Of lawnmowers and wine coolers and a boy’s first drink

There are certain events in a boy’s life that stand out. Certain firsts. The first kiss. The first time driving a car, etc. Your first drink is one of those moments.

It was the summer of 1986 and I was 14 years old. It was an exceptionally hot and dry summer that year. There was a drought, in fact. A severe one. It was the summer before my freshman year at Spring Valley High School and I was planning to try out for the “B Squad” freshman football team. I had seen the writing on the wall the prior year when, as an eighth grader, I was sitting the bench on my middle school basketball team. I was eager to try a new sport.

My Uncle Roger was in town that summer for an extended visit and staying with us at the house on Spring Water Drive in Northeast Columbia. Roger was a character. A few years younger than my Dad, he insisted that I call him “Roger”, instead of “Uncle Roger”. For a boy steeped in Southern manners, that was kind of a big deal. It made him more approachable. More like a buddy than an authority figure. He told great, off-color jokes. We laughed a lot.

One Saturday, my Dad away on National Guard duty, Uncle Roger and I drove over to West Columbia to cut the grass at some rental properties Dad owned somewhere off of Leapheart Road. He had purchased the properties – a duplex and a triplex, I think – to ease his tax burden. Shortly after he purchased them the tax laws changed, eliminating even the meager benefit he sought to obtain. The rentals became an albatross. They weren’t in the best area and good tenants were hard to come by. Rent was paid late if at all. Evictions were frequent. Despite Dad’s best efforts at keeping the properties up, the delinquents would typically leave them in varying degrees of disrepair and squalor.

We drove over there in the family’s old Chevy Caprice Classic station wagon – the kind with simulated wood grain paneling – a family truckster extraordinaire. We started early and spent several hours cutting grass, trimming weeds and whatever else needed to be done. It was a classic July day in Columbia – unyieldingly, blisteringly hot and humid. The drought made it worse and by early afternoon, the heat beat down with a malevolence that was staggering. The air was dead still, not a pine needle stirred. Everyone with a drop of sense was inside. The constant undulating song of Cicadas seemed to drown out even the drone of the lawnmower.

Parched and needing to hydrate, we took a break and drove over to a gas station around the corner. Walking into the store we were greeted with a welcome blast of air conditioning that made me nearly light headed. I was headed over to grab a Gatorade when I noticed Uncle Roger already at the counter checking out. He motioned for me to meet him back at the car and when he walked out with a grin, carrying a brown paper bag, I was intrigued.

We drove back to the triplex and parked in an empty driveway. He put the car in park and reached into the bag. I was surprised but delighted when he handed me a Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler. He reached back into the bag and pulled out a Budweiser tall boy for himself.

Now, Bartles & Jaymes may seem like an ignominious beginning for a man’s drinking journey, but I tell you with all sincerity, it was magical for a thirsty fourteen year old Baptist boy. I opened the twist top and the very sound was pleasing – that release of compressed air and the mild, malty aroma that followed. I remember the beads of condensation on the label as I tipped the bottle to my lips expectantly. It was cold and the bottle somehow just felt good in my hand.

That first swallow was amazing. Slightly citrus, but enough malt and alcohol to make their presence known. I liked it and finished it quickly. After, there was a novel, if very mild buzz. The world took on a pleasing hue. The bouquet of sour sweat and gasoline and freshly cut grass and alcohol was pleasurable. Uncle Roger let me take a couple of swigs from his Budweiser and I immediately liked the taste of that too. Heavier malt with a pleasing bite as it went down.

The world slowed. We sat there in the car with the windows rolled down and the radio on – John Mellencamp singing about pink houses, the late afternoon heat beginning to relent a bit. I knew that I had crossed some sort of bridge into another, more worldly realm. I smiled a goofy smile, sublimely satisfied. After a while, we finished the mowing and headed back toward home.

Thinking back on it now, it’s as though that moment is encased in museum glass. There was something so understated and masculine about it (in spite of the wine cooler). An uncle and his nephew sharing a drink after toiling in the hot sun. A reward. A rite of passage. A bonding moment. Somehow, 31 years have gone by since that day. But I remember it like it was last week.

Lake Logan magic

Lake LoganIt has become my favorite weekend of the year. Hands down. I love Lake Logan weekend.

