Tuesday, November 6, 2007


From the Archives

(November 2005) Southern fried rocker Charlie Daniels sings a song about missing the Carolina of his childhood that includes a little boy with a waggledy-tailed puppy, thus rivaling Mary Chapin Carpenter’s song about the short-lived kittens that were born on her old demin shirt in manufactured hokiness.

Despite Charlie’s hokiness though, he does include a line that captures perfectly my response to driving through the rural low country last week: Carolina, I knew you before the highways got to you.

It is impossible for me to drive those rural roads now without hearing Nanci Griffith singing Hwy 90. The jobs are gone. I see lights in farmhouse windows way out in the middle of nowhere and imagine the graying couple inside, getting by on their Social Security checks and what they can grow in the garden now that the mills and factories have moved overseas.

These days, they’re resigned to the fact that their children have moved to Raleigh or Atlanta or Chapel Hill or Charleston or maybe Portland or New York or Seattle and they won’t ever return to Smallville Carolina. Ever.

The rural roads of my childhood are beautiful, are holy to me, with Spanish moss hanging off the knuckles of gnarled old oak trees and winding mysterious roads set between wide trees that make music when the wind blows through their branches.

The low country, then and now, smells like wisteria and honeysuckle and it sparkles with fireflies. It is lush and occasionally magical and the seafood is fantastic. But, boy, is it ever conservative.

Those country stores that sold Nehi’s and boiled peanuts and pickled pigs feet are gone. Ditto the peach stands run by large black women with paper church fans or those vegetable stands run by a toothless white men who want to talk about Jesus.

Now there are Arby’s and Subways and Wendy’s and Walgreens and the occasional Ruby Tuesddays, just as there are on any northern highway.

And how can I begin to describe the tackiness that is Myrtle Beach?

Imagine a white sand landscape slathered in giant plastic water slides bursting out of brightly painted concrete-block buildings with the jaws of a giant shark constructed around a cheap Lowe's door in between the ubiquitous Hooter’s or XXX Gentlemen’s Clubs; add a million multi-colored fire-breathing putt-putt courses and too many Calabash-style (fried) seafood restaurants to count and you get the general idea.

I took those local roads to a spiritual retreat center and, let me tell you, it felt as if I had returned to paradise when I finally turned off the main drag into those woods. The retreat is on 500 acres of virgin forest with lagoons and lakes and wetlands and, of course, a private beach.

Their message: go inside yourself and find silence in order to grow spiritually, but recognize that you can get there through any number of different spiritual paths.

It’s been an exhausting semester, and this silence allowed me to see glimpses of myself again.

I stayed in a lakefront cabin with a screened-in porch across the front—an excellent place for writing and observing snakes crawling down pine trees.

My bedroom door opened onto this porch, so I opened my eyes in the morning to gorgeous pink sunrises over the lake.

And the place was quiet! Very few people were on the land and most of them were gentle souls trying to live authentically in a plastic, throwaway culture ... if only for a week.

I have to admit that returning to civilization has been more than a little jarring.

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