South Carolina. The distant backroads. I am driving in the deep forest, stuck behind an asthmatic pickup.
The truck is a ‘78 Ford. F-100. Two-tone. Brown and vanilla. Five liter engine. Probably a three-speed manual. I know this because my old man drove the same truck.
The Ford travels 49 mph. The driver is in no hurry. His arm is hanging out the window. And I’m transfixed by his license plate.
The South Carolina license tag has a motto printed on it. The motto is located at the top, in white text. Just beside the $640 registration sticker.
“While I breathe, I hope,” says the adage.
I’ve never known a more beautifully optimistic state motto. Especially when you consider some of the other state mottos.
Such as North Carolina’s motto: “Esse quam videri,” which means, literally, “To be, rather than to seem.” Which sounds like the Walmart version of a Bill Shakespeare quote.
California’s motto is one word: “Eureka!” Idaho’s is, “Let it be perpetual.” Florida’s state motto is: “Ask about our grandkids.”
But I like the Carolina license plate slogan. Namely, because it’s been a hard year for me. Exactly 365 days ago, the doctor thought I had cancer.
I went through a long miniseries of misery, only to find out that I’m okay.
Still, the year itself was double, double toil and trouble. Within that year, I lost six friends to the C-word. And one to suicide. I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown.
But here I am, 12 months later, driving South Carolinian backroads. My dog is in the passenger seat. The sun is blaring through the windshield. Kris Kristofferson is singing on a staticky AM station.
I am still alive. And the Eighth State couldn’t look any nicer.
It’s funny. I’ve always heard South Carolina is an arrestingly gorgeous place. But until today, I’ve only visited the touristy destinations. I’m like any other American Joe Six-Pack. I’ve only seen the usual places.
Augusta, Columbia, Greenville. Chuck Town. And the 24-hour-wet-T-shirt contest atmosphere of the touristy beach towns.
But I’ve never taken the backroads. The chipped two-lane highways are no wider than the red carpet at the Oscars. The plush trees practically enclose the highway like a canopy.
Then, suddenly, the trees stop. And you’re in marshlands. You’re driving through salt marshes and robust sabal palms. Shallow bridges carry you over acres of lime-green cordgrass. Mirrored waterways snake through golden tidal prairies.
Then more forestland.
South Carolina has about 13 million acres of virginal forest. That’s a lot of dang trees. Maine, the most forested state in the Union, has 16 million acres.
The sun lowers itself over the treeline. The whole world turns peach and pink. And I’m falling headfirst in love with this place.
I pull over to get gas. I tell my dog to wait in the car. The windows are cranked down, and my hound can evidently smell something interesting in the air.
She’s smelling pork. Because the gas station serves barbecue inside.
The man behind the barbecue-joint counter is about six-eleven. His skin is the color of fresh-brewed Folgers. His forearms are the size of my thighs. And, heavens, he is cheerful.
“What you might not know,” the man tells me, “is that Sou’ Kaylina be the original inventor of American barbecue.”
He goes on to explain his theory.
“Barbecue,” he tells me, is a noun. Not a verb. You don’t “barbecue” meat, he explains. You smoke it, grill it, or whatever.
But the dark magic of “barbecue” is another animal altogether. It’s different from smoked meat or grilled meat. Barbecue means the cooking time is shorter. The temperatures are higher.
He goes on to describe a bunch of concepts I don’t understand. Then he proves his point by giving me a foam box of pulled pork.
I taste the pork and…
Soon, I’m back on the highway. I’m passing little hamlets with tiny town squares and brick-faced buildings.
A local library has a marquee out front which reads: “Storytime with Miss Ginger, Tuesday at 2 p.m.”
A church sign reads: “God wants full custody, not just weekend visits.”
There are American flags galore. Ford and Chevy trucks aplenty. And the beauty of small-town America hits you like a veritable explosion. Scene by scene. Mile by mile.
And I’m feeling more alive than I’ve felt in a long time. One year ago, I was in a doctor’s office listening to a man in a white coat tell me what cancer does to your stomach. One year ago, I was lying on the floor of my bathroom, stained with vomit, mourning my own life.
Today, by the mercy of God, there is nothing wrong with me. I am living in the sunlight of South Carolina. I am traveling 49 mph.
