March 7, 2009 § 5 Comments
by Larkin Vonalt
When my son, native child of a landlocked state, was eight years old, I took him to see the Atlantic Ocean. We were visiting my grandmother in upstate South Carolina when it occurred to me that we were pretty close to the ocean at Charleston. It’s about 150 miles, but living in Montana, where the distances are so vast that it’s nothing to drive 30 miles to get a gallon of milk, that didn’t seem far at all. Heck, we were driving 72 miles a day to get Julian to school (18 miles there to take him, 18 miles home, 18 miles to get him, 18 miles home.)
But Charleston is not the beach. Further inspection of the road atlas revealed a little barrier island just south of the city. There, a tiny green patch was labeled “Folly Beach,” so we took our suits and sandals and were bound for glory, or at least a sunburn. The interstate goes within about ten miles of the island, after that you have to wend your way along a suburban highway lined with Burger Kings, tanning salons, gas stations, drug stores. (No doubt a suburban hell during hurricane evacuations.)
Finally the roadsides give way to low-country marshlands, estuaries, fishing docks, seafood merchants, and as you get to Folly Beach proper, an authentic beach town. Churches and the post office and the public library sit on prime real estate and one hopes that they always will remain so.
“Can you smell the salt?” I asked Julian. He put his head out the window like a dog. “Yeah, I think so,” he said, grinning from ear to ear.
What makes the shore smell like the shore is actually dimethylsulfide, a gas produced when phytoplankton (the basis of the ocean’s food chain) are consumed or die. A few hundred parts per trillion is enough to scent the sea air, and it is a smell enjoyed by seabirds, (to them it must say “lunch”) as well as humans. I guess “salt breeze” sounds more poetic than dimethylsulfide. Whichever, what it said to me as I drew closer is “home home home home.” Maybe I was a mermaid in another life.
My pulse quickened as we neared the shore. I knew that any minute, I mean, any minute now, the Ocean was going to appear before us in all of her shimmering glory. Kind reader, I wish I could describe to you the wonder on my child’s face, the thrill of that first sighting, but like our first glimpse of the ocean at Folly Beach, that has to wait.
For at the top of Center Street, right on the beach side sat an absolute eyesore: a concrete behemoth that has as much sensitivity to its location on the water as a Federal Prison would, blocking any and all views of the sea. It’s the Holiday Inn, and it had sat there like a colossal insult only since 1995, which makes it even more reprehensible.
Whoever is in charge of zoning at Folly Beach should be tarred and feathered, or at least spanked. The architect who designed this horrible structure should be used as an example at every architecture school in the country of what not to build, of what kind of aesthetic disaster it is to not design the correct structure for the setting. What is wrong with these people? Whatever kind of payoff occurred to have that Holiday Inn situated there it was not enough. There’s no amount of money large enough to justify it.
But that’s not what this essay is about, because the monolithic Holiday Inn is the exception at Folly Beach, not the rule. So we will ignore it and go on. We turned left along Arctic and drove down along the edge of the world. The dunes rise up next to the road, so you still don’t immediately see the water. We parked the car next to boardwalk steps and walked up to have a look. Julian had only one word: Wow.
The beach stretched up and down as far we could see. Late in the afternoon, it was nearly empty.We played in the water until nightfall. Julian picked up a hundred shells, got wrinkly fingers and toes, and licked the salt from the skin on his forearm. The sand along Folly Beach is so silvery and fine, it “sings” when you walk in it, the faint, fine song of the siren. Just before we left, I fetched a plastic grocery bag from the car and filled it with dry sand to carry back to my landlocked home. There I would keep it in an enormous Mason jar and whenever I needed some relief from the oppression of the mountains, I’d open up the jar and breathe deeply.
We didn’t get back to Folly the next year. Though our travels took us to the Carolinas, we went north this time, up through Myrtle Beach and along the coast to the Outer Banks. The intense development from Hatteras to Kitty Hawk left an impatient feeling in my soul.
It’s nothing like the little town south of Charleston that still made room for ordinary things: VFW turkey shoots, funny little package stores, trail rides, girl scout troops. No wonder the locals call it “Mayberry By the Sea.”
When I went back the next year, I tried to convince my grandmother, then 92, to come down to the sea with me. She put her novel down on her lap and thought about it for a minute. “That might be nice,” she said. Later, though, she decided that she probably should just stay home. I asked if she was sure, and she said she was. “You go on, I think I’ll just stay here and read.” Now I wish I’d tried harder to get her to come along.
So I went with my dog and it was nearly dark when we finally got there. We walked along the beach together, his joy plain as he darted in and out of the surf. After returning him to the car, I walked to a restaurant on the pier and ate oysters and drank a Pilsner while writing postcards to friends back in that dry and ocean-less state.
