While I Breathe, I Hope

It’s been a while since we were last here. Since being released from the day hospital in early February, Christian recovered from the stem cell transplant AND grew a beard. He’s never been able to grow a beard before. When his hair started coming in, it came in black above his upper lip. I (Julie) kept staring at him as though I had never seen him before, and Christian kept asking me why I was staring at him. Anyway, it kept growing and eventually grew on us both. He shaved it off the other day because, well, he is going to lose his hair all over again very soon. That is the big news. The stem cell transplant didn’t work well enough the first time, so the doctor wanted him to undergo another in the coming week. We sure hope the second time’s the charm. 

When we met with the oncologist in early March, we learned that all combined treatments didn’t result in remission as expected. We were then told that Christian would receive a promising new treatment that works well for high-risk patients and would begin after his follow-up appointment on April 18th. That was March 23rd. We couldn’t imagine waiting for a new treatment to start, so we asked Dr. S if we could skip town for three weeks. Promising to be careful since Christian still has little to no immune system. To our delight, he said yes and two days later, we were making a beeline for the sunny shores of South Carolina. 

For three blissful weeks, we wandered, hugging the Atlantic Ocean and soaking up all the sunshine and salt air we could like greedy shipwrecked sailors. In those three weeks, we felt ‘normal’ for the first time in almost a year. We walked 10-12 km a day, mostly on beaches. We explored places new to us and revisited places we had first visited back in 2014. Hunting Island, the epicentre of the film Forrest Gump, was the highlight of our trip. This barrier island was just what the doctor should have ordered. We left that magical place feeling restored and ready to endure the months ahead. 

This cancer continues to provide surprises at every turn. The promising new treatment option disappeared while we were wandering in the south, and upon our return, a second stem cell transplant was presented as the only option. We no sooner wrap our heads around one thing only to find out something altogether different is going to happen. We heard from the transplant coordinator this past Wednesday and were told the transplant would not occur until the end of May. So, we immediately started planning how to spend the time between now and then. An hour later, the coordinator called back and said there was a cancellation and Christian would get his new PICC line installed on Monday. Yes, tomorrow! And the transplant process will likely begin this coming Friday, May 5th. So, here we go. Again. Of course, anything could change between now and Tuesday. It’s a good thing we aren’t big on planning far ahead! 

Now, back to our getaway! The first night we stopped in Flintstone, Maryland. We first camped at Rocky Gap State Park back in 2014 when we were travelling in the VW. Though early spring and still a touch on the chilly side, it was far enough on the other side of winter to make these two winter-weary Canadians smile and elicit a couple of yabba dabba doos. 

We stopped at Natural Bridge in Virginia specifically to see the 30-story, 500 million-year-old Natural Bridge and climb down and up the 127 steps, but we also got to see a salt-peter cave and a lost river. Virginia’s motto is, ‘Virginia is for Lovers,’ but it would not be a stretch to add ‘of nature.’ We also were able to de-winterize the van at the nearby KOA.

Usually, we would take several days to get as far south as South Carolina, but the ocean was calling most urgently, and we could finally breathe upon arrival. We walked, smelled, listened, and noticed everything with all of our senses for two days and nights at Myrtle Beach State Park. Restoration is that simple.

We really don’t need a reason to stop in Charleston. It is a city whose streets we have walked, cycled and driven several times in the past. We always find new neighbourhoods to explore and new places to eat. We knew where we wanted to go this time before leaving Toronto; Leon’s Poultry and Oyster Shop, a Charleston institution. Because of Christian’s lack of immunity, we haven’t eaten in a restaurant in a long while, so this was a real treat. Christian cannot eat raw seafood, so we ordered expertly grilled and delicious oysters. The special that day was a soft-shelled crab sandwich; boy, it was memorable. And the fried chicken lived up to the well-deserved hype. Crispy as all get out and moist and super-dee-licious. We enjoyed every finger-licking morsel. Before leaving Charleston, we stocked our fridge and pantry at Trader Joe’s. Christian happened to be wearing his PEI Hand Pie t-shirt that day, which one of the staff noticed and jokingly asked him to pose beside their Hand Pie display to encourage sales. 

