Holy City, What A Town: Week 2

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.

Betty’s beehive, Helen, GA – Oct. 2021

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.

See You In Helen, Georgia: Week 1

Greetings from Helen, Georgia, as we enter week 2 of our travels. We’ve been here for six days now, with four more to go until we move on to Charleston, South Carolina. It’s been an interesting week.

We spent nearly the entirety of last Monday driving straight from DC to Georgia. To my intense relief, we avoided I-95 and took an absolutely gorgeous route along I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley, then slicing through the Smokies in the northeastern tip of Tennessee and western North Carolina, through the Cherokee, Pisgah, Nantahala, and Chattahoochee National Forests and into northern Georgia. Linus made the trip OK (other than a last-minute puke on a mountain curve…sorry buddy) thanks to a nice dose of sedatives, which I wouldn’t have minded myself. But after about 10 hours, we arrived at our little cabin literally sitting on the side of a mountain.

Our cabin, with my “office” on the left by the car

The place is essentially a medium-sized studio with a loft that neither Morgan nor I feel like climbing a ladder to. It’s truly lovely other than persistently bad internet, which has been a big source of stress for Morgan as she tries to attend meetings and such. Thankfully, weeks of research on mobile internet backups came in handy, and we’ve been able to get online through my backup Visible data plan. It’s truly been a lifesaver; an unlimited Verizon hotspot for only $40 a month, and cheaper once we get on a party pay plan. Speaking of which – sign up using our code and you’ll get a $5 month to try it out, and we’ll get a $5 month too.

On top of it all, we both got sick for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic – Morgan with suspected E. coli, and me with just a bad cold. I suppose it’s a good idea to get this out of the way early, right?

More broadly, it’s been challenging adapting to the mindset that this is not vacation – it’s life now. It’s been a lot forcing myself to think differently about how I spend my time. On vacation, I’d feel compelled to be out as much as possible, seeing and doing as many things as I can before it’s over, or at least being intentional about how I’m relaxing. But in real life, you work, you cook dinner at home and stay in on a lot of nights, you spend too long scrolling Twitter, you live on a real budget instead of justifying a little extra spending by figuring you should treat yourself while on a trip. I understand all this. But underneath, my brain is still constantly prodding me…”hey, you’re in Helen. You might never get back here. Forget writing that article – go hiking all day and then get some drinks.”

Rainy Night (and Day) In Georgia

I had some pretty grand outdoor plans for our first few days here – a few hikes, outdoor bars/restaurants, maybe even learning fly fishing. Naturally, it intermittently poured rain for the first four days we were here. For the first few, it was a particularly weird pattern; I would wake up to the sound of an absolute deluge on the tin roof of our cabin, lay in the dark and hope it’ll stop, and then finally give up and figure out other indoor plans for the day. Naturally, around midday, the skies would clear and I’d be left wishing I’d just gotten out on the road earlier like I planned.

This is not to say we didn’t have a great time, even in biblical levels of rain. We made our first sojourn into Helen on Tuesday night after work, and it is exactly as charming as expected.

The main strip is full of German restaurants, bars, shops selling tourist gear, and lots more small businesses. On weekdays, it’s relatively quiet. But on weekends, traffic stretches a mile or more out of each end of town as people crawl through, spending equal times gawking at the architecture and avoiding drunken tourists wandering into the road.

I love German food and German beer. A lot. But to be completely honest, if I don’t see another bratwurst, schweinbraten, or kassler rippchen for the next year of traveling, that’ll be just OK with me. We had absolutely delicious and gargantuan meals at The Heidelberg and Hofbrauhaus, and I made a stop on my own at Muller’s Famous Fried Cheese Cafe, where I essentially ate a giant mozzarella stick stuffed with ham that was approximately the size of a small tablet computer. At least it came with a salad.

The Helen area is also home to a few wineries, most notably Habersham Winery just south of town near Sautee Nacoochee. We can highly recommend the Peach Treat and Concord, both of which taste exactly like they sound.

Luckily, the weather cleared for a lovely weekend, the first official one of our trip. We started our day zip-lining at Unicoi State Park, a really excellent spot for outdoor activities about 5 minutes outside of Helen. It’s centered around Unicoi Lake, an artificial lake made by damming Smith Creek as it flows between two hills. I very much enjoyed zip-lining, or at least the 25% of the time I was actually on the lines. The other three-quarters of the time was spent waiting on tiny platforms about 40 feet up in the trees that shook violently whenever someone landed. Both Morgan and I were ready to get back on the ground by the end.

We also made a quick visit to Dahlonega, the center of America’s first real gold rush. You can still tell – our parking spot is dusted with gold flakes, and creek beds actually sparkle in some places. I was expecting to check out the Gold Rush Days festival, but due to my inability to read a calendar, we were there a week early. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty nice small town, with shops and restaurants centered around a public square with a former courthouse-turned-museum. Quite a few towns in this area are laid out exactly the same way, which can get a bit bizarre after a while.

