South Carolina: The age of innocence

Far removed from the bright lights of metropolitan USA, South Carolina revels in its traditional, wholesome brand of Americana, as well as its magnificent rivers, forests, hills and valleys — and why not?

By Chris Leadbeater
Published 3 Mar 2014, 14:34 GMT, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 17:49 BST

"Now that," says Rec Cobb, wiping the spray from his eyes and readjusting his helmet, "is definitely more of a wake-up call than any cup of coffee. That's coffee for the soul."

He has a point. We've just roared through Bull Sluice — a giddy maelstrom of foam and spiteful currents that lurks halfway down the cantankerous flow of the Chattooga River in the north west of South Carolina. The water is palpably outraged at having to negotiate this Class IV rapid, and — in the three seconds it takes to make the right-angle swerve — our hard-rubber raft is no more at ease, jerking and twitching as it battles to remain afloat.

Rec, however, is joyful — despite the fact that, with over 20 years of guiding experience on this river worked into his shoulder muscles, he has passed this way many times before.

I, meanwhile, am exhilarated. And the thrill is about more than adrenalin; there's a film link too. Four decades ago, the Chattooga made its cinematic debut as the fictional River Cahulawassee, framing the struggles of Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight as out-of-town canoeists beset by murderous locals in the 1972 thriller Deliverance. Bull Sluice had a starring role, as did two of its evocatively-titled colleagues, Surfing Rapid and Screaming Left Hand Turn. In braving all three, I feel I've shared in a piece of Hollywood history.

A famous connection such as this, though, is a rarity in a state that shuns the spotlight. Considering it was one of the first names written onto the US map — founded as the lower half of the British colony of Carolina in 1663 — you might expect South Carolina to be utterly documented. Instead, it's an unknown, nestled between its larger sibling, North Carolina (divorced in a bout of in-fighting in 1729) and more celebrated Georgia, to the south and west. It's the 11th-smallest US state; a sliver equivalent in area to Austria, where Texas is the size of Afghanistan. It's the lost jigsaw piece under the US sofa; the ghost station by the railway track.

And it likes things this way. The hillbilly bogeyman portrayed in Deliverance may be a screen invention, but the movie is accurate on one score: the quiet beauty of the scenery.

River deep, mountain high

The Chattooga River is special, an obvious boundary that, for much of its 57 miles, forms the state line with Georgia. Cocooned by corridors of forest on each side, it is also designated a 'Wild and Scenic River' — protecting its banks from any sort of development.

Nor is it alone. South Carolina is laced with rivers of photogenic splendour — the Seneca, Tugaloo, Savannah, Congaree, Broad, Saluda. They meander through an enormously diverse landscape that's loosely split into three sections: the easterly Lowcountry, with its sandscapes, marshes and 187 miles of Atlantic coast; the central Midlands, underpinned by the Piedmont Plateau; and the northwesterly Upcountry, where the Blue Ridge Mountains rise as precursors to the Appalachians. This is a slice of the US at its most natural; water catching the sun, hiking trails ebbing into the distance.

These contrasts are most visible when, leaving the Chattooga, I venture to the far north of the state, following the curls of US Route 276 to Caesars Head State Park. Here, the Blue Ridge Escarpment climbs to 3,208ft, taunting the plateau with 2,000ft of elevation — as if Appalachia, bored of the flat terrain, is throwing up a wall of rock as a territorial marker.

The view skirts over hills and into valleys — and I find myself retreating down the road towards another of South Carolina's 47 state parks. At first glance, Table Rock State Park looks like a shard of horror-movie creepiness — a little lake, orange in the death of the day; a floating deck in the middle, bereft of swimmers; dark log cabins, semi-concealed in the trees, rocking chairs on their verandas; a total absence of phone signal. But morning brings out the glory of the setting — dawn flitting across the eponymous mountain, underscoring the whiteness of its bare crown, where, according to Cherokee myth, a huge Native American would eat dinner; mist on the lake; the chirp of birdsong; the chatter of walkers seeking the Foothills Trail, which begins in the park, and winds 76 miles south west, along ridges and past waterfalls, to Oconee State Park.

I spend a second night here, amid more lakeside serenity, impressed by the sturdiness of my log cabin. A plaque by its door tells me it was built between 1933 and 1942 by the Civilian Conservation Corps — young men put to work as part of the New Deal, Franklin D Roosevelt's plan to drag the US out of the Great Depression.

