In Search of the Authentic, On the Road
Matilda Middleton greets visitors to St. Helena Island on her front porch.
Photograph by Brooks Walker
Coasting Along the Low Country
"If you want to hear a story," said a man on St. Helena, one of South Carolina's Low Country islands, "go to Storyteller Road." So, following his directions, I found my way to the home of Matilda Middleton, a 95-year-old Gullah woman descended from the slaves who once toiled in the coastal rice plantations around here. While waiting to meet "Mama Tilda," as the community matriarch is known, I thought about the road that brought me: Highway 17.
It's a good road, mostly divided and smooth, paralleling the eastern shoreline from Savannah, Georgia, through Charleston, South Carolina, and on up to Myrtle Beach and beyond. But it's what dangles off 17barrier islands like St. Helenathat are the real jewels. Avoiding the resort towns like Hilton Head, steering clear of the timeshares and putting greens, I discovered unspoiled tidal marshes, rickety docks, and dragonflies.
"Hello," someone called from the porch. It was Mama Tilda. She invited me in, past the front gate and onto her porch, where we shook hands and sat down. Her accent was distinctive; she spoke in a patois that reached back to West Africa. The view from the porch, she told me, had not changed much since she moved here in 1934. Storyteller Road was paved now, but the live oak branches still hung overhead and the bugs still batted at the screen door.
I'd hoped to hear a story from Mama Tilda about hard times and rich rewards, but she preferred to talk about flowers, imparting some good advice: "Most people get their flowers when they die," she said. "What good are they then? I want my flowers when I'm alive."
Thank you, Mama Tilda. I realized I'd been heeding that advice, "carpe diem," as the Romans would say, ever since starting my drive. Soon after crossing the Savannah River over the Talmadge Memorial Bridge, I was confronted with billboards hawking "Cheap Fireworks" and "Gentlemen's clubs," so I turned away from the highway and nosed my rental car into the swampy, primeval Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. There I met Dennis Jenkins, fishing some open water with his father, his daughter, two nieces, one cousin, and an alligator.
The gator was half submerged, unmoving amid the waxy, ivory-colored blossoms of the water lilies. The children playing on the culvert above, however, were as energetic as minnows, darting about while the Jenkins men fished from the road, built as a levee on a rice plantation before the Civil War.
I asked the elder Jenkins what he liked best about the Low Country and his hometown of Ridgeland, South Carolina. He looked as if I'd asked him why a person might sweat beneath the noon sun. "This is the place I came from," he said finally, as if addressing a simpleton. "This is where I was raised up."
After explaining something so obvious, Mr. Jenkins turned his attention back to angling for bream in the water below. He baited a cricket on the hook of his "bream buster," a long, uncomplicated fishing pole. I wished them good fishing, then returned to 17. Carpe diem.
I felt a sudden desire to head toward the beach, passing postcard-tidy Beaufort and onto Hunting Island. A thunderstorm was brewing over the Atlantic as I arrived on the sands of the state park. Rising winds foamed the sea, its waves growing bigger, threatening to pound the shore where they'd already claimed several park cabins. Looking north I could see the maritime forest-pines and palmettos pushing onto the flat, gray beach. The wet, springy sand felt good under my feet. I stopped to chat with two women. We shouted over the gathering wind.
"Hunting Island is natural, uncrowded, and uncommercialized. You can walk forever," declared Clarece Walker, the local United Way CEO, who had come to do just that with her Labrador retriever, Brinkley, and sister Teri Underwood of Maiden, North Carolina. Taking their suggestion, I got in a good walk before the rains came.
Later, back on Highway 17, I drove north through Charleston and across the narrow Grace Memorial Bridge that straddles the Cooper River. Leaving Charleston's suburbs I spied signs for hot boiled peanuts and peaches (grown in even larger quantities in South Carolina than in Georgia most years). Enterprising black women staffed roadside stands displaying sweetgrass baskets woven by handa craft passed down from slaves who used the baskets to sift and separate rice, the "Carolina gold" that enriched plantation owners.
