Congaree Swamp National Park, South Carolina

Congaree Swamp; Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Click to enlarge.

The swamp lies within 20 minutes of Columbia, and the locals seem to take full advantage.  The parking lot was packed at lunch time as were the nearby boardwalk trails.  Several enthusiastic fishermen occupied the river bank.  The temperature was significantly cooler than one might expect, probably in the 60’s.

Congaree Swamp; Palmetto and Water Tupelo.  Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Palmetto and Water Tupelo. Click to enlarge.

By early evening it was just me and a group of 4 young Canadians.  We camped at opposite ends of the otherwise deserted campground.  I set up well ahead of them and directed them to the water – a dingy drinking fountain running at low pressure.  Every aspect of the park was free.  While several national parks allow free admission, free camping is virtually unheard of.  I was very appreciative and so, seemingly, were the Canadians.  Outside of Kel and Julie in Big Bend they were the most courteous people I have ever shared a campground with.

After dark I headed into town and spent a couple of hours in the Starbucks wifi lounge.  The girls let me stay and work even though they were closing down the shop.  When I arrived back in camp the Canadians were already in bed.  I ran into an opossum on the way back to my tent.  I walked along side him, inches away, for 15-20 yards.  It took him some time to realize I was there, even though my headlamp was shining on him full-bore.  Eventually he took off into the woods.

Congaree Swamp; Bald Cypress and Water Tupelo trees.  Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Bald Cypress and Water Tupelo trees. Click to enlarge.

The next morning I spoke with the ranger, an articulate blond in her early 20’s.  We compared notes on opossums and water boatmen (bugs that swim in groups on the water surface).  “So you enjoyed the swamp then?” she asked with anticipation.  Of course I had.  Still, I was tired and beat up from 7 weeks of traveling.  I had surpassed my limit of endurance.  I decided to head home that morning, saving my remaining plans in Georgia and Florida for another time.  The ranger asked about my route and wished me safe travels.

The drive west through Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi was beautiful, featuring warm sun and brilliant green forests.  After entering Arkansas the temperatures became progressively more frigid.  The cold helped to confirm that I was, eagerly, nearly home.

Congaree Swamp; palmetto.  Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; palmetto. Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; switch cane and water tupelo trees.  Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; switch cane and water tupelo trees. Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; vines on water tupelo trees.  Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; vines on water tupelo trees. Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Bald Cypress and Water Tupelo trees.  Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Bald Cypress and Water Tupelo trees. Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Click to enlarge.

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Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL Part 2

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL: Click to enlarge.

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL: Click to enlarge.

It was getting late, so I headed to the coon dog cemetery while there was still daylight.  Only bona fide coon hounds are eligible to be buried there and approval is needed from a local authority.  I found rows of well kept gravestones, with the customary profusion of US and Confederate flags.  If not for the signs and inscriptions, the setting could pass for a human cemetery.

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL: Click to enlarge.

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL: Click to enlarge.

As I drove back from the cemetery, Junior flagged me down on the shoulder in front of his ranch.  He wanted to show me a raccoon he’d live-trapped in a shed, the latest of many awaiting relocation a few miles away.  The animal was the size of an average cat, with charcoal gray fur.  It hunkered in one corner of the wire cage looking sad.

By this time a local friend had also stopped to chat, though I never caught his name.  He drove a blue-green Chevy pickup that was perhaps 10 years old.  Dressed in a collared Airgas shirt and jeans, the man was heading home from work.  He had an athletic build and spoke with a thick accent that was distinct from Junior’s.  The three of us passed guns around as Junior showed us his vast personal collection out the back of his truck.  After 20 minutes I made my goodbyes and headed back to the Trace to find a campsite for the night.  “You enjoy your time here,” Junior said as I headed out.

