Gov. Mark Sanford finally phoned home Tuesday morning.
The South Carolina Republican had been absent without leave since Thursday, when he left town and went off the grid to "decompress" after a difficult state legislative session, aides said.
The lieutenant governor, other lawmakers and even his wife said they did not know where he was, and by the time a spokesman disclosed his whereabouts late Monday night (he was reportedly hiking along the Appalachian Trail), media outlets around the country had already reported on the second-term governor's "disappearance."
When Sanford checked in with his chief of staff Tuesday, he was shocked to hear that his absence had caused alarm, the spokesman said.
"He's a big outdoors man; he likes to spend as much time outdoors as possible," Joel Sawyer said. "He was very taken aback by all the attention that the trip has gotten."
For a politician whom some have touted as a likely 2012 presidential contender, the episode was an inelegant introduction to the American public. And it's another setback for Sanford, who earlier this year was told by the South Carolina Supreme Court that the state had to accept $700 million in federal stimulus money despite his opposition to the spending.
On Tuesday, after learning that Sanford was safe and sound, many pundits and politicians questioned his judgment, saying that he should have signed over executive privileges to the lieutenant governor before he left on his trip.
"Our governor has been doing some really strange things lately, and people are just kind of concerned," said Keiana Page, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina Democratic Party. "His disappearance took us all by surprise. It was irresponsible."
"I think it's bizarre behavior," said state Sen. John M. "Jake" Knotts Jr., a Republican. "The state was on autopilot without a pilot."
But aides say that Sanford, who once brought live pigs into the House chamber to protest "pork projects," was just being himself when he left Thursday.
"No one has ever accused the governor of being conventional," Sawyer said. "After the legislative session, he typically likes to get out of Columbia for a few days to clear his head."
Sawyer said he thinks the furor over Sanford's absence was fueled by two Republicans with political agendas: Knotts and Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer.
"This thing's got politics written all over it," Sawyer said.
The lieutenant governor, who Sawyer said has "never worked closely with the governor," released a stern statement Monday that said: "I cannot take lightly that his staff has not had communication with him for more than four days, and that no one, including his own family, knows his whereabouts."
Knotts was the first person to provide on-the-record confirmation of Sanford's absence to local media, the State newspaper in Columbia reported.
Knotts, a frequent critic of Sanford who supported his opponent in the 2006 governor's race, said Tuesday that his decision to talk to the media was not politically motivated.
"I was worried about the state of South Carolina. I was worried about what would happen if a forest fire started, or a prison riot started, or something that needed the governor's executive-level decision," he said. "I was just making sure that we had someone at the helm."
Not everyone in South Carolina is disappointed with the governor.
Heather Sendler, who works at Hudson's Smokehouse in Columbia, said she empathized with Sanford, who she figured was probably exhausted after the legislative session.
"I believe he just needed to get away and clear his head," she said.
"I understand. Everybody needs a break."