Saturday, November 22, 2014

Tom Yawkey’s Gift to Us

            What does a sixteen year old do when he inherits $330 million dollars?  Slide into a life of luxury?  Ruin it through self indulgence?  Not Tom Yawkey.  In 1919 he suddenly became heir to a fortune in mining, timber, tin and oil and the owner of South Island Plantation near Georgetown, S.C. 

    The Native Americans who’d given their names of Pee Dee, Santees, Sampits, See Wees, Waccamaws and Winyahs to the nearby waterways were displace by the Spanish who came in the 1700’s looking for gold and slaves.  Then the English, Scots and French started the indigo trade there followed by the next great industry: wealthy Northerners. William Yawkey bought it as a hunting preserve.   When he died at 43, Tom said of his inherited plantation “I hope I’ll be able to do some good with it; I hope I’ll be as good a man as my dad”. 
            Tom Yawkey is as captivating as the land he preserved.  He was a rich man who chose to live without grandeur.  Unlike aristocrats living majestically nearby, he replaced his modest, burned down house in 1955 with a trailer and lived there until he died in 1976. During his months up North each year he stayed in a hotel. 
            He kept to himself.  Unlike his father who had invited President Grover Cleveland to come and hunt, Tom scorned visitors. He didn’t socialize with Bernard Baruch or other wealthy neighbors, preferring to spend time with the people who worked for him. 

            He had a tremendous work ethic.  Days were spent beside his employees on land management, surveying and production.   Three generations later, some of those same families continue to follow his example of being dedicated stewards of the land.
            He was insatiably curious and inventive.   Through diversion of the Santee River, fresh water ponds were created; he grew shrimp, became a self-taught ornithologist and developed waterfowl management.  He supervised staff and wildlife biologists and provided funding that will perpetually support their research.   Our guide Jim Lee spoke with reverence of Yawkey’s vision, “As. …the sea levels rise, these managed wetlands will become more and more important.” 
         He was exceedingly generous but shunned acclaim.  Hospitals and scholarships benefitted from his largesse, often anonymously.  He built St. James AME Church for the islanders in 1928 where “if the spirit didn’t move you, you were already dead”.  Today the 80 island residents continue to praise, stomp and clap in it.   

            His one extravagance was baseball.    Like his father who had owned the Detroit Tigers, Yawkey bought the Red Sox when he was 30 years old.  They’d just completed what is still a record for the franchise’s worst season ever, a 111-game losing streak, but he optimistically set his sights on winning the World Series.  He poured millions into talent, coaching and the renovation of Fenway Park and brought the team came down for drinking, hunting and a little spring training.  Photos of Ty Cobb and Ted Williams hang in the hunt club today.  Although he saw the Red Sox win the American League pennant four times, he was still hoping for a World Series win on his death bed when he pressed his wife for two last wishes:  lead the team to victory and  finish acquiring the remaining parcels that now comprise the Yawkey Wildlife Center.  She bought the land but died herself before the Red Sox won the championship in 2004. 
       And he gave people something to talk about.  When community leaders warned that the town’s daughters wouldn’t be safe from the sailors returning to port in Charleston, he invited the madam Hazel Weiss to open the infamous Sunset Lodge.  From 1936-66, it was the most visited attraction in South Carolina second to Fort Sumter and a boon to the local economy.  Some called him a racist.  Jackie Robinson said he was “one of the most bigoted men in baseball” because of his treatment of African Americans players.  Our guide called him “a misunderstood and private person.”
            The legacy of this independent, curious, hard-working, generous and complex man is the Yawkey Wildlife Center. The three islands sit like a string of pearls at the mouth of Winyah Bay in Georgetown County. Yawkey deeded it to the Department of Natural Resources for the purposes of wildlife management, education and research.  Not recreation. No timbering.  The only way to visit is by taking a free tour with DNR on selected dates from Sept. to May by reservation.  After a very short boat ride across the Intracoastal Waterway, time slows down.  There are pine trees over 100 years old; some are still leaning from Hurricane Hugo; a huge insect population that “reaches a crescendo in June”, ancient Indian shell mounds and cemeteries hidden in the foliage.  It’s a wild, minimally managed place and a magnificent gift to South Carolina from an extraordinary man.