Near my highway exit I noticed the other gentleman driving behind me.  He waved and exited to the Trace in front of me, pulling into the first Park Service turnout.  I parked near him and walked over, thinking I had left something behind.  I didn’t know why else he would have followed me.  “You interested in some fun?” he asked.  “No, I don’t get into that,” I said.  “Are you straight?” he asked.  “I’m as straight as they come,” I replied.  The man immediately appeared very embarrassed and apologized profusely.  As he answered texts from his wife inquiring on his whereabouts, he told me in effect that he was new to being gay.  “I don’t know how to read guys,” he said.  What gave him the wrong idea about me was that I looked at him twice while talking with Junior, which apparently is “the signal.”  “Don’t think nothin’ about it,” he reassured me.  With that he drove home to his wife.  I was not upset, but as I drove up the Trace I began to feel sick to my stomach, and that feeling persisted until I fell asleep.

Junior owns what sounds like a burlesque operation, his Buzzard’s Roost Massage business.  As he describes it, groups of older women come to the ranch for a “girls’ getaway.”  Junior performs massages on them.  With a twinkle in his eye, Junior told me that he keeps KY Warming Jelly on hand.  It is customary for customers to hang their bras on a rack of antlers when they leave.  I did not pursue this topic, as what Junior told me in passing was disturbing enough.

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL Part 1

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL:  Click to enlarge.

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL: Click to enlarge.

For ten years I saved a 50-word magazine article describing a coon dog cemetery in Cherokee, AL.  Now that I was driving the Trace, I could finally see it.  The cemetery happened to be 35 minutes away from the Trace, and so in the scheme of things I could not have been much luckier.  That assumes one knows the way.  Once you exit the interstate in Cherokee, the roads are poorly marked and intersect at odd angles.

After driving through a neighborhood of ranch style homes, I headed down a rural two-lane road flanked by tall grass and tall trees on both sides.  Seeing a cemetery coming up on the left, I parked in a turnout across the road to see if that was it.  This was the town’s human cemetery, so I crossed back to the truck.  I heard a rumbling around a curve in the road, and soon a large bearded man pulled up in his ATV.  “Whatta ya know well?” he asked in a friendly tone.  His ATV emanated a strong smell of two-cycle engine exhaust, and a large, black, aging dog rode unrestrained in the back.  The man wore a white short-sleeve T-shirt under full-length denim overalls.  The man’s frame was so large that his Timex Ironman watch could not encircle his wrist without digging into his skin and creating a prominent scab.  I told him I was looking for the coon dog cemetery, and he confirmed it was down the road.  His name was Junior Williams, owner of a ranch and massage parlor nearby.

Junior was an infantry soldier in the Vietnam War and made an agreement with God that if he survived the war intact, he would go back home to Cherokee and spend the rest of his life there.  He got through the war in one piece and kept his end of the bargain.  Junior related a recent dispute involving the coon dog cemetery.  Each year the local military veterans hold a picnic at the cemetery and play Taps at the event’s close.  For the most recent event a town council official threatened to retaliate if Taps were played.  Her reasoning was that playing taps for dogs diminished her son’s military service.  The son was killed in action.  Junior explained that they played Taps to celebrate the freedom in our country, not to honor the dogs.  The official was persuaded and the picnic went off as planned.

Junior told me about his run-ins with trespassers.  Two “Yankees” from Illinois parked their sedan off the road to hide their presence.  They were there to pick ginseng and other herbs.  Junior confronted them.  “Have you seen the movie Deliverance?  When they saw me, I think they heard the banjos in their heads.”  The Yankees nervously assured Junior that they would never come back and left in a hurry.

We laughed and Junior became pensive for a moment.  “I got a son that’s a Yankee,” he said in a soft, sad voice as if he were confiding a serious problem.  “I don’t know, you might be a Yankee, too,” he said.  Unaffected, I told him I wasn’t sure how Colorado was categorized.  Cheering up, he told me Colorado was never on one side or the other of the Mason-Dixon Line so I was in the clear.  Roughly a year before, Junior fired a warning shot close over the head of his aforementioned son when the man drove onto his ranch without prior notice.  Despite Junior’s assurance that his son was welcome as long as he called ahead, the man has not returned for a visit.  Junior has had several problems with poachers and other trespassers over the years with little action from the police.  In frustration Junior told the sheriff that the next time Junior reports a trespasser, the sheriff should send the coroner instead of a deputy.  “What I have is mine.  I paid for it,” he said.  “I worked for a company for 37 years – one company.”