When Melissa and I were getting into triathlon in 2009, we started looking for interesting races around North Carolina. Long enamored with the foothills of Asheville and points west, I stumbled upon Lake Logan International Triathlon, just outside of Canton, N.C. We first did the race in August of 2009, spending Friday night in nearby Waynesville, then Saturday night after the race in Asheville. I fell immediately and irretrievably in love with that weekend and in particular, Lake Logan.

We’ve done it five years running now and it has never failed to leave me deeply satisfied. Annually held on the first Saturday of August, Logan comes at a time of year that finds my soul in need of nourishment – deeply diminished by the grinding heat and humidity of a long summer and the bleak morass that is the sports world between the end of the Tour de France and the start of College Football season. Logan is a welcome retreat from steamy Raleigh into the high hills west of Asheville. As we make that annual drive up the mountain on I-40, my blood pressure drops in corresponding degrees with each west bound mile marker. Logan is medicinal – I daresay even spiritual. It is my late summer North Star and I am reminded each year of the simple, luxuriant pleasure of needing a long sleeve t-shirt against the cool morning air.

*****

According to the site digitalheritage.org, Lake Logan sprang up in 1932 when the powers that be at Champion Mill, located in nearby Canton, decided to dam the West Fork of the Pigeon River, resulting in an 87 acre lake that flooded the former logging community of Sunburst. Named for Logan Thompson, the son of Peter J. Thompson who founded Champion, Lake Logan soon became home to various meeting, sleeping and dining facilities constructed from logs of deconstructed cabins in nearby counties and served as a retreat for Champion Mill executives well into the 1990s. Many of the buildings survive today and were purchased by the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina in 2000 after Champion sold its holdings. The Diocese operates a retreat at Logan and in 2006 sponsored the first Lake Logan Multi-Sports Festival, which has grown to include international and sprint triathlons, an aqua-thon (swim/run) and aqua-bike (swim/bike).

*****

The swim portion of the triathlon is one of the very few wetsuit-legal swims (possibly the only one) in the summertime triathlon circuit throughout the Carolinas, which indicates that the water temperature is below the acceptable wetsuit cutoff temperature of 78 degrees. Usually it is considerably cooler and this year it was a bone-chilling 67 degrees. The last hundred yards or so of the swim goes under the Lake Logan Road bridge and directly into the chilly mountain stream which feeds the lake, resulting in a lung-seizing five to ten degree drop in temperature. In August though, you appreciate that kind of thing.

The swim itself is enchantingly beautiful, setting off just after dawn, the narrow lake bookended by hills covered in hemlock and fir and topped by a cloud cover almost low enough to touch, hanging grey and cottony like soiled gauze over the water. The .9 mile course runs in a long rectangle and as you advance in that strange watery silence unique to lake swims, the hills to your right and left rise up in your periphery. I feel totally at ease, peaceful and warm in the thought that there is no place on Earth I would rather be on the first Saturday in August than in this very place.

The bike course is 24 miles of mostly rolling hills through Southern Haywood County, bookended by steep climbs out of T1 and coming back, just before T2. It is Southern Appalachian farm country, generously dotted with picturesque and diminutive farms, ancient barns and the occasional work mule, brooding and contemplative in its pen. Mostly flat to downhill on the first nine miles, you don’t so much ride the bike course as float through it, enjoying the novelty of the cool air and the rustic countryside. You can almost hear banjo music in the air. Not in the moronic, clichéd sense of snickering Deliverance references, but deep in your soul, as if the hills are calling to you in bent, five string notes. And to me, it sounds a lot like home.

The last 15 miles of the bike are mostly up hill. The heady reverie a little less pronounced, the determined exertion a little more. Your average speed steadily declines as the hills exert dominion over any unspoken plans you may have harbored for a 22 mph average. The last climb is truly taxing. But Lake Logan is visible to the right, through the chlorophyll-choked cover of summer trees. You know you are closing in on the run and this carries you upward.

The run is a 10k. Three miles mostly uphill from the base of T2 along Lake Logan Road to Sunburst campsite just within the borders of Pisgah National Forest (the campsite takes its name from that long-forgotten logging community). This is followed at the turn by the much-anticipated pleasure of three miles mostly down hill back to the finish. The run is always an especially happy time as you pass friends either going or coming and contemplate the completed swim and bike in between high fives and shouts of encouragement.

