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.