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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Congaree National Park

Mark and I leave Cincinnati after the morning rush on Friday to get to Congaree National Park in time for the Owl Prowl that evening. Congaree, in Columbia, South Carolina, is the largest contiguous area of old-growth, floodplain, hardwood forest left in the U.S.

Within Congaree’s forest are more than 20 trees that hold the record for their size within their species. However, in the darkness, split only by the limited illumination of our red-bulb flashlights (so as not to disturb the wildlife), we can see nothing but the wide bases of the bald cypress trees that are most prevalent in the forest. What Mark nor I have ever seen before are the Cypress knees: little wood cones that grow from the roots of the trees. A boy on the tour, about 12, says they look like stalagmites. That’s a great comparison. Why the knees grow is not clear. To help the tree breath? To provide stability in the moist soil? Congaree is a Native American word meaning “scraping the bottom of the boat.” Those knees were likely the scrapers.

The park ranger tells us that the moss line five or six feet up the trees is the height of the water line the last time this place flooded. The park floods about 10 times a year, and since the elevated walkway we are taking is covered during the floods, people tour the park via canoe or kayak.

The wildlife we experience on the Owl Prowl, in the darkness and the light rain, consists of a millipede, several yellow and black spiders called orb weavers and a barred owl; we don’t see the owl but hear its call: “hooo-ee-hoo.”

When we take a 10.5-mile hike our final day in the park, we encounter more impressive animals.

Because the gate’s not open this early morning, we park in the after-hours lot and hike the half mile in, Mark in the lead to save me from any webs woven over night. In the park we climb the steps to the elevated walkway and aim to the distant reaches of this 22,000-acre park.

Soon after exiting the walkway, we encounter a two-and-a-half-foot water snake lazily curving down the transparent, brackish Cedar Creek, a feeder of the Congaree River.

Not much further, Mark turns and quietly asks for the camera. I hand it over and see the barred owl, so named because of the dark, vertical stripes on its chest, sitting on a low branch of a tree not 25 feet ahead. Mark snaps the camera on, and the owl lowers his head and alights; Mark misses the shot.

As we are first in the park, there are no human sounds to scare animals, and
birds of all sorts are singing, and woodpeckers hammer away high on dead trees. This October morning is comfortable though we wish we wore long pants as the trail is overgrown and several times we have to find the least troublesome way around a tree that has fallen to block the trail.

Just beyond our owl sighting, Mark spots the tiniest of brown frogs on the forest floor. That Mark spotted him is amazing because he’s little and the exact color as the fallen leaves.

About a quarter ways in we stop for water and energy bars. Mark and the backpack are mummified in spider webs, so I unwrap them both to get to the goods. Resting, I notice a wooly wiggler on Mark’s leg: the fourth unique creature so far.

Just after I zip the wrappers and bottle into the pack, from our left we hear what sounds like a horse whinnying, only much louder, lasting much longer, not dropping in pitch as it ends, like a whinny does, and tinged with an element of fear. I imagine an attack on whatever emitted the screech/howl. Mark looks back, and we greet each other with eyes wide, unsure what to do.

We pause briefly before forging on, and just 10 seconds later, Mark turns and whispers “Pigs!” and points ahead to the right. I glimpse a black boar, a descendent of the pigs brought here in the 1800s for game, slip deeper into the forest.

Ahead is another fallen tree, and we are looking to find an easy way around, when a little red boar startles 20 feet ahead, like we flushed him out, which I guess we did. Mark jumps too; we are so close, the pig scared him. It is the color of cinnamon and the size of a rotund border collie.

After collecting ourselves, we approach the fallen tree. I pass Mark and walk to the left to investigate the ease of getting through, and we hear “grrr-r-r.” I turn and calmly walk away so as not to provoke a chase. Mark says, “Get behind me! I don’t know what he’ll do, but I want him to do it to me instead of you.” I step behind and search the ground for limbs to beat the attacking boar off my husband.

We hold our ground for a minute before deciding to go ahead.

By trail’s end, we are lucky enough to have had six pig sightings, most two pigs together. The red one was the smallest and the largest we saw was about the size of a fat German shepherd. Most were dull black, and one of those had a white stripe across its shoulders.

Back at the visitor center, I tell the ranger about our adventures on the trail while Mark hikes out to get our car.

Sitting outside the center waiting for Mark, I see a little green lizard on a thin branch. I’ve seen one before, but nearly everything else Congaree has offered us has been a new experience.

The turtles and copperhead are bonus wildlife that didn't make it into the story.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Jelly Belly Jelly Bean Factory, Fairfield, CA

Today I bought $12-worth of jelly beans. Sounds like a lot, but they’re not just any jelly beans; their Jelly Belly “The Original Gourmet Jelly Bean” jelly beans. I became a big fan of the Jelly Belly bean after Mark and I made a stop at the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, California for a fun tour of the facility.

The Jelly Belly Candies factory is about an hour east of San Francisco. Tours are open to the public and begin every 15 minutes, approximately, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Factory workers and the candy-making machines get weekends off, but on those days TV screens set up strategically throughout the facility show the operations.

Once we stepped through the door of the place, we were in the gift shop, which was large and open; there were no walls to confine shoppers. We wandered over to test our free tastes of Jelly Belly’s new Rock candy: irregularly shaped chocolate chunks covered with a thin candy coating that reminded me of the coating on those malted candies sold at Easter time that look like robin’s eggs. We neither one cared much for the Rock candy.

The Rock candy counter was at the bottom of the stairs where we congregated for the next tour. We were each given hats that we had to wear while on tour in the food-making factory, California State law. We walked up the stairs and the tour began.

The upstairs is also open, and from that height we got great views of the Jelly Belly portraits, all mosaics done with Jelly Bellies: Princes Di, a young Queen Elizabeth, Benjamin Franklin, Larry King and, of course, our jelly-bean-loving, former president, Ronald Reagan.

Our guide led us through production—a level above—so we could see the whole operation. Not every flavor is made every day—that day the whole place smelled very cherry—but we could see canvas bins full of yellow, blue and pink beans waiting to be bagged. We learned that Jelly Belly jelly beans are flavored naturally, and that it was in the time of the Great Depression when candy shaped like crops—jelly bean, candy corn, caramel zucchini—became a mainstay. (That last one’s a joke.)

The 40-minute tour ended at the hoppers, where we saw the light, sugar coating being spun onto the beans. This area was where the Belly Flops were weeded from their more perfect siblings. Belly Flops are misshapen beans that, while they taste perfectly good, do not pass muster to receive the designation of a jelly bean.

At the end of the tour, participants received a complimentary, 100-count bag of mixed Jelly Belly jelly beans.

Before leaving, Mark and I shopped and sampled more in the gift shop, where bushel baskets held bags of different combined flavors of the candy beans. We selected two 2-pound bags of mixed Belly Flops: one to take home and one to eat during the rest of the week we vacationed in California.

Along the counter were the different flavors with helpers handing out free beans for the tasting. I tasted buttered popcorn, the number one best selling flavor, and loved it.
The two or three times a year I buy Jelly Bellys, buttered popcorn is the standard flavor I get, along with Tuti Fruity if it’s available. And I usually experiment with a third flavor because the people at Jelly Belly are coming up with new ones all the time. Today I got vanilla bean. It’s no buttered popcorn, but it’s pretty good.