It's a wholesome picture — domestic travel, gentle holidays, campfire evenings. But then, South Carolina revels in such imagery. Certainly in the Upcountry, which, in parts, is so far removed from metropolitan America — from New York and Los Angeles — it's effectively another country: deeply traditional, big on family values, conservative in its politics, staunch in religion. So much is clear as I drive east along Highway 11. Walhalla does small-town piety — St John's Lutheran Church, jabbing its pale steeple into the blue. Further on, orchards and peach groves well up by the road. Near Cleveland, Perdeaux Fruit Farm sells a staggering variety of apples — baskets of Red Delicious, Mutsu, Red Rome, Empire, Gala, Fuji. Aunt Sue's Country Corner, in Pickens County, is as much community centre and general store as eatery, although its kitchen does heaped plates of fried catfish and oysters.

Pausing here for coffee, my eye is drawn to a sign by the till. "A bible that's falling apart often belongs to someone who isn't," it reads. God treads heavily in South Carolina — a Bible Belt buckle where churches are as common as petrol stations, and come in as many brands. Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Episcopal, Lutheran — they're all here along Highway 11, competing to save my soul. Some try to do so with humour. "God wants full custody, not a weekend visit," wisecracks the billboard outside one. Others are more direct. "Rapture Ready: Everyone Welcome," shouts the arrow pointing to a corrugated temple near York. The trend continues in Gaffney. It's Sunday, and the waitress at the Sagebrush Steakhouse mishears when I order a root beer with my sirloin. "Oh no, I can't serve you any alcohol today," she replies, shaking her head sadly.

Modernity intrudes, vaguely. It's here, finally, in the small cluster of bank buildings that protrude into the Midlands sky as I forge south to Columbia on Interstate 77.

Southern tradition

The South Carolina capital, Columbia, isn't sizeable; its population of 130,000 makes it only the 190th-largest US city on weight of numbers. Established in 1786, roughly at the geographical heart of the state, it's always been more of an administrative compromise — equidistant from both seafront and mountains — than a swelling metropolis.

It's also a place where, in one facet, Southern tradition spills into controversy. Outside the State House, on Gervais Street, the Confederate battle flag — that concoction of red, white and blue that's either loved or loathed — flutters in an official capacity alongside a memorial to South Carolina's Civil War dead of 1861 to 1865. It's flown here as a half-measure since 2000 — from 1962 to the turn of the millennium, it adorned the State House dome — and is a topic of fierce debate. Supporters say it enshrines Southern identity and hospitality. Opponents decry it as a symbol of division and hatred, a tainted banner that was deployed in noisy protest against school desegregation during the 1950s and '60s.

The issue is under discussion when I eat three blocks west at the Motor Supply Company Bistro. Frustration is audible at the next table ("it makes us look like bigots"; "it's bad for business"), and it's not hard to grasp why the flag causes concern to the multicultural crowd in an eatery that's a snapshot of cosmopolitan, 21st-century America. Swirls of art brighten the walls of what was once an engine supply building; the cocktail list is imaginative (Bobbin' 4 Apples splices gin, honey and pear) and the meat-focused menu — with dishes such as crispy pork belly with pickled apples — is largely sourced from local farms.

The restaurant is one of many in the busy Congaree Vista district — a six-block totem of regeneration that's decidedly more representative of this capital than any scrap of cloth. As I explore, Columbia reveals itself as one of those intriguing US cities that are no less fascinating for being unheralded. On Main Street, the Nickelodeon was once a segregated cinema but is now a cultural hotspot that stands up for equality with 'Civil Rights Sundays' film screenings. The adjacent Columbia Museum of Art features works by Botticelli and Monet, but also recalls the struggles of black life in the early 20th century via images taken by South Carolina photographer Richard Roberts. There's lovely Southern architecture too, including the rich, red brick of 19th-century Robert Mills House and the Hampton-Preston Mansion, built with plantation wealth.

Yet even here, at the urban core of the state, South Carolina's natural grace is compelling. Ten miles to the south east, Congaree National Park fans out as a safeguarded tract of wetland. And a 10-mile drive in the opposite direction takes me to a morning of unhurried kayaking on the Saluda River. Paddling along, the silence interrupted only by the whisper of cypresses and the beat of wings — cormorants, ospreys and a soaring great blue heron — it occurs to me that, had I come this way five centuries ago, when Cherokee oarsmen were the main human presence here, the scene would have been little different.