The finish is always sun-splashed. The low cloud cover of early morning has burned away as friends gather to cheer each other and chat about the race. What went right, what went wrong, how cold the water was, etc. The temperature is late summer perfection – warm but not hot. We make our way to the food tent and eat sandwiches, chatting some more. We are pleasantly tired after 31 miles of swimming, biking and running and as we sit there amongst friends in the perfect post-race warmth, it is, how can I put this… exceedingly nice.

Later, Melissa and I always check in at the Hotel Indigo in downtown Asheville – an easy walk to all that downtown has to offer, which is much. After lunch and a nap, we’ll meet friends again for well-earned margaritas and dinner at our favorite Asheville establishment, Salsa’s. We’ll dine in the narrow alleyway outside and soak in the perfect mountain air. Saturday night after dinner can go late and on occasion ends early, but is always fun.

Sunday, we’ll sleep in and have breakfast at Early Girl Eatery or Over Easy. Afterwards we’ll walk over to Mast General Store and my favorite bookstore, Malaprops. Here I take almost as much pleasure eavesdropping on the aging hippies gathered earnestly to discuss new age mumbo jumbo as I do the truly wonderful selection of books.

We linger, not wanting to leave. We order coffee, we stroll. We take in Asheville and all of its charms. And then, reluctantly, we get in the car and head down 40 East. And on the drive home, we talk about our weekend and Logan weekends of years past. The four-hour drive breezes by.

It is Monday after Logan as I write this and we have already planned next year’s trip.

I told Melissa that when I move onto that great transition area in the sky, I want my ashes spread over Lake Logan. I can’t think of a better place to be – forever. I’m hoping though that we’ll have a lot more Logan weekends between now and then.

A Good Night In Altamont

Asheville has eluded me for two and a half years. Ever since I moved to Raleigh and began working in various towns across North Carolina, and into Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland, I have longed for an Asheville assignment. I have traveled extensively throughout the region for two and a half years and the travel has afforded me the chance to get acquainted with my newly-adopted home state. But Asheville has always escaped me. Until now.

I have visited briefly in the past and have always loved Asheville, this cool, western jewel of the Carolinas, surrounded by the ancient Blue Ridge. There is a magic and a mystery to this place that is unlike any other town that I have known, with the possible exception of Charleston, though the vibes of the two towns are as divergent as their landscapes.

I have been reading Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel” – a Christmas gift from Melissa. It is a gem of a book from a contemporary of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, London, Steinbeck and Faulkner. Wolfe is perhaps the most under-appreciated of the great American writers of the early 20th Century – and he was a North Carolinian. “Angel” does not even appear on the Modern Library’s list of 100 Greatest American novels, yet Pat Conroy wrote of Wolfe:

“I realized that breathing and the written word were intimately connected to each other as I stepped into the bracing streams of Thomas Wolfe and could hear the waterfalls forming in the cliffs that lay invisible beyond me. I had not recognized that the beauty of our language shaped in sentences as pretty as blue herons, could bring me to my knees with pleasure – did not know that words could pour through me like honey through a burst hive or that gardens seeded in dark secrecy could bloom along the borders and porches of my half-ruined boyhood because a writer could touch me in all the broken places with his art.”

Wolfe has deepened my already abundant love for this place with his prose. He referred to Asheville in his fiction as “Altamont”. There is an Altamont Brewery here. An Altamont Theater and an various other businesses around town which have incorporated the Altamont name. Wolfe’s cultural influence looms large.

It was a dreary day; windy and cold to the bone, though spring is near, and the days have already lengthened promisingly. It is winter’s last stand. After I could do no more work I walked from the Hotel Indigo across a bustling, early evening Heyward Street, to The Captains Bookshelf – a rare and used bookstore just a block away. Asheville has two amazing locally-owned bookstores in the aforementioned “Captains”, and Malaprop’s – both within an easy glance from my window at the Indigo. At Captains, I wandered the shelves for nearly an hour, perusing timeworn titles and inhaling the faint aroma of old books. I selected a paperback copy of Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro ~ and Other Stories”.