Life is not easy. Nobody ever said it would be. But while I breathe, I hope.
🇿🇦🇿🇦Norma Den - October 8, 2022 7:13 am
Sean, I thank God you are breathing still. What a beautiful description of a slice of paradise. A beautiful motto, one to live by.
Robert J West - October 8, 2022 7:18 am
Augusta happens to rest in the “Peach State”. South Carolina produces more peaches than the “Peach State”.
Ernie in River City - October 8, 2022 10:58 am
Ironically true. Makes me wonder if there’s someplace sunnier than the “Sunshine State?”
Patricia Gibson - October 8, 2022 2:04 pm
There is part of Augusta in both states.
Sandra Schumann - October 9, 2022 4:17 am
I came to say the same. NORTH Augusta is in SC!!
Ann Thompson - October 8, 2022 7:42 am
Keep the hope.
Lucretia Jones - October 8, 2022 7:48 am
Thank you, Sean, for sharing South Carolina’s truthful and redeeming motto. I shall remember this message forever. Thank you. Lucretia
Laura W - October 8, 2022 8:52 am
One tiny correction – it’s Kris, not Chris, Kristofferson and his his brother is Kraig, not Craig. I am so glad your are alive and healthy one year after being concerned about cancer. You make every day better with your writing.
mccutchen52 - October 8, 2022 9:04 am
When you feel like your going die it tends to open your mind up. My doctors told my wife to wait and see what the next few days bring. I didn’t know this till the “next few days” were over and I was getting better. So yea. been there done that bought the t-shirt.
PSC - October 8, 2022 10:04 am
Love your description of what must be a beautiful state. All I’ve experienced there was Fort Jackson basic training, summer of 1959. Now, sit back and let this ol’ Florida boy tell you about my grandkids ….
Jocelyn - October 8, 2022 10:20 am
Never read that motto in SC license plate. I live one block from the SC border and see these plates often. Great slogan. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Yes the backgrounds of SC are beautiful. Check out the uplands.
Cindy - October 8, 2022 10:21 am
Native South Carolinian now transplanted into TN, both states with that subtle and serene bodacious beauty you have discovered. At 72 I am working up the nerve to get my first tattoos, which I have long ago decided to be “Imagine” (yeah, that song 😊) and the SC motto but the Latin version, Dum Spiro Spero. Nice to know someone else “gets it”.
Tom McCoppin - October 8, 2022 10:43 am
I needed to hear those words. I had a biopsy on September 20, 2022. When my doctor’s office called and said they wanted to see me in person first thing the following Monday morning, I knew it wasn’t going to be good news. It wasn’t. I have cancer. I have been walking around in a daze ever since. But now I have a new motto. While I breathe, I hope.
GsimmonsSC - October 8, 2022 11:58 pm
Praying for you Tom. I walked that road in 2019. Thankfully, caught before it spread. Now in regular blood test land. It shakes your world.
Matt Ovaska - October 8, 2022 10:47 am
I traveled the country roads for work. I loved it. You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.
I stopped at a dirt road stop sign and was studying my map for 4-5 minutes. When I took off, I noticed an F100 behind me. He had waited till I was ready to go. He never honked. Only city folk honk.
In Tenn. if you see a car with it’s blinkers (turn signal) on, you know it was stuck on since he bought the car.
I love the road sign before the tunnel on Rt 40 going to Ashville. It reads “BURN YOUR LIGHTS”
Ernie in River City - October 8, 2022 10:54 am
You have had quite the journey this past year. Thank you for sharing parts of it with us. Continuing to pray for you. By the way, as a former South Carolinians and current Georgian, Augusta is in Georgia. But just barely.
Ginger Smith - October 8, 2022 10:58 am
‘Barbecue is a noun’ should be the South’s
motto. Glad you are well, Sean. Very glad. Blessings and peace today.
Te - October 8, 2022 11:19 am
What your doctor doesn’t know, of course, is that a dog is the cure for many an ailment, and you got the all-time best dang cure for almost anything in Marigold!
Fran - October 8, 2022 11:45 am
Thank you for your words!❤ Never give up!❤
Oliver Rhett Talbert - October 8, 2022 11:54 am
Wonderful taste of my home state. Breathing and hoping all dang day long. Sorry you didn’t stop by Sarah Lane’s again. Just down her street, I had a cooler of cold, cold Pabst waiting for thirsty travelers. Maybe next time.
