Armchair Peregrinations

December 29, 2001

Quiet, peaceful backroads that I haven't driven in years were my destination on two days I had off from work this week. Winter is about to settle in, most of the pecan trees are completely bare, and the oaks are losing their leaves now that cold weather has finally arrived. The grasses are dry and russet-colored. The sun seems to be always lower in the sky, casting that magical winter light over the bare landscape.

Mile after mile I drive along those two-lane roads, observing farms, old country houses, barns, sheds, cleared land fallow for the season -- it all becomes a kind of pleasant dream. New sights that I have seen before, but which only seem vaguely familiar, pop into view. I recall many of the older houses because with their tin roofs and distinctive period architecture they stand out in pleasant relief to so many of the newer brick ranch-style houses.

I visited the swamp sanctuary Wednesday, walking the trail through the big cypress trees, and it would have been a totally peaceful experience were it not for small planes and jets flying overhead and hunting dogs barking far in the distance. We are never far from "civilization" on this beleaguered planet.

As I was coming home on county road 18, on my way to Givhans Ferrry State Park on the Edisto River, a favorite stop to stretch my legs and walk beside that most beautiful of streams, I drove over the bridge across Four Holes Swamp, the river swamp system that upstream passes through the cypress sanctuary, and noticed how low the water level was. At that point the braided, inter-connected branches of the swamp come together in one channel, like a true river. Only a half mile or so from the bridge over the Four Holes, the swamp drains into the Edisto. That is a place I would like to see from a canoe some day -- this meeting of the two streams. On maps, and in pictures I have seen where creeks and rivers join up and become larger, stronger and faster-flowiing, I sense the mystery and beauty of these designs of nature where waterways flowing by gravity to the sea continually find the lower elevations and at last merge with the ocean. And then, equally fascinating, is that spot on the map where the river joins the sea, sometimes with fanfare as the clear or darker waters of the river mingle with the fathomless waters of the ocean, sometimes invisibly when there is no discernable contrast in the colors of the water, or the flow is so miniscule as to hardly constitute a river anymore. That is what happens to a lot of rivers such as the Rio Grande in Texas and the mighty Colorado. At their end points these mighty streams are often just a trickle, a remnant of their former flows, most of their water having been siphoned off for irrigation and other uses.

So, as watched the barely moving water in Four Holes Swamp near its confluence with the Edisto from atop the bridge, I dreamed very briefly of river adventures and the mystery of flowing water, the source of life. It is always the same, and then I have to leave.

December 26, 2001

It was so nice to go outside at my aunt's house in Sumter and look up into a clear, cold, Christmas Eve night sky. The weather changed just in time for Christmas, and the temperatures were bracing, stimulating -- just right for this time of year after weeks of springlike weather. The bare trees seemed to be in the right place and the right time of year, at last, as I took my walks around the path in Memorial Park. The huge oak trees held onto some leaves, but winter has arrived at last and the big leaves are nice to walk through as they accumulate on the ground.

Such a nice Christmas day with my family. Good food and music, nice decorations, lights, and the mantle held the traditional candles and greens. It is sad, though, that we can't seem to have a Christmas with my sister and her family who live so far away in Washington State. We miss them terribly each year. Talking briefly on the phone is only a slight consolation to actually seeing them.

We drove back to Charleston yesterday afternoon under mostly cloudy and gray skies, but with breaks and patches of light visible in the distance beyond the cleared fields. The countryside was quiet. Not much traffic. We looked at the Christmas lights in the small towns we passed through. I enjoy taking the old Charleston Highway every time I can. It's a peaceful rural route now that that interstate has taken all the traffic away. Mostly, the road is empty, except for a few cars and local traffic.

Today is sunny with bright blue skies. I am planning to go for a drive and visit one of the area nature preserves.

December 23, 2001

I have only been to North Dakota once, eight years ago, but I remember my few hours passing through the southeast corner of that state on the way to South Dakota. I experienced one of the most intense and frightening thunderstorms I've ever encountered. No visibility. A torrent of rain and wind on a lonely stretch of prairie highway. Pounding, lacerating rain. For miles.

