It was six months ago this month when I announced my intentions to more or less hang up my blog hat, so to speak. The post had a “goodbye-but-hopefully-not-forever” tone about it, and I did hint at the end that I may pop up every now and again with the occasional update. Aside from today’s entry, and from my February 18th Oscar predictions post – an annual rite of passage that began in 2012, all has otherwise been silent on the blogging front.
I still send the occasional Tweet courtesy of my @gringopotpourri feed, although ceasing production on the blog while simultaneously suspending my Facebook account all but derailed any substantial Twittersphere engagement.
All of that having been said, I thought I’d pop up from the void to let you know that I am still alive and well.
A Doggy Dogg World
Alas, my life isn’t much different than it was last December – my last month of regular blog content production. I am still residing in East Tennessee and living the call center life. I come home each evening to Molly, a golden retriever who grows sweeter – and furrier – with each passing day. Seriously, each time I brush her I remove enough dog hair for three hamster coats, and when her coat grows back each fall following an early summer grooming, it comes in thicker than ever.
In all seriousness, I love that dog. I technically inherited Molly after my mom passed away, although in truth, Molly took ownership of me the first time we met, much to my jealous mother’s chagrin. While it is no secret that I battle with depression, Molly makes every tough day worthwhile. You can imagine my recent horror when she went roaming after I sent her out late at night to do her business. She has always been trustworthy, so I thought I could let her enjoy a wander around the field behind my house, with plenty for her to sniff, particularly in the bushes at the field’s periphery.
I stepped inside for a minute or two to wash her food bowl and prepare my coffee for the next morning. She didn’t return. I screamed her name and drove around the surrounding blocks, to no avail. Finally, I left a water dish outside the front and back doors and tried, without success, to get some sleep. Each time I would hear a dog bark outside or hear a noise, I would race downstairs and peek outside, but there was no one. I arose the next morning after what was a long, sleepless night, and after caffeinating, combed the bushes behind my house, worried that she broke her leg in some undergrowth or something similar. I was about to give up and simply wait for the local animal control to open at noon, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw Molly wagging her tail. She had fallen asleep in the shade of a door frame to an apartment in the building next door. I checked her up and down for ticks and injuries, of which there were none. She drank almost an entire bowl of water, and then accompanied me upstairs, where we both went back to sleep. As regards her potty runs, I haven’t let her out of my sight since then. A lucky break, and the only casualties were a few more gray hairs and an evening of sound sleep.
Out and about
On the travel front, I find myself blessed with four weeks of vacation and personal time that I can use as I see fit. International travel continues to elude me for the time being, however; I found myself banging my head against the wall a few months ago over the price of airfare to Mexico City, a place that I yearn to make a return visit to. For now, I’m contenting myself with regional travel, reminding myself of all that the southeast has to offer.
I spent four days in early May in and around Columbia, SC. The capital of the Palmetto State, Columbia has a surprising amount to offer considering that most tourists bypass it for more popular places like Charleston, Myrtle Beach, and Hilton Head Island. Indeed, Charleston itself, home of not only the first Civil War siege but also of a major Revolutionary War campaign by the British, was my original destination. I have long heard good things about the coastal city’s maritime history and colonial architecture. It was only after mapping out my route that I decided upon Columbia instead.
I saw that Columbia, midway through the state along I-26, might make for a quick detour on the way to Charleston so that I could check out its state house and maybe take a quick stroll through downtown. Intrigued, I read up on the state’s capital city and was floored by all that it apparently had to offer.
Columbia sits at the confluence of three major rivers that originate as drainages from the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Congaree River, as muddy as the Mississippi, is a haven for bird life as it slowly meanders towards the Atlantic Ocean somewhere between Myrtle Beach and Charleston. Along the way, it passes through virgin forest and ever-changing marshland that would resemble a Louisiana Bayou if not for the fact that the river’s banks are lined with some of the tallest trees in the Eastern United States. This isolated tract is protected by the federal government and managed as Congaree National Park, an NPS gem that I had never heard of until reading up on the area for this particular trip. Browsing online pictures of the swaying trees and boardwalk trails that pass above it all, I knew that Congaree was a must-see.
