Tuesday, September 4

Racing Downhill

Odometer: 974
Location: Easley, SC
States visited: Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina

The eight hour drive from Cincinnati to Clemson started early and went easily. The hilly terrain in Kentucky was picturesque, but Tennessee was downright gorgeous. The curvy path through the Smoky Mountains passed dangerously close to Boone, North Carolina – home of Appalachian State. A fill-up at a local gas station allowed me to catch a glimpse of the frontpage of the Sunday paper. Three guesses as to what the lead story was… Seconds after encountering a billboard for the “As Seen on TV Outlet,” I passed an absolutely gigantic cross erected by the side of the road. It had to be at least fifty feet high. Finally, on descent out of the mountains, I saw a roadside market that consisted of only two stores. One advertised peaches and boiled peanuts, a delicacy I have yet to try, though they sound interesting. On the next swing through, I’m definitely going to give them a shot. The other store was called “Dixie Outpost” and the sign boasted “Pro-south merchandise” which appeared to consist mainly of bric-a-brac stamped with the Confederate flag.

I couldn’t stop at any of these places because I was on my way to Clemson, South Carolina and wanted to get there in time for the “First Friday” parade. Every year before the first game of the season, a parade runs through town and then culminates in a pep rally. Of course, since the first game was on Monday night this year, they had “First Sunday,” and no one knew whether they should call it First Friday or First Sunday. (Thanks ABC!) Absolutely everyone was wearing orange, a fashion statement that would continue throughout my time in Clemson.
Before arriving, I had gotten in touch with a couple of Clemson bloggers from Danny Ford Is God. They were such incredibly generous and gracious hosts and truly gave new meaning to Southern Hospitality. Not only did they show me around town and clue me in to all kinds of Clemson traditions, they made me dinner on Friday and hooked me up with a ticket for the game. Plus, they knew how to navigate the blue laws and get us some beer on a Sunday night (Thanks ABC!). Just an amazing performance by those guys. Check out their blog, too because it’s very well written and entertaining.

Those who know me well have probably heard me mention that I haven’t spent much time in The South, and that was one of the many reasons I wanted to take this trip in the first place. My second time in South Carolina has further showed the state to be incredibly friendly and welcoming. Nearly everyone I met was eager to get to know me and extremely hospitable. Having now spent a combined three days on the eastern and western extremes of the state, I have to say it’s the friendliest place I’ve ever been.

Clemson is a former military academy, and it seems that everyone there really knows the history of the school. The town of Clemson has about 12,000 permanent residents, but 17,000 students. Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the town is of course dominated by the campus. Even though it’s perched on a the side of a sloping hill, the football stadium is incredibly tall and can be seen rising up from various points on campus.

Fearing limited parking, I arrived very early on Saturday morning and nearly broke the Corolla pulling into a grass “lot” which was actually a big hill near the library on campus. It’s a Corolla “Sport” which means there are some fancy-schmancy ground effects. I was directed over a small ridge and was certain that I’d busted off the part that hangs below the front bumper. But when I got out, Adam seemed fine. (Yeah, that’s right – my car is named Adam Corolla – because it has big freaking eyebrows just like me. Now you know I’m just dorky enough to name my car. The last one was named Bela Corolla after the gymnastics coach. Let’s just move on…) At Clemson, there isn’t one main tailgate zone. People pull their cars up in lots and fields all around campus. All of the tailgating is free, but certain spots are reserved and other fields are permit-only. People with RVs and reserved spots start showing up three days before the game.I spent about 12 hours roaming the grounds, meeting as many people as I could. By the end of the day, I felt like a goose being prepared for foie gras. Everyone insisted that I ate and drank with them. It was ridiculous. “Have some barbecue” was the most frequently uttered sentence. Again, southern hospitality at its finest. Absolutely everyone was dressed in orange. Even the porta-johns are orange.Once in the stadium, I had an absolute blast. My ticket was for the Hill, a general admission grass section dominated by freshmen and sophomores. It’s steep as hell, but I managed to grab a spot about ten feet up on the three foot wide flat ridge. Clemson players enter the stadium via that same hill, each touching Howard’s Rock before sprinting down the hill at the signal of a cannon shot. I should have been a little closer to where they come racing by, but I could see the helmets. It’s one of college football’s great traditions, and was really exciting to see up close.

The stadium has the distinction of the loudest outdoor crowd noise on record (127 dB at the Miami game – I was told this stat repeatedly throughout my two days in town). It did not disappoint. When Florida State took the field offensively, it was deafening. That continued to happen, particularly in the first half when Clemson was beating the tar out of Florida State. I have always been disappointed with the volume in Michigan Stadium (as has just about everyone I imagine). The only time I remember it being truly loud – loud in that same overwhelming way that Death Valley was loud Monday night – was against Notre Dame in 1997. Michigan clung to a seven-point lead and proceeded to turn the ball over in its own territory on three straight possessions. Tommy Hendricks intercepted a pass in the endzone on the first one, and on the next two, the defense moved Notre Dame backwards. Death Valley does have a very high upper deck which has to help keep the sound in, but every one of those fans participates and yells their brains out. There’s no reason Michigan can’t do better…My plan for all these games was that I would try to be neutral – you know, like a real journalist. But after a couple days in town and meeting so many cool people, I became wrapped up in the whole scene. I too donned an orange t-shirt and cheered hard for the home team. When they scored their second touchdown, the entire hill was leaping up and down. Like and idiot I joined in and then was immediately reminded that I have a totally wrecked left knee. The pull of the fun atmosphere was undeniable. But on future scores, I wisely didn’t leave the ground. For the fourth quarter, I moved around to excellent seats at the forty yard line. Clemson was able to hold on for victory, and the crowd was given the opportunity to rush the field in an organized, civil way.After being on my feet for 16 straight hours, my knee was stiff as can be and I was pretty wiped. In fact, all the fans were pretty wiped. For people who’d just seen their team hold on for a dramatic victory against a conference rival and start the season with a leg up on the rest of their league, you’d think they would have been going crazy. But I think a full day of tailgating and the stress of holding on for a tight win had taken its toll. Plus, the game didn’t finish until midnight and everyone there except me had to go to work or school the next day. Getting out of town to my hotel ended up taking about an hour and a half. I waited over a half-hour to “let the traffic die down” and then waited in a line of cars that simply wasn’t budging. Clearly, the town of Clemson wasn’t designed to handle that much traffic leaving at once. If it were a normal Saturday, then I’m sure people would go back to their tailgates and trickle out naturally. Thanks ABC!

All in all, I had a fantastic time. If I ever get the opportunity again, I would love to go to another game there. Maybe a home-and-home vs. Michigan? That would be sweet, wouldn’t it? Nah, too close to Appalachia…


2nd City King said...

So did the newspaper burst into flames as soon as you picked it up?

skafka said...

did you turn off full feeds for RSS? one request to put it back...

Chili said...

Andrew, I love your take on your Clemson trip and I'm glad we could show you a good time.
You have to let me know some places to check out in Chicago. My friend Eric and I are roadtripping to the BC@ND game on Oct 13 and heading to Chi-town for a couple days after that.
I'm also going to be heading to the LSU-Alabama game this year and maybe up to Maryland to see the Tigers play up there.
Again, love the writeup, I'll be checking in on your journey.

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