Flight: CO: Day 4 of 4: 2013 Flight Across the USA

It took a few weeks to finally get back down to Boulder and get the airplane. The drive is part of the factor, being that it is 90 minutes each way. Really, what was brewing inside was two things: a fear of the Rockies, and secondly, a nagging wonder where aviation should fit into the equation of life. Living in the high Rockies of Colorado was giving me my altitude fix. Why would I need an airplane to complicate things any further?

I finally found a day where the weather was doable. Well, I guess it was doable. There were ceiling issues, and I can’t remember why I chose this particular day over any other ones. It is not as though there is a shortage of sun in Colorado. Nonetheless, my personal confusion was evident as I had forgotten my camera! Thankfully, I had the iPhone, which I used liberally to take some pictures as I went.

As I applied full throttle in Boulder, I knew things would be sluggish on account of heat as well as my first takeoff at 5,400 feet. Sluggish it was, followed by the glorious “blub blub blub” sound of the engine coughing and sputtering. Rolling down the runway at high speed, I thought to myself “I don’t think this is actually a defect, it must be altitude.” I adjusted mixture controls, leaning the fuel/air ratio manually, and the engine lethargically came to life, enough to get off the ground and climb a bit. I tweaked the mixture a bit at that point, and I got a bit more RPM. It was good enough to climb, so I kept going.

Angling toward the foothills, I made slow but steady progress climbing. It was much slower than I remember flying to 14,000 feet in New York as a student, likely due to heat. At a few points, I just wasn’t making any upward progress, and I looked for locations over the foothills with small, puffy clouds. That is a sign the air is going up. Circling hawks are also a sign of the same thing.

Eventually, I just couldn’t climb. I played with mixture again and got even more power. Imagine that! This “mixture thing” needs to be adjusted with altitude. How fancy.

In time, I got into some cooler high altitude air and the climb rate became predictable and consistent. Reaching 12,800 feet, I aimed for Rollins Pass, a gap in the Front Range at 11,671 feet, with higher terrain on either side. The Rockies were unimaginably beautiful from the air. I completely fell in love with what I saw, a profoundness of scenery that is hard to describe. I cannot get enough of above timberline flying; I don’t care if its summer or winter, warm or cold, it doesn’t end. Life is pure at this altitude, as is the ground, the plants, the earth, all of it.

I was very anxious about going over the pass, anxious about emergency landing options, downdrafts, the clouds looming overhead, erratic wind, pretty much everything. I had been taught that mountains were evil, thanks to such promotional posters hanging in airports as “In 2011, 15 airplanes went into the Colorado Rockies and never came out.” Yeah, thanks. That’s so nice. Here we are, years later, and I have taken to mountain flying like a fish in water. What can I say?

The first thing to say is that flying over the pass was entirely uneventful. I found myself over Winter Park about 6,000 feet above the ground, enjoying the sun, asking myself what the hell I was doing up so high? I descended lower and cruised down the Colorado River valley, getting used to the idea of exacerbated daily thermals and lower aerodynamics at altitude. It took more work to “cruise” in a Cub at such an altitude: more power, more working the throttle, and more manipulation of the flight controls. It is not to say that is was particularly dangerous or hard, it was just different from the normal equilibrium that I was accustomed to. That, and I have almost triple the flying experience now as compared to that day three years ago. That was my first flight in the Rockies with a little, underpowered plane, without experience or information, despite being told not to do it by conventional sources. The little train that could….became a raging locomotive.

I landed at Kremmling, Colorado, a dry hellscape of a place in Grand County. It was the only place I could find hangar space. Wait a minute. Upon arriving, they told me they gave it to someone else, so I’ll just need to park my 70-year-old plane that shouldn’t be outside in the hot Colorado sun. A few months later, I found hangar space in Leadville. I’m still cranky about that one.

Disclaimer: These are unedited iPhone photos!

