one-day home…
On Sunday, we drove back west to Congaree National Park, one of the country’s least-visited national parks – a relatively surprising fact considering it’s located not far off I-95 on the east coast, and the rest of the list is essentially places where you need to take boats or bush planes into the wilderness. It’s also somewhat understandable; the park doesn’t have an Old Faithful, or a Skyline Drive, or dramatic canyons or rock formations. What it does have is an incredibly diverse, dense forest dominated by cypress trees and their bizarre-looking “knees” sticking out in clusters of knobby wood. Not to mention some of the most absolutely gigantic pine trees I’ve ever seen.
Oh, and it’s absolutely free to visit.
Quite frankly, Charleston just has too many places to have a good time. We spent Saturday evening in Folly Beach, what seems like an incredibly fun beach town, one of a few within a half-hour drive or so from Charleston. Sunday, we checked out the opposite side of the area, with dinner along Shem Creek, a gorgeous area that’s equally a nature walk, working marina, and a cluster of restaurants and bars. The sunsets here are truly unreal.
I’m not sure what, if any, science is behind it, but Morgan isn’t satisfied with my proposed explanation of swamp gas. We’ll report back as we learn more.