21 May 2012


It has been too long.

There's a point on I-26 East where the pavement changes from interstate-grade blacktop to the grainier, red-tinged stuff indigenous to the southeastern Coastal Plain. That's where I know I’ve hit the home stretch. From there, it’s less than an hour to Folly.

I came by one evening last November, so I know it still exists: the road, the island, the “downtown”–a double handful of shops, restaurants, and a motel or two where the road runs out right in front of the one big hotel–and Ashley Street, which runs the length of the island in both directions from Folly Beach Road.

In November, I spent 30 minutes on the beach, got a sandwich in town, and had to leave. It wasn’t easy. As usual, I didn’t get away before dark. This time, I have four days. And I intend to milk them for all the peace and regeneration they’re worth.

I park the car in front of the rented house on the east end of the island. (It’s really northeast, but let’s not quibble.) I get a lift to the bike rental place on East Huron, next to the post office, then ride the bike back. Three miles on a beach cruiser is a piece o’ cake, even as out of shape as I am after a winter of desk work and babying my arthritic knee. Without the bike, I’d be stranded at the house or forced to drive everywhere; I can’t walk more than a block or two, but I can ride for miles. Just as in my asthmatic, “don’t pick her, she can’t run” childhood, the bike is my salvation–my ticket to freedom.

It’s a writers’ retreat weekend, a working vacation. I know there’s not going to be a lot of beach time, and that’s okay. It’s just being here that’s important.

The second day, I do get away for a couple of hours and ride down to the center of town for a swimsuit. If I’d left my suit at home twenty years ago, I’d have been looking for a bikini to cover the essentials; at 5’6” and about 115 pounds, I was on the trim side of “not bad,” with only a modest quantity of essentials to cover. These days, not so much. I need a one-piece, preferably with a control panel. Chalk it up to the desk work, okay?

I don’t find a one-piece suit. I do locate two great sundresses that together cost about the same as the one swimsuit I try on. (It covers the essentials; it even has a skirt. Unfortunately, it comes in two pieces, and it doesn’t cover the part that requires the control panel. In spite of its lovely, tan-enhancing milk-chocolate color, I put it back.)

The sundress find is not the most remarkable thing about the ride to town and back. On the way up, I’m almost to the intersection of Huron and Folly Beach Road when I see a woman waiting for a dog to finish his business. She smiles, and I smile, and I almost say, “Bonnie?” And then I wonder why I didn’t. For another block, I debate turning around and going back to say, “Bonnie?”

Bonnie was the landlady, the owner of the house where my friend Sara lived. Sara had the ground floor apartment, and Bonnie lived upstairs. But Bonnie wasn’t just the landlady–she was one of us. There was a whole crazy tribe of “Folly Beach Wimmin,” a dozen or more who came and went: gay and straight, with and without kids, young and not-so-much, bone-skinny and comfortably pudgy. We stuck together, we stuck up for each other, we hung out on the beach and took turns greasing up each other’s kids with sunscreen. We set the boom box on the tailgate of Bonnie’s truck in the driveway and played Joan Jett and Bonnie Raitt, loud, half the night. We walked up Ashley Road to the Sand Dollar Social Club all together, in a comfortable, arms-linked, intertwined gaggle, and when we got there, we drank beer together, shot pool together, danced together or with the guys who lived on the island.

I think in all my life, that time and place–then and here–were the first I ever was able to just be. No pretense, no expectations, no history–just what you see is what you get. There is strength in numbers. It’s never been truer to me than in those days on Folly.

So I ride the same way the following day, hoping to see Bonnie again. I’d texted Sara 10 minutes after seeing the woman I almost spoke to; later, she’d respond yes, Bonnie is still here. But that’s not the street where she lives, so maybe I didn’t see her after all.

Still, I ride six miles. Not bad for an out of shape, arthritic old lady.

