Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Road Kill on Highway 17

    Spring break brought an excuse for Sissey and me to head south, south, south....searching for the warmest spot we could find in South Carolina.  The first few days were spent in Hilton Head, where the temperature never broke the sixty degree mark.  To hell with global warming, Al Gore, we were freezing.  I must say I had never, ever in my life been to Hilton Head in March and had to dress in turtle necks and jackets.  Used to be we had already spent a month on the beaches by the time March blew in ( albeit usually huddled in some sand dunes to break the chill,wrapped tightly in beach towels, but nevertheless on the beach or bust).   This time, we caught glimpses of the ocean only while huddled inside a cafe sipping hot, hot, hot coffee.  Of course, the day we left the island, temperatures soared to seventy, and we caught our first scent of plough mud as we drove through the marshes headed up to Beaufort.
      The plan for the rest of the week was to drive to Charleston to meet Nancy, my best friend from college and the second half of the Fun Girls from Mt. Pleasant. We were planning to indoctrinate Sissey into the Fun Girls Club, turning the duo into a trifecta, insuring that the next generation would carry on the torch, with plenty of shopping and restaurant hopping included in the plan.  The trip to Charleston, however, was going to take a little off-beaten path, as I had a hankering to see some of the prettiest marshes on God's green earth, take a leisurely drive through the barrier islands, absorb some of the sweet low country air, and stop at some local stores and cafes that you can only find when you aren't really looking. We headed to Beaufort, St. Helena's Island, Frogmore, Hunting Island, Fripp Island, made a u-turn at the end of Fripp and backtracked through Cat Island and Port Royal, then turned towards Garden's Corner and  Charleston.  
     We had stopped for lunch at a little spot on St. Helena's  called "Gullah Grub Restaurant." It was located in an old white frame store-front with a sign announcing it served only authentic low-country food.
      "We'll see about that," I thought, as we pulled in and parked in a sandy spot under the live-oaks. We were greeted in the parking lot by a local artist who made sweet grass baskets and sold her original paintings from the front porch of the restaurant.
      "Ya'll need some hep?" she called as I was getting Sissey's walker out of the car.  "Come on in sweet girls, dey'se open!"
      She walked over to the car and chatted with us all the way to the front porch, talking about her art, the cafe's food, the local weather, where we wer from. You can see, of course,  why I love it here.
   We strolled to the front porch of the store with her to see  her wares spread out on an old bench.
    "I'se the artist done all the art heah," she proudly continued, as she showed me her baskets and folksy  paintings of local life.  I promised her I'd do a little shopping after we finished lunch, but told her that we were both starving and had to eat first or we'd soon expire.
      "You go on in, dalin', git you somptin good to eat."
    We entered the storefront through one of  two doors that formed a perfect v-shaped opening in the middle of the porch, and sat at a table by a tall front window.  The waitress tried to sell us some crazy concoction called "swamp water",  but we didn't take the bait and ordered jars of sweet iced tea instead.  We feasted on creamy she-crab soup, chunks of sweet cornbread, and strips of fried shark. Our waitress insisted that we also have the potato salad," 'cuz Bill jes made it fresh this mawning and it is some mo' good."
     It was as good as she promised.
    After what I deemed acceptable as an authentic low-country lunch, followed by a little porch-shopping, we headed on up the road, as I was eager to take Sissey on the most beautiful drive on God's green earth-- that stretch of Highway 17 from Charleston to Beaufort.  When I lived in Charleston, I couldn't wait for an opportunity to get in my little blue Volvo and head south to Hilton Head, windows rolled down to suck in great gulps of plough mud and marsh breezes as I rolled beneath moss-covered oaks, past Edisto Island, Jacksonboro, Garden's Corner.  I would almost burst with anticipation as I drove, waiting for that one part of the road that would take your breath away as it entered the heart of the marsh.  On both sides of the narrow road, for as far as you could see, stretched the great, open marsh, divided only by the little creeks that cut through the grasses and flowed to the sea. It was a sight God had made just to make man smile. 
