Day 17 – Sweet Home Carolina

What a difference a day can make.

Thursday morning revealed a beautiful, sunny day. I was rested, pretty much over my cold, and had a general idea of where I was going for at least the next few hours.

I decided to head up to Natural Bridge, Alabama, home of, well, you know. On the way, I came across the town of Brilliant. A really nice little town, where everyone is well-educated; they even have Brilliant Tigers. I couldn’t wait to tell the Guinness guys about it.

“Say, old chap, yesterday I drove through Brilliant, Alabama.”

“Egad! An entire city named ‘Brilliant’? Brilliant!!”

Then I made it up to the Natural Bridge, which is just west of Natural Bridge. The sign at the entrance listed it as “the longest rock arch east of the Rockies”, which perhaps sounds a little bit hokey. I was curious, though. It didn’t look like the kind of landscape that would have a natural bridge—it was just a hilly, forested area.

I was the only visitor when I pulled up to the gift shop that marked the entrance to the bridge. It cost $2.50 to see the bridge, but for that price, you also got Jimmy Denton. Jimmy is the man who collects admission and runs the gift shop. He also is probably the best travel advisor for Alabama that you can get for $2.50. After learning the direction I was traveling in, he told me about all of the attractions to be seen along the way, in pretty good detail: he knew the exact length of a covered bridge one county over, and gave detailed directions to different out-of-the-way spots. He is an old farmer, but now that his job involves talking to tourists all day, he knows everything that a tourist typically needs to know.

He also told me how to see the Indian head in the rock cliff along the trail to the natural bridge. People say that it looks like an Indian head, but I would call that pretty much a stretch.

When I reached the natural bridge, which is a short 100 yards from the gift shop, I was immediately struck by a couple of things. One, I found it to be surprisingly beautiful and peaceful. It looks like a large, shallow cave that had most of its ceiling removed, leaving just the large arch over the entryway and a smaller bridge that angled across a corner of the cave behind it. A tiny stream at the top produces a gentle waterfall, maybe 70 feet tall, that lands in a pool at the middle of the cave. Though the rock wall blocked any wind at the base, a breeze stirred through the autumn leaves above the cave, producing a serene golden snowfall. This is a place I could spend some time in, I thought. This is a place that produces peace.

The second thing that struck me was that I had seen this before. I very distinctly knew that this was a familiar sight, though I am just as certain that I have never been there before. I must have just seen photos or drawings of it somewhere, and the images had stuck with me.

I was excited about the opportunity to take some great pictures to share with everyone, but at that moment, my digital camera decided to stop working. It just froze up—I couldn’t even get it to turn off properly, so that the lens would be retracted and closed. Great. In a move that the Guinness guys would not have approved of, I had only brought one of the three cameras I own with me on my trip. I had left my film cameras at home, since I knew I needed digital photos. So, you will just have to look at what other people have taken.

Because I had to catch my flight in Baltimore, I couldn’t stop at all of the sights Jimmy told me about. After grabbing a disposable camera, though, I did stop by the Clarkson covered bridge, which was only a mile off the highway I was on.

I had never seen a covered bridge in person, and I didn’t necessarily have high hopes; it’s just a bridge with a top, right?

Yeah, that’s pretty much what it was.

The bridge is 270 feet long, which makes it the longest covered bridge in Alabama, or something like that. There is a new bridge beside it, and they don’t let you drive on the covered bridge—not that you would want to, after seeing it. The wooden, one-lane bridge has a noticeable sag between each of the rock support columns. You can walk across it safely, but that is about all I would trust it for.

A guestbook listed the names and hometowns of people who had visited the bridge, along with their comments. The comments included such poetry-inspiring thoughts as “long”, “long bridge”, and “Wow, that’s a long bridge!” There also were plenty of comments about the graffiti defacing the bridge. The interior of this rustic country bridge is covered by more graffiti than most any inner-city wall.

Besides the bridge, there is an old mill complete with waterwheel and retaining dam on the creek that runs under the bridge. There are also picnic tables underneath the bridge, so if you are looking for a picturesque place to have lunch, the Clarkson covered bridge would work well.

As I continued eastward on 278, I came across a convenience store (with attached McDonald’s) with a sign out front: “CAN YOU QUOTE JOHN 1-1? FREE DRINK!”

Does that say what I think it says? As a matter of fact, I can quote John 1:1. I have a shamefully few number of Bible verses memorized, but John 1:1 is one of them.

I went inside to the convenience store counter, and asked the woman working there about the sign.

“Yeah, if you can say the verse, you get a free 16-ounce fountain drink,” she explained, without even one ounce of enthusiasm.

“You mean John 1:1, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God?’”

