South Carolina and I do not get along. We met in 2009 when I was applying for residency positions. I didn’t know much about South Carolina but it was relatively close to my parent’s home in Florida and the program seemed solid, so I went for an interview. Arriving the night before, I wandered around the streets, quite enamored with the historic homes, the seaside vibe and the aromas of Southern cooking. However, not long into my 6 hour “date” with the program did I realize we had nothing in common. My prospects in Junior League were dim and I had preemptively excused myself from Baptist Bible study. I gave South Carolina the Tinder left swipe (OK kids, hang on while I explain this for those over 40 and other happy couples. Tinder is a dating app. Swipe left means you are passing on a potential date. I will just leave it at that.) Boy, was she pissed.
I left the interview to discover that it had been raining for hours. As it turns out, South Carolina was built by the same people that built the Netherlands. Why build on perfectly dry land when you can build under water? The hospital was wisely built at the nadir of the city so that it never just rains there, it floods. Every exit of the parking garage was blocked by two feet of water and every time I circled around, the water getting higher. Finally, I came to the conclusion that it was a rental car and I really didn’t give a rat’s ass if it worked tomorrow as long as it got me home. The streets were no better and every way I turned, I found long lines of cars and blocked streets.
Perhaps this would have been an amusing antidote in an otherwise tedious string of interviews but one year prior to this, Hurricane Ike had wiped out Galveston. It looked something like this.
Fearing the worst, I panicked. Coming to a complicated intersection with water in every direction as far as I could see, I simply pulled up onto the island in the middle and stopped the car. Normally I consider myself a very calm person in a crisis. That is my job after all, to be the sane one when people start dying. I like to think that I maintain my composure. I do not yell during codes. I do not rush. I am methodical. I do not resort to gender norms to escape responsibility. I like a little adventure. I take pride in my self.
But that day I was getting the hell out of Dodge and used every means at my disposal. So I turned on the tears for that policeman. After hearing my story, the policeman he gave me directions then stopped all cars to allow me to cross the intersection. I finally made it out of town, vowing never to return. I now live in a desert.
So here I am in South Carolina because someone had to go make Congaree a national park. It’s like going out to lunch and running into a bad one-night stand and his proper, Southern mother when all I wanted was Tuna on rye to go.
The day started benignly enough. I met by my neighbor who kindly invited me over for tea as I was prepping the camper to leave. I hesitated. What you have to understand is that I love a good schedule. As a student, I actually enjoyed making detailed schedules in 15 minute increments to maximize my efficiency. I keep a whiteboard that dwarfs all other pictures in my house. It is easy to read because of course every event is color-coded. I believe accordion file folders can solve most problems. I cannot leave Staples without a package of sticky notes. Stopping for tea would perhaps throw off my whole day, but part of leaving a normal work life for the road was to live in the moment the best that I can. As an ER doc my conversations have developed an unpleasant habit of get-to-the-point, why-are-you-here frankness. Stopping to smell the coffee is what it is all about and so I spent an hour chatting with a very pleasant couple from Canada. After several days in relative isolation in the Great Smokies, I relished the conversation. I left the campground in an unusually happy mood.
I should do that more often, I thought. In my head, I simply adjusted my schedule. I would spend and hour less at the Biltmore mansion and arrive a little later at the campground. All the pieces still fit.
For many years I have been told that the Biltmore is a must see. This is the American equivalent of Downton Abbey. I would say that people flock to see this place because of their interest in history but then the Lincoln log cabin would be overrun as well. Perversely we are willing to pay the rich to see how rich they are. There I ran into a wall of people with black pieces of plastic glued to their ear, refusing to move until instructed by the audio guide. I felt my schedule strain under the pace of the herd. Again I scolded myself. I would not come back here so I might as well make the most of the opportunity and settled into seeing famous wedding gowns from period movies, which I take is their subtle way of drumming up wedding business.
Finally I was on my way again for just a short drive to Congaree. The drive was pleasant enough right up until the time that Siri announced that I was “arriving at destination” in her chirpy little voice. I looked around at the empty fields, a dirt road and most concerning, no little brown sign. I can only guess that when Siri has no idea what you are asking for, she just throws a pin and takes you there. 30 miles from the entrance, my schedule was really off.
I tried again. Siri dutifully took me on the most efficient route, right into a closed road. South Carolina did nothing to help here. There is nothing marking that at the end of this narrow back country road you will need to do a three point turn with your trailer in order to backtrack. I still had not seen a little brown sign.
Racing the setting sun, I pulled into the camping area. I knew ahead of time that there would be minimal accommodations but I’m prepared for this. Then I read the rules (over and over, I might add, desperately looking for some exemption) that clearly state there are to be no RVs, campers, trailers or car camping. It is still unclear to me if could have just huddled down in the parking lot for the night but the sign seemed to indicate otherwise which means I didn’t have any place to land.
At this point I resorted to calling for backup which and called my parents to have them surf for a new place to camp while I drove. Who else do you call but the people most concerned with your safety? Any why wouldn’t camping next to a military base be safe? And that’s when I found myself pulling into a rutted dirt lot where the woman spoke to me through thick bullet proof glass. The trailers next door had that distinct I-might-be-a-meth-lab look to them. To add insult to injury, after hours of traversing South Carolina’s crumbling roads, my refrigerator couldn’t take the trauma. I opened it to find that the plastic bin in the door was broken. Now I had no place to put my beer! South Carolina showed its true colors and that whole Southern Hospitality show was a load of crap!
I did finally run through the Congreve. It was a fascinating sight for someone that had never seen a swamp. I expected a creepy, horror movie feel to it but instead it felt old and wise. My only disappointment is that I did not have time or arrangements to float down the river. Notably were no “No Swimming” signs as if for once it was so obvious that it wasn’t necessary to post. I did come to the conclusion that any trail that includes the word “snake” in its name should be avoided. Unlike bears, snake encounters were in no way welcome.
I then left for safe haven at the beach to drink good wine with old friends. Of course as I write this, it is raining. Pouring, really. I am considering the sea worthiness of my vessel. How many water wings does it take to float a teardrop? I swear South Carolina hates me.