The park, perhaps 30 miles outside of Columbia by combination highway and back road, seems neatly bisected by an access road that, interestingly enough, features completely different flora and fauna on one side of the road from the other. For most visitors, myself included, the two-mile boardwalk loop hike, letting you gaze up at woodpeckers in the trees and down at the knobby “knees” – trunk-like roots of cypress trees that jut, knee-length, out of the mud – is the highlight. But I completed a second hike as well, along a grasslands loop that passed through pine forest and had the climate and terrain of a more northerly place. As with other parks managed by the National Park Service, it was the diversity of the terrain that surprised me the most. (If I only I had purchased a kayak or canoe and toted it with me; setting out on the water would surely have been a superlative snake-spotting and bird-watching experience.)
The second major river in Columbia, the Broad, flows south near the edge of downtown, while the third, the Saluda, bisects its nicest city-proper tourist attraction to the west – the aptly-named Riverbanks Zoo and Garden. I spent an entire day exploring this almost-200-acre zoo, aquarium, and botanical garden. I arrived in time to catch the first sea lion show of the day, ready to leave if it included cruel tricks and Shamu-like performances, but the show was mercifully short and simple – just introductions of the animals as they waddled out of the water and onto the stage to be fed. I skipped the lorikeet feeding as it was an add-on to the already-steep $19.95 entrance fee, but lingered at the gorilla habitat, a spacious expanse (relatively speaking) that found the entire family hunkered in the shade against the glass wall of an air-conditioned viewing chamber.
Most animals, except for the koalas and the snakes, had sizable enclosures. I remember a pair of Galapagos tortoises seemed to be enjoying their grassy diet – they were smiling as they ate. 😊 A pride of lions was, not surprisingly, napping in the shade, but it was a still a minor wildlife-spotting victory considering that lions can be notoriously difficult to spot at zoos. An impressive footbridge across the river led to your choice of two uphill paths to the botanical garden. The tram takes the direct route while hardy walkers can follow a paved trail through the woods and past the ruins of a riverside cotton mill, built by slave labor in the early 1800’s. The gardens themselves, which include a children’s playland and an aqueduct-like fountain (pictured above), seemed a world away from the zoo. The clouds rolled in as morning turned to afternoon, but kept the sun’s warmest rays at bay during the 85-degree day; it must be simply scorching down here in July and August.
The city’s other sites are scattered in and around downtown, and range from a leaf-strewn African-American cemetery, to a clapboard house in which president Woodrow Wilson lived as a child, to what can only be called the world’s largest fire hydrant. I spent the better part of day walking up and down Main Street, a shutterbug’s dream. For one thing, the city was burned to the ground during the Civil War, so most of its downtown architecture dates from the early 20th century and is of the Art Nouveau style – perhaps my favorite. For another thing, photography is allowed inside the Columbia Museum of Art, even inside its temporary gallery displaying Jackson Pollock’s stunning, simply-named “Mural.” No flash, please.
Elsewhere along Main Street, Mast General Store dates back two centuries, while the Tapp’s Department Store building, in bold Depression Modern style, has a new life as a center for artists in residence. I had a nice conversation with screenwriting professor-turned-media artist Ron Hagell as he touched up one of his latest pieces (as seen below). I ate well both times I found myself downtown, and spent my last evening strolling around the grounds of the State House, which sits at the end of Main Street. The Greek Revival-style capitol building, replacing the original (destroyed during the Burning of Columbia) is a popular gathering place for buskers to strum their guitars and for newlyweds to pose for pictures. Like other state houses around the country, its grounds are dotted with various war memorials and statues, including, in Columbia’s case, an unfortunate one of firebrand career politician Strom Thurmond.
The drive home from Columbia was supposed to take just 3.5 hours, but Molly and I extended by making two side trips. The first was to another NPS-managed site that I had never even heard of prior to passing a roadside marker for it on my way into Columbia. Ninety Six National Historic Site, in a woodsy section seemingly 100 miles from nowhere, recreates the trenches, fort, and village of Ninety Six, an inland settlement that was burned by the British during the Revolutionary War not long after their attack on Charleston. Molly was a trooper as we hiked the paved trail around the grounds, then strolled deeper into the woods on a tick-infested trail passing a woodland cemetery and former trading post. (It wasn’t until several hours later, after I showered, that I discovered, to my horror, a tick exiting from inside my thigh, and it wasn’t until the next day that I found two ticks on Molly herself. Yikes!) Oh…and if you’re wondering why the settlement was called Ninety Six, nobody knows for sure.