     My gas gauge had been warning me for miles that I needed to  "fill'er up," but I was trying to make it to Garden's Corner so I could stop at the little market/gas station/store which I loved and that sat beneath some sprawling old oaks in the middle of the intersection.  About a mile out, highway construction signs began warning me to merge left, use caution, reduce my speed.  I adjusted my driving and told Sissey to hang on, we'd be stopping in just a sec to get gas.  I was shocked when I reached the junction.  Gone was the intersection I remembered. Gone was the little market/gas station/store. Gone were the live oaks. Nothing remained of Garden's Corner.
     Instead, Garden's Corner was now a new four-lane intersection with signs pointing to Interstate 95/Savannah/Charleston. I felt my stomach lurch as I turned right onto Highway 17 and headed up the ACE Basin parkway, sensing changes I knew I would not like.  Both sides of the road were littered with heavy excavating and highway maintenance equipment, the two-lane, narrow road in the process of becoming a four-lane divided highway. The beautiful moss-covered forests on both sides of the road had been massacred to make room for the new lanes of traffic. Plowed earth, concrete pipes, mounds of gravel and neon orange cones littered the lanes on each side.  I wanted to cry. Who, I thought, who could possibly be in such a hurry that this beautiful road had to be butchered for the sake of speed? Who would want to forfeit a moment of beauty, a chance to stroll through the marshland, in order to shave a few minutes off a trip? Who would interupt the estuaries and disrupt the wildlife that had claimed this land long before man arrived? Who?
      I held my breath as we neared the portion of the road that entered the marsh. Surely, surely, I thought, no one would desecrate that holy ground, but as we drove on through the miles of construction, my hopes faded. As I feared,  progress had trumped preservation.  The marsh had been raped.
       The new road, all four lanes of it, was tearing right through the ACE basin, home of the wetlands of the Ashepoo, Combahee and South Edisto Rivers, habitat of bald eagles, herons, turtles, shellfish.  Huge mounds of earth lined the left-hand side of the road, completely blocking our view of the wide expanse of marsh.  Preparations were well under way to plow on through and plop four lanes of macadam on top of the plough mud and sea grass.
    The old scenic road was gasping for it's last breath as the new highway rolled on top of it and covered everything historic and gentle and slow and beautiful.  My soul  hurt, hurt to see what man would sacrifice for the sake of convenience. Again, I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream and grieve and mourn and wail over the loss of yet another slice of life that will never be recovered. Interstate 95 hovered only a few miles away, yet it was deemed worthy to desecrate the marsh to get to there more quickly.  A slow dose of beauty held no value in today's frantic pace to get somewhere, anywhere.
       I drove on in silence, with a heavy heart and a dangerously empty gas tank.  I finally stopped at a new mega-convenience store just outside of Jacksonboro and filled up. I could also have bought a lottery ticket, played video games, purchased a quick fast-food lunch, stocked up on souvenirs and groceries,  or fueled up an 18 wheeler.  As I pulled back onto Highway 17, I noticed a sign pointing to Interstate 95. It would have taken a little longer to take the Jacksonboro Road to Hwy. 61 which runs right into I-95, but it would have preserved the pristine beauty of the ACE Basin parkway. I'm quite sure it would take longer to restore a marshland and a scenic, forested highway than it would to take a detour to the Interstate, but who's got the time for that?  Besides, it was just another highway fatality, and who was keeping count?
       I swallowed the lump in my throat as I drove on towards Charleston, laughing at myself for crying over "road kill," but crying anyway as I mourned the death of a lovely old lane, a path through time that had been wiped out as the violent march towards progress continued to plow through the south.
    It was just another fatality, an innocuous death on Highway 17, but I mourned.


  1. my feelings exactly. They raped this road and all for people who wanted to race from one end to the other. They used the good name of "safety" and tried to pretty it up with a nice name, the ACE Basin parkway, I find it only ironic.

  2. I couldn't agree with you heart still hearts over what they have done to this beautiful drive...

  3. excuse me, heart still hurts (could it also heart?)