When I was a boy I lived in a little place called Pawley’s Island, South Carolina which was, at the time, very much out of the way. It isn’t now. Pawley’s has become so much like the rest of the eastern seaboard that I don’t think you could call it special anymore. A nice resort town to be sure, on the upper-end of such places in some respects. But not out of the way any longer, and certainly not somewhere that I can “go home” to – it’s just so different than it was when I was a kid. Going home would require more than retracing my steps back to the haunts of my childhood, because now those steps would, for the most part, take me only to where those places once were. They are all gone now. Car dealerships where trees stood, golf courses where cypress swamps were. To truly return home would require a time machine.
Or a trip to Edisto Beach.
This is not a movie set photo. Many of the roads here still look like this.
Edisto is very much like Pawley’s was in my youth. Taken together the collection of several islands and marsh areas that people generally refer to simply as “Edisto” take up an area of about 100 square miles, and there is not a single traffic light to be found anywhere in there. Unlike many spots on the coast of South Carolina and Georgia and Florida, there are no high rise condos where sand dunes belong, no sea walls where shoreline should be, no tacky surf shops or cruising strips or strip malls or strip clubs where live oaks and Spanish moss and dirt roads once were. The dunes and surf and creeks and maritime forests are just as I left them in my memories of so many years ago. And the extended families that vacation here year after year seem to me like the descendants and heirs of the families that once came to Pawley’s in my youth. These were my summertime friends. They would travel down from upstate in station wagons with their siblings and cousins to stay on the beach for a week or two at a time. I generally knew them from summer camp or Boy Scout camp. Some of that generation now bring their kids to the Lowcountry for the same experience, and I think that a goodly portion of them come here now.
We arrived on Monday at 4:00 pm, just before check in. A few minutes later and we were at the same beach house we’ve stayed at for a long time. This is the place where I have spent many a lazy summer day since I’ve been old enough to think about taking a vacation. Coming here with your family is a great thing to do year after year, and each time we get to share it with other families with the same tradition.
It is a tradition of Lowcountry culture that goes back quite a bit further than most people now realize. Two hundred years ago extended families were making the same expedition, only then they came by boat from plantations scattered throughout the lowlands of South Carolina. They came to flee the malaria that so often accompanied summer time in those days, biding time in the breeze and sun alongside the ocean. I don’t doubt that it helped. Mosquitoes don’t care too much for bright sunlight of the beach, and the ocean breezes help to keep them under the darkness of the trees just inland. Across an inlet from where we are now was once a place called Edingsville Beach. In antebellum days it was the summer retreat of plantation owners and their guests. Edingsville was long ago blown away by a massive hurricane, but you can still find evidence that it was once there. Bits of porcelain from England and France, pulverized by time and tide and bleached by the sun for generations. They were here once, we are here now.
Edisto beach houses at dawn.
And so the spirits of the landed gentry from the cotton and rice plantations find us in their stead. We beach combers, surfers, deep sea fishermen, shrimpers, creek rats and sand castle makers. We come not to escape malaria, but the complexities and pressures of our workaday world. We come here to exert ourselves physically while the mind rests. We come to relax by and in the waves. We come to eat boiled shrimp and cornbread and drink beer and watch the stars, plainly visible in this place still.
Just like they once were in the place where I grew up.