If You Go:
Free tours are offered from Sept. to May by reservation:  843-546-6814
More photos are here:  Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In Praise of Side Trips

            A friend of ours used to take his wife and kids on long road trips and, no matter the distance, insisted on driving straight through without even stopping for rest rooms.  Don’t ask.  I’m the opposite.  Every road trip I plan has side trips:  take a hike, visit a sight, stop and shop, scope out an artist or discover a local restaurant.  Often they’re the best part.   

        Bookmark the website Roadside America and meet the country’s characters.  Thousands of odd sights include an alien welcome center, topiary sculptures and a button museum just in  South Carolina.  Driving cross-country to Michigan, the website led my niece and me to the fascinating Temple of Tolerance in an unassuming suburban neighborhood in Ohio. Jim Bowsher has turned his oversized backyard into a “retreat where people could feel accepted, especially young people.”  “Beat” greeted us and introduced his scruffily dressed friends who were gathered in one of the massive rock enclosures that Jim made from the hundreds of tons of rocks and millstones, lintels, urns and foundation blocks that he painstakingly hauled from farm fields.  Massive boulders became shrines and towers; some are buried upright like tombstones or formed into steps. A suburban
Stonehenge.  It inspires Beat to come at all hours to sit quietly and write.  We were lucky to meet Jim himself who boasted that his house is the only one where Jehovah Witnesses say, “OK, we’ve got to go now.” He excitedly asked, “What show would Shakespeare watch if he were alive?  Jerry Springer!  Dysfunction is where the drama is.”  Jim has dedicated years to helping prisoners publish their stories.  The Temple is his vision of a tolerant world.    He’s particularly proud of a former Klu Klux Klan step.  “I ask Black people to sit on the step so they can liberate it.”
            Roadside America also led us to the “A Wiggle In Its Walk”, a 14-foot high, 200-foot long series of serpentine arches, alleys and tunnels constructed from four tractor trailers of twigs and vines by artist Patrick Dougherty and volunteers in Wegerzyn Gardens near Dayton, Ohio.  It was a wonderful place to playfully wander, to stretch our legs and our imaginations. 

            Billboards for Berea, Kentucky attracted us off the highway to its small downtown chock full of artists’ studios.   Ken Gastineau created a pewter julep cup on his lathe while he told us “instead of the idea that the town should support the arts, the arts should support us.” Founded as an integrated community by an abolitionist minister, the town has thrived by making the arts its foundation.     
            On an Appalachian adventure we used the free directory and travel planner from the Blue Ridge Parkway Association.  If you’re driving near any of the Parkway’s 469 miles from North Carolina to West Virginia, you can get milepost by milepost ideas for nearby fishing, bicycling, camping, hiking, attractions and accommodations.  In Virginia, the guidebook led us to Peaceful Heart Alpaca Farm near mile marker 204 where the field was full of the cavorting furry animals.  In her workshop lined with blue ribbons, Sharla Willis told us how she and her parents had reinvented themselves from Ohioans to farmers by following Sharla’s love of knitting and the glimpse of an alpaca’s sweet face on television. We also stopped at Mabry Mill, one of the most picturesque spots on the parkway to learn about Appalachian history and farm life and to buy some souvenir grits.  With a little Google’ing we discovered that Grayson Highlands was on our route. A short hike led us to a beautiful herd of wild ponies that grazed peacefully while we took photos. 

            My most go-to travel resource is Tripadvisor where you’ll find reviews by real people about every destination.  Enliven a trip across the state by picking a small town on your route and putting it into their search engine.  You’ll get great advice on restaurants or attractions.  Going west?  How about world-class BBQ at Sweatman’s in Eutawville? Or take a walk in the astonishing biodiversity of Congaree National Park.  It’s only five miles off the interstate. Or tour the Newberry Opera House.  Driving south?  Share our favorite picnic spot under the Spanish moss-draped oaks at the Frampton Plantation House located right where you need a break before getting onto I-95 from Hwy. 17.  Heading north?  Take a breather at Brookgreen Gardens where the gorgeous flowers and sculpture will rejuvenate you. Surprise yourself with an exotic lunch at Redi-et Ethiopian Restaurant in Myrtle Beach.
            The trip starts when you pull out of the driveway, not at your destination.  You know the adage “the journey is the destination”?  That’s about side trips. 

