Jan/Feb 2020Carolina Back Roads: Where Beauty, Peace and History HideBy David Lucas
On a back road, your blood pressure goes down and your gas mileage goes up.
Text and photos by Tom Poland
Dream up a never-ending monster of cement and asphalt that long-ago banished grass and trees. Imagine high-speed travel on this sleep-inducing highway, a nightmarish combination. Conjure up visions of an endless parking lot come rush hour.
Well, there’s no need to imagine that wasteland. This is the interstate highway system. It’s real and like some marriages, it’s here forever, for better or worse.
We are a society in a hurry. Way too many people drive the interstates. Not me. On my pilgrimages to my Georgia home I used to drive I-20 a lot. It was like traveling across a desert, a desolate asphalt wasteland. Not much to see. Just a lot of big trucks barreling down the interstate. Shifting into neutral and using Georgia overdrive, the trucks growl like bears as they roll downhill past you. Their shock wave literally pushes you aside.
Interstates. What a plague. More often than not, they’re rough and noisy. Can’t even hear the radio. Hard on the nerves. And then construction or accidents stop you in your tracks, and what was to be a quick trip turns into a slog. I offer a tonic to such ills — just take the back roads. You could say back roads are in my blood, in my DNA. I grew up in rural Georgia when a blight known as interstates didn’t exist. When I travel back roads, I am home again, young again. And so, I lose myself along back roads, often taking a road to see where it leads. My faithful companion, my Canon camera, comes along for the ride. We transcend driving and enter the exalted realm of back-road explorers.
So, just what is a back road? A typical dictionary might say: “A back road is a secondary road that runs through a rural or sparsely populated area.” That seems a tad scant. Why don’t we let a back road define itself? “I’m a road with few eighteen-wheelers, no fast food joints, and no mega-convenience stores. I won’t trap you in a traffic jam, but I might take you by a kid selling strawberry jam. Sometimes I’m dirt, sometimes gravel, always interesting. I’ll escort you past classic barns, ruins and country stores with old gas pumps. Silos, windmills and fire towers cast shadows over the land I cross. Fields of hay and peach and pecan orchards flank my sides. Travel my way and you will discover that beauty, tranquility and history reside along my shoulders. You’ll inhale country fragrances such as fresh hay, swamp musk and the fertile fragrance of rain upon the soil.”
That sounds more like it. I love forgotten byways, sleepy lanes, gravel-dinging roads and dusty roads where the past clings to a slender thread called survival. When I drive on a back road, I enter the province of historical markers, rusty steel bridges, hand-lettered signs and pickup trucks resting beneath tin sheds. You’ll see rustic entrepreneurs, too — “We process deer.”
Riding down a back road is akin to walking through a museum. You see how people once lived — how a few people still live. The back roads still shelter stately little shacks that provide one last glimpse of a vanquished culture. Elegant little houses resting on rock piles hold their footing, like sentinels over fields. Along Old State Road, Highway 176, a collapsing, windblown tenant home proves that beautiful wreckage lives along the back roads. A foggy morning it was, and something about the fog made the old ruin even more handsome. The home itself, with one of its two windows shuttered, was blind in one eye.
In their heyday, a sea of white cotton surrounded tenant homes every summer, but when mules, plows and hoes gave way to tractors, the homes faced abandonment. Today, wasps, mice and birds make their homes in them. Chimneys and fieldstones stand as memorials to this past way of life.
You’ll find other memorials in sandy lanes running through pines. Over in McCormick County, near a place once called New Bordeaux, stands a beautiful Maltese cross of granite. New Bordeaux, 1764, was the last of seven French Huguenot colonies founded in South Carolina. Fruit trees, olive gardens and vineyards sprang up. The village prospered in the 1760s and early 1770s, but the Revolutionary War left a trail of ruins, and New Bordeaux faded into oblivion. Today you’ll see only pine trees and Clarks Hill (Thurmond Lake) and a stout granite monument.
