Day 187

At the visitors center for Congaree National Park I overhear the park ranger mentioning to someone that most of the trails are currently flooded. I figure that since I’m planning on just walking the boardwalk I should be fine, since from what I recall the boardwalk is pretty high above the forest floor for the most part. You see, I’ve been here before, a couple years ago in fact. I was visiting my mother, and the friend I had driven down here with had taken me here for a day walk. On that day, the weather was pretty mild, and the swamp was dry for the most part. Only a few puddles hid amongst the cypress knees.
With all the rain recently, the nearby rivers had overflown their banks, and I find evidence of the flooding as I make my way through the woods. As I attempt to take the route I had taken on my previous visit, I find the boardwalk getting closer and closer to the ground, and the water level rising higher and higher. It sinks gradually, so that at first there are just a few small puddles, and then larger ones, until finally the water overtakes the boardwalk and it is submerged beneath an inch, two inches, on and on until the point where I decide that continuing is not worth the cold I will inevitably catch if I get my feet wet in winter.
It is so beautiful out here, standing in this ankle deep water, the trees rising up around me. The sun is already sinking towards the horizon, so I can see the shadows of the flora around me like stripes on the swamp. The waters are very still, no fish swim here, so everywhere I look I see brown lines, dashes of green leaves, slices of blue sky reflected on the calmly flowing mire.
My curiosity pulls me away, I wonder what the other side is like, so I head back up the boardwalk and towards the other end. I pass a few other day trippers enjoying the pleasantly mild day, but I only stop when I hear something moving out in the forest. I scan the brush around me, seeking for its source, and I finally find it, some large black hairy creature. A swamp thing perhaps? Too small for that. Maybe a baby Bigfoot then? Hanging vines and branches block my view, and I look around and then I notice another, and then another, and then a few more brown hairy things rush by.
Wild boars, a couple dozen of them. A litter of piglets in tow. The youngest ones are brown, with black stripes, and most of the older ones are solid black. They are rooting around in the swamp, slowly making their way towards the boardwalk where I am standing. The boardwalk itself is a good two meters off the ground, so I feel as though I am safe from them. I linger here for quite some time, observing life moving around and snorting and gasping. The pack splits into smaller groups, some running under the boardwalk to the other side, others off in different directions. The mother of the piglets starts dragging big palm leaves to a place I cannot see, and I realize she must be building a nest for the night. Other people pass by, and we whisper excitedly about the rare sights we are enjoying, until finally the sun sets and they all pass from view.

Day 186

The rain continues in the morning, but I feel as though the weather suits my mood as I head to Castillo de San Marcos. A grumpy morning, grey skies and constant drizzle set the scene at the old Spanish fort. Despite the weather, there are quite a few people here, milling about the battlements taking pictures and talking about the tactical lay of the land. My grumpiness must be evident, for as I enter the park rangers hassle me about me having a ticket, despite the dozens of other people walking in and out freely. The absurdity of that actually cheers me up, and by the time I enter the fort proper, I am in a good enough mood to truly enjoy the dark old place.
It is dark, slick with rain and stained by the centuries. I touch the walls to feel their texture, and discover that the bricks are actually made of thousands of tiny seashells, with larger shells still intact here and there. It is kind of amazing to see the years stacked up in the walls, even more so that the entire structure is built of old creature parts. The actual history of the place interests me less. There are signs talking about the different countries that owned it, and the different people in charge, but I barely read them before continuing on. In one room there is a very low tunnel connecting it to another area. At first I am not even sure I am mean to use it, it is so low. But there is padding on its top, and rails on each side, so I venture through. The other side is a bare stone room, with an electric lamp at one end, with a pedestal underneath it. No sign explains the room, no markings tell of its purpose. The only entrance is the short tunnel, which lacks any explanatory signage on the further side. Just a room, with a light. I stay in there alone for a while, thinking about why it exists, about the countless people that must have come through here over the years. About how at first the builders knew of its purpose, how self explanatory it must have been at some time. But now that knowledge is lost to me, and it is just a room with a light.
I leave the Castillo and drive north, and as I do the rain gradually dies away. The sky is still a smooth grey, but I like this sort of sky. It makes me think of other grey days, of jokes heard as a child, of bundling up to keep warm, of the way the trees look so different and yet so similar in so many places. The scene is more familiar here, on the east coast of Florida, a place where I once frequented with some regularity. Even more so in Georgia, a state I have driven through countless times.
Today however my destination is a place I have never been, Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. It is a large swamp in southeast Georgia, just. Over the border from Florida. I have been near it so many times, and yet until today I have never ventured in. Upon arrival I realize I have chosen a perfect day for it. There is a small park on the southeast side with some trails and a boardwalk, but today the park is empty. No doubt the rain scared most people away, and I’m sure along with the recent holidays people aren’t exactly in the mood for a walk through a dreary swamp under dead television channel colored skies.
Oh how dreary it is, there must have been a wildfire some time recently, for many of the trees in the swamp are just charcoal stumps. The boardwalk is new, and as I walk it I see the burned up supports that the old boardwalk must have stood on. There is black water all around, black logs and branches clawing towards the sky, and yet it is still so colorful. Small yellow flowers bloom below, dark purple berries grow from vines above. There are swamp grasses ranging from golden brown to bright green, and leaves turned red from fall. Above all that cloudy sky, making the darkness of the water and the dead trees ever so darker.
The beauty of this recovering swamp surrounds me, and I sit and listen to birds calling in the distance. Owls and herons and hawks and ravens call out as they hunt and seek and warn each other. The air is still, and the water only disturbed by tiny fry scattering at my approach. I walk slowly, everything around me is so new and strange and I am afraid to miss any small detail. I want this place to last forever in my head.
As I reach the end of the boardwalk I find a stand of trees draped with Spanish moss, swaying gently in unfelt breezes. There is a fire tower, which I climb so that I am level with the treetops. Up here I can see the swamp stretching out for miles, see some of the herons and egrets that I had heard in the distance. They glide about on their great wide wings, seeking whatever it is that birds seek. All around me are the trees covered in the hanging moss, and the sound they make as they brush against each other sounds to me like natures mantra.
I stay up there in the tower for as long as I can, until I know that I must get back on the road. And then it is a long drive to Charleston South Carolina, to catch up with another friend I haven’t seen in way too long.

Day 185

Driving, rain, driving rain. My head is a bit foggy today as well, perhaps a bit to much of celebratory spirits last night. No matter, I spend the day driving across Florida and make it to my destination just as I loose all light. A foul mood takes over me, the rain and solitude and headaches turn me sour. I know my journey is nearing its end, and it am living too much in the future, the future where I can sit on my couch playing with my cats in a warm room in my house.