If You Go
Roadside America for odd attractions
Blue Ridge Parkway Directory and Travel Planner:  828-670-1924

More photos are here:  Side Trips

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

High Tea at Hopsewee

            My book club, The Venuses of Willendorf, has been together for 20 years. We’ve read hundreds of books, classics to best sellers.  So no judgments please when I tell you that our recent book, Keeper of the House, is about a famous Georgetown brothel The Sunset Lodge. Open from 1930 to 1969, it was described by the Post and Courier as “perhaps the most widely known site in S.C., with the exception of Fort Sumter.” Sailors would return to the port in Charleston and immediately head up the highway to Sunset Lodge by the busload.  After it closed, the property was purchased by a local couple who made it their home.  “For years and years, we’d have ten cars a day…asking for Sunset” they reported. 

            A lot of visitors are also dropping by another house just up the road.  The Beatties are only the fifth family to own and live at Hopsewee Plantation since it was built between 1733 and 1740.  Protected from developers and now a National Historic Landmark, the 70 acres sit grandly on the banks of the North Santee River.  Centuries-old oaks drip with Spanish moss. Flourishing camellias and forsythia abound.  The plantation house has been preserved throughout its life and is not a restoration although modernizing elements such as plumbing and a practical kitchen have been added.  Eighteenth century architectural elements include hand carved lighted-candle molding and thick random-width heart pine floors.  The house’s durability is attributable to its brick and scored tabby foundation and black cypress construction. As the daily tours begin, modern conveniences are carefully tucked behind antique furniture since the home is still occupied.
            It was originally built as a country get-away by Thomas Lynch Sr. who owned seven plantations in the area.  In the mid 1800’s, Georgetown plantations produced over 36 million pounds of rice a year, second only to India.  Hopsewee and its 178 slaves were renowned for Carolina Gold rice.  Our tour guide Jean Efird explained, “It was slave knowledge and slave expertise that got this to be as successful as it was.  They knew how to make marshes into rice fields and build trunks to flood the fields.”  Descendants of these slave families lived in some of the cabins until the 1940’s, two cabins of which remain today and are on the Gullah Geechee Corridor.
            Thomas Lynch Sr. was prominent in the politics of our developing nation and was appointed with Benjamin Franklin to advise General Washington in 1775.  Unfortunately, a year later he suffered a paralyzing hemorrhage.  Unable to come to Philadelphia, his son Thomas Lynch Jr. was selected to serve the Continental Congress creating the only father/son pair to ever do so.   The younger Lynch was only 26 years old when he signed the Declaration of Independence.  A replica of the document hangs in the house with a space left for the missing signature of Thomas Lynch Sr.
         We also heard romantic stories of less famous inhabitants.  Clearly visible in the original window glass is the inscription “MRL 1906”.  Charlotte Lucas was showing off her new engagement ring from George Lafaye by etching initials and the date into the window.  Apparently that was a tradition, especially if you’d received the plantation as a wedding gift as she had! 
            The story of today’s owners began in 2000 when Frank Beattie heard that the previous owners of Hopsewee were selling it to developers and stopped by.  He was told that the owners were reluctant to see the property developed and hoped to find a buyer who would care for the Plantation and its legacy.  Raejean Beattie finishes the story:  “He came home one day and said ‘We’re buying Hopsewee Plantation.’ I said ‘you’ve obviously gotten far away from the bill paying…’”  But buy it they did.  They moved in and started to give tours of the house and its historic property. Then another serendipitous meeting occurred.  The Red Hat Ladies wanted to bring a group for the tour but they wanted Raejean to serve tea.  It was such a hit that it became another business.  Now a new sunny outbuilding does double duty as the cafe and the Beattie’s after-hours den.  Raejean supervises the kitchen.  On the day the book club visited, several tables of diners were enjoying lunch as we indulged in a beautifully laid high tea complete with little sandwiches, ginger snaps, quiche, salmon mousse, scones and several flavorful teas. 

