Finding unexpected spring fun in Columbia

photos courtesy of Mary Lee Hagert/Review The South Carolina statehouse in downtown Columbia withstood the Union army cannon fire during the Civil War and still has visible damage from the bombardment by Sherman’s troops. Loblolly pines and cypress trees tower over the swamp boardwalk at Congaree National Park.

Late winter is definitely not a fun time in Minnesota. That was especially true this year when even the hardiest Paul Bunyan-types among us were crying for mercy. 

Then, just as March arrived like an angry lion, my son Christopher called to say he had spent a pleasant afternoon jogging around his neighborhood in Columbia, South Carolina. Comfortable in a T-shirt and shorts, he cheerily described his Saturday jaunt in 77-degree weather, while I stared out the kitchen window at snow so high it nearly obscured our 4-foot fence.

A graduate student at the University of South Carolina, Chris said, “Hey Mom, why don’t you visit me over spring break? It will be f-u-n.”

Aah, there was that three-letter word that had been so elusive in 2019. But I wasn’t sure South Carolina — the state that sent Strom Thurmond to the U.S. Senate for 48 years and not that long ago reluctantly removed a Confederate flag from the state Capitol grounds after years of protests — could fit my idea of a fun time.

But Chris persisted. “It’s really pretty down here right now — flowers are blooming, the grass is green and you can leave your parka at home.” Then, as if to sweeten the offer, he added, “Maybe we can even visit the mouse lab where I do some of my research.”

Well now, who can refuse an offer of a guided tour of a smelly laboratory filled with beady-eyed rodents? Not this mom! 

So I did a little research, checking out prices for last-minute airfares and reading articles about South Carolina and specifically, Columbia. I learned the city was full of history and historical places (Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman occupied Columbia as the Civil War neared its end), and that there was a vibrant artistic district near the Capitol building that’s just a short walk from the university campus. Perhaps I had been a bit hasty in dismissing it as “not my type of place.”

With encouragement from my husband, Karl — who was in the final sprint at his job before retirement and had no free time for anything fun — I booked a flight to Columbia.

In the blink of an eye I went from seeing snowmobilers blazing trails through mile after mile of suburban snow, to watching people biking and hiking under the canopy of blooming redbud, crabapple and magnolia trees along the scenic Congaree River in downtown Columbia.

I was on my own a couple days while Chris conducted complex bio-medical experiments under the glow of florescent lights in a windowless research lab. What a shame, I thought, because at every point as I explored the University of South Carolina campus there was an explosion of colorful plants and spring bird songs. 

It was hard to pull myself away from the college’s lovely Horseshoe, a U-shaped formation lined with 150-year-old campus buildings, but the free tours of the state Capitol, only three blocks away, beckoned. Much smaller than the Minnesota statehouse, the elegant South Carolina Capitol building was battered by the Union army’s cannons in February 1865, and there remains visible exterior damage from the barrage.

One day we visited Congaree National Park, a swamp with the largest old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the nation. It was like nowhere I had ever been before — a mysterious place where towering bald cypresses and loblolly pines shaded the raised boardwalk trail, and water flowed just below on its way to the Congaree and Wateree rivers. 

Eerily quiet, the only sounds were the soft rustling of swamp grasses and reeds, and the occasional songs of Carolina chickadees and tufted titmice as they flitted about the understory of holly and tupelo trees. 

Another day we made the easy drive to Savannah, Georgia, and walked around its restored historic district and famed Forsyth Park, where the blooming azaleas and camellias were a sea of color. Then it was on to Tybee Island for a stroll along the beach. 

As we let the warm ocean sand ooze between our toes, Chris looked at me and said, “Are you having fun, Mom?” There was hardly a need to reply, as my beaming face, aglow in early evening sunshine, said it all. 

There was never time for that promised tour of the mouse lab. We were simply having a great time doing other things. It turned out Columbia was just the escape I needed from late winter in Minnesota, and more fun than I ever imagined.


–Mary Lee Hagert can be reached at

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