The hiking here has easily been one of my favorite parts. We’re a 5-minute drive from two state parks, and a half-dozen other trails (including the Appalachian Trail) are located just a few minutes further up mountain roads. I’ve been able to get out for at least a short hike almost every day. The trail to Duke’s Creek Falls was particularly amazing to hike in semi-spooky fog, and Morgan and I tackled the Lake Trail around Lake Unicoi over the weekend.

Lake Unicoi, Helen, GA – Oct. 2021

We also took the short walk to Anna Ruby Falls, one of the most popular hikes in the area to a set of twin waterfalls that feed Smith Creek. I also met what I at least hope is the most deranged-looking Smokey the Bear in the entire National Park System.

I grew up in northwestern New Jersey, so Appalachian mountain landscapes are pretty familiar to me. But there is something truly and distinctly different about the woods here. I can probably count on two hands the number of animals I’ve seen in the woods, other than the roughly one billion spiders whose webs we’ve walked through. I’ve seen a decent amount of bear poop, but thankfully no bears – so far. There is quite a bit of Sasquatch discussion down here, but he’s eluded us as well. You rarely even see birds or squirrels. It’s just very, very quiet out there, which makes you hyper-attuned to any sounds you do hear.

In unrelated news, I’ve been reading Deliverance while I’m here, a very nice story about a group of friends from the city who go on a canoe trip in northern Georgia and meet some kindly mountain folk. I haven’t finished it, but I’m sure nothing bad happens and they all have a good time.

See you in Helen,


On The Road Again

Welcome to The Road Goes On Forever. My name is Nick Pisano, and me and my girlfriend Morgan Smith and our cat Linus will be spending the next year or so traveling the country.

I’ll be posting updates here on our travels for anyone who’d like to follow along. Based on the looks we consistently get when we tell people what we’re doing, some explanation may be in order…

How Did We Get Here?

Just over three years ago, I left my job at WTOP Radio, where I’d worked since I was a junior in college. Truly, I should have left years earlier; the job made me a stressed-out mess, and I was barely able to afford to live in DC on a radio writer’s salary. But I enjoyed the fast pace of breaking news and the prestige of working for such a respected source of local news. Still, it always felt like I was playing journalist more than actually *being* one, and rarely have I thought twice about the decision to leave.

After quitting WTOP, I traveled for a few months, mostly because I had no idea what else to do. I started with a train trip across the country, something I’d had in the back of my mind for a decade at this point. Using three trains, I made the trip from DC to Los Angeles over 17 days, making five stops along the way in Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. Three months later, I set out on another solo trip, driving nearly 2,000 miles along the Texas-Mexico border and into New Mexico, Arizona, and finally Las Vegas. Along the way, I met Amish seatmates who only spoke German and guys heading to Nebraska for sentencing in court cases, crossed the Mississippi River and Rocky Mountains, attended the Great American Beer Festival and drank margaritas at the Juarez bar where they were invented, nearly drove off both the edge of a mountain and into the Rio Grande, and much more.

I came back to DC and spent a relatively frustrating and unhappy 18 months working in property management, a job I took with the goal of learning about real estate that ended up being more about plunging toilets, making copies of keys, and running errands for my boss. In my spare time, through a combination of luck, good timing, and the disturbing power of the Facebook algorithm, I built a relatively successful dropshipping store, one that for the first time in my life had me making significantly more than my living expenses. By the time things petered out, I was left with decent-sized five-figure earnings for a few months of part-time work. With the daily risks of entering people’s homes and showing houses during the COVID pandemic, this was enough to encourage me to leave and strike out for something new. Call it another example of the Yolo Economy.

While it’s been a rocky 10 months at points, they’ve also been some of the most rewarding of my life. I’ve been able to cobble together a decent living freelance writing about RVs and real estate, and spent two weeks this summer walking the length of the Jersey Shore from Cape May to Sandy Hook (much more on this to come.) In the meantime, I’ve had ample time to plan for the year ahead.

Morgan’s path here has been quite a bit less rocky. She’ll be keeping her full-time job as we travel, while I bum around our destinations and occasionally write down some words for your entertainment or my finances. Morgan had been transitioning to working at home part-time even before the pandemic, so the switch to full-time working out of our condo wasn’t as dramatic as for some. Luckily, even at the early stages of discussing our plans for long-term travel, her company was very supportive, provided we could work out certain logistical issues.

Now, about those logistical issues…

The RV and Why It Didn’t Work

If either of us has talked to you in the past year or so, chances are our plan to take an RV trip to all of the lower 48 states has come up at one point or another. When it started in summer 2020, it was a pretty vague notion. Neither of us really had a plan for how we would financially make this happen, nor any idea of the logistics of driving a bus-sized vehicle thousands of miles cross-country, emptying our own bathroom tanks, and somehow avoiding smashing into obstacles, other cars, or people. I enjoyed planning trips, but something like this was head-spinningly daunting.

