Lowcountry Boiled

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Several hours of driving South Carolina’s spine-jarring, pot-holed Interstate 95 brought us to another world.  In those hours, we went from North Carolina’s crowded Wilmington coast–much of which looked like any other suburban part of the country–to Hunting Island, a state park in a unique and relatively unspoiled area of South Carolina’s Lowcountry.  It is a place heavy with history, beauty, and humidity.

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After leaving the interstate, we passed through lovely Beaufort, South Carolina (a worthy destination itself).  We drove on through salt marshes, golden with cordgrass, and sandy pine barrens and farmland on St. Helena Island until we came to a very narrow bridge to Hunting Island.  St. Helena does not allow gated communities or condominium developments and generally has maintained its rural feel, with small farms, lots of trailers and rickety houses, shrimp boats, and some funky tourist shops and restaurants.

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I cannot do justice to the area’s unique history in a short blog post.  But, to give a few highlights, it was a popular stop-over for pirates, the descendants of its plantation slaves developed a unique and rich Gullah culture, and it’s where Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his “I have a dream” speech.

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Hunting Island and Fripp Island are the yin and yang outer barrier islands.  Hunting is a state park with a campground on miles of undeveloped beach and neighboring Fripp is a gated resort community.  They serve different demographics, but the ebb and flow of sand and water on each island is affected by what is done on the other.

Hunting Island’s state park is the state’s most popular and we had to book our campground reservations months in advance.  Nevertheless, we were surprised at the line for check in, a first on this trip.  The park was fully booked, even during the week in October.

There was a southern coast T@B gathering while we were there

There was a southern coast T@B gathering while we were there

The roads in the campground are notorious for their narrowness and tight turns through trees, but the turns were overshadowed by the sight of an enormous spider web spanning the road overhead with a large (three to four inches across) yellow spider sitting in the middle waiting for her prey.  She was impressive.  We settled into our jungle-like site and were promptly attacked by swarms of pesky little gnats.

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Our first days were buggy and humid, humid, humid.  It was the type of humidity that makes you feel sticky just sitting at the computer.  Hot, humid, and buggy—we were not in Alaska anymore.  But, as in Alaska, the seafood was extraordinary.  We hit the local fish market, Gay’s, and brought home fresh local shrimp, scallops, and mahi.  The roadside farm market was next, where we bought tomatoes, squash, purple sweet potatoes and a Gullah melon for what, to us, was the amazingly low price of $8.00.  The sweet potatoes ended up hatching insects and I’m not sure what was “Gullah” about the watermelon, but it was delicious.

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We also bought some little handmade sweet grass baskets from a woman selling them in her front yard.  She said her grandchildren helped make them.  They smelled like fields of ripe grass.

We saw egrets, dolphins, deer, an alligator, and a vast mudscape of crabs along the marsh boardwalk.

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Marsh boardwalk

Marsh boardwalk, first section

Marsh boardwalk, second section, the mud on the right was the crab neighborhood

Marsh boardwalk, second section, the mud on the right was the crab neighborhood

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A little guy on the rim of his mud hole

Hunting Island-511There were some downsides.  The campground was beautiful and lush, but badly in need of a clean up.  Our campsite was covered with cigarette butts and the previous residents cleaned up after their dog but then left the bag in the fire ring.  Lovely present.

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There were some grim, worn-out looking people at the campground who had a “don’t mess with me” edge to them.  One couple had a “Confederate Parking Only—If you don’t like it, go back North” sign at their campground, flew a large confederate flag, sported a car plastered with inflammatory bumper stickers, and had two abused-looking dogs barking at the end of short leashes as if they wanted to devour every passerby. Our across-the-road neighbor treated George to a jacked-up tirade about what is wrong with this country, which was mostly a litany of things that he passionately despised.  In passing by, I interjected that his view of the Constitution was not exactly accurate (I couldn’t help myself). I imagine that I added a new category to his list of things to despise—uppity Alaskan women.

