Just as people bring their own background to Floyd County, they bring Floyd County to other places. My wife and I escaped much of the winter, including the two-foot snowfall, by staying at our condo in South Carolina. We had lived for thirty-five years in Horry County (“Oh-ree’), near Myrtle Beach, but familiar details of the place now stood out sharply and unpredictably during our sojourn.Although Horry (the largest county east of the Mississippi) is about three times the size of Floyd, both were formerly quite isolated. Now, only Floyd, with its moat of a rampart. The Independent Republic of Horry resembles a peninsula of North Carolina that’s nearly surrounded by water. Travelers who enter via Hwy. 501 from the northwest cross a river to an elevation of 54 feet, according to the altimeter. Same case if coming from the south, and from the east, it’s by boat. Drivers earn admission to Floyd County from the south by negotiating Rt. 8. They roll under the stone-overpass of the Blue Ridge Parkway, while on Rt. 501, before drivers reach the Atlantic, they come to one underpass after another, etc.–along with bridges over both the Waccamaw River and the Intracoastal Waterway. In Horry County, driving challenges come mainly on the crowded, four-lane highways; in Floyd, they come on the twisting and hilly two-lanes. The familiar S.C. log trucks, on their way to the wood-chip mill, seemed to carry surprisingly–no, disturbingly–extended, once-tall trunks. In Floyd County, such vehicles may rely more often on articulated trailers that can navigate curves more safely
As a tourist resort on the East Coast, the Grand Strand is second only to Disneyness. Horry has about eighteen times as many people as Floyd County, but each entity includes a national make-work project completed in the Depression: Horry has the Waterway, of limited practical import to the area; Floyd the Parkway, vital source of tourists and even residents. 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 lined by a chaos of signs, colors, and structures. (This disorder is exceeded only by Hwy. 17 in North Myrtle Beach, a stretch that invites even drivers to shut their eyes.) Like Floyd, Horry makes only a modest attempt to subordinate the part to the whole in any aspect of life. Neither place is sophisticated, and the Grand Strand is often called the Redneck Riviera with a certain fond mockery. Caps favored but optional at its many restaurants.
Even more than in Floyd County, 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.” The Lord’s favor toward avoirdupois 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.” I was surprised to see an orange trailer along the Waccamaw River—painted by a fan of Clemson University sports—without the maroon of the Hokies. 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 a “Coexist” sticker seems more likely.
As in Floyd, airplane contrails lined a southwest-by-northeast path, but in this coastal area the path strangely shifted to the west. Again we had to drink filtered water (a come-down from our well-water). But again we were favored by the sight of shiny green oak trees with their dangling gray pennants. Yet we had to watch 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 those who live in a mountain fastness. In a surprising detail, the familiar winging hawks had turned white.One day as 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, almost 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 other people didn’t have a life. Despite my ambivalence about this chain, the pair of “Dollars” in the town of Floyd do not a Wal-Mart make.
Out in the vast country, by contrast, spacious flat 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, even though Psalm 95 seemed to waste its assertion that God holds the deep places of the earth and the strength of the hills. No Church of the Brethren congregation. As for animals, few cattle, and none of the Appalachian breed with shorter legs on one side. And the dirt–was it sand? Were farmers plowing the beach! (Yes, the county rests on former shores.) 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 rusting in yards or fields than in Appalachia.
Instead of ridges and mountains that impeded mobility, swamps were everywhere in the countryside—sluggish, sideways water that had helped moat-in the area since the first white people reported on the wilderness in the early 1700s. As they brewed vegetation that darkened the rivers, these swamps 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. In Floyd County, water starts; it ends in Horry County. This video pictures the Waccamaw River as it flows toward a January sunset.
After a lot of rain, I was surprised to see many puddles, and not just in muddy areas like those of Floyd. 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. After some thought I realized that there was actually a connection between drainage and demography. For both characterize the Low Country. On Highway 501 near Myrtle Beach, for example, the elevation registered 26 feet. In the Low Country the change in elevation is so slight that rivers can flow backward and spread sideways. On the Waccamaw, the tidal incursion reaches as far up as Conway. And this lunar flood is what 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 chain, although its farmers themselves worked for a hard master.
These kidnaped people of the Low Country had been transported by 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.