11. Two Counties, High & Low.

The Wellses escaped much of a winter, including the two-foot snowfall, by staying at our condo in South Carolina. During our sojourn in Horry (“Oh-ree”), familiar details of both counties now stood out sharply and unpredictably: one county halfway to Denver (in elevation), the other partway underwater twice a day.. 

Tlthough Hhe largest county east of the Mississippi is about three times the size of Floyd, but each was formerly quite isolated. The “Independent Republic of Horry” extends as a peninsula from North Carolina that’s nearly surrounded by water. Before drivers from the northwest reach the Atlantic at the end of Hwy. 501, they cross bridges over the Little Pee Dee River, the Waccamaw River, and the Intracoastal Waterway. From the south on Rt. 701, vehicles rumble along the bridge over the Great Pee Dee River (now joined by the Little Pee Dee). From the southeast, the bridge at Georgetown spans the confluence of the Black River, the Great Pee Dee, and the Waterway-Waccamaw. This must-be-reckoned-with nature of water to the area’s history is the theme of Randall’s Swamp, Strand, & Steamboat: Voices of Horry County, South Carolina, 1732-1954 (Conway, SC: Horry County Historical Society, 2004).

As for Floyd County, drivers earn admission from the south by negotiating Rt. 8 (don’t sit in the back seat) and rolling under the stone-overpass of the Blue Ridge Parkway. From Roanoke County, by winding up Bent Mountain and swallowing a change of air pressure. From Montgomery, by threading along cuts and between them, climbing steep hills and zooming down them, and crossing the Little River on a bridge that would have amazed earlier generations.

In Horry County, driving challenges come mainly on the crowded, four-lane highways; in Floyd, from the twisting and hilly two-lanes. The familiar S.C. log trucks, on their way to the wood-chip or sawmill, carry once-tall trunks that loom far above or stick far out with growth rings that could stunt lives. In Floyd County, such vehicles may rely more often on articulated trailers that can navigate curves.

Horry has about eighteen times as many people as Floyd. As a tourist resort on the East Coast, the Grand Strand is second only to Disney World in number of visitors. While Floyd has the Parkway, vital source of tourists and even residents, Horry, too, preserves a national make-work project completed in the Depression: the Intracoastal Waterway, now of importance mainly to recreation and real estate.

Drivers coming into “Myrtle” on Hwy. 501 run a gamut of billboards (e.g., “Touch sharks!”), and then a stretch of highway that, especially to someone from bucolic Floyd, seems to divide a chaos of signs, colors, and structures. (This disorder is exceeded only by Hwy. 17 in North Myrtle Beach, a stretch that invites drivers to shut their eyes.) Like Floyd, Horry makes only a modest attempt at zoning and other ways of subordinating parts to the whole. Neither place intends to be sophisticated, and along the Grand Strand, often called the Redneck Riviera, its many restaurants favor caps for men but do not require them.

Even more than in Floyd, it seemed to me, people in Horry tended to be overweight—as in most places in the U.S.A. but especially in the rural South. In Cherokee, N.C., a note attached to a cash register declared, “Jesus loves you big.” In my wry misreading, the Lord’s favor toward fat is lucky for the two men who once stood in a doorway of a Floyd County business like the meeting of two hot-air balloons; and for the potbellied man in Myrtle Beach who wore a shirt announcing that “Winners like to be on top.” 

At an intersection we stopped behind two cars that each bore the chromium fish-sign, making us wonder if Christianity could be more dominant in Horry than in Floyd, where that “Coexist” sticker seems more likely but wooden crosses (single or in threes) appear here and there. As for sports–I was surprised to see an orange trailer along the Waccamaw River, painted by a fan of Clemson University, that lacked the Hokie maroon of Virginia Tech. 

As in Floyd, airplane contrails often lined the southwest-by-northeast, but in this coastal area the site of the path shifted to the west. Again we had to drink filtered water (a come-down from our well-source). But again we were delighted by the sight of shiny green live-oak trees with their dangling gray pennants. Yet we had to watch the grass for piles made by fire-ants, insects that can deliver stinging rebukes to nature-lovers. Strolling on sand, however, we could hear the hypnotic waves as they surged over themselves whitely. Perhaps there is a more liberating place than the seaside, but certainly its rolling-to-the-horizon flatness is keenly appreciated by mountain folks. In a surprising detail, the familiar winging hawks of Floyd had turned white.