            While we sipped, our lively discussion of the book recounted the steamier episodes of Mignon, the painted ladies, their paramours and Georgetown’s citizens.  We noticed other diners eavesdropping.  One woman asked for the book title so she could join the fun.   But we just were enjoying ourselves learning about the noble and ignoble pasts that weave together into history. 

If You Go:
is just south of Georgetown  on Hwy. 17
Keeper of the House by Rebecca Godwin
More photos are here: Hopsewee Plantation


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Hanging Out with Henry Flagler

         On one of the ubiquitous ghost tours in this historic city, my fellow journalists are imagining that their photos reveal evidence of dead dogs lurking by woodstoves, phantasmal children wandering in the dark park.  I see Henry Flagler.  It’s not hard to imagine he’s still here in  St. Augustine since the entire city is full of his accomplishments.  Nothing stood in the way of his vision.  When he admired a building, he either bought it or imitated its architecture.  He built jails and churches so he could dictate their location.  In his grandiosity he built a Venetian Renaissance church in the memory of a deceased daughter, a magnificent hotel to honor his wife.  He also spawned a legacy of entrepreneurism that still fuels this city. 

     Flagler invited industrialists to enjoy St. Augustine’s warm climate, and built a railroad to get them there.  People like John D. Rockefeller, with whom Flagler started Standard Oil, broke bread with railroad tycoons, church and elected leaders.  I can imagine him hosting a lavish celebration today in the newly remodeled Treasury on the Plaza, an event space made from a 1928 bank.  The grandeur of the building is reminiscent of the Casa Monica Hotel and Flagler College architecture.  The host might tell the story of building the world’s largest swimming pool.  “I was worth $8 million when I got here.  I wanted a swimming pool.  But no one would use it because it smelled like sulfur. So I invited a bunch of Northern doctors down.  Gave them free vacations. Just swim everyday I said. Then everyone swam.”  The deep end of that same pool is now Café Alcazar.  Joseph Finnegan, the innkeeper at the St. Francis Inn is also a problem solver.  Opened in 1791, his bed and breakfast is the oldest continually used inn in America’s oldest city.  Its unique rooms, courtyard, swimming pool and dining room are charming and exceedingly well appointed. But it didn’t have a beach so the owners developed some property on the coast nearby and now guests can enjoy both when they stay at either:  breakfast or parking in town, beach chairs and towels at the beach.  
                    Flagler might go on to tell about his divorce from his second wife.  She was in a mental institution but divorcing her was illegal in Florida.  So he worked to change the law, much like that of another of Flagler’s likely guests Philip McDaniel who started St. Augustine Distillery.  He worked two years to change the  law that prohibited them from having their distillery, shop and Ice House Restaurant in proximity.  “There were a lot of hurdles but we were committed because of our love of the town.”  A true farm-to-table enterprise, they work with local farmers to preserve agricultural history by growing everything from sugar cane to heirloom corn and citrus for their emerging line of liquors.  One farmer, Mr. Arroyo, sums it up: “People get excited about vegetables but they get more excited about booze.”
          San Marcos is surrounded by walls made from coquina shells.  It’s never been conquered.   Captain Ryan explained “If you think of throwing an M&M into a jar of peanut butter, that’s how the cannonballs fired into the fort got stuck in the walls.”  The Spanish actually dug the cannonballs out, wrote hate notes on them and fired them back becoming the “first white people to recycle”. 
  Sharing Flagler’s love of the area’s natural beauty would be Captain Ben Evans and Zach McKenna of St. Augustine Eco Tours.  Their passion for protecting the environment is obvious in their excursions which combine nature and history.  They tell stories from the wake of shrimp boats as dolphins frolic.  The iconic Castillo de
            On the table would be delights from the city’s best chefs:  the deconstructed caprese salad from Chef Jean-Stephane Poinard of Bistro de Leon with its beautiful peeled love apple stuffed with mozzarella mousse, datil pepper sauces from Hot Shot bakery, pasta from Nona’s Trattoria, exotic olive oils from The Ancient Olive and desserts from French chocolatier  at Claude’s Chocolates.  The guests might plan a further exploration of the city’s culinary delights on The Tasting Tour where Flagler would feel right at home climbing into the horse and buggy to discover hidden dining gems.