The third day, after the morning workshop, I ride farther still. I swing by the bike shop to ask the guys to pick up the bike tomorrow instead of this evening, and then I circle back down Huron, up 6th, and west again, all the way to the end of the island and all the way back. When I return to the main intersection, I cut to the right, over to the beachfront road. I find “my” beach house out there–my dream hideout. It’s painted a deep ocean blue, but uneven–faded in big patches, as though the wind and the surf and the salty air have caused the color to run in places. It’s on the beach side–bad for hurricane insurance, but perfect if, like me, you’re just about crazy from homesickness for the smell of salt water.

I ride through deep puddles I’m sure are tidal pools. Some nights, the tide does push to the top of the dunes, only partly regenerated after hundreds of years of hurricanes and only a couple of decades of real concern about beach erosion. That erosion has been slowed now, by careful cultivation of native flora–gaillardia, palmetto, beach roses and scrub pine that burrow into the satiny sand and stand firm against the tides. But the ecosystem is still fragile, like most of them anymore. One good, solid smack from a Hugo or Irene, and we’d be back in 1989, staring at naked beach instead of low dunes and tall houses.

So ten miles on the third day, with all the looping back and cutting over, on a moderately heavy one-speed cruiser with fat beach tires; I know I’ll feel it in my legs tonight. In fact, I’ll feel it in every muscle I own from the hips on down–and that’s a good thing.

Back at the house, we have a workshop session on the deck. We have our own pier over the dunes–walking on them is no longer allowed–and down to the beach. It’s a great place to sit and watch “Pelican TV.” The pelicans that nest here, on the east end by the lighthouse, lumber across the threatening sky–an early tropical storm has been hovering just a few miles out for three days, not budging–and occasionally drop to skim the air just inches above the cresting waves where there might be fish. When a pelican spots a target, he takes a massive nosedive, straight into the water–graceless, goofy, inelegant. Pelicans are all business. They aren’t made for “pretty,” they’re built for getting the job done. They’re live-action comedy on the wing.

Our group has dinner at Locklear’s, at the pier beside the one largish hotel on the island. We dine outside, watching the wedding party that comes and goes down the pier, the bride in her off-the-shoulder gown (not too much of a meringue) and the groom in a white oxford shirt, khakis, and flip-flops. They all look comfortable, and it seems quite appropriate to me. If I ever go to a wedding on the pier at Folly, I’ll expect the groom to be wearing flip-flops. (In fact, I notice after a while that she's wearing flip-flops, too. Smart girl.)

Three of us walk out on the pier after dinner. Martha and Calvin go to the end; I stop a little over halfway to rest. It’s close to sunset, and there’s one last surfer this far out. I see several closer to shore, catching waves as they break, but this guy wants one that will lift him up and carry him farther–carry him, I think, all the way in. He finally gets it just before we leave the pier. I look back over my shoulder and see him skimming the crest, maneuvering gently to the right or left to stay with the wave’s momentum as one section breaks, then another. It looks to me like the most beautiful applied physics–like you have to know where the power is behind your wave, and you have to be able to track it, or you’ll be lost.

There will be one more workshop tonight, one more discussion in the morning.

One more night to turn out the porch light so the loggerhead turtles can dig their nests in the dark at low tide, in the wee hours of the morning. One more night of sleep on the couch, where I can listen to the surf and be awakened by the sun coming over the lighthouse point.

One more morning to sit on the deck and watch the darting, glowing tropical-green lizards with their vivid orange throats.

One more short bike ride, this one to the lighthouse point; when the sand gets too loose to pedal, I park the bike and climb a nearby dune to see the structure standing off the island, on a rock jutting from the water.

This last morning, the breeze is light. The storm has finally shifted, developed a little circular motion and moseyed south to go inland over Savannah instead of up by us. The sun is out, the air still cool but warming fast. It all smells bright, washed–green.

I’ll grab a sandwich and a beer at Woody’s. Then it’s back to my other world, back to the highway and the traffic and eventually (Tuesday) to the daily commute.

But I have a new story started, three more critiqued and edited almost to where they need to be–and my hunger for the smell of salt water has been sated, at least for a little while.