Approaching the foothills.
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Foothills of the Rockies. Yes, I am going in there and crossing those mountains.
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At 8,000 feet above sea level. Boulder and the Flatirons.
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Timberline. Gulp.
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Here we go!
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Rollins Pass. Perhaps this is really freaking cool.
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Going down the other side.
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This is turning out to not be a big deal.
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Right base for Kremmling, CO airport. Colorado River below.
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Flight: KS, CO: Day 3 of 4: 2013 Flight Across the USA

Morning featured bright sunshine and the exquisite joy of being a little ragtag Piper Cub parked in a line of business jets. For some reason, I absolutely love that configuration. Since then, it has happened more times than I can recount all over the West, regularly getting cut off by Delta Connection (Sky West) in small airports, as well as negotiating with Gulfstream and Citation jets in various steps in the pattern. I’ll stop there, as I could write a whole blog post about obscenely wealthy people and their silly habits with jets. Then again, I am sure they have quite an opinion about the hobo they saw riding in a kite somewhere in Montana…..

After takeoff, I climbed to a reasonable altitude to begin my cruise across Kansas. I had driven it enough times to know that it is about 400 miles wide. Yeah, this is going to take a while. It was taking even longer due to a silly headwind.

So I decided to try something new: flying lower to check out differing wind speeds.

Well, what do you know, there is a tailwind at 800 feet. Hey, she’s a little more favorable at 500 feet. While I’m at it, I believe the regs are written that one needs to stay 500 feet away from “people, vehicles, buildings, and structures.” <<Brief Pause>> Dive bomb!!!!!!!!

I crossed half of Kansas at fifty feet above the ground, plotting a course to avoid what few houses or towns existed. It was absolutely awesome.

There is quite simply nothing there, so the rules are covered. As for obstacles… well, watch out for hills, towers, birds, poorly placed power lines, and otherwise, it’s all good.

Fuel was in western Kansas, where air temperatures were over 100 degrees. Prior to entering the pattern, I climbed from 50 feet above the ground to about 800 feet or so, and then descended back down for final approach and landing. It was an unholy inferno on the ground. Literally 70 days prior, I had stopped for the night in the very same town while driving to Colorado, and it was 38 degrees, 45mph wind, and driving mist. Today, it was hell on earth. I mentioned this dichotomy to the airport attendant, and he, in a brusque Midwestern cowboy like manner said, “That’s Kansas,” with a “You look like a pretty boy from out East” look on his face.

Takeoff was sluggish with full fuel, max temps, and ground elevation of 3,500 feet. As I reached 150 feet, I said to myself “why bother?” reduced power, and settled back into a comfortable cruising altitude of 100 feet above the ground. Fifty feet requires too much agility.

Crossing into Colorado, the ground got higher, in a noticeable way because I had to climb, yet imperceptible way because one cannot really notice the continuous slope. Settling in at 5,500 feet, it was brutally hot, so I climbed to 1000 feet above the ground to get away from baking soil, and chewed my fingernails as I plunged into a 140-mile stretch devoid of towns, houses, and airports. To make matters more fun, it was a max endurance fuel leg with the headwind, though I kept options in mind if I had to divert north or south.

As the hours went by, I got very hot and very worn out, battling 100+ temperatures and even hotter air blowing off the engine into the cockpit. At 80 degrees out, additional engine heat feels nice. With oil temps at 205, a hot firewall under the panel, and even hotter air, it was really awful. By now, the shirts I had soaked in water at the airport were dried out, and it was just hot.

Passing north of Denver International Airport, under the “cake” of controlled airspace, I weaseled west to Boulder for fuel. At this point, I still had no radio, and I had no clue that Boulder is a beehive of airplanes, especially as a tow plane dove toward me on final. I would later do flight training here and learn that it was part of a dual pattern.

As I got fuel, I noted thunderstorms over the Continental Divide and asked the guy behind the desk if it’s doable going into the Rockies. He said “nope” and pointed at the growling thunderheads. Fair enough, I was tired and worn out, so I called my wife in Breckenridge and asked her to come get me. I’ll fly her the last little leg another day.

That, and seriously, I was completely terrified of going into the Rockies.

On the flight line in Wichita, KS
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‘Proper’ cruise altitude.
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This is more like it.
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Watch those hills…
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When flying this low, it is stupid to actually look to the left with the camera. I just held it and kept clicking the shutter. This is more like driving on the freeway while taking pictures.
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“500 feet from people, vehicles, buildings, and structures.” Yup.
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Eastern Colorado. 
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As far as the eye could see, all I could locate was one shed in this image. Emergency landing itself wouldn’t be a problem. Death by dehydration, on the other hand, was a reality.
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Approaching the Urban Corridor of Colorado. Rockies on the horizon.
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Flight: AL, MS, AR, OK, KS: Day 2 of 4: 2013 Flight Across the USA

The next morning was a repeat of the prior. Arising after 4AM, I noted 300-foot ceilings per automated readings, with local forecasts indicating that ceilings would rise within the hour. Radar returns showed a gap in the precipitation line, with another mass coming up from the Gulf into Alabama. I drove the car over to the airport, with the permission from fellow stranded pilots the night before.