            Flagler and his guests would proudly toast eachother’s accomplishments.  St. Augustine is now one of the country’s most popular wedding destinations, girl’s get-aways and one of the top 5 places in the world for Christmas lights according to National Geographic Magazine.  I imagine the party winding down, the guests ambling over cobblestone streets past their host’s magnificent namesake Flagler College, back to the St. Francis Inn.  They’d cap off the evening with one of Chef Janice Leary’s nightly treats, a bit of sherry and revel in the enduring virtues of St. Augustine
For More Information:
more photos are here:  St. Augustine photos

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Unleashed in Athens Georgia

             “You’re nothing like your father.  Take off your clothes and jump in the water.” 
Thayer Sarrono’s teasing lyrics accompanied our welcome toast as we began our visit to Athens, Georgia.  My husband and I were ready for some adult fun.  The University of Georgia is often ranked among the country’s top party schools and the town’s motto is “Life Unleashed” so we were hopeful we’d find it here.     
            The Foundry Inn and Spa got the good times rolling right away.  This is the city that famously birthed some of the country’s best bands: R.E.M., Widespread Panic, the B-52’s and many others.  Just a few steps from our comfortable room at the hotel was the Melting Point.  Every city should have a venue like this one with a first-class sound system, a big stage and a room full of enthusiastic listeners of all ages.  There are outdoor seats for folks who want to smoke or talk more loudly, a bar with TV’s away from the stage and plenty of seats around the large dance floor as well as a balcony perched above.    As we listened to Thayer’s folky set we munched on fish tacos from the menu that ranges from snacks to hearty meals.   We really appreciated that the music starts quite early.  You can catch the headliners and still be in bed before midnight.  It was so fun and easy that we went every night. The club hosts plenty of stellar local talent as well as national acts like The Soul Rebels who rocked the house a couple of nights later with their explosive New Orleans brass sound.  We never left the dance floor and couldn’t believe our luck in seeing this world class band in such an intimate venue as they stopped in Athens on their world tour, next stop France.  And what a bargain!  Admission to the Melting Point was included in our hotel charge and is otherwise only about $10.  We’d return to Athens just to go to the Melting Point again.

            At Mama’s Boy Café, you can get two essentials:  a creative breakfast and life advice.  My colorful plate of vegetable hash with a poached egg and hollandaise sauce made me reach for my camera before I took a bite.  The menu invites diners to be true Southerners and order a biscuit sandwich with eggs or fried chicken or channel their inner child and go for the warm breakfast chocolate cake.  With our bellies full, we selected a thought for the day from their fishbowl on our way out. I’ve tried to take mine to heart:  “Good judgment comes from experience and experience—well, that comes from poor judgment”.  
            Hobnobbing with the friendly crowd at the Athens Wine Weekend, many people commented to us that Athens is not your typical college town.  “The wide range of ages, the cool and funky vibe and the burgeoning creative industry have contributed to a town of professionals that are very creative.  It makes you dream and to live beyond what you imagined when you came out of college” said Meredith Metcalf of the Classic Center which hosted some of the weekend’s events.  The Wine Weekend is a fundraiser each January for the Cultural Foundation which provides scholarships, buys art and makes grants to cultural organizations.  It began with a classy Amuse Bouche where
we sampled several wines including the Sea View Ridge Pinot Noir which was described as “not your Tuesday night wine.  This is the we-just-got-engaged wine”.  The next afternoon almost 1,000 people came to the wine tasting and a sold-out crowd enjoyed the Gourmet Dinner that evening where shrimp timbale was the first of six courses highlighting the city’s best chefs. 
            Meanwhile, we were exploring the town’s other attractions.  Since the Bulldogs weren’t playing football that weekend, nothing was very crowded.  At certain times of year, it’s all about those “Dawgs”.   We especially enjoyed the 313-acre State Botanical Garden where we wandered the hiking trails amid the frost-covered trees.  The town’s North Oconee Greenway drew my husband for a morning jog and I wandered the town’s pretty downtown where 16 neighborhoods are on the National Register and history is around every turn.  Stately columned houses, many with historic markers, abound. 
The University was the first state college in the country to be chartered in 1785 and the campus is particularly charming. Scattered amid the grand architecture are occasional funky sculptures made from found objects, many inspired by bulldogs of course.   It’s all part of Athens' Dawg-as-muse attitude to “loosen up your collar” and enjoy.   