When the skies cleared after I crossed the border into South Dakota, I was immensely grateful and relieved. My first impression of North Dakota had not been friendly. I was forced to cancel my long-anticipated visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora. Nature in its fury has a way of altering one perceptions about a place. And, one's plans. I'm sure I would feel the dread and foreboding of an out-of-his-element traveler if I were to be caught there in one of the state's notorious winter blizzards. But that's not something I anticipate happening.

Nevertheless, I want to go back to North Dakata, and know firsthand the grand and glorious prairie summer skies I have just read about. This description of North Dakota clouds by travel writer Craig Wilson has stirred my imagination and longing to go to a place where few venture:

The people were beyond friendly...but what I remember most were the clouds. I have never seen such big, beautiful, fluffy, fantastic clouds in all my 52 years. I'm not doing a good job here describing them, maybe because their beauty is indescribable. They're not Eastern clouds. They're not California clouds. They're not even Texas clouds, although I think Texas would be more than happy to claim them.

These were the kinds of colossal clouds that I realize now can only be found floating above North Dakota. Maybe it's because there's so much more space to notice them. Maybe it has to do twith the wind, the weather, the color of the sky they play against. I dont know. Whatever it is, it works...clouds that make you smile, even as they cast huge passing shadows over th ranches and farmlands of the northern plains.

Do I ever love clouds in all their richness and variety! This tantalizing depiction of the North Dakota variety has me daydreaming of faraway places, and you don't have to take a plane to another continent to feel like you're in another land. Just go to North Dakota some day. I will be going back, for sure.

December 20, 2001

It's finally getting colder. I felt it this morning under the blanket. Nice to stay cozy and warm. The weather has changed at last. Blue and cloudless skies this morning as I look out the window.

Tuesday during lunch hour at the garden on the college campus, I was sitting in my usual spot listening to the waterfall in the goldfish pond, basking in the mild comfortable weather. I looked over to the big pecan tree, whose leaves are about all gone, but the surroundings were anything but winterlike. The grass was green, some of the trees had their leaves, still. The wisteria vines were green on the trellis. And along the wall of the garden several azalea bushes were in full pink-red bloom, as if it was the middle of March or early April. It felt like spring. I am just astonished at the way seasons can maintain a disguise for so long.

Tonight temperatures should be in the lower 30s, so it will seem more like Christmas is appproaching when I look at all the light displays. A string of white lights curl around the still leafy pear tree in our apartment complex.

I'll be taking a walk soon before heading to work. That will be nice.

December 17, 2001

How very special the beach was yesterday! Winter is arriving slowly once again, by degrees, and the cool sea wind felt like a bracing tonic. The sky was mostly cloudy, but with enough breaks to see the sunset over the horizon.

I was walking on the empty beach when I was interrupted from the usual reveries by my brother who said, "A lone figure facing out to sea." I had to laugh. Of course. Lost in thought as always. But I like to just let my thoughts flow and wander about when I am there beside the ocean.

Evidence of people and their companions was all about: great big letters scrawled in the sand, paw prints of dogs (people love to take their dogs out on the beach and the dogs love it more than people, I sometimes think).

As I was preparing to go in, I watched the last rose-pink rays from the setting sun color magnificently a small section of beach from which the waves had recently receded, and which was still wet and glistening in that special, magical light. I looked back from the walkway over the dunes and saw a final lone figure out there who took my place, and his dog was not far behind. It was almost night by this time. And so early in the day still. But it is winter. The wind felt colder and was buffeting the sea oats.

December 14, 2001

Another balmy, springlike day in mid-December. The Christmas carols are playing on the radio, the shoppers are out, the lights everywhere announce the season, but I am having a hard time realizing that Christmas in only 10 days away. So strange a feeling this year.  

The flowers are still blooming, the frogs and crickets stirring with their sounds and songs, and the air is fresh and mild. It's a nice feeling. To be outdoors at this time of year, with total impunity regarding the elements, having no cold weather whatsoever, is remarkable. Astonishing, really.

At the college this afternoon at lunch hour I sat and listened to the waterfall in the goldfish pond. A nice breeze was stirring. I felt content here as I always do. It is a refuge. I never have enough time, however. I must come when I have a lot of time to just sit and think while listening to that flowing water. Always the deadline to get back to work approaches just as I am settling in and feeling very comfortable.