But even as some elements fell into place (my financial situation, the logistical elements), we ran directly into two buzzsaws – the slow pace of corporate decision-making, and the exploding used RV market sparked by COVID. Rigs were selling for $10,000, $20,000, or even more over what they would have just a year earlier, when most folks were more than happy to stay in a hotel with comfortable beds, fast internet, and reliable water pressure. Not only were the RVs out there more expensive, but there were also just far fewer to go around. Most used RVs hit the market when their original owners decide to upgrade. But COVID-related issues with acquiring the necessary parts for new RVs forced owners to hold onto their old models longer. On some RV forums, I’d seen discussion of folks getting a delivery date for new motorhomes *two years* from their order. This was obviously not a problem that was going to work itself out anytime soon.

Crunch Time

Our decision to pivot to Airbnbs was partially a matter of necessity. We sold our condo in DC’s white-hot real estate market without even putting it on the market. More than a week before we’d even planned to list it, we already had a ratified contract and a move-out date – a month earlier than anticipated. And naturally, we were no closer to approval from Morgan’s work for our RV internet plan. We’d done a little bit of RV shopping, even found some that we liked. But in mid-July, with leaving DC now a reality, we were simply running out of time.

We were having a Saturday evening drink at Moreland’s Tavern when the topic first came up. We were already planning on getting an Airbnb in DC to spend a few more weeks with our friends, wrapping up our time here before hitting the road. So why couldn’t we do this as our main way to travel?

It made sense in too many ways. Financially, we’d be spending more per month but wouldn’t need to deal with the hassle of finding a suitable RV and paying for multiple fail-safe mobile internet options. I had already come to terms with losing a decent chunk of money on any RV we bought, knowing it was likely the top of the market, and no RV meant no hassle eventually selling it when we were done. Airbnbs solved our biggest challenge, ensuring Morgan had access to reliable internet for work. And we both agreed it accomplished our major goal – getting to travel the country for an extended time together. An RV was always just a tool to that end, and one that wasn’t particularly easy to acquire or use.

We were *actually* going to get to take this trip – AND I wouldn’t have to worry about backing up in one of these behemoths.

Where We’re Going This Fall

As of the end of September, we’ve currently planned our travels through December 2021.

October 4-14th – Helen, Georgia

Helen, GA via Richard Elzey/Flickr

When people ask us our first stop and we tell them “Helen, Georgia,” some of the excitement tends to morph to confusion. I get it. Helen is a tiny former logging town in the north Georgia mountains that, 50 years ago, decided to remake itself as an Alpine village with a yearly Oktoberfest. Five decades later, it’s the third-most visited city in Georgia (yes, really.) Why did we pick it? I was writing a story about the best small towns in Georgia, and this was one of them. We’ve both been looking forward to enjoying more of the outdoors after two years mostly indoors, and a bunch of delicious German restaurants don’t hurt either. Definitely the most impulsive of our destinations, but one I’m happy to start with.

October 14th-23rd – Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston, SC via Alyssa Rose/Pexels

We chose Charleston as we’d already booked Helen and Tybee Island, and needed somewhere for the time in between. We both wanted to go, but we’re not sure when we’ll be back on the east coast, so it made sense to visit now. We’ll be staying in the Park Circle neighborhood of North Charleston, on the recommendation of our good friend and Charleston native Brianna Burke.

October 23rd-November 25th -Tybee Island, Georgia

Tybee Island, GA Pier, via Dizzy Girl/Flickr

Our first long-term stay will be in Tybee Island, the beach community located about 20 minutes east of Savannah. We truly lucked out here, thanks to the magic of Airbnb monthly booking discounts. For not too much more than we were paying monthly for our DC condo, we’ll be able to stay in a two-bedroom place just a half-block from the beach, with outdoor space and a short walk to the restaurants and bars.

November 28th-December 24th – New Orleans, Louisiana

French Quarter, New Orleans, LA via Pedro Szekely/Flickr

I’m not sure any introduction is necessary for New Orleans. This is one of the spots I’m most excited about, as we’ll be staying in the Marigny neighborhood, right between the French Quarter and Frenchman Street. We’re right around the corner from a bar that is also a laundromat (or laundromat that is also a bar, depending on your perspective) and on the same block as some sort of place from NCIS: New Orleans, if that’s your kind of thing.

Where Are We Going Next?

Right now, our itinerary for 2022 is wide open. The general plan is to head west or a bit north, likely to Tennessee or Texas, before heading to the southwest. From here, it’s less certain. We may head north and east, through Utah and Colorado, and then turn north into Wyoming, Montana, and then west to the Pacific Northwest. Alternatively, we may go clockwise through California, the Pacific Northwest, and so on. We’re not beholden to the seasons we would have been if we decided to RV. But neither of us particularly enjoy the cold, so we’ll be doing a bit of chasing 70. But who knows? Maybe we’ll be so tired of warm temperatures that we’ll spend next winter in Alaska.

Stay In Touch – And Let Us Know Where To Go!

If you’d like to keep up to date on our travels, enter your name and email below. You’ll get occasional updates on our progress – nothing spammy, I promise. We’d also love to get your ideas for where we should go, including if we should come visit you!

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