The lady at the register was out of central casting. Aging and bookish,  her dishwater grey hair was assembled in a loose bun held by a pencil, and she wore a threadbare cardigan two sizes too large, which accentuated her frailty. As she reached for the book with a palsied hand, she sighed as she read the title. I daresay she nearly shed a tear, and she said in a wistful tone that it was a wonderful, beautiful book. I told her that I loved Hemingway but I had not yet read this particular volume. She looked at me as if I were a typhoid carrier. This is a serious bookstore.

As I left the store the smell of rain was heavy in the air, and I lifted my collar against the brisk wind. I cut across a parking lot beside a fossil-like shell of an ancient two-story brick building that has been repurposed as a parking garage. I crossed back across Heyward Street, past Malaprop’s and turned left down the narrow and steeply sloping Walnut Street, which reminded me vaguely of the ally ways in old town Prague. Just as it began to rain, I tucked into Zambra, a tapas restaurant and one of my favorite stops in town.

I settled into a small hightop table in the back of the dimly lit bar area, near the kitchen. I ordered a Tempranillo and sat reading Hemingway by the faint, yellow light of a wall sconce above my table while the wine worked its magic. While a steady, cold rain poured outside, things were about as cozy as they could be in the in the darkened warmth of the bar.

After a while I ordered a crawfish étouffée with mushrooms and a brown sauce that made me nearly emotional. I followed that with a Spanish tortilla with spicy beef sausage and sweet potato, which was wonderful. Finally, another glass of wine and boudin croquettes with kimchee aioli. I was supremely happy and could have only been more pleased if Melissa had been there with me to share it.

Following dinner, I ambled back out into the softening rain, which had washed the streets and left a satisfying petrichor of damp asphalt and soil. I made the short walk back to the Indigo, sated and happy. I’m having a nightcap now in the room, and as I write this blog my gaze is drawn west, out my ninth story window toward Wolfe’s rain-veiled North Carolina mountains. Despite winter’s clinging damp and cool, I am thankful for old books and good wine and the aroma of rain in early March.

It is a good night in Altamont.

Southern Change – One man’s journey

Bill Dufford, or “Doc”, as he is affectionately known by friends and former students, is a physical embodiment of the complexities and contradictions that are the modern American South. At once the prototypical “Southern Gentleman”, and a defiantly vocal southern liberal of the most passionate variety, he is equal parts Atticus Finch and Malcolm X. Athletic and tall, Bill possesses a healthy, energetic vitality, a booming voice and an infectious laugh. Though in his eighties now, subtly softened by time and with a thick shock of white hair, he could still whip me in racquetball as recently as ten years ago – as much a testament to his enduring vigor as to my chronic ineptitude in the sport.

A life-long bachelor, he is a son of an older, meaner South. Bill came of age in a time of now unthinkable cultural dualities and cruelty toward blacks. A white son of the privileged class, he accepted – embraced even – the status quo of Jim Crow laws and the oppressive racist climate they propagated. Things, however, began to change in the South, and with Bill, in the mid- 1960’s following the integration of Beaufort (S.C.) High School, where he was, until then, comfortably ensconced as principal. Bill left his native state to pursue a PhD at the University of Florida and came back a different man. Working for peaceful desegregation with the passion of a convert, he dedicated himself to the cause of educating all of South Carolina’s children, be they white, black or otherwise. This ruffled a lot of feathers within the establishment, and early on at least one school board invited him not to return for a second year. Undeterred, he pressed on, both in the classroom, and as assistant director of the Desegregation Center of South Carolina. This was a holy war, and Bill was in full battle dress.

I came to know him decades later, in 1991. His last teaching post, prior to retirement was at Lower Richland High School in Columbia. A number of my college friends had graduated from L.R.H.S. and one of them regularly house-sat for Bill on the weekends. I instantly liked Bill, and despite our age difference, (I was a 19 year old college student at the time) we became fast friends. He was opinionated, but never over-bearing, with liberal political views that could only be described as the polar opposite of my equally opinionated, though staunchly conservative father. I was fascinated by his passion and challenged to think for the very first time about how I really felt about issues, rather than simply regurgitating my father’s views. I would visit him from time to time at his home in Columbia’s venerable Rose Hill neighborhood, where we would discuss the issues of the day. Though his was a beautiful home – an early 20th Century brick bungalow typical of the neighborhood – it’s décor was what one might expect from a life-long bachelor and teacher. Stacks of thick, important books, framed black & white photos of classes taught and football teams coached, trophies earned and various other accumulated stacks of papers, all liberally covered with a layer of dust. Bill ate out nearly every meal, so predictably the smallest and least-used room in the house was the kitchen, built off to the side like some shriveled, forgotten appendage. One day while visiting, Pat Conroy called him – just to chat. Conroy was a student at Beaufort high school during the years Bill was principal there. This impressed me greatly, to say the least.