I'm ready to drive somewhere -- anywhere -- tomorrow, but doubt if I will. It would be nice to go to the beach, and maybe I will do that. At any rate, it's just good to have a weekend to relax and try to catch up on some reading.

December 10, 2001

At last the magical wet stuff -- RAIN -- fell from the sky all afternoon in gentle showers. What a wonderful reprieve from the drought, the dust, and the heat of this most odd and unsual December.

By early this evening, it began coming down hard, a heavy downpour that lasted a half hour, the first such heavy rain since August, at least.

I sat on the porch and watched it splatter on the railings and floor, getting damp from my perch in the rocking chair far back near the wall.

After awhile, it let up and I could bring the chair back up to the railing, prop my feet up, and lean back in the rocking chair marveling at the miracle of the rainful we had been blessed with in abundance. Now, if only some nice cold weather would follow.

December 8, 2001

It was strange yesterday hiking at the nature preserve. The sun beat down out of a sky that was just so beautifully spotted with clouds. I I kept continually looking up to watch those clouds. The shade of blue in the sky was unbelievable. It was lovely beyond words.

It was almost hot. There was a feeling of being in the wrong season at the right time It is December, after all, only a couple of weeks until Christmas. I was sweating.

But I was there, and it was calming to be in the presence of my favorite old oaks and woods. This place draws me back time and again. I love to walk there by myself, and Friday I saw absolutely no one. I watched ospreys, ibises, and egrets foraging for food in the mud flats and shallow water of the former rice fields. They never cease to inspire awe as they float on their magniticent wings over the water and alight with perfect grace and ease. They hardly noticed me. I could get unusually close before they flew off to another spot.

Near the end of my walk I sat on a bench overlooking the rice fields and as soon I did, the wind picked up, gentle and cooling, and I watched the purposeful activity around three little separate colonies of ants, the worker drones making their way in and out of tunnels in the sandy soil, busily going out the work of constructing a mazelike underground kingdom. I could visualize what I looked like below ground from memories of my glass ant colony project in 8th grade.

I almost dozed off, chin cupped in my hands, binoculars in my lap, feeling a bit happy, grateful, and glad to be there. If only for a short while.

December 6, 2001

The past two evenings I've been particularly grateful to sink into the rocking chair on the porch at the house in Charleston and just let all the weariness and stresses of the day melt away. It's dark so early now, and the nights have been only slightly cool, hardly enough for a jacket, and so I am taking advantage of this extra gift of porch weather while it lasts.

There are still a few night crickets and frogs singing and chirping faintly in the dark recesses of the garden, as if they are not quite sure what to do. Or when to seek whatever winter refuge and slumber awaits them. Otherwise, it is getting more and more quiet and bereft of those comforting summer and fall sounds, but they persist. Here in the Lowcountry we often don't have any winter to speak of until late December. I am afraid our drought is going to continue. There is a perfectly clear blue sky outside my window and the old oak tree's leaves are still clinging on like an endless autumn goodbye. That's okay with me. Most of the other trees are about bare by now.

One reminder of the season are the Christmas lights which are appearing all over the place now. They seem more creative this year and as always, are quite enjoyable to look at. But it's got to get colder soon to feel like Christmas.

December 3, 2001

Early December at the beach yesterday and hardly a trace of winter. Autumn is lingering with Indian Summer-like days all week until a slight cooling trend today.

There was hardly any wind Sunday as I sat by the ocean. The clouds were nice, the sky pretty, but a smoky odor was in the air, hanging over everything. The surf was splendid to look at. I saw a nice V-formation of geese which broke up and started out to sea in a confused, rag-tag cluster. The leader must have momentarily lost his way. It's not like those graceful birds to fly in a disorganized fashion.

Before going in I watched a group of six or so young men playing a rowdy and boisterious game of football on the beach near where I was sitting, with one of their dogs, an excited and animated black mutt, insisting on being in on every bit of the action. It was fun to watch. Lots of energy. Shouts and exclamations. The very popular and lovable dog was only too willing to rough it up with the big boys. This brief diversion took my mind off more serious thoughts and back to the ordinary realities and little pleasures and pastimes of life. For some people, anyway.

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