I drove through Georgetown, the last of the great colonial ports. It marked the start of the Grand Strand, a 60-mile stretch of beach rolling up toward North Carolina. I intended to keep moving up 17, but the afternoon light was fading. I stopped to linger on Pawleys Island, a classic summer community. Here the beach was flat and broad with weathered cottages nuzzling each other just beyond the dune line.
Sometimes seizing the day means knowing when to end it. Gazing at a starfish in a small pool I decided that a visit to crowded Myrtle Beach, beckoning from just up the coast, would be an unwanted epilogue. Instead I ended my Low Country days here, on Pawleys Island, watching the sea star with my feet in the water and an incoming tide creeping over the sand.
St. Helena Island is home to the Red Piano Too Art Gallery (870 Sea Island Parkway, St. Helena Island; +1 843 838 2241), displaying work by African-American artists, including Charles Desaussure, who paints colorful renditions of Gullah culture. Joseph P. Bryant, pastor of the Third Macedonia Baptist Church, hosts Rev's Gullah Island Tours (+1 843 838 3185 or +1 597 2532; $20 U.S.), offering a glimpse of Gullah community life and explaining Gullah traditions. Rev's the real deal.
The best way to experience Savannah's gothic allure is a trip to Bonaventure Cemetery (330 Bonaventure Rd.; +1 912 651 6843) whose monuments, marble statues, and southern live oaks have a decaying, poignant beauty. Tourists haven't discovered the Sentient Bean (13 E. Park Ave., Savannah; +1 912 232 4447; $8 U.S.); try the panini sandwich.
Highway 17 is dotted with plantations preserving a bit of the antebellum past. My favorites were Hobcaw Barony (22 Hobcaw Road, Georgetown; +1 843 546 4623; $15 U.S., reservations required). The plantation is an estuarine research preserve, complete with small alligators at the visitor's center. The Hampton Plantation State Historic Site (1950 Rutledge Rd., McClellanville; +1 843 546 9361; $4 U.S.) features an empty but beautiful old house in a gorgeous setting. Tour the house to admire the ingenious construction techniques or simply picnic on the plantation grounds.
For something both sinful and heavenly order a half-pound basket of oysters at the Original Steamer Oyster and Steakhouse (168 Sea Island Parkway, Ladys Island; +1 843 522 0210; $30 U.S.). They're fresh, and you can wash them down with a Charleston Pale Ale. For a Gone with the Wind sleeping experience, try the Rhett House Inn (1009 Craven St., Beaufort; 888 480 9530 [U.S. and Canada]; $145 U.S. and up), where Barbra Streisand bunked while filming The Prince of Tides.
Low Country seafood is delicious. I stopped at FIG (232 Meeting St., Charleston; +1 843 805 5900; $33 U.S.) for a night of unfried fish and artery-scouring wine. The sophisticated restaurant, just months old, uses fresh ingredients. How fresh? The figs in one of the small plates come from the neighbor's tree. Further up the coast is the Crab Pot (10024 Hwy. 17 N., McClellanville; +1 843 887 3156; $15 U.S.), owned by Laura McClellan, a descendant of the town's founder. Hurricane Hugo came through McClellanville, and the only thing that took flight was her Yankee husband. "And you can print that, too," she says, serving me a cup of she-crab soup. The fresh shrimp and grits were amazing.
For Carolina barbecue try Hog Heaven (Hwy. 17, three miles south of Pawleys Island; +1 843 237 7444; $12 U.S.). Get all you can eat at the BBQ buffet, or pile it high on a pulled-meat sandwich. Wear your flip-flops. Hog Heaven's honk and tonk, not coat and tie.
For Savannah information, call 877 728 2662 [U.S. and Canada]; www.savannah-visit.com; for Charleston, 800 774 0006 [U.S. and Canada]; charlestoncvb.com/visitors/index.shtml; for Beaufort, 800 638 3525 [U.S. and Canada]; www.beaufortsc.org; for area events, www.ourcoast.com; for state information, +1 803 734 1700; www.discoversouthcarolina.com.