Sun filtering through the leaves and woodsmoke

Sun filtering through the leaves and woodsmoke

There were some funny aspects to the campground, too.  Drinking was supposedly prohibited, but the gift shop offered at least a dozen different types of shot glasses.  And one night we heard our neighbor, an elderly guy with a booming voice, telling stories at the campfire, one of which ended with, “and then he lit a fire in the fireplace and the snakes came out and got him.”  I wish I had heard the rest of the story.

By far the best part of Hunting Island, however, was the glorious beach—miles and miles of it.  But that will have to wait until the next post.

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Strange Bedfellows or Life Slices

NC CAMPGROUND-100Travel shakes up habits and preconceptions.  I have strong opinions, likes, and dislikes—a tendency likely to get more pronounced in geezerhood.  That’s a scary thought.  Fortunately, this trip may slow that progression in causing me to reconsider old opinions and take more care in my judgments.

There was a time when I would have been appalled to stay for several weeks at a campground in full view of an interstate highway.  Who does that?  Noisy, crowded, what’s the point?  I like space and nature.  But we stayed in such a campground, and it was (mostly) a pleasure and an education.

Aaah, the interstate.

Aaah, the interstate.

It is not easy to find a good campground in North Carolina’s upscale region.  The Research Triangle of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill is full of universities, smart people, tech jobs, good restaurants, large subdivisions, and acres of shopping opportunities.  Not much room for campgrounds.  But we wanted to spend a few weeks there to visit our daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren and their neighborhood does not allow trailers in driveways.

We made reservations in a campground that appeared to be the best choice in the area.  We knew it was near the interstate.  In fact, it turned out to be within waving distance of the passing cars and trucks.  When we arrived, we were told that we had been bumped from the quieter area that we had requested to a space near the highway, next to a rusty trailer that looked like it had not been moved or had the shades opened in a decade. When we drove back to the office to request another space, we were scolded for going over the 8 mph (strictly enforced!) speed limit.  I looked at George.  “Should we just leave?”  I wanted to, but there were no ready alternatives.

Our personal live oak tree

Our personal live oak.

After some discussion with the management, who turned out to be very nice, we ended up in a lovely space, under an acorn-bombing live oak tree.  Closer to the traffic noise than we would have liked, but—and here’s my first assumption smashed—traffic noise is not so bad.  I always assumed that people who live near interstates had no alternative and simply learn to put up with the noise.  Maybe not.  They may like it.  Because, believe it or not, it can have a soothing quality, especially at night, a sort of traffic white noise lulling you to sleep.  Add varying levels of train whistles and you have a symphony.

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Nighttime highway

And–second assumption smashed—the people sitting in front of their trailers watching the interstate aren’t odd or starved for entertainment (well, they may be, but not necessarily).  Interstate watching is like sitting on your front porch and watching the street activity—but on steroids.

Watching the trucks roll by

Watching the trucks roll by

Sunset and the traffic keeps moving

Sunset and the traffic keeps on

It’s fascinating to see this East Coast road artery pulsing with varying degrees of activity throughout the day and night.  It’s always moving except for a few periods of dead quiet in the early morning hours.

NC CAMPGROUND-38Then you will hear the sound of a truck approaching, swooshing by, fading into the distance, followed by dead quiet again.  Traffic gradually picks up in the predawn and reaches full force when the sun comes up, ebbing and flowing throughout the day, with occasional breakdowns on the side of the road.  It is almost musical in the tempos, tentative and quiet to swelling, pulsating energy.

NC CAMPGROUND-42All those lives passing by at 70 miles per hour—it’s fascinating and hypnotic.  Who are they? Where are they going?  What is their story?  So many people, each with a unique pattern of connections and—what is for them—the all-consuming business of their own lives that we will never know.  It’s mind boggling.

Some of those people stop off at the campground for a night or several.  And we got to hear about their lives.  A woman across from us sat out at her picnic table with her little white pup.  She just sat, doing nothing.  It turns out she had a gas leak in her new RV and was waiting for a repair person.  She was 68 years old and by herself.  Her husband had retired some years ago and then had taken on a second career.  As he again neared retirement, they picked out their ideal RV for retirement travel.  Then he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  He died six months ago and she bought a puppy and the RV she and her husband had picked out.  It was brand new and she was taking this trip, only 37 miles from her home, because it was her anniversary and she needed to get out of the house.