Three hours later, they arrived in a taxi, and they left in their instrument planes. I sat until 9:30AM, again, and finally said “the hell with it” and took off. The picture was bleak, low cloud with scuds in all directions, with not much in the form of hope. I decided that I wasn’t going to get anywhere sitting on my rear end, so I climbed above the morning cloud layer, came around a bend in the clouds, and voila, a gap. Well, not quite. A gap in the low clouds, with a menacing wall behind it.

Proceeding forward, I decided to out climb the next cloud deck. That turned out to be an exercise in futility, as it was a wall of dark gray. Instead, I dove down, scud running over thick forests in Alabama, following I-20. Risky? Certainly, and…. I was determined.

I had been told by the locals at the West Georgia Regional Airport that the knoll that runs north-south to the west of the airport is the faded tail of the Appalachians, a hill not more than 200 feet tall running along nearly the length of Alabama, and it is littered with airplane wreckage from pilots doing this very thing. Yeah and I’d like to get to Colorado before I die of old age waiting.

Nervous, the terrain descended and clouds slowly ascended a bit. At least I was clear of the graveyard, and two other airports were now in range safely. Continuing northwestward, the ceilings were touching terrain in the more “serious” section of the tail of Appalachia, terrain that resembled the hills of western New York: nothing fancy, but equally as firm when flying into the side of them in the clouds as any other.

Eventually, I had enough instinct to know I’d make it. Half an hour later, that was confirmed, as the sun was beginning to come out. The forecast called for strong thunderstorms later in the day in this area, though it was looking clear enough to get the Sam Hell out of there before things went south. Wait a minute, I am already in the South, and it’s hot as hell. At least my name is not Sam.

Alabama eventually gave way to Mississippi, where I stopped for fuel. It was a blazing inferno outside, and I had to find an older guy lurking somewhere to get fuel going. At takeoff, I noted a cemetery perilously close to the runway. If I hadn’t already given instructions to dump my ashes from a plane, I’d ask to be buried next to a runway, even though the gravesite would eventually be forgotten and paved over with a runway expansion. Fitting, I guess, the cycle of life of a pilot, donating his corpse as a runway foundation.

Continuing northwest, it was evident I was getting away from any thunderstorm chances, and I should be scot-free as it comes to weather. Passing south of Memphis, I had a spiritual moment crossing the flooded Mississippi River. Its not like I was Lewis and Clark, or anything, but for some reason, it feels like it with an old plane, no radio, and just an iPad. Wait a minute, forget the iPad part. You know what I mean.

The eastern Arkansas plain had beautiful farm fields with interesting water channels, awakening me to the idea that agriculture is a work of art from the air, something I had no clue that, in a few years time, I would end up with thousands of photos, including imagery of farms in Germany. Oh the places you’ll go…. Now if I could just get publishers to agree with me on this point.

The Arkansas plain gave way to the Ozarks. With maximum elevation above 2,000 feet, the Ozarks were surprisingly pretty in that they are surrounded by relatively flat terrain, and open to the north and west to the Great Plains. On the other hand, they are thickly forested, remote, lacking cell service, and without good emergency landing options. I couldn’t help but to imagine scenarios where, if I had a forced landing, backwoods locals would be more than happy to help, squeezing me into the back of the pickup in 10 days when they make their run to town. Until then, I would either fall off the face of the earth, be sold into sex slavery, eaten by cannibals, or expire from boredom. The Ozarks are not a paragon of civilization’s achievements, at least not from the air.

The next stop was Pryor, Oklahoma. I made a point to go out of my way to get photos of a slew of data centers for a company in the Netherlands. They ended up not needing the images afterward; however, it was interesting to view horribly expensive pinnacles of modern technology marooned in the middle of nowhere. At least the airport was adjacent to the photo sites.

