Several hours of driving South Carolina’s spine-jarring, pot-holed Interstate 95 brought us to another world. In those hours, we went from North Carolina’s crowded Wilmington coast–much of which looked like any other suburban part of the country–to Hunting Island, a state park in a unique and relatively unspoiled area of South Carolina’s Lowcountry. It is a place heavy with history, beauty, and humidity.
After leaving the interstate, we passed through lovely Beaufort, South Carolina (a worthy destination itself). We drove on through salt marshes, golden with cordgrass, and sandy pine barrens and farmland on St. Helena Island until we came to a very narrow bridge to Hunting Island. St. Helena does not allow gated communities or condominium developments and generally has maintained its rural feel, with small farms, lots of trailers and rickety houses, shrimp boats, and some funky tourist shops and restaurants.
I cannot do justice to the area’s unique history in a short blog post. But, to give a few highlights, it was a popular stop-over for pirates, the descendants of its plantation slaves developed a unique and rich Gullah culture, and it’s where Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his “I have a dream” speech.
Hunting Island and Fripp Island are the yin and yang outer barrier islands. Hunting is a state park with a campground on miles of undeveloped beach and neighboring Fripp is a gated resort community. They serve different demographics, but the ebb and flow of sand and water on each island is affected by what is done on the other.
Hunting Island’s state park is the state’s most popular and we had to book our campground reservations months in advance. Nevertheless, we were surprised at the line for check in, a first on this trip. The park was fully booked, even during the week in October.
The roads in the campground are notorious for their narrowness and tight turns through trees, but the turns were overshadowed by the sight of an enormous spider web spanning the road overhead with a large (three to four inches across) yellow spider sitting in the middle waiting for her prey. She was impressive. We settled into our jungle-like site and were promptly attacked by swarms of pesky little gnats.
Our first days were buggy and humid, humid, humid. It was the type of humidity that makes you feel sticky just sitting at the computer. Hot, humid, and buggy—we were not in Alaska anymore. But, as in Alaska, the seafood was extraordinary. We hit the local fish market, Gay’s, and brought home fresh local shrimp, scallops, and mahi. The roadside farm market was next, where we bought tomatoes, squash, purple sweet potatoes and a Gullah melon for what, to us, was the amazingly low price of $8.00. The sweet potatoes ended up hatching insects and I’m not sure what was “Gullah” about the watermelon, but it was delicious.
We also bought some little handmade sweet grass baskets from a woman selling them in her front yard. She said her grandchildren helped make them. They smelled like fields of ripe grass.
We saw egrets, dolphins, deer, an alligator, and a vast mudscape of crabs along the marsh boardwalk.
There were some downsides. The campground was beautiful and lush, but badly in need of a clean up. Our campsite was covered with cigarette butts and the previous residents cleaned up after their dog but then left the bag in the fire ring. Lovely present.
There were some grim, worn-out looking people at the campground who had a “don’t mess with me” edge to them. One couple had a “Confederate Parking Only—If you don’t like it, go back North” sign at their campground, flew a large confederate flag, sported a car plastered with inflammatory bumper stickers, and had two abused-looking dogs barking at the end of short leashes as if they wanted to devour every passerby. Our across-the-road neighbor treated George to a jacked-up tirade about what is wrong with this country, which was mostly a litany of things that he passionately despised. In passing by, I interjected that his view of the Constitution was not exactly accurate (I couldn’t help myself). I imagine that I added a new category to his list of things to despise—uppity Alaskan women.
There were some funny aspects to the campground, too. Drinking was supposedly prohibited, but the gift shop offered at least a dozen different types of shot glasses. And one night we heard our neighbor, an elderly guy with a booming voice, telling stories at the campfire, one of which ended with, “and then he lit a fire in the fireplace and the snakes came out and got him.” I wish I had heard the rest of the story.
By far the best part of Hunting Island, however, was the glorious beach—miles and miles of it. But that will have to wait until the next post.