If You Go:
Foundry Park Inn and Spa                          

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Playing all Day at John C. Campbell Folk School

          To have the freedom we had as children: to explore, to try new things, to dabble, to be alright with not being good at it, to immerse ourselves and relinquish all responsibilities for awhile… sound good? Since 1925, John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC has been answering the call of adults who want to have fun learning about music, art, nature, crafts, gardening, cooking, storytelling and writing.

Their history is fascinating.  The school’s namesake, John C. Campbell was described by his colleagues at Piedmont College as “the guy from up North that you can get along with” when he was president of the school.  In 1903, he and his wife Olive Dame outfitted a covered wagon and set out to explore Appalachia.  John interviewed farmers about their agricultural practices and Olive collected traditional ballads and studied the handicrafts.  They aspired to improve the quality of education in the region but they were also studying the wonderful crafts, music and tools that mountain people used.  Beyond cruel stereotypes, not much was known of this region at the time.  The book of ballads Olive eventually published is still the seminal work on the subject.  
 Familiar with the Danish system of education that combined fun with learning in a non-competitive environment, John and Olive hoped to bring that model to Appalachia. After John died in 1919, Olive and her friend Marguerite Butler went to Europe to investigate and came back determined to begin a school. They researched several locations including tiny Brasstown, NC, population 150. It’s only about 200 now. A local shopkeeper, Fred Scroggs, got enthusiastic and a few weeks later 200 people rallied in support. Townspeople donated land and work to begin what has become a huge campus where each year 860 week- and weekend-long classes are taught in superbly appointed facilities nestled in the valley.

      The power of an art retreat is described by Mark Salzman, a novelist struggling to write his second book. After throwing away an attempt that had taken five years, he went on a retreat to refresh himself. “I went without any particular intention of writing. I just wanted to exist…It was like waking from a bad dream. All of the sudden everything was like a gift: the fall colors, the sounds…but mainly the removal of all the reminders of art as a profession, as a way of making money or gaining a reputation…I was in a community of people who seemed dedicated to art almost like a sacred pursuit.” While passing around a beautiful tureen of soup in the dining hall, my lunch mate explained, “Only 25% of the experience is about the art, the other 75% is the retreat.”

My class was called “Fiber Fun”. Seven of us women learned sewing and embellishment techniques from fabric artist Martine House. Some of the others were accomplished seamstresses or quilters. I was not. Not to worry. Once the daily responsibilities of life were taken off our shoulders, our meals were abundantly prepared, enjoyable entertainment was provided and we were showered with encouragement and resources to do nothing but create, our imaginations lit up like wildfires. We burned with creative energy all day, spending free time in the studios or walking the beautiful grounds gathering ideas.
  I’d been warned “don’t eat with the blacksmiths, they have hardy
appetites” so I joined a table in the communal dining room and sat next to Steve who was assisting in the woodturning class. He’d remembered the fun he and his brother had had with their father’s tools as children and had rediscovered this passion as an adult.  “It’s enriched my life beyond anything I could have thought,” he said.  A woman at our table had been here several times.  “First I took weaving so I went home and bought a loom but found that I didn’t like warping it.  I made quilts but I liked the design more than finishing them.  I made jam and I might continue to do that but this week I’m doing dyed fabric which I’ll never do at home.”  Here you are free to dabble or become a serious amateur, no pressure.  Many of the students are retirees.  They’d asked themselves “What will I do when I retire?”  They’d answered, “play”.
      John C. Campbell Folk School was named one of the “100 Best Vacations to Enrich Your Life” by National Geographic. The garden flourishes; everyone sings together each morning and applauds each other’s creations at the art show at the end of the week. Grateful students have built a beautiful outdoor oven, carved wooden totems along the hiking trail, forged iron gates and fences and call their experiences transformative. Playing can be that way.