I have a tremendous respect for Bill and the journey he’s taken – the life he’s lived. Though I don’t see him as much these days, I still call him from time to time, just to chat about politics among other things. We don’t always agree, but as with all great teachers, even in when our opinions diverge, I never fail to learn from him. That speaks to me of a life well lived.

2009 Post-Christmas Confederate Road Trip and Southern Bar-b-que Tour

Well friends, the time is nearly at hand – the much anticipated Herr clan eastward migration from Texas to North Carolina is just around the corner. As the only native Southerner on this 1,400 mile journey, I felt an odd compulsion to cobble together a few facts and other observations about this strange, wonderful part of the world. (technically, Patrick, being a native Oklahoman is a Southerner as well, but given the deep South trajectory of our voyage, and possessing a few spare hours and a bottle of wine, I figured I would try my hand at producing a travel guide. Admittedly, it’s not Fodor’s, but hopefully it will suffice.)

CSA Map

This epic road trip, Griswoldean in its scope and limitless potential for bumbling comedy, has garnered the attention and curiosity of friends and family alike. So, my plan is to file daily dispatches from the road – updates on progress made, mileage covered, historical sites visited, mullet sightings, Elvis sightings, Mark Sanford sightings, interior air quality index (flatulence indicator) and other pertinent (or more likely, totally irrelevant) information.

Tour Blog

Sunday, 12/27/2009: A very enjoyable and relaxing Christmas was had by all in Austin over the past few days. Melissa & I, Fran & Nita, Luke, Patrick’s son Cole and his mother, Sharon all stayed over at Lyn and Patrick’s beautiful new home.  Melissa & crew cooked up a veritable feast on Christmas Eve that kept us in varying stages of food coma throughout the weekend.

Yesterday evening, after dinner with my aunt & uncle who also live in Austin,  Melissa & I returned to Lyn & Patrick’s to find them, Fran and Nita playing poker and about a quarter of the way through the Four Rose’s bourbon we bought Patrick for Christmas. By the time we joined in, presumably for a couple of quick hands, it was around 10:30. Two hours, a couple dozen hands and half a bottle of bourbon later the ladies had gone to bed, leaving Patrick, Fran & I sitting around the table telling stories, laughing and planning the route for our upcoming road trip. We polished off the bottle and stumbled off to bed around 1 am.

This morning rolled around to find us moving slowly, but not too much worse for the wear despite the unadvisable quantities of Kentucky bourbon consumed the previous night. Fran & Patrick proved their engineering

What could possibly go wrong?

What could possibly go wrong?

chops by masterfully cramming approximately enough gear to supply an Everest expedition into the rooftop cargo carrier (newly purchased for this trip) as well as every available nook and cranny of the Acadia, while still leaving enough room for seven adults to shoehorn themselves in besides.

332

Fran and Alan effectively void any manufacturer warranty

We didn’t get on the road until noon but made admirable progress once we started. We took in a few hundred miles of east Texas back road flora and fauna on Highway 79 between Austin and Shreveport, then stopped for dinner at a great little locally owned seafood and Cajun restaurant called Ralph & Kacoo’s just past Shreveport in Bossier City, LA. After dinner we pressed on another 160 miles to Vicksburg, MS where we’re resting up for the night. Tomorrow we plan to tour the Civil War battlefield here and then get back on the road. Not sure if we will make Columbia tomorrow or not. We’ll see how it goes and I’ll keep you posted.