I can carry this with me: the work, yes, the progress and accomplishments, and also the sensation of my muscles stretching, pushing a heavy bike’s pedals and making it move down a beach road, the heat of sun through clouds canceling out the chill of a 15-mile-an-hour wind on my skin as I pedal east, the little start of almost-recognition of a stranger who might actually be a friend.

The tranquil, impulsive, breezy, humorous, determined but unpressured spirit of Folly: I think I have enough bottled now to keep me going for a little while.

14 March 2012

Sand in my shoes

I have a few favorite places in the universe. With only one or two exceptions, they're firmly linked in my mind to times with my kids. When the older ones were small, I would sometimes pick them up from school on a Friday afternoon and make a beeline north from Raleigh, NC, to Washington, DC. I had a lovely friend, Margaret, who lived in the southeast quadrant of the District, in a lovely reclaimed row house three or four blocks from the Metro. We'd arrive about 9 or 10 p.m., and I'd park the car somewhere on the block -- and not move it again until we had to leave on Sunday. We spent whole Saturdays in the Smithsonian, Sunday mornings cooking breakfast for Margaret, sitting and talking, pretending we need never leave, and Sunday evenings driving back to Raleigh after dark.

Margaret was a remarkable woman, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries to China. They were among the last to leave during the Chinese civil war; Margaret's father was one of the few westerners trusted enough by both sides of the conflict that he was allowed to take food and other essentials back and forth, between and behind lines. I loved Margaret and her stories; Bri and Sean loved Margaret because she loved them back, unconditionally and without expectation. I did okay on the "unconditional" front, but I had lists of expectations -- and every child needs someone who loves them just for who they are, not who they have the potential to become.

Another favorite place was the San Francisco Bay Area. Last year, I drove back with Sean and spent an afternoon driving around my old neighborhood in San Jose. It's still there, just bigger. It still felt like it could be home; the little house where we lived when Bri was born was still there. (It wasn't yellow anymore, but it was there!)

And then there was Folly.

Folly Beach is one of the barrier islands on the South Carolina coast at Charleston. When Bri and Sean were in middle and high school and Mitch was very small, my dear friend Sara (Mitch' godmother) lived there. She's a pediatrician, and at the time, she was practicing in Charleston and staying in a little place on Folly. The tourists hadn't discovered it yet, for the most part. There were some summer places, but mostly, it was little houses and little businesses. It was quiet enough we could leave the kids at the house on a Saturday night and walk up to the local bar, three blocks or so away in the center of the island. They would watch rented movies, and we would have a couple of beers, shoot a little pool, dance to the local band, and walk home. Folly Beach was farther away than D.C., but we never left before dark on Sunday anyway. Usually, we arrived back home around 3 or 4 a.m. on Monday -- always with sand in our shoes, and often in our shorts.

Late last fall, I made a quick trip back to Folly. My sister had to make an unexpected trip to Charleston and needed someone to drive her, and after several days of doctors and surgery and stress and worry, I had to do a little something for my head before going back home. So I drove 20 miles out of my way to spend a few minutes on the beach at dusk, then have supper and drive back. It was worth the time and effort, every bit of it.

Folly has changed, of course. Its little commercial district is a little slicker, a little more "high-end." I couldn't identify the house where Sara lived; it may not even be there anymore. I know the dunes that were washed out during Hurricane Hugo (1989) have been replaced by another row of summer houses. Silly people... But the soul of the place is still there.

In a couple of months, I'm headed again for Folly. I'm attending a writers' retreat -- four days of blessed, beautiful work. Four days of focus on what's real and important and essential to who I am and what I do; four days of walking the shoreline at dusk, getting sand in my shoes; four days of breathing in salt air and letting it flow back out as perfectly chosen words.

Three or four years back, I started drafting a story set on Folly Beach. It's finished in my head (in fact, it's one of those stories that began with the end), but I haven't been able to track the middle yet. Maybe this spring, back at the source, I will.