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Another woman came out of her trailer specifically to see Zoe.  She sells knitted hats at venues throughout the South.  Last year, a wind shear blew her trailer off the road and “into a mountain” on her way to a show, banging her up, destroying her trailer, and letting her dogs loose on the highway.  She was headed to the same show this year, but leaving her trailer at the campground, and just driving her truck, because she wasn’t quite ready to drive that stretch of road with a trailer again.  She was delighted to have a spot in front of the campground’s little lake, so she could look out her window while she knitted her hats.

Sunset over the campground lake and interstate

The knitted hat woman’s view from her trailer.  If you look carefully, you can see the traffic on the right.

Nice women, both.  They brought home how ridiculously fortunate we are to be able to do this trip while we are still healthy and kicking.

Other folks presented living theater.  Our first weekend, we were surrounded by an uninhibited multi-RV group, chain smoking, chain drinking, chain eating, ignoring everyone else while they socialized in happy clumps near one RV or the other.  On Sunday morning, they all started hitching up, and we were presented window-side with a view of an ample beluga-white plumber’s crack bent over the hitch for what seemed like ages while its owner let loose with a deep and resonant smoker’s cough.  It was a charming breakfast accompaniment.

We had less neighbors during the week

We had fewer neighbors during the week

But the ducks were permanent residents

But the ducks were permanent residents

These two appeared to watch the sunset from the same spot on shore every night

These two appeared to watch the sunset from the same spot on shore every night

This RV park was like a stagecoach stop.  For most, it was not a destination, just a temporary stop—unhitch, rest for a bit, hitch up again.  People of every economic level and background were thrown together for a night or two, mingling or not, and then moving on.

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I won’t be shopping for a house next to an interstate, but I’m glad we stayed there.  It’s easy to surround ourselves with people like us and to seek out idyllic places.  But it’s nice to break out of that mold and stay in places that are not so pretty with people who are not like us.  I’m hoping to expand experiences as we age, not narrow them.

The skies at our interstate campground were amazing

The skies at our interstate campground were amazing.

The full moon as beautiful as anywhere else

The sunsets were gorgeous.

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And we grew fond of the tiny neighboring town

And the neighboring area had its own kind of beauty, too.

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Nutmegging it

We have been in Connecticut visiting my family for the past week and only now am I finding time for the blog.  It was a bit of a culture shock to be in New England again.  We both grew up here, but have not lived here in a long time.

New England’s towns are old and densely populated, as are those in other parts of the country.  But New England seems to be slower to change than other areas—which is both good and bad.  It has retained regional accents and words (subs are grinders, liquor is bought at a package store, aka a “packy”), and it has its own grocery chains, restaurants, and products.

Grinders

Grinders

On the other hand, it has resisted development more than many other areas and, as a result, does not have a good variety of groceries, restaurants, and retail stores.  And it has crazy-ass drivers on a confusing rural road system that evolved from cow paths.  It’s a unique corner of the country, with a very distinctive look and feel.

We stayed in northeastern Connecticut, which is now called “The Quiet Corner” in tourist descriptions—an uninspiring but apt name.  There isn’t much excitement there–something that has not changed from my childhood.

Very quiet, lots of trees

Very quiet, lots of trees

Connecticut itself is referred to as the “Nutmeg State” because its Yankee peddlers had a reputation for selling phony nutmegs made out of wood.  Apparently the name is a tribute to the peddlers’ “ingenuity” and “thriftiness.”  As someone born and raised in Connecticut, I have always been at a loss to explain how cheating customers was something of which to be proud.  I’ve read another explanation that addresses that concern, which contends that the nutmegs were real but the Southerners who bought them were too ignorant to realize what a nutmeg looked like and thought they were made of wood.  I don’t buy that version. In any case, it strikes me that even for reticent and understated Yankees, no one could think that calling an area the Quiet Corner of the Nutmeg State is going to attract visitors.  Probably just the way they like it.

In many ways, the area looks bizarrely the same as it did fifty years ago.  Some streets have not changed a bit, but have the same houses, painted the same colors (!), and the same small businesses, wearing the same family names out front.  Very déjà vu.  But some things have changed.  There are more people.  And the land has become reforested.