Total miles covered: 317

Monday, 12/28/09:

All great expeditions have to endure and overcome their low points – Shackleton lost his ship “Endurance” to crushing ice flows, yet guided his crew to safety through months of frozen hardship in the Antarctic. Lewis & Clark led the Corps of Discovery through 2,000 miles of uncharted western territory, hailstorms, bear attacks, raging river passages and the occasional cranky Native American before reaching Oregon. And so in the great tradition of those past expeditions, the Herr clan Confederate Road Trip experienced a bump in the road (both literal and figurative) today shortly after leaving Vicksburg.

It started out optimistically enough. I have always heard that necessity is the mother of invention, and so after a day of driving that would make sardine cans seem positively open-aired and lavish by comparison, the decision was made to create more interior room by loading the presents and other items onto the rooftop. All the men agreed that placing the load in two trash bags to water proof and attaching the bags behind the existing luggage carrier with shrink wrap would provide sufficient protection against the wind and would secure the packages quite nicely. Admittedly, the engineering marvel of the luggage carrier from the prior day might have left us feeling a little cocky and, like test pilots, we were eager to test the boundaries of engineering and technology (not to mention common sense). But we felt it would work. And so we found a local building supply store and commenced with the shrink wrapping.

A handful of Mississippi good ole boys stopped in their tracks and watched in bewildered amusement as we used an entire roll of industrial wrap to secure the two bags to the rooftop carrier. You could almost hear them whispering to each other in a Foghorn Leghorn brogue “Ah say, son, just what in tarrrrnation are those Yankee-boys doin’ anyhow?”

Wrapping complete, we tested the load by driving slowly over to the Vicksburg National Battlefield Memorial just a couple of miles away. Over the next hour or so, we toured the battlefield by car. All went well, but over lunch it was decided that duct tape might put a secure finishing touch on the load. It seemed almost overly cautious at the time, but what the hell? And so, well fed and drunk on confidence we made our way over to nearby Mississippi Hardware to purchase the tape.

The general consensus after adding the duct tape was that it was quite possibly the ugliest packing job since Jed Clampett and crew drove to California but that it was, in fact, roadworthy. And so around 2:30, we ventured onto I-20.

As we made our way towards Jackson and the eastward miles ticked off, we began to feel a rising sense of satisfaction and confidence in the shrink wrap and duct tape arrangement until around mile marker 53, when a car pulled up beside us in the left lane and the driver began to point at us (with which finger I do not recall).  He seemed to be motioning in the general direction of the roof, though he didn’t seem particularly agitated. We decided to pull off at the next exit to have a look see and supplement the duct tape job if needed. You might imagine our shock at walking around to the back of the car and finding not a single trace of the shrink-wrapped packages. They were gone – vanished like a fart in the wind.

We were taken aback. Taking a quick inventory of the missing items – Christmas presents for the folks back in Raleigh, a laptop, among other items, and we decided that a recovery effort was warranted. And so with eyes peeled, we headed back west on I-20 to see what we could find, thinking that the driver who motioned to us must have seen something fall off and the packages would probably be easily retrieved no more than a couple of miles back. As we drove along it became obvious to me that Mississippians had not exactly embraced the spirit of the highway signs mounted every few miles encouraging them to “Pick it up Mississippi”. There was litter everywhere. Mississippians must have the cleanest cars in the country given the amount of trash they toss on the interstate.

And so every few minutes, someone in the car would see something that resembled a laptop case or a present, only to be disappointed when we would stop and investigate more closely. We were determined to find something – anything – at this point though, so we made the decision to back track all the way to Vicksburg and retrace our route completely. When we made it back to Vicksburg, it was around 4:45 and the winter sun was beginning to fade as quickly as our hopes of recovering anything. By the time we had driven the 50+ miles back east again it was dark and we had nothing to show for all of our driving. We were all getting hungry and had developed a collective and acute case of the “fuck-its”, so I called the highway patrol to report the missing items in case anyone called in about finding any of it, and we headed east.

We made it to Meridian, MS for dinner and into Birmingham to stop for the night around 11:15 pm. We were exhausted and, after the days events, looking forward to a leisurely, non-eventful, patently boring drive to Columbia on Tuesday.

