Seeing Baltimore on a rainy, misty morning isn't all bad: the buildings loom up through the fog in a mysterious, European way. Arriving early for a lunch date with our niece, who is spending this year as a clerk for a federal judge, we walked from the inner harbor (old sailing ships, hotels, a spruced up The masts and yards of the USS Constellation, the last U.S. Navy all-sail warship, make an attractive display at the Baltimore piers USS Constellation, Baltimore pier) up the hill to the heart of downtown and back again. We liked the clock tower; instead of numbers on the clock, there are letters spelling "BromoSeltzer." We wandered in and out of the Enoch Pratt Library, where a Friends of the Library book sale was winding down, filling the huge hall (which once must have been the main reading room) with folding tables. The gift shop was long on pins and picture frames and short on library-related items -- it was easy to escape without purchasing anything. The library is trying hard to be relevant to the community. A big neon sign advertised the room full of movies on video. There were lots of notices for craft classes and community meetings, but we later read that seven branches will be closing soon for lack of funds.

We were startled by the vanity license plates. In Maryland you can get a pictorial logo, plus a two-letter vanity code, custom produced on your license plate. Examples: "PS" with a head of a mountain lion, and "RN" with a caduceus. We wonder what the Maryland alumni felt about the Penn State driver advertising the Nittany Lions on his Maryland license plate!

The next day we bundled another stack of untyped genealogy photocopies into the truck and left the Washington area, moving south through rural Virginia Against a background of broad green laurel leaves and bright red pyrecantha berries, an orange and green pineapple brings prosperity for the New Year Pineapple Christmas decoration into the Carolinas. The older roads led us through small towns (some very sleepy), past small farms (collards, kale and turnip greens) and pastures with cattle, sheep and goats.

We thought a walk in the woods would be pleasant, because the morning mist had burned away. Rose Hill State Park, according to the guide book, had a nature trail. We never found the trail but we did find the restored home of the Secessionist governor of South Carolina. On the gate post was one of the prettiest Christmas decorations we've seen: a real pineapple (traditional symbol of hospitality and prosperity) plus scarlet pyrocantha berries and shiny green leaves.

The piney woods are especially pretty this season, when most of the leaves have fallen from the deciduous trees. The evergreen woods form a kind of two-layer effect, with the taller trees providing a canopy for the younger evergreens below.