If You Go:
John C. Campbell Folk School is about two hours north of Atlanta just over the North Carolina border:

more photos: John C. Campbell Folk School

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Woods Just Up the Road: Biking the Trails of the Francis Marion National Forest

        Whenever I unload my bike at a trailhead in the Francis Marion Forest, I always imagine it saying “YES!  I was made for this!” It’s not a fancy bike but the wide tires and shock absorbers are perfect for the rough, rooted, narrow trails that transverse the forest.  As I ride past bays, marshes, campgrounds, flooded rice fields and waterways my energy rises. Often the occasional snake, alligator, wild turkey, deer, boar or the myriad of birds are my only companions.  This has become one of my favorite pastimes for high octane exercise, especially in the cooler months.    And a great escape.  On my annual “it’s not the bridge run” ride, I drop racers off at the Cooper River Bridge starting line and head out to my contrarian destination. Even on days when the city is full of visitors, the forest is almost empty despite the easy accessibility of trails just a few miles from Charleston
        The easiest rides are on the service roads that criss-cross the forest.  Among the forest’s 629,000 acres are miles and miles of both surfaced and unpaved roads wide enough for cars and logging vehicles. One of my favorites is reached easily from Hwy. 17 north of Mt. Pleasant by turning onto Forest Road 228, I’On Swamp Road.  You can start biking there and ride 2.5 miles to the entrance for I’On Swamp Interpretive Trail where you should park your bike and go on foot.  It is a fascinating trail through a wetland world along old plantation dikes.  You’ll walk along embankments built in the 1700s that created a patchwork of fields and ditches historically used in the production of rice.  Signs with educational information about history and forest life dot the route.  Alligators are often lolling in the puddles of sunlight. After this one mile walk you can easily ride on the forest road as far as you’d like before doubling back to your car.  Even children or beginners enjoy this excursion.   
        Ready to get off the road and ride for an hour or two?  Head to the South Tibwin Trail near McClellanville which is cooperatively managed by the Forest Service, the SC Department of Natural Resources and Ducks Unlimited. Over the five miles of trails there are hardwood bottomlands, pine uplands, tidal marshes, freshwater ponds and wetlands.  Tibwin Creek is as wide as a river and full of jumping fish.  Ramshackle docks extend over the water and old rice trunks that were used to flood the fields in plantation days are still evident.  Great Blue Herons swoop overhead.  From the wildlife blinds, you might see egrets, eagles, hawks or possibly river otters and bald eagles.  This is billed as a loop trail for biking but it is not well marked with blazes so a map, downloadable from the websites below, is handy.

        My favorite ramble is the Awendaw Connector section of the Palmetto Trail.  Over its seven scenic miles it weaves between Awendaw Creek and the forest. Birds, including the endangered red cockaded woodpecker, are plentiful.  The trail is bike-able but you’ll have to dismount occasionally to avoid thick tree roots or standing water.  You can begin at Buck Hall Landing, the easternmost end of the Palmetto Trail, where there’s a picnic area, fishing dock, bathrooms and a campground.  Or start closer to Mt. Pleasant at Rosa Green Road.  The forest service sign indicating Rosa Green Road says, “Awendaw Creek Canoe Launch” and the launch is truly a marvel of engineering with a wide rail to drag your kayak or canoe down to the water.  Americorp and the other organizations that built this trail have constructed sturdy wooden bridges and benches. Sit awhile.  Eat an apple. Breathe. The sweeping marsh views are straight out of a Pat Conroy novel. If you take an out of town visitor on this trail they’ll never want to leave the Lowcountry.
        A bit longer, the Tuxbury Trail is shared by bikers, hikers and horses and consists of 14 miles of interconnecting trails near Cainhoy.  The habitat is less varied than the Awendaw Connector with some sandy patches.  Sharing the trail with horses could be a problem but I saw no sign of them on my visit.  However, the Wambaw Cycle Trail is a different story. Thinking that “cycle” meant my Schwinn, I optimistically headed there.  But as I drove closer, I had to yield to speeding motorcycles darting across the forest roads.  The “vroom” of engines greeted me in the parking lot where dozens of empty ATV trailers were parked.  Detour! That turned out to be a good day to ride on the nearby forest service roads instead.