One day Marge and I took a walk in the neighborhood that had been a golf course, now with apartments, condos, and houses; I could stand with my back toward a corner and look almost 360 degrees at dwellings near and far with no intervening space, like a continuous cutout. Not so in Floyd County, although aspects of its own “built environment” (human-made surroundings) are subject to pressures and differences of opinion—hilltop houses, housing developments, noise, traffic load, and downtown esthetics. Near our condo in South Carolina we now had a Wal-Mart, and every time we shopped there, I wondered why all these people had no life. 

Out in the vast countryside of Horry, by contrast, stretched fields—as if the hills had been razed. Where were the neat rows of the Christmas tree farms? As in Floyd County, small churches dotted the landscape, but no Church of the Brethren, and on the level sand they wasted the assurance of Psalm 95: God holds the deep places of the earth and the strength of the hills. 

As for animals, only a few cattle, and none of the Appalachian breed with shorter legs on one side. And the dirt was sand, as farmers plowed the former ocean-bottom. We saw indications of tobacco-raising, an occupation little known in Floyd. One was an obsolete, two-story, wooden flue-curing barn; another was a road sign, “Golden Leaf”; and the last was a large structure once used for tobacco auctions. There seemed to be fewer junked vehicles in yards or fields than in Appalachia.

Instead of ridges and mountains that impeded mobility, swamps were everywhere in the countryside—sluggish, sideways-spreading water that had helped isolate the area since the first white people reported on the wilderness in the early 1700s. As the swamps brewed vegetation that darkened the rivers, they created impediments that were more daunting than the network of rivers, creeks, and rivulets in Floyd County. In fact, as one old-timer remembered, swamps made it difficult just to reach the ferry across the river. Another contrast: water starts In Floyd but ends in Horry. After a lot of rain, I was surprised to see many puddles in Horry–not just in muddy areas like those of Floyd. So low, no place to go. On Highway 501 near Myrtle Beach, for example, the elevation registered 26 feet. In the Lowcountry the change in height is so minimal that rivers can flow backward and spread sideways, and on the Waccamaw, the tidal incursion reaches as far up as Conway.

This video pictures the Waccamaw River as it almost imperceptibly flows toward a January sunset.

And coming from the mainly-white enclave in the Blue Ridge, I was once again surprised by the number of African Americans in the community. The daily lunar flood of the Waccamaw allowed slaves to grow rice, for it could be impounded to cover the crop during one phase of the process. Such tidal water also was vital for growing long-staple cotton. The slaves had to clear the forests to plant crops in the first place, making stumps of their own lives. It seemed to me that Floyd County seemed blessedly free of the reliance on the slave-chain, although its farmers themselves worked for a hard master.

These kidnaped people of the Low Country had been transported by the same tidal power from the harbor of Charleston, many of them having done time on Caribbean sugar plantations—source of rum for Northerners. (See Charles Joyner, Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community, Univ. of Illinois Press, 1984.)* These people not only helped to grow crops but to fell trees and extract turpentine products from them—industries that depended on water for transportation. And it was the slaves who eventually produced citizens, those who stayed and those who emigrated to Northern cities. As in Floyd County, the problem of slavery and the catastrophe of the Civil War was somewhat complicated. In Horry County, for example, the personage who owned the most slaves hailed from Maine, objected to the war, and saw his son become a heroic Confederate soldier.

As for any influence on the 1970s counterculture on Horry County–just about nil. Perhaps “counterculture” should be taken to mean the way visitors to the beach often shed sobriety, propriety, maybe a wedding ring.

* In 1990 Dr. Joyner institutionalized Randall’s modest project of videotaping interviews with people described in Along the Waccamaw. He christened the Horry County Oral History Project and then funded it through his office at Coastal Carolina College/University. He also wrote the introduction to Randall’s Old Times in Horry Couny.