When I was growing up, Connecticut was a schizophrenic mix of aging mill towns—remnants of the industrial revolution’s heyday—and bucolic towns, with white-steepled Congregational churches and town greens, surrounded by rural farmland.  A lot of the farmland had already returned to forest, but there was still a significant amount of open land.  Now the forest has taken over.  Areas that were fields when I was young are unrecognizable–completely covered with mature trees.  Meadowood Road now is meadow-less.  I feel like a geezer–“these woods used to be an open field with bayberries and sweet fern when I was a youngun.”  It is such in-your-face evidence of my age to see that a mature forest has grown up since I left.  Old dog indeed.

Our drive to Connecticut from upstate New York was uneventful.  Once again, we were outrunning storms and it was overcast and windy, but we had some glimpses of the Erie Canal and Hudson River.

Passing over the Hudson with a train going the other way

Passing over the Hudson with a train going in the other direction

We arrived on July 3 and woke up to rain on the Fourth.  Despite the rain, we went to a neighboring town, Willimantic, to see the annual Fourth of July boombox parade, a tradition dating from 1986 when the town couldn’t find a marching band for the parade and they cranked up the boomboxes with band music instead.

It was an entertaining small-town parade, with kids, floats, and fire engines.

A good crowd for the parade even though the rain was coming down

A good crowd for the parade even though the rain was coming down

"Save our wild fish" could be a float from Alaska, although we have more wild fish left to save

It says “Save our wild fish,” which could be a float from Alaska, although we have more wild fish left to save

After the parade, we dried off and enjoyed independence by eating lots of lobsters.

Aaah New England, not wild fish exactly, but worth saving.

Not wild fish exactly, but worth saving and eating.

In the week after the Fourth, we celebrated my mother’s ninety-first birthday and took several day trips.  One day, after giving my mother a tour of our trailer, we headed out for a walk along the Natchaug River and came upon two beautiful restored cars–a 1912 Buick and a rare 1929 LaSalle. The owners had driven them from Manchester, about 20 miles away, at a maximum speed of thirty miles an hour, to enjoy a streamside picnic.  They had restored the cars with great care and attention to detail.  It was a real treat to see and hear about them.

Mom was six years old when this car was built

Mom was six years old when this car was built

Exquisite flying lady hood ornament

Exquisite hood ornament and headlights

I have never been able to come close to my mother’s superhuman energy level. Now that she is ninety-one, we are finally about even.  I am not kidding.  She was gung ho to tackle Gillette Castle on a hot, humid day mid-week.  The “castle” is a retirement estate built by William Gillette (no razor connection) in the early 1900’s.  He was an eccentric actor most well-known for portraying Sherlock Holmes on stage.  His castle vision was weirdly entertaining and had a beautiful view of the wide Connecticut River.  My mother pointed out to the tour guide that the plants in the conservatory were greatly in need of watering.  She was right, and they were soon watered.

One man's vision of retirement

One man’s vision of retirement

As you may suspect from Gillette Castle, stones are one of Connecticut’s most abundant resources.  Fields seem to grow them (one of the reasons the farmers left).  Nutmeggers, being the ingenious and thrifty people that they are, used the stones to build lots of walls and buildings.  The stone walls in the woods are lasting reminders of the fields that used to be there.

Rounded stones in the town hall for the small town of Ashford

Rounded stones in the town hall for the small town of Ashford

One of the Willimantic thread mills--all stone

One of the Willimantic thread mills–all stone

Willimantic has restored the old thread mills for new businesses and brought out the beauty of the stone buildings, which formerly were full of broken windows and always made me think of the miserable working conditions that they likely housed.  In seeking to revitalize the town, Willimantic also brought in an architect for a new bridge in 2000, who designed this thread and frog motif.

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The frogs are a stretch but I like the whimsy

While in Connecticut, we moved from strawberry season to blueberries.  We intend to pick our way through every fruit harvest and did a good job at a pick-your-own farm session with my mother.  It was the first time in very many years that we have not had to keep an eye out for bears while blueberry picking.