Braxton Usher - October 8, 2022 12:07 pm
We, I, would be happy to have you live here since you are not from Ohio. Come visit anytime. You are always welcome.
Paige K. - October 8, 2022 12:09 pm
Two things struck me about your story. The first is the smell of those marshes around Charleston. It’s pungent and I hope you get to experience it. I just returned from a girls trip to Pawleys Island two weeks ago and I will say, those backroads after you drop down between Augusta and Columbia (depending on Waze) can be both alluring and scary when you’re driving solo. Loved seeing all the cotton fields, the tiny small town main streets and during the long stretches of pure SC countryside, praying I didn’t break down as I hadn’t passed anyone or seen anyone milling around their mailboxes for miles!
Kathy Saylor - October 8, 2022 12:13 pm
Gosh, one of your best.
Barbara Farr - October 8, 2022 12:20 pm
One day drive through Aiken, SC. Yes, my state is gorgeous. I also grew up in Pensacola. No beaches can even compare to the beaches.
Jean Sherrill - October 8, 2022 12:46 pm
So glad you are ok! Never been to SC but it sounds wonderful!
Billy Blaylock - October 8, 2022 12:50 pm
Dear Sean, again you’ve touched a nerve and filled me with joy and hope. A southern boy myself, age 75, your messages uplift and ease my soul. I did have prostate cancer but with radiation, my PSA went from7.8 to 0.157! I had 28 radiation treatments this summer but did not stop me from baking and socializing! Very few side effects. We have a home in Maine for summer and Mississippi hill country in winter. I grew up in Mississippi but fled over 50 years ago when I realized I was gay. I returned with husband 50 years later and was welcomed with open arms. There have been traumas earlier in life but I have grown and acknowledged them. It helped that I worked in inpatient mental health for 40 years while living in Oregon!😎
I feel for your worry and pain last year. Keep spreading your words of joy and hope. Thank you,
Billy Blaylock ♥️😎
Sue Rhodus - October 8, 2022 1:02 pm
..and that’s what I like about the South !
virginia westlake - October 8, 2022 1:08 pm
Julie Wilson - October 8, 2022 1:15 pm
Oh Sean I’m thanking the Lord for His mercy in your life and that you are healthy and happy today!! And thank you for your beautiful description of my beloved state of South Carolina. I think I know the exact highway you were on from your description of “ Shallow bridges carry you over acres of lime-green cordgrass. Mirrored waterways snake through golden tidal prairies.” Those marshes take my breath every time I see God’s glorious creation!
It would always make my mama quote Sidney Lanier and “The Marshes of Glynn”! She has been in heaven for 10 years today. I will share your description of the marshes when I see her again!
Julie Wilson - October 8, 2022 9:22 pm
So, This is just a small passage of the complete “The Marshes of Glynn” by Sidney Lanier.
Do any of you remember learning portions of this in high school in Georgia? He was the state poet laureate for years.
“Ye marshes, how candid and simple and nothing-withholding and free
Ye publish yourselves to the sky and offer yourselves to the sea!
Tolerant plains, that suffer the sea and the rains and the sun,
Ye spread and span like the catholic man who hath mightily won
God out of knowledge and good out of infinite pain
And sight out of blindness and purity out of a stain.
As the marsh-hen secretly builds on the watery sod,
Behold I will build me a nest on the greatness of God:
I will fly in the greatness of God as the marsh-hen flies
In the freedom that fills all the space ’twixt the marsh and the skies:
By so many roots as the marsh-grass sends in the sod
I will heartily lay me a-hold on the greatness of God:
Oh, like to the greatness of God is the greatness within
The range of the marshes, the liberal marshes of Glynn.”
Dorotha (Dot) Coltrane - October 8, 2022 1:19 pm
I am thankful you are not terminally ill, Sean. Your daily readers cannot do without you. And thanks to your South Carolina friend for explaining that “barbeque” is a noun, not a verb. Our Yankee friends call any cookout a “barbeque.” Bless their hearts.