After fuel, the flight turned more northerly and the afternoon thermals and bumps transitioned to air that was not vertically destabilized. That became typical prairie winds out of the south, affording a blazing cruise speed of 115mph in the Cub. As I flew toward Wichita, Kansas for the night, I made fantastic time as I witnessed the transition from forest to wide-open Midwestern America. It was quite a sight to behold, and a pleasant one with peaceful and fast air.

Arriving at Colonel Jabara Airport, I couldn’t help but be amazed that Wichita crammed six airports near each other, in a city, all with runways facing the same direction. “How does someone make sure they don’t land in the wrong place?” I thought to myself. Six months later, a 747 would land, erroneously, at Jabara Airport, and I would write my first major magazine article for Wired about it, explaining the gory details of how easy the confusion could take place.

One long day with three states knocked off my list that I hadn’t been to yet: Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. I really don’t think I need to return to any of them and in the process, Louisiana, to this day, hangs out alone as one of the 5 US states I haven’t been to. I should have clipped the top of the place while I was so close.

Yes, I will just go over these stupid clouds!
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Yeah, that’s really working well….
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So under them we go…..Damn it, I am getting west of this precipitation line!
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Twenty miles progress and another airport! Worst case, I stay here if I can’t clear those hills.
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Note the two depressions with no apparent egress for water. I wonder if there are caves.
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Tail of the Appalachians. These long, short ridges have more influence on Eastern USA weather than anyone could imagine. They start here in Alabama and terminate in Canada.
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It looks like I am going to escape the clutches of this miserable weather system.
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Success!! Now just get the hell out before these pleasant puffy clouds turn into angry thunderstorms. Note how I haven’t figured out how to keep the airplane out of the image yet. So naive three years ago.
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VOR navigation station. Pilots think this is cool. Everyone else thinks its just weird.
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The Mississippi River is clearly at flood stage. Then again, it was at flood stage every single time I crossed it in 2013, 2014, and 2015.
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Crossing the Mississippi!
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Arkansas isn’t so bad….
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So this farm field thing is pretty. Imagine that, though the publishing industry is still confused about it.
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The Ozarks of Arkansas, a land flowing with starvation and death in the event of engine failure. 
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I still can’t understand why someone would dig a body of water like this. Either its for speed boats or a floatplane…
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Overflying Class D airspace without a radio. Party like its 1949….
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Interesting landforms in Oklahoma.
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Enigmatic Google data center. Note airport on the right side.
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I much prefer this landscape over the eternal boredom of rolling hills in the East filled with trees.
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I cannot figure what the hell this is about. A cross on a hill, visible to no one (trust me, there is no one in the surrounding area outside the image), and no road be able to come and venerate the image. Perhaps the intention is to convert trees? I have found crosses in the strangest of places from the airplane.
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Evening air, cruising into Kansas.
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More interesting field behavior. Too dark in the evening to zoom in on the contours.
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Flight: NC, SC, GA: Day 1 of 4: 2013 Flight across the USA

Sometimes life becomes all about making it possible to fly, and not necessarily actually getting into the airplane. As such, I decided to write about my first trip crossing the United States in the Cub back in 2013. The more I think about it, I crossed the USA in the Cub, without a radio or transponder, in 2013, 2014, and 2015, and it looks like I’ll be crossing Europe in 2016. Go figure. I guess I do an annual continental crossing.

That, and I have been updating the fancy pushpins on the front page of the blog (scroll down on the front page to see it). I added one for Europe and have begun to update a year of flying on the USA map. I realized that this trip would add a fantastic compendium of pretty pushpins.

In May of 2013, during a quarter life crisis, I decided to risk all common sense and financial planning to ditch a carefully crafted existence, selling our house and moving to 9,360 feet above sea level in Summit County, Colorado. It would be 1,700 miles from home (leaving North Carolina), somewhere that snows 9 months out of the year, a constant experience of hypoxia, and brutally expensive. What is life for, but to spend savings and make reckless decisions?

As such, we drove in late April across the country, running smack into a blizzard in Denver. I was not staying in a hotel 100 miles from our new home, so we plunged upward into the mountains, stopping for an hour due to a jack-knifed semi trailer while it snowed at an incredible rate. Then we had to swerve around a rockslide. Then another jack-knifed trailer on an ice-covered road, requiring 4×4 just to move forward with a heavy trailer. To top it all off, we sat for 4 hours at 11,163 feet, at the highest point in the United States interstate system, due to an accident in the Eisenhower Tunnel. On the way down, my wife’s car got a flat tire. We hurried up and added air at a gas station and drove to our new home, arriving on May 1st to 18 inches of fresh snow (half a meter)!

