This summer, the lady friend and I took a road trip through a healthy chunk of these southern United States, hitting up an equal number of breweries and hiking trails. I planned the route to have stops in Nashville, Gatlinburg, and Asheville—with Charleston and Hilton Head as our final destinations.
Day One: The trip started off, well, poorly, as minutes before we planned to leave, one of the dogs got sick on the floor, and the lady friend broke down in tears.
One emergency trip to the vet later, one three hour fight over whether to even leave at all—won by me only by repeating the words “Non-Refundable” and showing her the exact amount that had already been spent on hotels and Air BNBs—and we were off... far too late to do anything at our first stop (Nashville) but eat quickly and sleep.
Day Two: When we got to Gatlinburg, I instantly remembered why I did not want to include Gatlinburg on this trip in the first place. If you’ve never been, congratulations. Gatlinburg is where people with white, braided goatees and sleeveless t-shirts covering at most 60% of their guts take their brood to slow traffic to a standstill as they wander blindly from Margaritavilles to Ripley’s Believe it or Nots where they buy “Who Farted?” t-shirts and eat Bubba Gump Shrimp by the bucket, thereby removing all mystery.
You will have to drive through this mass of unwashed flesh blobs to get to the trails, but at least the Smokys are beautiful, right? I wouldn’t know, as one of those unwashed flesh blobs had walked off a waterfall that morning, and the trail was summarily shut down.
We had to get back in the car and plow back into the human horde. I was instructed to flip through all the brochures she had collected to find something for us to do. All options were terrible, so I suggested the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Feud, because reasons.
She was not interested, so we hit the road and got to Asheville early.
Days Three Through Ten: Asheville, NC is amazing. Go there. Drink bourbon casked sours at the Wicked Weed Funkatorium and hike all the mountain trails. I will speak no more of this place in this article.
Day Ten (afternoon): We hit the road again—high on Asheville’s beautiful hikes, the lady friend wanted to hit one more National Park before we hit the beach, so I Priceline’d a cheap hotel in Columbia, SC with the idea that we would stay the night, and then hike Congaree National Park the next morning. My thought was this: Columbia is an actual city, or at least a college town, so there must be something to do. Also, I have a friend who’s from there, so I could hit him up for suggestions.
Me: We re-routed the trip and are spending a night in Columbia before hiking Congaree. Where should we eat?
Craig: Bone-In BBQ. By the minor league ballpark and the abandoned insane asylum.
So we ate some of the best Carolina BBQ I’ve ever had—seriously, go there; my plate was filled with pulled pork drenched in a mustard vinegar sauce, fried okra, succotash, cornbread, and a blue cheese slaw—and then walked through the stuff of pure nightmares. This particular abandoned lunatic asylum—named innocuously enough the South Carolina State Hospital—used to house Civil War Veterans suffering from PTSD, and now serves as the perfect set for a Scooby Doo reboot directed by Eli Roth and Rob Zombie.
Though the razor wire and police vehicle nearby deterred us from actually attempting a tour as such, I did get the pleasure of locking eyes with a feral dog wandering its halls. That dog had seen things.
*Note: Immediately behind the overgrown nightmare ghosts was a condo complex under construction, so yes, you can live in a small condo amidst the tormented screams of Confederate soldiers and the ghosts of those labeled “feeble-minded” and forcibly locked away for eternity for (checks notes) $400k starting. Location, location, hell-mouth.
Little did I know, the terror was still yet to come.
The lady friend picked Congaree due to images such as this one from its website:
It promised beautiful, untouched trees like the Bald Cypress, white herons, and a raised boardwalk loop upon which to view it all.
Here is what the boardwalk loop is supposed to look like:
Here is what it actually looks like:
Here’s the truth: Congaree is less “National Park land which needs to be preserved for its beauty” and more “Swampy Hell-Scape no one ever attempted to build upon, where you will contract all the malaria.” All of it.
About that malaria. The mosquitoes at Congaree are no joke. It has been months, and my ankles still look like they had been bitten yesterday.
To be fair, the park’s service has put up a sign, and, as such, we bathed in DEET prior to venturing out.
On the day we were there, it was at a 4. If that was a 4, 6 must mean you will die a bloodless husk steps outside of the Visitor’s Center.
The moment you step onto the trail, they swarm. You will think, “Oh, this must be a bad area. Let’s keep walking.” DO NOT KEEP WALKING. TURN AROUND. GET IN THE CAR. BURN EVERYTHING BEHIND YOU. NEVER LOOK BACK.
I kid you not—as the lady friend has a fitbit and so can corroborate—it was the fastest 10 miles ever done by human hikers. We normally hike at about a 3 mph pace, pausing to appreciate the nature around us, take a few pics, drink some water, and have a snack. Though this was a slog through 6 inch deep mud, we sprinted through the entire 10 miles, looking like two vaguely human-sized mosquito clouds emitting constant slapping sounds and cuss words.
We took no pictures. We stopped for nothing. We thought of nothing but murder.
Columbia, SC: Come for the BBQ, stay for the abandoned asylums, and abandon all hope ye who enter Congaree National Swamp.