Thursday, February 5, 2015

Hey Ma

I’ve spent nearly half a month in Columbia, South Carolina since the start of last fall, totaling the five long weekends I’ve visited. For someone who admires very little about Southern culture besides its mouth-watering, eventual heart attack-inducing cuisine, I must admit that I’ve enjoyed my time there and feel like I’ve gotten to know the town fairly well.

My restless personality makes it exceedingly difficult for me to sit still and pass the time by doing the same activities in the same places over and over again. Thus after arriving into town on Thursday night, I was very much looking forward to waking up the next day and doing something the meatball and I hadn’t done much of since our visit to Harpers Ferry last summer – enjoying the peace and tranquility of nature.

Congaree National Park, located just twenty minutes or so outside of Columbia, is one of just 59 such protected areas in the United States to receive that designation. It is the second-smallest park by area in the continental United States, covering over 26,000 acres, and preserves the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the country.

For our purposes, though, it was the site of a lovely 6.6-mile hike traversing the woods and the floodplain of the Congaree River. We were told this moderate route would take between three to four hours to complete, but even with Gina’s stumpers and small strides slowing us (my gangly long legs) down, your two champions completed the walk in about two and a half hours. Take that, trail guide!

The pose of a true outdoorswoman

I can’t tell you how relaxing it was to listen to the sounds of nature, even if we had absolutely no idea where they were coming from or what was responsible for making them, and how gratifying it was to see an environment left to itself and not artificially shaped by man. We were two of handful of people in the park that day, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. For a fleeting moment, we spotted a family of wild hogs scampering across the woods not too far from us, a reminder that we were part of their world, not the other way around.

After re-joining the world of the humans, serenaded on repeat on our drive back into town by the dulcet tones of Cam’Ron and his chart-topper, “Hey Ma”, we had dinner at a pasta place on the other side of town. Bacon-wrapped southeastern scallops served with a spicy sriracha slaw got us started, before I had crab bisque and a lobster ravioli dish and Gina had chicken with sautéed mushrooms, roasted red peppers, and green onions in a cayenne cream sauce over spaghetti. Not too shabby.

Dinner time

Later that evening we went out to a bar called Pinch in Five Points, one of the two main nightlife districts in Columbia, and the music there was just as on point as earlier in the day. I hadn’t heard ‘90s and early 2000s songs in a good long while, at least not since my iPod ceased functioning with any regularity several months ago, so I was comforted by the likes of Good Charlotte, Avril Lavigne, and Lou Bega. Somehow, two very intoxicated (and almost undoubtedly underage) people wearing Carolina Panthers jerseys thought grinding to “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” would be the appropriate thing to do, so I had no shame in taking pictures of them without making the least effort to hide what I was doing. 

We continued our physical exertions at South Carolina's palatial on-campus gym, which charged me an extortionately high $5 as a guest to gain admittance to its facilities. We made thorough use of the practice basketball courts, playing spirited games of one-on-one, around the world, and horse. If we would've played two more classic games, knockout and 21, my flashbacks to youth basketball would have been complete. Then we moved over to the ping pong table downstairs, a workout in itself just to get there in this place, and pretended to be Asians for a while. It was all good fun.

The main event on Saturday, though, was the university’s basketball game against Georgia. Admittedly, the prospect of seeing two middling teams from a decidedly mediocre basketball conference wouldn’t be the most exciting thing in a world to any sane, rational person, but it did have appeal to me and I relished the opportunity to do so. Well, at least for the first half. The game was brutal. It was positively unwatchable. South Carolina controlled the game from tip to buzzer and won 67-50, but I would sooner gouge my own eyeballs out then be subjected to watch anything like that again. Georgia took 50 shots in the game and made just 11 of them, including only 3 of the 17 three-pointers they attempted. The two schools combined to commit 44 fouls in a 40-minute game. The official attendance was 13,031, but there was hardly any atmosphere or noise in the building and the fans started trickling out while there were still five minutes left in the game. Still, a major college basketball game is a major college basketball game, and I was happy to attend. Cross one arena off my list in the quest to see as many games in as many different venues as I can.

Another missed shot, I'm sure

Our Saturday night was positively wild. You can’t have had a crazier night than the one us party animals had. Through the miracle of Apple, we FaceTimed with Gina’s dad in New Jersey for a while, and were delighted to hear that her brother Cameron had taken a break from lighting his girlfriend Jaime on fire long enough to be accepted to Penn State this fall, though is undecided if he will attend. We also made plans to move Merlin, Gina’s cat, to her dad’s house until Gina gets a place of her own at some point this fall and will be able to take her big boy back for good. Then we watched my ultimate man crush, Justin Timberlake, fail to act his way out of a paper bag alongside the beautiful and talented Mila Kunis in a movie I have a secret soft spot for, Friends with Benefits We also had Ben and Jerry’s chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. I’d say the night was definitely a win.

We felt so refreshed and content with ourselves after our hike on Friday that we set out for another nearby park on Sunday morning for another outdoor activity. Saluda Shoals Park was the site for an hour-long bike ride on the banks of the mighty Saluda River, if by mighty you mean serene to the point of brackishness. Still, it felt good to be outside on a chilly morning, feeling the brisk breeze whipped up by our frantic pedaling on our one-speed, back-brake bikes. What a bell on those bad boys, though! We finished our time in the park by taking advantage of the children’s playground near one of the campsites. Kids have it made, with their miniature rock walls and their monkey bars and their curvy slides. I miss recess.

Morning ride

Before my flight back to Baltimore, we ate and were merry at Mellow Mushroom and Marble Slab in downtown Columbia. There are positives and negative to the immediate proximity of delicious pizza and ice cream places, I suppose; far more joyous and satisfied in the moment ranging to the despair and stomach pains afterwards. It was tough going from the beautiful, 60-degree weather of South Carolina back to the freezing temperatures of the mid-Atlantic, but we’d had yet another successful visit and are looking forward to the next one in a couple weeks. More then.

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