Continuing south, we stopped to visit an old acquaintance, a live oak tree said to be over 400 years old. Our friend, Angel Oak, has yet to age a day in the nine years since we last met. We were thrilled to see she is still standing and continues to garner the love and respect she so deserves. How many times have you changed course to visit a tree? Still determining how many times we have done so to date, but we’ll continue to see as many of these elders, survivors, and givers of life for as long as we can.

We didn’t know how far south we would travel when we left Toronto. Our goals were to reach the Atlantic Ocean, to feel the warm sun on our skin and to be able to wear a single layer of clothing. As it turned out, Hunting Island State Park in South Carolina was our southern terminus. We have long wanted to stop here but could never find an available campsite. This time we were fortunate to book three consecutive nights at the State Park followed by another four nights at a second site. We rarely camp in one place for a whole week, but constant movement was not our goal this time. We were unusually content to stay put in this wild island paradise. We explored the beaches, maritime forest and marshlands and watched shore birds, mating snakes, a sunning alligator, two herons, and a raccoon fishing together at low tide. We watched the sunrise and sunset and were even there to witness a pink moon rising from the horizon on the Atlantic. We overheard a small camper tell her mom, ‘It’s like the sunrise, but it’s a moon.’ Wanting to witness the magic of sunsets, moonrises, and sunrises defies age. We all want to be there to see the wonder. We scrambled around Boneyard Beach, where hurricane-strength winds toss and deposit trees. We circled the island lighthouse and talked with a camp host who shared regional tips. We learned the local history, particularly that of the Penn Centre, which became a campus for empowerment and the first centre for education in the US for formerly enslaved West Africans in 1862.

We also learned that right here, in Gantt Cottage, is where Dr. Martin Luther King wrote his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. We cooked wild-caught shrimp, which we bought from the Gay Fish Company, over a wood fire. This was the de facto Bubba Gump Shrimp Company in the movie Forrest Gump. In fact, many of the scenes in the film were set right here, as we were reminded several times that week. One morning, we enjoyed melt-in-your-mouth, flaky, buttery breakfast biscuits from the Low Country Cider Company. 

We reserved a visit to the town of Beaufort for the day of our departure from Hunting Island. Beaufort is the second oldest city in South Carolina and is pronounced Bewfert as opposed to Bowfort, which sets it apart from Beaufort, NC. We learned this on the first day of our stay on Hunting Island. One could think of Beaufort as a smaller-scale and more relaxed Charleston. We had to stop at the Kazoo Museum while driving through Beaufort. A gem of a museum whose design was spearheaded by the granddaughter of THE Von Trapp family. You know, the Sound of Music Von Trapps! This musician worked with a Pittsburgh-based architect to create this museum through Covid pro bono! And yes, we may have purchased a kazoo or two! But the best souvenir we came away with from South Carolina is their state motto, ‘While I breathe, I hope.’

Leaving South Carolina was not easy. We crept north slowly and remained as close to the ocean as possible, making same-day decisions based on weather and campsite availability. On Good Friday, along with half of Charleston, we headed for Folly Beach. It was a gloriously sunny, hot, blue-sky day. We stopped at Crosby’s Fish and Shrimp for a dockside lunch before heading to the beach, where we waded in the warm, salty waves, walked the length of the beach, followed an octopus kite and met its flier, Evan from Nashville, with whom we enjoyed a long and entertaining conversation. And then decided to visit the Charles Towne Landing Historic Site, the first permanent English settlement in South Carolina, established in 1670. As with much of the eastern seaboard, the history is appalling, but any visit to Charleston should include stops at sites like this one. The city and its architecture are beautiful, but its history is undeniably dark. 