Total miles driven for Monday: 387

Actual miles of forward progress: 279

Total mileage for trip: 704

Tuesday 12/29/09:

Tuesday in Birmingham started slowly. We were all a little road-weary and had arrived in Birmingham late the night before. Our pride was still stinging from the catastrophic shrink wrap failure of the previous day, so with a short drive to Columbia on the agenda we took advantage of the opportunity to sleep late and ease into the day. After breakfast, Fran and Patrick took in a tour of one of Birmingham’s iron factories (Birmingham is known as the “Pittsburg of the South” for its iron and steel production), Lyn and Nita toured the Civil Rights Museum, Melissa and I got in a run and Luke took advantage of a little well-earned solitude back in the room. It was a cathartic break and by the time we reconvened, morale had improved greatly.

After a late check-out, we piled back into the Acadia and, following the recommendation of the hotel clerk for a good locally owned bbq restaurant, made the short drive to Sweet Bones BBQ. During the entire trip, my intention was to take everybody to a true, down home Southern BBQ roadside shack. You know the kind of place I’m referring to – a ramshackle, low-slung, cinder block and corrugated metal dump of a building – the kind of place that leaves you wondering if you are due for a tetanus shot – but whose smoky, pork-laden aromas have you salivating the moment your tires crunch into the gravel parking lot. So I was a little concerned when the GPS led us to a modern outdoor mall, complete with a Barnes & Noble, Starbucks and parking lot full of Range Rovers. This was not what I had in mind. I didn’t feel any better when we walked in only to find a very clean, professionally decorated interior, complete with wide-screen plasma TVs and golf shirt-clad wait staff. This place had all the calling cards of a chain restaurant, which we had made a blood oath to avoid during the entirety of the trip. I felt a little defeated as we took our seats.

Happily, Sweet Bones delivered in a big way. It was locally owned as it turned out, and the bbq was some of the best I have had. Between the seven of us, we were able to sample just about everything on the menu – pork ribs, spare ribs, pulled pork and brisket. The sauce was a smoky-sweet red sauce, and while I will always be partial to the mustard-based sauces of central South Carolina, this stuff was good!

Everyone had a sweet tooth after the bbq, so we ordered dessert. Luke, Patrick and Lyn ordered peanut butter pie and the rest of us ordered the cherry cobbler. The dessert portions were almost comically large – the peanut butter pie was as thick and heavy (and as hard to finish) as a Herman Melville novel. We all contributed and Luke, especially, gave a valiant effort, but the peanut butter pie proved to be just too much.

It was close to 3pm by the time we waddled out of Smokey Bones and got on the road. Just as we had hoped, it was an uneventful drive across eastern Alabama, through Georgia and into South Carolina. We arrived in Columbia around 10:15 pm and, finally ready to eat again, settled into the back booth at Liberty Tap Room in Columbia’s Vista area. We had good food and beer, great conversation and by 11:30 we were all exhausted and ready to turn in. We stayed the night at my house in Columbia’s historic Rosewood neighborhood.

Total miles driven Tuesday: 367

Total mileage for trip: 1,071

Wednesday, 12/30/2009

We started the day off with breakfast at the Gourmet Shop in 5-Points and were on the road relatively early – by 10am or so. It was a short three and ½ hour drive from Columbia to Raleigh, interrupted only by a brief foray into that strange and inexplicable slice of Americana known as South of the Border in Dillon, S.C.

“SOB”, as it is often called, is a bizarre amalgam of Mexico and Dixie – a wacky collection of souvenir shops, ice cream parlors, motels (evidently, people actually spend the night here) and a 200 foot tall sombrero tower. We bought a few white elephant gifts for John – one was an eagle and wolf figurine (“redneck chic” might be the best way to describe it) and the other was a miniature bust of Barak Obama which, for some unfathomable reason, had blue eyes.

We completed the last leg of our journey, rolling north through endless Carolina pines and arriving in Raleigh by around 3pm. That night we had a wonderful dinner at Vivace’ Italian Restaurant with John & Mary, Mark & Jenny and Grant & Sarah.

It was the end of the road for us. Seven states and nearly 1,400 miles. We lost a few presents along the way but arrived in Raleigh with the same number of people that we started with in Austin and that is no small miracle. What’s more, we’re all still speaking to one another. And while there are no plans for a repeat of this trip in 2010, I think we’ve all come away with some great memories, and isn’t that really what its all about?

Total miles for Wednesday: 276

Total mileage for trip: 1,347