We spent only two days in South Carolina after leaving Hunting Island. We drove inland on back roads through small towns, decades past their prime, now emptying of people and sinking into decay. We saw gas station after gas station sitting dead, with the last posted price of gas giving a sense as to how long they had been abandoned. Whole areas looked like the backdrop for The Walking Dead. It was pretty depressing.
Then, as we approached the outskirts of Aiken, South Carolina, we abruptly entered an oasis of prosperity. Aiken is thoroughbred horse country, and suddenly there were acres and acres of neatly fenced pastures, state-of-the-art barns and paddocks, and shiny well-muscled horses. There was, quite obviously, some money residing in Aiken.
Aiken was a storybook fantasy of a gracious southern town, with a picture-perfect downtown of thriving businesses, wide tree-shaded streets, multi-colored, multi-angled old houses, B&Bs, and tiny horse pictures on the street signs. Scratch under the surface prettiness and dig around a little, who knows what dirt you may find, but, at first view, it was quite lovely.
We were not there to sample Aiken’s charms, however, just passing through. We stayed at a small campground about fifteen miles out of town, Aiken State Natural Area, which we picked for one reason—it was there—at a convenient stopping point on our route to Georgia.
We knew very little about the campground, which can be a nice thing these days. It’s easy to research a place to death ahead of time, wringing every bit of surprise out of new destinations. It’s good to be surprised now and then. And this little campground was a wonderful surprise–it felt like a forest retreat from an earlier era. It was beautifully designed and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. The CCC was a New Deal public works program for unemployed, unmarried young men on relief, usually on conservation or natural resource-related projects.
I have appreciated the CCC’s work since I rode on the Blue Ridge Parkway when I was young and I continue to be amazed by how widespread a mark they left—often with their signature stonework—and how beautifully their work has endured.
Did they enjoy the work—those young men—many hauled out to the country from their city homes, working in a military-like environment, and having to send most of their pay home? I hope so. And I hope that they had some inkling of how decades later, people like me would marvel at their work and give them a silent thank you for it. A nice kind of immortality, I think.
Not surprising for the times, I guess, the CCC was segregated and an African-American company created the Aiken State Natural Park. They did it well. It is a small park–but thoughtfully designed, beautifully executed, and now immaculately maintained.
A road circles the park, with several ponds and recreation areas. There is a small campground, a headquarters building, and canoeing on the Edisto River.
The campground also is laid out in a circle, with about twenty-five campsites around the circumference surrounded a grove of enormous pines. There was no underbrush, just a carpet of pine needles, and a large campfire area with benches and a monster grill.
While there, we hit a cold snap that caught several groups of tent campers by surprise. They made roaring fires and bundled up. In the morning, the campground smelled like bacon, wood smoke, and pine—a sweet combination. But I was happy we had our cozy trailer and weren’t having to leave the comfort of warm sleeping bags to emerge to frigid tents and shivering around the fire. Been there, done that.
The park road was a nice walk, with sassafras and hickory in full color. When I was young, I used to dig sassafras root for tea—it was my favorite.
I moved to Alaska soon after sassafras was identified as a carcinogen and sassafras does not grow there, so I stopped drinking it. In a few more years, I intend to start digging the roots and drinking the tea again. At some point, you should be too old to have to worry about carcinogens anymore.
There is a little dock on the Edisto River for launching canoes. The Edisto is a black water river, sluggish, and stained by tannins to a dark coffee color. The dark color made the tree reflections especially vivid.
Near the dock was an artesian spring overhung by a huge camellia bush in full flower. Pink camellia petals were strewn all around the moss of the spring. Just as I wondered about the people who constructed the stonework and buildings of the park, I wondered who it was that had to foresight to plant that camellia.