A lapful of blueberries

A lapful of blueberries

It continues to be very hot and muggy and there are lots of bugs here—whizzing, attacking, attaching, and crawling varieties.  Zoe took her first swim in a swimming pool, but was a little confused about the steps.

Zoe's cousin dogs are introducing her to new things, including chickens

Zoe’s cousin dogs are introducing her to new things, including chickens

 

 

 

 

The Mottled Hills

Years ago, on a trip with the kids, we traveled through the Black Hills.  We did not have a burning urge to return on this trip.  But there they sat, between Devil’s Tower and the Badlands–two new places we wanted to visit–so we decided to explore a bit more.

The hills are not so black now.  Years of pine beetle infestations have left large swaths of dead reddish-brown trees, or the infested trees have been taken down, leaving clear cuts alternating with the dark forest.  As a result, the hills have a mottled, mangy look.

We left the trailer at the RV park in Custer and drove the Needles Highway, a narrow, twisting road carved through an area of rocky pinnacles, with one-lane tunnels hacked out of the rock face.

Along the Needles Highway.

Along the Needles Highway.  Some of the rocks resembled people or animals.

 

I guess it's stating the obvious to say that the rock formations were unmistakably phallic.

I guess it’s stating the obvious, however, to say that most of the rock formations were unmistakably phallic.  Hard to avoid that perception.

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Blind curves and narrow tunnels through rock spires.

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Notice the trees growing out the side of the rock face.

Pull in the side mirrors.

Pull in the side mirrors.

No scrapes.

Halfway through. A car is waiting on the other side.

We wanted to do some hiking and chose the Sylvan Lake area so that Zoe could swim. The hike provided more rock pinnacle Rorschach tests.

To me this one looks like a salmon pointing to the sky next to a dog.

To me this one looks like a salmon pointing to the sky next to a dog sitting on its haunches.

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Zoe’s in her element–a swim and a hike.

Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake

Fishing and a wedding on the shore.

Fishing and a wedding on the shore.

Our favorite activity in the Black Hills was deer watching from our campsite.  We stayed at a tiny private RV park, the Roost Resort, which overlooked a large field with a herd of whitetail deer, including a young fawn.

Our camping spot at the Roost.

Our camping spot at the Roost.

The deer were active all day, jumping and running, with their white tails flying high at the sign of any danger.   George caught some nice shots of the mother and baby.

 

 

 

 

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The bushes at our campsite were inundated with bumble bees and a few honey bees.

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We also enjoyed a pair of mountain bluebirds that were unusually social.

Nothing lovelier to find on the dump station water hose than a bluebird.

Nothing lovelier to find on the dump station water hose than a bluebird.

Off to the Badlands.

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Sawtooths

Driving toward Stanley

Sawtooths

We continue to luck out with campgrounds and weather.  On a recommendation from a couple we met in Oregon, we headed to Stanley, Idaho–specifically, Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth Range.

The fences were works of art

The fences were works of art

Once again, even though it’s now June, the campgrounds there were almost empty.  They will be filling up over the weekend, but during the week, we owned the place.  We had a huge space with a panoramic view of the Sawtooth Mountains and Redfish Lake.

Pristine Redfish Lake

Pristine Redfish Lake

Redfish is a natural lake, not a reservoir (making it extra beautiful, in my opinion), and was named for its salmon spawns.

Zoe had her own private beachThere is a designated dog beach right down the hill from our campsite and Zoe swam three times a day.  She was so stiff and sore from all the exercise that she was hobbling around on our second evening there. The intense blue and green lake colors were like the Caribbean and the dog beach was so beautiful most humans have never had the opportunity to swim in such surroundings.  Lucky dog.  I went swimming too, very briefly.  It was extremely cold.

Spectacular water colors

Spectacular water colors and the trees almost look like palms in the way they lean.

It was so deserted, I was able to play the fiddle outside on the hillside near our campsite and took an outside solar shower (with bathing suit).  Lovely.  As our last evening was winding down, we heard a very loud repeated eek, eek, eek, call and an osprey flew over the campsite toward the lake carrying a fish in its talons.  There were butterflies and birds everywhere—and no people.  The place was magical.

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Zoe is done posing for this staged shot, but it was a good end to a good day