Donna from Iowa - October 8, 2022 1:30 pm
I am experiencing the most beautiful autumn that I ever remember because no rain and wind so trees are spectacular and last night’s frost is bringing a rainfall of leaves giving up their summer home.l
sjhl7 - October 8, 2022 1:53 pm
I am so thankful for you, Sean! You are a wonderful writer and a spectacular human being. Your eyes see things others don’t see and your ability to put those sights into words make us all able to see what you see. Praise God for your good health and for your presence in our lives.
Patricia Gibson - October 8, 2022 1:58 pm
David Britnell - October 8, 2022 2:05 pm
Thankful that you are doing ok. Love you buddy!
Frances - October 8, 2022 2:11 pm
Amen, brother. I am married to a SC native son whose founding family is buried in a beautiful cemetery near Due West. The motto speaks.
Maggie Priestaf - October 8, 2022 2:12 pm
I’m so glad for you!!
Pubert - October 8, 2022 3:11 pm
Sean, one of your best! Glad you’re still with us. Fell like I’m sitting in the old pickup truck with you like the 2 guys on the SEC Network ads. P.S, Are you on the road 24/7? Does your wife go with you? Audemus jura nostra defendere
Stacey Wallace - October 8, 2022 3:15 pm
Sean, my husband and I are grateful to God that you are well. Love to you, Jamie, and Marigold.
Jackie - October 8, 2022 3:36 pm
Praise God! Too many folks with the C word. God ain’t done with you, sir. Continue blessing us with your written word that warms this southern girl’s heart!
Mary Douglas - October 8, 2022 4:02 pm
So happy you are well! Awesome news! Love your posts! Keep ‘em coming, please.
Donnie - October 8, 2022 4:43 pm
Sean, so glad the horror of a year ago is over. So appreciate the daily visits. Sometimes I laugh, sometimes, I cry. Always, I’m in awe of your skill with words. Thank you!
Karen - October 8, 2022 5:06 pm
It is wonderful you are well. Good to hear. I want to be in an old truck moseying downs the back roads of the South. My husband is an interstate guy. I will make my dream happen before long.
Suellen - October 8, 2022 5:30 pm
I hope Marigold got some barbecue.
Cathy M - October 8, 2022 5:47 pm
Sean, maybe you chose not to share your health scare with your followers and that is your decision. I would have been praying for you every morning. You are always on my gratitude list because you touched my heart yrs. Ago at St. Stephens Episcopal church and you carried me through Covid. Just grateful to God that you are ok and that you and Marigold found each other. You are loved by many❤️🙏🏻
Lisa Perkins - October 8, 2022 6:42 pm
Praise God that the world is still blessed with you!! You make so many hearts and souls smile!
Julia - October 8, 2022 6:56 pm
Sean- Thank you so much. I can identify with your email. I am so glad you are ok. I am too, it would appear. Sweet Marigold Girl. And here’s to the best barbecue 🙂
Mary Willis - October 8, 2022 7:06 pm
I am a born and bred South Carolinian. My state is everything you said and more! Keep breathing and keep hoping! It’s a great day to be in South Carolina!💕
Linda Moon - October 8, 2022 7:19 pm
This week has not been easy for me and my cancers, Sean. Sometimes I’m a real trooper about it, but not this time. A new tumor showed up on the CT scan. But thoughts of my family, my cats, good libraries, a road trip that included Charleston, and posts from Sean of the South make life a little easier in the hard times. So, what can I do to make your life easier?
Dee Thompson - October 8, 2022 8:07 pm
I was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2013, stage 1. A Hysterectomy got rid of it. Nobody who has been told they have cancer will ever forget it, though. I lost my dad to cancer. You can survive it, though, if it’s caught early. I’m so glad yours was caught early. / Next time you go to SC visit Edisto Island. Beautiful and unspoiled. God Bless.
Larry Wall - October 9, 2022 6:47 pm
Dee Thompson, you are so right about Edisto Island being a good place to visit. The drive down SC #174 to the island alone makes the trip worthwhile. One of the prettiest drives on the planet, so, take your time and drive slower than 49 mph. And stop at some of the historic points along the road.
