AN ANNUAL FAMILY
PILGRIMAGE TO PAWLEY’S ISLAND, SC
James Dickey is buried in the cemetery across the road from All Saints Episcopal, Waccamaw, in a setting as poetic as any literary image he ever devised. A journalist once asked Dickey why he chose to teach and write at the University of South Carolina when he could afford to live anywhere in the world. His answer was that Columbia was only two hours west of Pawleys Island, South Carolina’s oldest resort.Dickey spent a good bit of his living time at Pawleys and next door at Litchfield, too, mostly on those islands’ narrow beaches and in the flashing redneck bars on Highway 17, if you believe the local lore. It is hard to know what to think about Dickey the man, who by most accounts was quite self-absorbed and virulently alcoholic, but two things about him are beyond doubt: (1) He sure could write, and (2) more than cold beer, hot nights, and white sand would have attracted him to the area. Pawleys Island itself, which sits about halfway between Georgetown to the south and South Myrtle to the north, is Lowcountry money of the oldest sort, but the culture it exudes is a rich mix of traditions that either hide or contradict that inbred wealth. The island’s first owners were, as you might suspect, the Pawley Family, inland plantation dwellers who came east in the summers to escape the damp heat and the malarial mosquitoes that thrived in the stagnant inland air. The Pawley’s architectural legacy is one of seaside informality. “Arrogantly shabby” became the island’s defining moniker, an identity that belies the fact that its real estate is among the most costly in South Carolina.With the Pawley Family came their neighbors and relatives and the Gullah slaves who served them all. Rice plantations thrived in the Lowcountry soil, making Georgetown County the wealthiest community in the country prior to the arrival in the mid-1890s of a decade-long series of great hurricanes that salted the paddies and inflicted fatal wounds on their crop of “white gold.” Over time, out of this conflicted culture built on back-breaking work and uncommon leisure emerged Gullah folktales interwoven with stories of upper-class inter-family intrigues that, when set against a mystical backdrop of drooping live oaks, redolent marsh bottoms, and almost nightly rolling summer thunder, produced an oral tradition so rich and so riveting that it is no wonder that a poet and storyteller of Dickey’s artistic sensibilities would find the region irresistible.Jan and I and our two girls have been going to Pawleys almost every August since Katie, our elder, was eighteen months old. We meet there the friends of my Lynchburg youth and their children. We all stay in an old inn located directly on the beach, about a quarter mile down from the pier. For most of my girls’ childhood, that inn was the Tip Top, owned first by sweet old Miss Dingle, short and pale and slender, and later by the tyrannical but colorful bigger-than-life Sis Kelly and her silent, mostly absent partner, husband Julian. The Tip Top, before it was taken in 1989 by a tidal surge courtesy of Hurricane Hugo, presented Pawleys charm and history to us in a weekly package.
The main building was several floors high, its wooden sides beaten a hardy brown by the wind and salt. The out building, the place that our crew took over for seven nights each summer, was an abandoned army barrack, set there for military training in the Second World War and left afterwards to become a part of the Tip Top’s simple charm. The rooms and bathrooms in both the Main House and the Annex were as rustic as one could imagine. No problem running in sandy-footed straight from the beach, though guests were expected to stop off in the outdoor showers before hitting the back door. A weathered gray crab dock still stands across the street, jutting shakily out into the sulfurous marsh. The “Crab House” still guards the inn’s entrance, providing in our time a single, warmer, and more buggy last-ditch accommodation for the traveler arriving too late to be housed across the road.
Neither the Tip Top nor the Sea View just south down the beach—the inn we frequent now—bothered with air conditioning, which is mostly fine when a stiff breeze provided courtesy of an almost daily, eagerly anticipated “coastal low” comes in from off of the ocean and billows the inn’s plain curtains. Turn those winds off, though, or turn them easterly, and all hell in the form of biting flies, closed windows, and suffocating heat descends.
Given the temperature and the humidity, dress is the last thing one worries about at the inn. Guests spend their days in bathing suits, shorts, t-shirts, and flip flops—shabby to be sure, but then as the South Carolina heat kicks in of a week, the arrogant side is kicked out of us pretty quickly. In my most uncomfortable and therefore least charitable moments, I have characterized Pawleys charm as the perfect Protestant vacation. We, as abject sinners, are only getting what we deserve, and out of our sufferings enlightenment will surely come.
Clearly no sane person comes back August upon August to the Tip Top or now to the Sea View for the accommodations or for the weather. The draw is the ocean beating just out the back door and the food and the camaraderie and the stories that flow around meals shared with friends and, at the Sea View, from the gatherings in the rocking chairs that line the railings on the porch. Feasts of Lowcountry fare fuel our tongues and both hasten and prolong our naps. Boiled shrimp and broiled spare ribs and country fried chicken and cheese grits and succotash and butterbeans and fried okra and corn bread and scratch biscuits and chocolate chess pie and more, much, much more, are prepared and served each early afternoon in a large communal dining room.
In the end, James Connor returns to Pawleys Island for many of the same reasons James Dickey did. I love my walks on the sand, complaining about the hot nights, and yet enjoying the cold drinks on the beach. But it is something else about the place that truly pulls me near and that I suspect brought him close as well, something unseen and fervently felt but difficult to pin down and accurately describe—a sense of history, perhaps, a touch of mystery, for sure, but more the sights and sounds and smells of a culture layered and rich and connected through food and weather and natural beauty and friends and family, families from the Pawleys on down to the Gullah women who worked the paddies to James Dickey’s to my own. Here is a place of continuity, a place where the past is your friend, where the dead are not forgotten, where the waters of time can be forded, where the rhythms of life pulse deep and strong and clean, and where hope abides that the world which we inhabit is a good one and the place to which we will all go will receive us kindly.