Following the Perfectly Good Weather on Friday was a forecast of solid rain. For us, this rainy forecast presented an opportunity to visit museums we had long wished to see. We spent a few hours at the Gibbes Museum. This museum focuses on the art of the Low Country and regional artists. There was an exhibition called Un/Natural Selections: Wildlife in Contemporary Art, a play on Darwin’s theory of natural selection. We knew we would love it since it combined two of our favourite things, wilderness and art, but it was even better than we had anticipated. We also spent time at the Slave Mart Museum for another angle on Southern culture and the history of slavery, without which, regrettably, there would not be the United States of America. We wandered aimlessly, as we love to do in this compact, sensory-thrilling city, taking in as many details and beauty as possible. All of our senses were engaged that day, and our emotions were too. We stumbled upon Sorelle Mercato just as the rain started falling in earnest. Lucky us! Christian’s Caprese sandwich was the best sandwich I’ve ever had a bite of, and my Sunshine My Love pizza lived up to its name. This was not our first visit to Charleston, nor will it be our last.

We planned to head inland on Easter Sunday but decided to call Huntington Beach State Park instead to check for an available campsite. Fortune favours the bold or ask, and you shall receive; we got a coveted beachside site and immediately set Siri in that direction. One of our favourite parts of this park is Atalaya Castle, the former winter home of Anna and Archer Huntington between 1931 and 1958. In 1960 the 2,500-acre estate and castle were leased to the state of South Carolina for free, at which time this land became Huntington Beach State Park. We were last here in September 2014 when we began living and travelling in our Westfalia. That was when we started questioning the concept of home, still one of our most burning questions. What we love most about Atalaya is the blurred lines between the indoors and outdoors. For people who prefer the outdoors, like us, this type of home is our ideal, size aside.

Pilot Mountain, North Carolina, was a perfect choice as our first inland stop northbound. We stayed at a private campground with just ten sites and a wide-open sky in the valley below Pilot Mountain. As always, we marvelled at the beauty of the setting sun and then watched as the stars multiplied in the dark night sky. The following day fuelled by curiosity, we decided to stop in nearby Mount Airy, the hometown of Andy Griffith and the fictional home of Mayberry. You can eat at Snappy Lunch or Aunt Bea’s, get your haircut at Floyd’s, order a milkshake at the old soda fountain or take a local tour in an old police cruiser. We simply walked around marvelling at this nostalgic period piece of a town. A lot has stayed the same in Mount Airy since Mayberry’s heyday. We were glad we stopped, but it was clear that its heyday was long past and maybe not the draw it once was. The town needs a reboot. 

We continued north through the Shenandoah Valley, camping in the shadow of the National Park, before continuing to Front Royal, Virginia, for lunch and a wander around on foot. The National Park was yet to be opened for camping, but we decided to head up to follow the Skyline Trail and visit a few overlooks before heading to our campsite at the Shenandoah River State Park. We met our neighbouring campers, Nadine and Francis, from PEI almost as soon as we arrived. We became fast friends, chatted, and laughed well into the night around a campfire. We also met an exceedingly friendly 80-year-old camp host who has a great affection for, in his words, ‘Canadians and Quebecers.’ We are confident that the feeling is mutual. The people we meet while travelling are essential to our wandering experience. On this trip, it was friendly Virginians that made the most impact. We met them in and out of their home state and enjoyed meeting and talking with each of them.

We like varying routes, so we will almost always choose a road we have yet to travel. This time we meandered through the mountains of West Virginia with the John Denver song as our soundtrack. Our last stop on our route north was Ohiopyle State Park in Pennsylvania. It is located in the southwest corner of the state next to West Virginia and Maryland. This area is home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob. We visited both sites in 2014 but had in mind to walk the grounds of Kentuck Knob once again. We wanted to revisit the Woodland Trail and the sculpture forest, and we enjoyed it just as much nine years later and in a different season. 

We made a lot of new memories and took many photos in three weeks, six states and 4,000 kilometres. We may not be able to plan, but we know we have many more memories to make, kilometres to travel, people to meet, sunrises and sunsets to enjoy and stars to wish upon in the not-too-distant future.