Coastal retreat

It would be easy to linger, but I want to see the Lowcountry. There are further dabs of the entrenched US along Route 378 as I cut south east — the military muscle of Shaw Air Force Base, near Sumter — tough men exercising behind the shelter of metal fences; the billboard pithiness of 'ASAP — Always Say A Prayer' beside a chapel in Turbeville.

At the end of the road, the down-home theme continues with Myrtle Beach, a classic seaside resort that emerged in the 1930s. All along the five miles and 50 main blocks of Ocean Boulevard, the gaudy examples set by other Eastern Seaboard hotspots — the brash casinos of Atlantic City, the dizzy bars of Fort Lauderdale — are ignored in favour of the faded and old-fashioned: souvenir shops selling mermaid statuettes; miniature golf courses based on pirates and Peter Pan; halls of mirrors and candyfloss stalls; a wooden boardwalk tracing the dunes. There's an unassuming charm to it too. When I ride the colossal SkyWheel, which rotates woozily by the beach, four decades fall away.

Myrtle's desire not to be a den of holiday excess means it soon cedes the initiative to the swamps that surround it. On another warm morning, I find myself four miles inland and — again — on the backwaters, with Paul Laurent of the Black River Outdoors Center. With his long hair tucked behind his ears, he resembles a refugee from a Seattle grunge band circa 1991, but his behaviour is pure country boy. He leaps from his kayak to pluck snoozing creatures from this wild labyrinth; these include a yellow rat snake that wriggles frantically as it's seized from a low branch, but then relaxes in Paul's friendly grip; and a banded water snake, quite content in his hands. The sediment-thick Black River, meanwhile, is the colour of treacle as it spools south.

"You'd never guess we're only two miles from Myrtle Beach," Laurent grins. "This is a conservative state, but lots of these conservative guys are hunters and fishermen. They appreciate you have to protect the wilderness."

His words ring true when I dash south west on Highway 17. Huntington Beach State Park cradles mud flats where sand pipers stalk crabs in the grey ooze. Further on, Francis Marion National Forest crowds the road menacingly.

Pinned to a teardrop peninsula 30 miles beyond, Charleston is as indebted to the past as you'd expect of a port founded in 1670. The lower portion of Meeting Street is a chorus of porches and porticos — the Nathaniel Russell House, once the home of a New England merchant, singing of 1808 in its narrow windows and three-storey nobility; the four-pillared facade of the First Presbyterian Church playing a symphony for 1814. Even the modern pretends to be anything but. Charleston Place is a gilded Orient-Express hotel that opened in 1986 but smiles at the Roaring Twenties in its elegant lobby. Elsewhere, culinary icon Hank's Seafood Restaurant serves its seared tuna amid curved banquettes, polished wood and an air of Southern refinement.

The whole South Carolina package comes wrapped and ribbon-tied at the peninsula tip, in White Point Garden. Southern identity and tradition have their say in a row of antique canons; several labelled as the very weapons that fired at Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861, sparking the US Civil War. They point, not at their former target, to the east, but at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers — the reasons for the city's location. Yet beauty and nature have their moment too; the failing sun collapsing onto evening ripples as two yachts inch across the water. South Carolina is set in its ways — but gazing at such a panorama, I fully understand why it has so little appetite for change.


Getting there
Fly direct to Charlotte (North Carolina) from Heathrow with US Airways, or direct to Atlanta (Georgia) from Heathrow with British Airways. American Airlines flies to Charleston via Miami, and Columbia via Dallas, from Heathrow.

Average flight time: 9h.

Getting around
No major highways but roads are well kept, so car hire is the best way to explore.

When to go
April-October, although the state can be blisteringly hot (32C) in high summer.

Need to know
Visas: British citizens require an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) permit to visit America. It costs $14 (£8.50), valid for two years.

Currency: US dollar ($). £1 = $1.65.

International dial code: 00 1.

Time difference: GMT -5.

How to do it
America As You Like It offers a 12-night South Carolina Discovery fly-drive package that takes in Charleston, Myrtle Beach and the Upcountry, from £1,045 per person, including flights to Atlanta, car hire and accommodation. Tailor-made itineraries around the state can also be arranged by Timeless Travel or The American Road Trip Company.

More info
Explorer's Guide: South Carolina, by Page Ivey. RRP: £15.99. (Countryman Press)   

Published in the March 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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