Brett Constable - October 8, 2022 9:40 pm
Praise the Lord. Athens Alabama loves you and yours! Brett Constable
Loretta D Reeves - October 8, 2022 10:09 pm
As always, I enjoyed this post. But, because I have been a devout fan of his for almost 50 years, I felt the need to say it’s Kris Kristofferson- not Chris…
Deb Savas - October 8, 2022 10:58 pm
Love reading your short stories. You make me look at life a little different. Thank you.
Martha Welch - October 8, 2022 11:47 pm
This South Carolinian thanks you for getting it all right. More information about our barbecue. The upstate has red barbecue, the midstate has mustard barbecue, and the lower state and Pee Dee have vinegar barbecue—this one roasts all night before the next day’s pig pickin’. Also, not only do we have the best motto, but we officially have the best flag. I’m glad you’re still breathing and hoping!
Negri, Beverly - October 8, 2022 11:57 pm
I am so grateful that you’re healthy and write. Every day your writing makes me smile or tear up or just be happy to a alive. Thank you and thank Hod for you.
Greg - October 9, 2022 12:08 am
Born and bred South Carolinian. I live just across the state line from Charlotte and I’m considered a unique thing…a native. Thank you for reminding me of my beautiful state’s motto – Dum Spiro Spero – while I breathe, I hope. I needed that. In 2019, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer – at 48. I had a kid in college and one in high school. Thankfully, my surgery took place in 2019 just before the world screeched to a halt. They got the cancer before it had spread (at least they believe so – you always wonder). A good doctor saying we should check my PSA during a Boy Scout Summer Camp physical saved my life. If I had waited till 50 like they say, my outcome would be a lot different. If my surgery had been delayed till 2020 or later, same thing. Scanxiety is real. Every time I have a regular blood test, I worry. What if it comes back? What if it has spread? What if…? You reminded me to stop and trust God and to take that motto to heart – While I breathe, I hope. Thank you.
Melanie - October 9, 2022 1:04 am
What in tarnation?! Well apparently I’ve been under a rock for the past 12 months. Sean, I had no idea. What a heavy burden you carry. That and letters every day from people pouring their scared, lonely and grief-stricken guts out to you. The beauty of nature you describe is a blanket of comfort made just for your soul. Enjoy. And take a vacation.
Kathleen - October 9, 2022 1:19 am
The Texas motto is “Friendship.” Come over here and see!
suzi - October 9, 2022 1:44 am
Thankful for mistaken diagnosis’🙏🏼
MAM - October 9, 2022 2:06 am
Don’t we all? While I breathe, I hope, and I thank God every day for my life! I’m so happy that your cancer scare was just that, a scare. Take care of yourself, Sean, and hug Marigold for me, plus Jamie, Otis and Thelma Louise, when you get back home.
Steve Winfield (lifer) - October 9, 2022 7:11 am
Yep, hug em all. I know you will.
Your stories just get better & better.
You are a piece of work my friend.
Never forget the night we met at BAM in Homewood & I’m sure we’ll get a repeat some day.
You said, “Hey Jamie, we got a lifer here.”
I’ve worn that badge with pride ever since.
ANNE FELDER - October 9, 2022 11:21 am
Thank you! I love my beautiful state. <3
Sheilla Boyd - October 9, 2022 1:41 pm
love this one! Sometime hope is all we have to hang on to and that gets us through another day!
Chasity Davis Ritter - October 9, 2022 11:03 pm
Everytime I read a perfectly timed blog I think this is the best one yet. You can’t top it. But you do manage to write another perfectly timed reminder for us all. I’m glad you’re still here and you will be for a long time to come.
Robert Andereson - October 10, 2022 12:02 am
Love your column on South Carolina.
Mim - October 10, 2022 2:42 am
Emily Dickinson would love that state motto.
Also, now I’m hungry for BBQ. Best of all is the bbq of my childhood at Purvis’ in Wrens, Ga.
Anne Trawick - October 10, 2022 5:29 pm
Good one. Yes, indeed.
Ben - October 11, 2022 6:37 pm
Haven’t read stuff this good about the South since ole Lewis Grizzard passed away
Barbara - October 13, 2022 3:47 pm
You are a gifted wordsmith and that is an understatement. You are wise, funny, and have a depth if character some live a lifetime and never achive.
Congratulations on your new book.
Keep writing. Ignore the naysayers as I am sure their name is not on any book for sale.