Getting High (and a little low) in South Carolina

May 29th, 2011

First of all, I love hotels. Not to stay in, but to work in. They are open all night, and so far every one I have been too has let me sit in the lobby and write with air conditioning, bathrooms, and relative quiet. Not to mention comfy chairs. As a thank you, I’ll give the Hampton Inn-Simpsonville, South Carolina a tiny bit of free publicity.

Things I had not seen coming while traveling:

–         You never realize how often you need to use the bathroom when it’s a walk down the hallway. On the road, you have to divert every time you need to go and that gets old fast.

–         It is really hard to eat healthy. Most of the options available to you are fast food diners, or local diners that serve fast food. I seek out the local places because the people tend to be interesting, but in terms of food there’s not a lot of difference.

–         Sleeping in the car is not that hard, but it takes some time to find a perfect spot. It is either bright, hot, buggy, too hidden, or not hidden enough.

When there's a strange car, in your neighborhood...Who ya gonna call?

So it’s May 29th, and my first article for USA Today on the road trip is due in four days. I’ve been on the road about a week, but I’ve only spent two nights away from friends so far. I think it is about time I started thinking a little more about the personal development aspect of the trip.

Yesterday I traveled to South Carolina and slept in a Denny’s parking lot, and thanked them by patronizing their restaurant. It turns out truckers sleep with their motors on all night, so I woke up every few hours but fell back asleep pretty fast. It was over 90 today and my goal was to find a pool or lake. I ended up traveling to Sumter National Forest, a massive manmade forest in the western part of the state. Figuring camping, rivers, lakes, and hiking trails, I was prepared to spend the day and night reading and relaxing.

So much for that. Sumter was planted in the 1930’s as an economic boost project, but once was 9,000 plantation acres for the man who arguably started the Civil War. Governor William Henry Gist’s mansion and plantation is hidden deep in the forest, and the little towns that dot it are filled with descendants of his 171 enslaved people. Gist ended his tenure as Governor in 1860, but he was the guiding force behind the state’s decision to secede from the Union.

Fire+Balloon=flight? So much for a college education. How does someone decide to start a hot air balloon business anyway?

After enjoying a tour of the home and a discussion with the master gardener, the only other people on the tour recommended I visit the hot air balloon festival in Simpsonville, South Carolina. Expecting a few hundred people and some balloons, I headed west to the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I stopped in a diner the park ranger recommended, Gene’s Hot Dogs and Burgers, which turned out to be the focal point of politics in the area. Former President Bush stopped in back in 2000, and Senators of various sorts followed suit. It seems that anyone who wants to be elected in South Carolina has to stop at Gene’s.

The truck at Gene's has a chicken.

Simpsonville greeted me with a $5 parking fee and a $10 entrance fee. A long walk through a carnival-like atmosphere complete with a ferris wheel, shooting games, and funnel cakes. Children led their families from ride to ride, spending money. The hot air balloons slowly blew up and took off, disappearing into the sky. The crowd, mostly families, gathered in lawn chairs and cheered each one up. I got the opportunity to fly up in one myself with American Escapes Aerosports (, which made the trip worth it.

Could have been the best water balloon fight ever. (Dennis 3rd floor)

I love journalism.

What happened next shook me a little bit. In the time it took to buy dinner from the Knights of Columbus fund-raising stand, the families had been replaced by college girls in sundresses and frat boys in pink polos. Without warning, I was back at the University of Richmond. It turned out a big concert was scheduled for just after the balloons took off. As a Bob Marley cover band played, crowds of college students streamed in and I streamed out.

After getting back to the car, I kicked myself. This was the problem I was trying to fix all along. I could watch the concert unfold, studying the culture, but I couldn’t figure out how to even begin to be a part of the experience. I forced myself to return and at the very least talk to someone.

So I walked the mile from the parking lot to the stage for the third time that day, resolving to fight my insecurity and strike up conversation. When I got back, I felt just like I do at most college parties: at a loss. Who should I talk to? What would I say even if I did?

Corey Smith, a well known area country singer, got the crowd excited. I knew I did not have much in common with the other people at the concert, save a love of country music, and everybody seemed to travel in a group. I sat down in my chair and hoped someone would just come talk to me. Realizing that I was letting myself be antisocial, I forced myself to stay through the whole concert and deal with the awkwardness as punishment.

Smith's new song "Drugs" provided commentary on America's drug addiction. Part of the chorus: Caffeine in the morning, Alcohol at night. Nicotine in between.

The music was good, and precisely what country should be: upbeat and honest, with a little bit of heart. I was annoyed with myself, but enjoyed the music nevertheless. One of the things I hope to change about myself was evident in this night’s event. I should be able to talk to anyone, anytime. I am getting better at situational talking with one or two people, like if I’m in a restaurant. However, I can’t seem to figure out how to talk in large groups of people at parties or concerts. If I can do that by the end of the summer, I’ll consider myself accomplished.

Even worse, on the way out, a couple asked me for a lighter, and instead of using it as an opportunity for a conversation, I politely said no and slinked back to the car.  I have some work to do.

A beautiful horizon, or the world's largest shooting gallery.


One response to “Getting High (and a little low) in South Carolina

  1. Lucky you, a hot air balloon and a gorgeous day. I think you never actually talk to large groups of people unless you are making a speech. You might talk to a smallish group of people all at once if you are, for example, telling them something interesting or interviewing them about something or asking something. Or, people share a common experience and exchange random comments about it. For conversation that matters, you actually talk to individuals, tho the individuals may be embedded in groups. For that it’s easier if there are two or three of you because most people are in twos or more. You need a conversation starter or ice breaker.

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