You can probably tell my determination and planning at this moment, and imagine how that goes with the airplane. I honestly didn’t think it through at all, knowing solely that I would bring it in summer and figure things out then. I was not in the mood to cross the country during tornado season. Finally, I bought a plane ticket in June for July 4th arrival in Charlotte.

There is nothing like choosing a date with no ability to plan the weather in advance.

Upon arrival, there were thunderstorms everywhere in Charlotte, which is normal. To make matters worse, the airfield where I had been storing the plane, which is a private grass strip, had been flooded. It was “closed,” which is doublespeak for the fact that the guy running it was a jerk. After having crossed the country to get the plane, I wasn’t going to wait two weeks until it opened. As such, I fired up the plane and snuck out of there at dinnertime to move the airplane to a public field near the friend’s house where I was staying the night.

Thankfully, the tires are big, as it was quite wet. Skirting a thunderstorm, it took only 10 minutes before I got a ragingly angry email from the manager of the field, demanding a $100 “unauthorized runway use fee,” despite the fact that the big tires didn’t damage the field, just his ego. Needless to say, that fee did not get paid.

The entire southeastern US was wet, very wet. There was a stationary front bringing in tons of rain from the Gulf of Mexico into Alabama and covering the entire Ohio Valley. If there was going to be a gap, it would be in the Deep South.

Setting my alarm for 4:30AM, I woke up and saw ceilings at 400 feet per automated sensors. Excellent! It should rise to 500 by daybreak, and I’ll be off before the thunderstorms get any angrier in the Deep South. As expected, the entirety of the Appalachians were fogged in.

I wouldn’t take off until 9:30AM. The ceilings sat, and sat, and sat. I even took off as things looked clear. Nope. Socked in on all quadrants. Land back at the field and wait another hour.

Finally, the ceilings lifted, and I was off. Ceilings were low though growing all the way from NC, past Spartanburg, SC, then Greenville, SC, then into northeast Georgia. I made a fuel stop in the blazing southern sun and continued to the southwest, skirting the Atlanta metro area to the north. Radar returns were not promising, though I thought I’d give it a whirl to penetrate the line into Alabama. It was a nearly continuous line of showers and thunderstorms, with gaps, and thin in areas. If I could just make it west in a gap, I was scot-free and the Great Plains would await by evening.

Approaching the line, it was total IFR, so I turned south. I then ran into heavy rain showers, the kind of a nearly tropical variety. Sunny one minute, absolute deluge the next. Dodging left and right, head glued to radar coming in on the iPad, I made a go for the line again, and it was stratus clouds down to the ground. It was time to head back east to West Georgia Regional Airport and get another briefing. Dodging more deluging storms, I flew through some heavy rain and minimal Class G visibilities, the skies opening for final approach and landing, just in time before the next black menace came roaring in.

I would sit all day waiting for that line to clear. Two pilots came in to land, both in IFR equipped aircraft, on IFR flight plans. One had electrical failure in IMC, the other, in his glass panel new Cessna 182, got sick of the severe turbulence. We all over and over kept watching radar, and the rain just poured with a fury. We all eventually took the courtesy car to a nearby hotel and packed it in for the night.

This is the second time the Cub and me waited out weather with the IFR guys. Another time on the coast of Georgia, I flew in 2-mile visibility and 500 foot ceilings, making my way from Charlotte, NC to Jacksonville, FL in Class G airspace, running along the Atlantic Coast the entire way. Stopping for fuel on the coast of South Carolina, I ran across an IFR aircraft that had been waiting two days. “You came in here in a taildragger?” “Um, yeah. Haven’t you heard of Class G? What the hell are you guys sitting on the ground for?” “Hey Billy! This crazy guy came in a taildragger!” They departed 20 minutes later. Hopefully, I did not inspire them to fly to their death. Nonetheless, this seems to be a recurring theme. If my Cub can’t do it, neither can your King Air.

Frog on my airplane. So that’s whose been using it for three months.
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The Rainbow is a nice touch. Upstate South Carolina.
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Skirting around Paris Mountain, SC
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Lake in Upstate SC. I am amazed how few photos I took. Then again, I wasn’t a blogger or author then.
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Staring at it rain in Georgia.
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