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March Madness (Part 1)

Just so you know, the original title of this travel blog was intended to be "Spring Forward," in reference to the accelerated pace of warm weather throughout this winter season. It also refers to my annual confusion about the silly "Daylight Saving Time," as I often think "Spring Back, Fall Forward" instead of "Spring Forward, Fall Back." Mainly because Captain Clumsy here has a tendency to trip over myself often, hence the mistaken "fall forward." Plus I'm just getting old and confused anyway, but I digress....

But I should know better than to think that winter would make such an easy exit, especially mid-March, and especially here in the higher elevations of the Smokies. As I'm typing this blog right now, at 11:31 EDT on March 15, the outside temperature is 21 degrees. I know this by the trusty thermometer on the shed in my back yard. I also know this by the fact that I've awoken to snowfall in my back yard three of the last four days, and that the high temperature here in Maggie Valley today was a whopping 27 degrees. Oh, it will "moderate" to 43 tomorrow. Break out the sunscreen y'all, it's gonna be a scorcher....

So initially, I was thinking I could move up my spring shooting itinerary a few weeks with all that warm February weather. And initially, it seemed like "all systems go." I had a loose idea of what my itinerary would be, based on the ahead-of-schedule blooms. "I can go to Callaway Gardens this week, and Charleston next week, and....." But oh no.

The sequence of events so far this month reminded me of the old Woody Allen quote, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans."

So needless to say, God has had a good belly laugh or two at my expense in the past thirty days. Hence the new and more appropriate title, "March Madness." And I've still got 16 more crazy and unpredictable days left in this silly month, so I'm splitting this blog into two halves just to keep things fresh.

At first, things appeared to be going along to my loosely orchestrated plan at the outset. When I awoke on a Sunday morning in late February, I saw images posted on Instagram of the early daffodil blooms at Gibbs Gardens in Ballground, Georgia. That place had been on my target list too, but not this early. I thought to myself, "Gotta go."

So on that late February morning, I spontaneously set out in search of those early spring blooms at a place I'd never been, three hours away from home. The drive there was a mostly familiar one - US 441/23 south to US 129 into Gainesville, then the long drive across sections of Lake Lanier on Georgia 369, moving westward until I reached my destination.

Gibbs Gardens bills itself as "the land of two million daffodils;" and judging by the line of people waiting to get in that day, also the land of two gazillion tourists. Not exactly ideal for this grumpy introvert, but I managed. Well, I managed not to harm anyone who got in my frames, but again I digress...

The harsh mid-afternoon light was not exactly ideal either (I'd have been better off going in the morning); so getting anything usable was difficult, even with a polarizing filter on my lens. Lots of flares and back lit flowers, as seen here:

The Japanese Garden was perhaps my favorite spot on the entire grounds. Lots of nice compositions to be had there (such as the above image). After the crowds thinned out I was able to get a better feel for the grounds and I was able to scout out some compositions for future visits. This may be a new go-to photography spot in fall, maybe even summer when the day lilies bloom, we shall see.

I'll just remember to go on a weekday, when the touristy hordes are still at work or school. Robert + big crowds = big nope.

I raced against the clock to get to a sunset spot, but I did make it just in time to shoot from the overlook at Brasstown Valley Resort in Young Harris, a lone Bradford Pear tree beginning to bloom in the distance.

Even though photographically it wasn't as satisfying as I'd hoped, it was still nice to pay a brief visit to my home state, which I've given short shrift to lately.

In the meantime I'd already been keeping tabs on Charleston's azalea blooms through a friend of mine who lives in South Carolina and was already "scouting" the area. Sure enough, the blooms there were way ahead of schedule too; so I began preparations for a Charleston trip one week after my return from Georgia, the first weekend of March. I planned another trip for the next week to Mobile, Alabama to visit my sister, check out the azalea blooms there, and get my taxes done (a friend down there has done my taxes for the past twelve years, and always does a fine job of navigating through all the nightmarish paperwork so I don't have to).

Eh, not so fast, Sparky.

The trips got flipped. Instead of Charleston, it would be Mobile for that first weekend of March, primarily because my sister (whom I would be staying with) would be out of town on my planned weekend, a fact I didn't discover until the last minute. So I scrambled to make arrangements with Donna to prepare my taxes, gather my mountain of receipts, mileage logs, 1099 forms, and W2s, and arrange my schedule for the long eight hour drive to the Gulf Coast.

I left the day job at 8 PM sharp on Saturday night (after working ten hours), staying awake on a diet of iced coffee, Coke Zero, and pizza, while badly yodeling along with cheesy 80's tunes playing from my iPhone; finally arriving in Mobile at roughly 3:30 AM (I gained an hour with the change in time zones). I chatted with my sister before finally crashing at around 5 AM. And "crashing" was doubtless the most appropriate term here. Though the time with sis, though brief, was very nice.