Her eyes followed along on an unseen post-it note behind the cash register, and then she gave a single nod.

“So…does that mean I just go and get a drink?”

“Yeah,” she explained.

The mix on the Dr. Pepper was off—about twice as much water, or half as much syrup, as it should have had—so I poured it out and instead got a generic Sprite that apparently did not have any water at all.

Mmm. Sugar.

So, you see kids, it really does pay to learn your memory verses.

I made a swing through Atlanta, or Hotlanta, as I have heard it referred to.

It was just sort of in my way, and I thought it would be easier to go through it than to find a way around it.

I figured I would have to fight some traffic, but I also figured it could not possibly be worse than Dallas.

I was wrong about that last part.

After an hour, I decided that I really needed to find a restroom, and that perhaps I should just find a place to grab some food and wait it out. I soon found out that the side streets are even worse to get around on, and it was almost impossible to find a public restroom.

After a couple of fruitless exits, I found myself on one major street that didn’t seem to have any side streets or any good way to turn around on. I gave in and decided to follow it until I found some place I could stop—any type of public establishment. After several miles, I was starting to curse Hotlanta and its endless residential neighborhoods.

When I finally came across a Starbucks, I literally let out a yell of joy. I never thought I would be all that happy to see a Starbucks.

I hung out there for an hour or two, and caught up on some website work.

Besides driving through, there was only one thing I knew I needed to do while in Atlanta. There was one thing I needed to find out. I walked up to the barista.

“So, is it really 4 to 1 in Atlanta?”

He laughed. “Yeah, I guess so. It depends on what part of town you are in.”

There you have it. 4:1. Make up your own joke about the connection between that and the cause of the bad traffic. I’m wisely not going to go there.

It was about 8 p.m. local time when I left Atlanta. I had determined that I had about 14 hours of driving left to reach the airport, and about 21 hours before I needed to be there to check in for my flight.

I didn’t like having an actual destination and deadline. At least after the weekend, I would be able to travel at whatever pace I wanted.

With little time to waste or sleep, I headed up the interstate. I flipped through the radio stations, trying to find something interesting. Somewhere in South Carolina, I definitely found something interesting.

On one frequency, 106.3, I heard a computer-generated voice counting down time. That might not sound like interesting listening, but it went something like this:

T minus 7 hours, 40 minutes, 52 seconds, and counting…
T minus 7 hours, 40 minutes, 47 seconds, and counting…
T minus 7 hours, 40 minutes, 41 seconds, and counting…
T minus 7 hours, 40 minutes, 35 seconds, and counting…
T minus 7 hours, 40 minutes, 30 seconds, and counting…

And so on, and so forth. Every minute or so, it would throw out a random quote, like “Luke, I am your father”, or “Where have all the cowboys gone”.

I did the math, and determined that it was counting down to 6:05 a.m. local time.

A couple of friends in Dallas called me, and I had them listen to it over the phone. They both had a similar response: what the heck happens when it reaches zero? Thermonuclear war?

“I don’t know”, I replied. “The voice doesn’t say.”

I wasn’t able to stay within signal range until 6:05, but I was able to find out what it was counting down to: the launch of a new radio station. When a new station comes on line, I believe they have to play a test signal to make sure it does not interfere with other stations. So, that was their test signal. In the past, I’ve heard test signals that included playing cartoon theme songs, and one that simply repeated the same song over and over and over. I almost wish that I didn’t know the reason behind “The Final Countdown”, though. Some things are much more interesting if they remain a mystery.

I had never been to South Carolina before—it was the first state on my trip that I had not visited in the past—so I was a bit disappointed that I would not have time to check it out.

I stopped to get gas before leaving the state, and at the convenience store counter, tried to get at least the bare essential essence of the state.

“By the way,” I asked the attendant, “I’ve never been to South Carolina before, and I don’t really have time to stop or stay. Since this might be my only shot of being here, I wondered, what is the most important thing you can tell me about South Carolina? This is my only stop in South Carolina, maybe ever, so I want to know: what is the one important thing to know about the state?”

The worker looked at me blankly, but the man standing behind me in line laughed, and replied with one word: “Boring!”

So, there you have it, fellow travelers: South Carolina is boring.

The man tried to backpedal a little bit, and said that the state at least had a lot of history,  but that only seemed to augment his “boring” claim.

If any South Carolina tourism officials are reading, I could work up a new advertising campaign for you. “South Carolina: The Boring State”. The campaign can take advantage of the new state motto: “Boring, with a lot of history”. The ads would be cheap to produce, because in keeping with the theme, we could just have a large white ad with the word “boring” on it. The state could become a major draw for events such as CPA conventions and international chess competitions.

South Carolina: Boring. It has a nice ring to it.

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