Em El and I took some much-needed vacation time last week. Part of our journey included a return trip (for me) to one of my favorite places in the South: the Congaree National Park. This park protects the largest remaining tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest on the continent. The average canopy height of the trees is over 100 feet, with many trees well over 150 feet high, including the National Champion Loblolly Pine, which tops out at 167 feet high and almost 15 feet around. Here I am below in front of one of the Congaree’s mighty giants. To put things in perspective a bit, I am about 6 feet 2 inches tall.

On this day, we spent about 6 hours exploring the swamp and it held many wonders for us. Migrating warblers and vireos flitted through the park, often coming quite close, and we frequently heard the wild cry of the Pileated Woodpecker, a bird that is in my mind the perfect ambassador to a place like the Congaree. During our sojourn, we were also lucky enough to spot two Barred Owls. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, was the small herd of wild boars we startled (the startling was mutual, believe me) as we hiked through one of the more remote areas of the park.

Between the massive trees, the clumps of Spanish moss hanging everywhere, and the overwhelming primal feel of the place, I felt like we’d traveled back in time, and I couldn’t help wondering what it must’ve been like before our ancestors tore through here like a pack of Tasmanian devils, chopping down trees and draining swamps like there was an endless supply of both.

All I can say is I am so glad that the National Park Service exists. It is arguable that it was too little too late, and that in the grand scheme of things, the NPS protects a mere shred of the natural beauty that once adorned this country. But if it weren’t for places like the Congaree, it would be so much harder to drive through the South today and see how suburban sprawl eats up more and more land. I think of my trip to the Congaree like a pilgrimage. I return to the city renewed inside, for a little while at least.

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