Peace is always beautiful – Walt Whitman
After bypassing Columbia, South Carolina on I-77, you pick up Route 48 south and begin a slow drive through sleepy countryside, as if captured in a 1960’s black and white snapshot. Open fields dotted with small homes. An empty shack stands next to a grove of leafless trees draped in Spanish moss. Families sitting in front yards, open cookers lifting smells skyward. In the distance Cedar Creek lopes southward into the park and the floodplain that is Congaree National Park.
There are no mountain vistas in Congaree. No waterfalls. Your eye is never drawn to where sky meets land. This is flat land – a floodplain forest that welcomes water ten times a year. Home of the largest continuous tract of old-growth bottomland hardwoods in the United States. Home to bobcats, wild boar, the constant tapping of pileated woodpeckers and the sing song of the prothonotary warbler. Congaree is over 22,000 acres of nature at peace with itself. Here she looks at herself and sees exactly what she saw thousands of years ago.
There are two ways to explore Congaree – on land and on water. Since all of the boats (kayaks, canoes) were booked the two days I was there, I hiked. Beginning with a 2.4 mile boardwalk trail, where pin straight 160 foot loblolly pines beanstalk skyward and mere 140 foot water hickories jealously pose beneath. Bald cypress trees sit in muddy brown water, their knees peaking out of the tannin. Bell-bottomed water tupelos crouch, while sweetgums riddled with holes from woodpeckers stand martyred, dreaming of a bird-less world. A surreal landscape. An unkempt Zen garden.
Shortly after leaving the visitors center on the boardwalk, you come to a fork in the path. Standing at the fork was a middle-aged couple, staring at their map, obviously trying to figure out which way to go, or if it made a difference. Since I have a beard and look like I may actually live in the park, they asked me if I knew the correct turn. If they had any knowledge of my stubborn refusal to use maps half the time, they would have put their heads down and let me pass. But I think the beard got em. “Any idea which way we should go?” said a nicely dressed man. I don’t think it matters. I believe they both make a loop and end up back here. Where are you folks from? “Charlotte, North Carolina,” said his wife – also nicely dressed. They were a handsome couple and again my heart gave me a quick jab. “You?” Michigan. From there a long and casual conversation ensued. Mr. and Mrs. Elder of Charlotte, if you read this, I can’t tell you what that conversation meant to me on that day, at that time. And I can’t thank you enough.
The 4.4 mile Weston Lake loop connects to a mile offshoot that drops you off on the muddy banks of Wise Lake. On this day sun sliced through shore-bound cypress trees, mirroring their images in the dark blue-brown waters of the lake. Leaving the trail to take photos, you quickly understand why this place was once a safe haven for slaves venturing north. Terrain becomes hostile. You begin to sink into the muddy earth as vine covered trees try to hold you in place. Only the desperate entered this land. Many died. Some formed small communities and facilitated the move north. Others, beaten by the land, emerged only to be returned. Trees that bore witness still stand in Congaree.
Hiking back from Wise Lake, the trail wanders through dwarf palmettos and tangled underbrush of hairy vines of poison ivy. The feeling of being in a primeval forest seeps into your mind and settles in. Moss-claimed fallen logs litter the ground. Molted leaves bleed their colors into small motionless pools of water. Birds carry on conversations in a language selfishly all their own. Squirrels rustle dry leaves and claw their way up trees. There are no sounds from the outside world. You are alone in this place and it welcomes you with a lulling breeze through her canopy.