I got out briefly Sunday afternoon and made a half-hearted effort to shoot a few blooms in the Old Shell area of Mobile (and none of those images are worthy of inclusion here); but eating a hearty plate of chicken and steak nachos at Moe's seemed like a better idea. Plus I had to get back to sis' house to untangle all those receipts into a nice tidy order for Donna to decipher the next morning, before making yet another eight hour drive back to the Smokies for my work week.

And maybe by the end of this week, I would have my chance to finally get down to Charleston to catch those elusive azaleas.

Again, not so fast, Sparky.

For Old Man Winter decided to come out of hibernation, threatening snowfall for my area and possible freezing temps for the coastal areas, which stood a chance of killing off all those lovely blooms.

Fortunately, the forecast for Charleston moderated a bit, but not here in Maggie Valley. We were in the crosshairs for 2-4 inches of snow overnight Saturday into Sunday morning, ending around the time I had planned to drive down to Charleston. Oh, lovely.

The good news is that the Winter Storm Warning that had been issued for Maggie got downgraded into the more agreeable Winter Weather Advisory by early morning. Fine by me.

There was perhaps an inch or two on the ground when I awoke Sunday morning; so I scraped whatever snow was on my car and driveway aside and gingerly made my way out to Soco Road, which was a bit slushy but otherwise fine. Still, seeing snow and spring blooms on the pear trees all at once was a bit odd, yet still lovely:

And the rural pastures outside Waynesville, equally so:

So finally it was off to my intended destination of Charleston, visions of spring blooms and epic scenes dancing in my occasionally disturbed head.

And yet again - not so fast, Sparky.

As I entered Interstate 26 from Asheville, the sunny skies that melted away the snow on the roads faded into cloud cover and colder temperatures. And even though the temperatures hovered around 30-32 degrees south of Hendersonville, I-26 was fine. But everything else was blanketed in white:

My sense of urgency (which gets me into trouble sometimes) told me to just drive it out and head on into Charleston; and I made it as far as Exit 1 on I-26 into South Carolina before realizing that I needed to heed the call and turn back.

For as I passed the exit to Saluda, some fifteen miles back, I felt a very strong sense, a tug from above that I needed to exit there. When God talks, you heed the call; and so I turned around, and went back to Saluda.

I didn't find much in town - it was very foggy - but as I drove back towards I-26 I saw the sign to Pearson's Falls, a place I'd visited a year previous, but never made it past the front gate.

And this time, the gate was open.

So I paid my admission to the park and found myself in a Winter Wonderland:

As I explored the trail further, I discovered some nice sights along the way:

And when I reached the somewhat foggy main attraction, I saw a nice composition right away, reminiscent of the images taken in January at Margarette Falls:

I even got a chance to give my newest lens a go, an old Nikon 28-105 lens that not only replaces the 18-70 lens that decided to stop focusing on my Nikon D2X, but also doubles as a very capable macro lens as well, which was something I'd been seeking, as I want to delve into macro (or close up) imagery a bit more. This image was taken with that lens, with a little selective focus employed:

Yep, it's a keeper.

And that proved for me once again (and I still sometimes need the reminding) that when God calls, you answer. If I'd have kept driving, I would have missed this lovely winter interlude.

I also found out as I drove down to Charleston that Magnolia Gardens had changed their hours of operation in keeping with the "Daylight Saving Time" madness; so if I arrived before 5:30 I could get in and shoot at will until dusk, plus have an additional day on the house.

I got there at 5:15. And I took advantage, as you'll see here:

The one thing I was told at the ticket office when I arrived that day was this:

"There's a private gathering at the Carriage House, with a Cuban band and the whole nine yards. So your best bet would be to avoid the Carriage House at all costs, because if you are seen even in the vicinity of the grounds, you'll get booted."

And because I wasn't sure whether the thought of Ricky Ricardo chasing me off with a baton would make me laugh or make me run for my life, I heeded the young lady's advice.

Besides, I had a whole day on the house; as my ticket was good for two visits, so I could return the next morning, take my time, and finish my excursion.

So I checked into my room at the Holiday Inn Express (which instantly made me feel smarter) grabbed a few freshly-baked cookies to go along with my massively super-high calorie meal from Five Guys, and chilled until the morning, when I would return to capture what I'd missed the day previous.

And truly, it was as close to "Garden Of Eden" as it gets. The property there is a perfect canvas for images, even with the wind and the cold. My "newest" camera body, an ancient Nikon D3s, is more than capable of handling such conditions. I shot at ISO speeds from 200 to 1000, and it handled each situation perfectly.

So that's the scoop so far in this silly spring season - though spring itself is yet to officially hatch - but I'm quite happy with my results to this point.

I've found that I don't always go where I want to go, when I want to go - but because God is in charge, I'm always where I need to be.

He's never steered me wrong to this point; and yet with half a month to go, I'm certain more lovely scenes are on the way. And likely, more craziness too. It goes with the territory.

Stay tuned.......

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