Thursday, January 22, 2015

Land of the Pines

The fortuitous timing of a federal holiday last Monday and some spontaneous thinking last Thursday night combined masterfully. I was afforded a chance to pack up the ol’ Camry and head on down to South Carolina without having to miss a day of work, and there was simply no way that opportunity could be missed. The meatball was waiting!

That was what I kept reminding myself, at least, on the 530-mile slog from Baltimore, the first two hours of which were frustratingly spent in traffic on one of this country’s worst rush-hour commutes, the I-95 corridor between Baltimore, Washington, and Fredericksburg. Believe me, when the highlight of a drive is stopping for a jalapeno-filled pretzel with nacho cheese dip at Sheetz in Smithfield, North Carolina, the less said about that experience, the better.

After arriving at 12:30 AM and heading straight to bed like the old soul that I am, I woke up Saturday morning feeling refreshed and ready for a day of adventures. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision to come down to Columbia, so there really hadn’t been time to obsessively and compulsively plan anything, as is my usual modus operandi, but it was nice to just go with the flow for once.

Gina and I had a nice morning stroll around The Horseshoe on the university campus, stopping at Barnes and Noble (as we do) to pick up Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, one of the most acclaimed new fiction titles of the year so far, which we’ll begin reading together soon. We walked from campus to the capitol building of South Carolina, the State House, where the Confederate battle flag has been proudly displayed on the grounds since 1962. While there, we bumped into an old friend of mine from middle school and high school and had the most pleasant of times catching up. I hadn’t seen Janie in at least 6 or 7 years, but the graduate school at South Carolina has an asset in its Public History program. One of life’s most underrated pleasures is the art of conversation, and I was glad to spend some time renewing acquaintances with an old friend like no time had passed.

The South will rise again?

After that, we walked up and down Main Street for a bit – for a state capitol, Main Street in Columbia really isn’t much to brag about, though it does seem to have up-and-coming restaurants and apartment buildings – before grabbing sandwiches at Groucho’s in the Five Points district. Formula 45 sauce: delicious. Yes, it was annoying to pay 25 cents for water in a Styrofoam cup that broke and spilled everywhere, but you can’t win them all.

We fulfilled a long-standing quest of mine that afternoon by going bowling with a few of Gina’s friends and roommates. I’ve been pestering her for weeks, if not months, to go, and as is the case with most of my requests, she puts up with me heroically, despite having every reason to be nothing short of annoyed. Seven of us played for a couple hours, and when the alley turned its lights off for a bit of cosmic action, it was on.

Aw, her tiny feet

Gina, Emily, and I capped the night by going to a dueling piano bar in the fancier part of Columbia, such as it is. We may have been the youngest people in the place by about a decade, but it was still a fun time. We stood on the balcony, drinking our beers and taking part in one of the more entertaining pastimes in life: people-watching. Our favorite was unanimous: a couple in their 60s, at least, dancing and having the best time of anyone there that night. When “Shout” by the Isley Brothers – a song everyone knows, young and old – was played, both the man and woman were literally laying on the floor on their backs dancing. When I’m their age, I’m sure I’ll be lucky to stand and walk without debilitating hip, knee, and back pain, so watching them channel their inner teenagers was heart-warming. “Wagon Wheel” by Darius Rucker was also played; the second time in two days I had heard that song after going months without hearing it once. Sigh, country music.

There was lots of laughing later that night, not to mention cheese and pepperoni Bagel Bites and Ben and Jerry’s chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. Gina and I had made bourbon-glazed salmon (thank you, Publix) for dinner with broccoli on the side for both of us, as well as penne with raspberry vinaigrette dressing for me and a sweet potato for Gina, before we went to the piano bar, so we were allowed to cheat a little. Right? Right.

We woke up Sunday with a more relaxed day on the docket. The morning got off to the best possible start with several episodes of Parks and Rec, and we went on a long walk by the Congaree River in the afternoon. See, we made up for those Bagel Bites. Despite it being nearly 60 degrees, the River Walk was filled with college girls wearing oversized, baggy sweaters as if Columbia was sub-Arctic in climate. This inexplicable choice of wardrobe, which not coincidentally was combined with full makeup and huge sunglasses, amused me tremendously.

Gorgeous day for a walk

The best part of the walk by far, though, was all of the dogs out gallivanting. Never in my life have I seen such perfect pups, of all breeds and sizes. I wanted to take so many of them right there and then from their owners for myself. Owning a husky is something I want badly one day, and there were several showing their stuff on this Sunday afternoon. There just isn’t a more beautiful dog than that.

We watched football on Sunday night (full disclosure: I couldn’t have been more wrong about Andrew Luck and the Colts) and unashamedly took full advantage of a gift certificate Gina had to a nice Mexican restaurant in town. Can’t go wrong with chips and queso, or BBQ shrimp, chicken teriyaki, and chicken pesto tacos. I may not love a lot about the South, but the one thing done better there than anywhere else I’ve been is the food.

Gina and I ran a few errands and had lunch Monday morning before I made the return drive to Baltimore. Thank God for daylight and podcasts, as they made my drive back exponentially more bearable than the slog down there on Friday. Instead of Sheetz, I stopped at a Dairy Queen in Dunn, North Carolina for a Georgia Mud Fudge Blizzard. Thanks to either the incompetence of its employees or a faulty credit card swipe machine (yes, I was going to pay $3.30 with a debit card, and I’ll be charitable and say it was the machine’s error), I even got it for free! Can’t beat that.

I return to Columbia next weekend. If it is half as rewarding as this trip, I’ll be a happy camper. More then.

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