Back roads amount to a time machine. They’ll escort you into yesteryear. They might dead-end at a swing bridge that ushers you to wild islands. You could see the state’s longest-operating lighthouse and the clubhouse where Tom Yawkey hosted Boston Red Sox players. Don’t miss the old radio where he listened to games, keeping stats on his players. After all, they were his employees. Give thanks that the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center is there for nature and you.
In McCormick County, you can cross a rusting steel-truss bridge that takes us back to the 1930s. Visit Mount Carmel and see an old Esso gas pump wreathed in honeysuckle. Now that’s “going green.”
You’ll come across a classic country scene down in the Lowcountry. A tire swing hangs from Deerhead Oak in McClellanville at, where else, Oak Street. Besides the past, you’re looking at the 2007 South Carolina Heritage Tree of the Year.
Faded and barely legible, an old ghost sign identifies where a Belk store once stood in downtown Great Falls. On some back road that leads to a small town you might spot a vintage Coca-Cola ad on old brick, the work of men called wall dogs. Wall dogs? Because they chained themselves to the wall lest they fall.
Ride back roads and discover gas stations turned restaurant. Down in Yemassee, you’ll come across a country club like no other, a restaurant like no other. Harold’s Country Club proclaims that it is “in the middle of nowhere, but close to everywhere.” That’s true. You’ll find it off Highway 21 at 97 Highway 17A. I did when I pulled up in front of a sign that’s seen its share of Lowcountry sunlight, sayeth its faded, yellowed plastic. Nonetheless it’s colorful. A grill full of ribs, chicken and a huge steak fill one side, a frosty mug of beer on the other. In the middle is a graphic: a circle around a bespectacled Harold and the words, "Harold’s Country Club, Bar & Grille, Est. 1973." The likeness of Harold Peeples makes the sign. He looks like a tough country sheriff.
Harold’s Country Club enjoys fame for its steaks and rules. "You are required to pay for every steak you order." "Please clear table." In the billiard area — excuse me, poolroom — is a list-served-notice that improper behavior would not be tolerated. "No Smoking." "No Hitting Sticks on Tables." "No Sitting on Pool Tables." And then, in lowercase, "follow the rules or you will be barred from playing pool." Over near the bar, some advice: “Win or lose, stick with booze.”
Thanks to the interstates, back roads ascended to a kind of obscure glory. The beginning of the end began for many of South Carolina’s fine two-lane highways on June 29, 1956. That’s the day President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, the Interstate Act. Eisenhower, a general to the end, envisioned highways as “broad ribbons” laden with tanks and troops, and South Carolina got its share.
Over sixty years, five interstates and 757 freeway miles later, a grid of steel, cement and asphalt makes it possible to cross South Carolina and see little of anything other than interchanges, bridges, concrete barriers and orange safety barrels. And lots of trucks — at times it’s like driving beside a train.
Don’t despair. The real South Carolina is still out there. Think of back roads as an act of preservation. The state’s hidden beauty, history and mystery wait along forgotten byways. With great patience, they wait for you and me. Travel down a country road to old cemeteries, BBQ haunts, mill villages, gas stations turned restaurant and a Carolina bay. That, and more. Somewhere in a place called obscurity. Travel back to the days before air conditioning, fast food, television, interstates and computers ruined a great tradition.
Well, it’s not too late for you and me. The tank is full. Come. Make the last Sunday drive with me down a back road. Let’s travel back to the days when mules pulled plows, when folks hung hams in smokehouses, and Burma-Shave signs and See Rock City barns made drives so much more interesting. Yes, the South is vanishing, but you can still find it. Just make one last Sunday drive down Memory Lane, which goes by another name . . . Carolina back roads.
Take heart, for another book about the back roads is available. The Last Sunday Drive, published in November, recalls that time when people devoted Sunday afternoons to sightseeing. Revisit ways of life, places and people that made the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s memorable.
Tom Poland is a former managing editor of South Carolina Wildlife magazine. He is well-known for his collection of picturesque books about the Palmetto State. You can hear Tom speak about his series of back roads books on January 24th at the South Carolina State Library. To RSVP, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most bookstores carry these books by Tom Poland. Get them directly from the The History Press at www.arcadiapublishing.com.