Historians think that Folly Beach was named for the old English word meaning “an area of dense foliage,” but come on, the word “folly” as we understand it, the quality of being rash and foolish, has been in wide use since Shakespeare. “Though age from folly could not give me freedom,” as Mark Anthony said.
In the 18th century, the island was used as a quarantine by ships entering Charleston harbor to drop off passengers suffering from cholera, and was at the time called “Coffin Land.” Try developing a tourism industry with that kind of moniker.
There were shipwrecks, Charleston cut off communication and supplies during a particularly bad patch of disease, the Union Troops used Folly Island to help launch their offensive against the important port city to the north.
Being a barrier island, it has seen its share of storms, and grainy black and white photos in local histories show the devastation that the the wind and the sea have wrought from time to time.
With the dawning of the twentieth century came rum-running, pavilions, boardwalks, piers and Folly-land became the vacation destination for city dwellers. The big bands of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller were regularly featured at the Pavilion.
In 1934, George Gershwin spent the summer on Folly Beach, in a bungalow at 708 West Arctic Avenue. It’s reported that he “went completely native” (sometimes unshaven and in blue jeans) there, rambling around Folly Beach and James Island, attending revival meetings and church services of the Gullah.
In 1926, Gershwin had read (in one sitting) the novel Porgy, by Charleston writer (and real estate and insurance agent) W. DuBose Heyward. Working in concert with his brother, Ira (in New York) writing the lyrics to some songs, and with DuBose Heyward (in Folly Beach) as librettist, Gershwin composed the great American opera, Porgy and Bess. It is said that he also judged a local beauty contest.
Yesterday, I went back to Folly Beach again, this time with my mother. I went back to the restaurant on the pier, it has declined a little. The pale gray blues and lemon yellows of the walls are a bit grimy. It reminded me, sadly, of an old lady who has turned herself out in a fine linen dress, not realizing that there are stains on the front, or that it is soiled around the collar and cuffs. The She-Crab soup had too much celery (I think it was celery) and the Prince Edward Island mussels, while lovely and mild would have been better served in a saffron cream sauce than the spinach and yellow pepper broth chosen. Mother said the crab cake was good, but you could tell from looking at it that it came this close to being burned. Still, we got to sit, looking out at the water, watching the pelicans and pigeons, a few bedraggled-looking starlings marching around.
Afterwards we walked out on the pier for a bit, laughing at the sign that Sharks Are Catch and Release Only! “Catch and Release” is a minor religion in landlocked Montana, the tourists releasing Browns and Rainbows because they can’t differentiate them from the native and endangered cutthroat trout. Just as well the mountain streams aren’t populated with sharks as well.
We drove a little further up the street, not too far from the trailhead to Morris Island. (You can’t actually get to the lighthouse anymore. Erosion has left it surrounded by water, and it was decommissioned a few years ago. The Light had been scheduled for demolition, but a local group rallied their support and found a private buyer.) We found a spot to park, paid to get a parking chit, got out of the car and broke the law.
Dogs are permitted on the beach November through April all day long, and in May through September they are allowed before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m. but they must, and I repeat, must remained leashed. Taking a Chesapeake Bay Retriever to the beach and keeping him leashed is like putting a bowl of She-Crab soup in front of a starving man and not allowing him to eat. Both dogs are trained to come at a whistle, are always under voice control and will sit immediately to be leashed. They’re pretty good canine citizens. We released them.
They had a splendid time racing full-tilt into the surf, chasing each other and the foamy tops of wavelets rolling into the shore. After about 40 minutes, when we were joined on the beach by a couple with a Yorkshire terrier puppy, we called in the dogs, clipped on their leashes and went to the car to find towels. They might have thought the Yorkie was a squirrel, which would have resulted in considerable consternation.
“It was really nice to just stand there on the beach,” my mother said, handing me a dry towel.
Nearly every house on the island has a shingle in front, offering it for vacation rental. It’s very tempting, this notion of spending some extra time in Folly Beach. We did motor the seven miles into Charleston and devoted ten minutes to looking at the historic district around the Joseph Manigault house. I always think there will be enough time after the beach to go and explore the city. This is what I’ve always intended and it is absolute folly. I always spend so much time on the barrier island I never have a chance to see Charleston before its time to go home.
Perhaps a week or two at the beach would do the trick, perhaps then there would be time to see what Charleston is about, in between sneaking dogs onto the beach and eating shellfish and drinking Pilsners, going native, answering the siren song of Folly Beach. I wonder if 708 West Arctic Avenue is available.