Molly and I found ourselves racing to leave Ninety Six before its closure at sunset, but we ended up with just enough daylight to take in one more side trip – to Newberry, a Main Street community between Ninety Six and I-26. “Mayberry” might be a better word to describe the quaintness of Newberry, but I adored its architecture, which included the eye-catching, French Gothic-style Newberry Opera House. What – the hell – is a building like that doing in a town like this?!
I didn’t mean, Loyal Reader, for my check-in post to turn into a full-fledged trip report. That being said, I enjoyed myself and made a commitment to do as much road-tripping this summer as my budget and my time allows. On my drive home, I noticed additional destination markers that piqued my interest for future trips: Cowpens National Battlefield, near the SC-NC state line, and the home of another Revolutionary War skirmish. Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, in Flat Rock, NC, where the Illinois-born poet retired to become a goat farmer. Chimney Rock State Park, also in NC and the filming location for the climactic cliff-top battle in the 1992 film “The Last of the Mohicans.” Chimney Rock itself is not far from another worthy destination: Asheville, NC, whose lively downtown I have explored before, though not to a satisfactory extent, and whose sprawling Biltmore Estate I have visited twice.
I already checked one of those places off my list: Carl Sandburg Home NHS. “Connemara,” as the writer named his residence, is a lovely place. Each room of the residence itself is adorned from floor to ceiling with books, and has a cluttered, lived-in look that makes it feel as if Carl and wife Lilian just left for the supermarket. While house tours, which cost $5.00, are worth the splurge, the home itself is the least-interesting part of the site. Visitors can tour the outbuildings, stroll around the lake below the home, and pet the goats, a cantankerous group that may number into the dozens. I hiked all five miles of trails dotting the site, and found a few moments of late afternoon solitude atop Glassy Mountain, which offers hazy views towards the Blue Ridge Mountains.
My drive to Carl Sandburg House passed another point of interest, although this one will require a very early wake-up to explore in my usual, thorough manner. Mount Mitchell State Park, just inside NC from Tennessee, is not only the highest mountain in North Carolina but also the highest in the country east of the Mississippi. The 12-mile trail, which based on trail reports that I have scoured, is not in the best of shape following the rainiest winter in decades, sounds truly daunting for this out-of-shape gringo, but I yearn to make the 6,683-foot (2,037-meter) summit.
The Elephant in the Room
While I clearly have much to keep me busy – and I still need to make it to my original-intended destination, Charleston – this ambitious regional travel wish list as part of my lifestyle blog naturally transitions to the elephant in the room – the reason why I otherwise ceased content production last December.
I am referring to my autobiography.
The book ranges somewhere from one-third to halfway finished. I have a rough chapter outline that flip-flops back and forth between stories of my travels (several of which have already been regaled on this site) and tales about my life in general, namely the various stumbles that have occurred on the way. I have a title, which shall be revealed at a later date. I even have a targeted first draft completion date.
What I don’t have is an ending. The 200 or so pages attempt to summarize my travel highlights, various career and relationship stumbles, and the familial hardships that shaped me into the person that I am. But what does it all mean? Where is the lesson to be learned? In my quest to find happiness or contentment, can I see the forest for the trees?
I imagined, when I began writing the book, that the ending would find me achieving some long-sought career success and meeting a woman who truly gets me. Or, barring that, to at least get a sizable raise at my current job and maybe get my brains fucked out once or twice to reset the clock, so to speak. (I am only human, after all.)
But alas, no. Career advance comes slowly at my current call center. The reason being, it pays better than its competition, and its benefits are top notch. As such, most leaders at the center have been there for five years or longer, and they hold onto their jobs tighter than baby possums to their mama when crossing the road. Frankly, I can’t say that I blame them. As for the relationship scene, dating in Tennessee is like playing Russian roulette – there may be plenty of fish to choose from, but you don’t really want to go fishing in that pond.
To be fair, though, I have no one to blame for the slow progress on the book than myself. For one thing, I am a notorious procrastinator. For another thing, my creative juices aren’t always flowing. My favorite author, Stephen King, has said that he writes every day without fail. For me, though, I’m no Sai King. I fear that if I write when my heart isn’t in it, the process will become a chore, not a passion.
Bear with me. I will finish the book…happy ending or not. Likewise, I will climb Mount Mitchell and take in more of the Carolinas. And I will give Molly her summer haircut…which she’ll no doubt post pictures of on her doggy FB page. (I still don’t know who taught her how to type.)
I hope that all is well with you and yours. Thanks for reading.