         For the tough and hearty who relish a longer bike ride, the Swamp Fox Trail is the answer.  From here the forest stretches widely to the west for many miles. This is where the Revolutionary war hero Francis Marion hid out with his ragtag troops.  It doesn’t take much imagination to picture them here now, especially as the trail descends deeper into the thickest parts of the forest.  Today the Swamp Fox Trail is a 42 mile section of the Palmetto Trail extending from the Hwy. 17 to Moncks Corner.  Any section is an easy walk and a moderately easy bike ride.  A two hour bike ride from the Hwy 17 trailhead will take you to Halfway Creek campground and back, twelve miles round-trip.  The bicycling is fairly easy in this section since it is older and not as rutted with tree roots as the Awendaw Connector Trail. It’s also well marked and easy to follow.  Be forewarned that you might hear gunshots from this trail.  It isn’t hunters.  It’s the forest rifle range located nearby and there is no danger. The entrance to the Swamp Fox Trail is clearly marked on Hwy. 17 if you are headed south but there is no sign if you’re headed north so use the mileage directions on the website to find it.
        Construction of the Palmetto Trail began in 1994 and will extend 425 miles from Buck Hall Landing on the Intracoastal Waterway to the Blue Ridge Mountains when it is finished.  About 300 miles are already completed.  Dane Hannah works for the Palmetto Conservation Foundation as the Lowcountry trail coordinator.  He is single-handedly responsible for the 180 miles of trails from Columbia to Awendaw, sometimes by hacking away overgrowth with a machete.  He boasts that the Palmetto Trail includes more than recreational destinations.  It goes through towns and cities such as Columbia and Santee, and historic battlefields.  You can even plan a biking stop at Sweatman’s authentic barbeque in Holly Hill. 
        Excursions take some preparation.  It is common to find empty map holders or no holders at all on the trailheads so download a map before you go.  The forest is very buggy in summer.  Some trails get quite muddy after rainy weather.  Helmets are a must.  And water of course.  There is little danger from animals although alligators are common on some trails. They are easily scared away if you loudly yell at them “Move out of my way alligator!”  Snakes are often seen.  In one harrowing episode I saw a four foot long snake draped across the path just as I speeded towards and  (yikes!) over it, unable to stop.  It slithered away afterwards.  Since I’m sometimes alone when I go biking, it’s comforting to know that cellphone signals are strong throughout the woods.
        The most important precaution is to have the right equipment.  Road bikes will not do.  When I introduced my friend, an avid road biker, to the Palmetto Trail he insisted on taking his skinny tire bike.  It ruined his experience.  It’s also handy to have at least some gears so beach bikes are not ideal.  You’ll want to change gears in sandy areas or for covering long distances without getting fatigued.

        Biking in the Francis Marion National Forest is an exhilarating plunge into nature.  Speeding through the forest on your own energy, you are immediately immersed into our wonderfully flat Lowcountry.   Despite the similarities in the locales, every outing is different.  Ed Rice introduced me to this pastime and passionately bikes often.  He says, “The seasons always have a little different presentation.  Maybe the leaves changed later this year or there was more rain.  The little glimpses of flora and fauna reveal themselves on each trip and there’s always something new to see.”  He reveled in finding trumpet plant flowers this year in a Carolina bay. He’d been there before but had never seen them until this year. On one memorable outing he and I climbed a fire tower to find a bird box full of peeping baby owls.  Beneath the box, on the metal steps, was a pile of bones from mice and other critters the owls had eaten. 
        I am often surprised by reactions when I tell people who live in the Charleston area that I’ve been biking in the forest.  “What forest?” they often say.  Those who have been there know that it is just up the road and a world away from the ubiquitous strip malls and traffic.  Becoming part of this expansive green world, speeding through the trees, the solitude of the forest, these are the nearby adventures awaiting bikers in the Francis Marion Forest

If you go:

Francis Marion Forest

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