Where the Hell Was Everybody?
Heading out of Charleston, detemined to find South Carolina’s “wild” landscapes, George and I passed through north end neighborhoods few tourists explore. An easy stroll from the groomed, cobblestoned historic district, narrow streets squeezed scruffy multi-family conversions and shacks into charmless blocks. Stray dogs wandered empty, weedy lots. Here and there, a human being actually emerged, wandering alone or waiting for a bus against the slap of traffic. The solitary faces were almost always black. Where had we seen this before? “Macon,” George said, “just southeast of the historic homes area. And the south side of Savannah, exactly the same. City neighborhoods that look like rural shantytowns.”
We would end up in truly rural shantytowns after we fought our way out of town, surrendering to the ease of Interstate 26. A diagonal straight to the capital city, the freeway cut across the Low Country’s dense woodland, heavy traffic zooming through what appeared to be a complete wilderness. Only the fast food signs and oil company logos poking above the greenery told us we’d returned to Anywhere America. This generic, corporate-logo landscape blurred on, flat and featureless, so we decided to abort the autobahn. We escaped on a rural route that would wind to Columbia via Congaree National Park.
Almost immediately, on the two-lane blacktop toward tiny St. Matthews, we re-entered the South. The forested “wilderness” skirting the Interstate was nothing but a green façade screening the Carolina reality of pastureland surrounding shabby, isolated farmhouses and rural holdings. Every inch of it looked claimed and settled, whether tended or neglected.
South Carolina as a whole ranked 42nd in median income and this region was even poorer than the state average. St. Matthews existed on barely two-thirds of that. Forlorn and discarded-looking, the town was blur of country highways emptying into long-gone businesses and abandoned gas stations. As far as real estate values, a MasterCard could mortgage a house or trailer, or both. Poor as it was, Calhoun County was not as desperate as its neighbors, ranked “critical” in poverty rates.
Outside St. Matthews, heading into open country, we found a surreal, white-tufted landscape cut into the dense pine and beech forests. Here the white fields would be intense and bright; there they’d fade, the tufts just emerging. “Cotton!” George called out. “It’s cotton. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it growing before.”
The fields, in several stages of growth, had a vivid, fantastic quality, especially against the dark, lurking borders of forest. Completely giving in to our gee-whiz touristic status, we stopped the car to take pictures of…well, cotton. Soon we passed small, nameless settlements lining the obscure road, just as shacky and run-down as those poor neighborhoods in Macon and Charleston, the faces just as African-American. But instead of those urban zones’ emptied disquiet, these crossroads villages hopped with agrarian busyness. Men hoisted bales onto awaiting trucks and warehouses teemed with movement. Women in storefront snack bars stirred steaming pots while kids criss-crossed dirt turnouts on bikes.
Even among Southern states, South Carolina ranks high in its percentage of rural residents, around 40 percent. George and I wandered deep within that world now, devoid of fast food, franchise services, and big-box retailers. There were no stressed-out, hunched humanoids staring at tiny screens; around us, people moved with exuberant steps and emphatic gestures. This cotton country had an eternal, yet improvisational feel, as if the fields had been here for centuries, unchanged, while the crooked wood-slat shacks might disappear tomorrow without a trace.
Nearby, after several twists, turns, and U turns, we discovered what the land would look like if the settlements disappeared. Congaree National Park was so obscure it didn’t even appear on Google’s map of South Carolina. Completely unlike the National Parks in the West, usually set off from human encroachment, Congaree existed amid private holdings, just another turn-off on a rural lane lined by mailboxes and churches. We pulled into an empty parking lot and, alone, found an abandoned visitor’s center—all the opposite of Western parks, where finding parking could be a crisis, where crowds thronged displays and besieged rangers for information.
With an entire National Park to ourselves on a mellow, warm afternoon, we grabbed a paper guide and toured a boardwalk loop. At last, a hike! A very easy, flat one, organized as a raised-boardwalk nature trail, it became our education in southeastern trees: beech, loblolly, canebrake, tupelo, pawpaw, and dog hobble. At the very verge of the swampy Low Country and the rolling Piedmont uplands, Congaree specialized in mucky bogs and drying seepages. Everywhere, mossy, elegant branches spoke of patience and slow time, the secret work of heat, sluggish water, and abundant natural compost. Congaree’s “champion trees,” the tupelos reached higher than any other species east of the Mississippi River. Besides its prolific aquatic and avian species–a globally important bird area–Congaree also preserved North America’s largest remaining old-growth bottomland forest, whichwas almost lost in the 1960’s to logging. This International Biosphere Reserve was such a beautiful, serene place, such an important transition between two major biospheres, and a major preserve in its own right. So where the hell was everybody?
Given that the Federal wildlands of the South were so small and hemmed-in by settlements, I wondered why they weren’t thronged by nature lovers. When I’d asked Southerners about adjacent wildlands, some answered, “But why would you want to go there? It’s just a swamp/a thicket/a tangle. Full of bugs and nasty critters. I’ve never been out there, myself.”
Rambling the last stretch of our loop, a ranger approached us, having just pulled off her official jacket. Surprised to encounter two Yankee strangers, she immediately made sure we had all the information we needed, and in an intimate, chatty tone, shared her love of the place with us. Off duty and ending her day with a ramble around her workplace just out of sheer adoration, she was making me fall in love with the South, and Congaree, and tree-hugging rangers.
The ranger raised her bare arms to the soft breeze and the sun sinking behind the high canopy spooky with Spanish moss. She smiled big and wished us a good visit. At last, in the closest thing to a wild place we could find in the Low Country, here was another Southerner I could understand.