South Carolina: The age of innocence

Article taken from National Geographic Traveller (UK Edition) March 2014

Written by Chris Leadbeater

Read the full article here:

Far removed from the bright lights of metropolitan USA, South Carolina revels in its traditional, wholesome brand of Americana, as well as its magnificent rivers, forests, hills and valleys — and why not?

“Now that,” says Rec Cobb, wiping the spray from his eyes and readjusting his helmet, “is definitely more of a wake-up call than any cup of coffee. That’s coffee for the soul.” He has a point. We’ve just roared through Bull Sluice — a giddy maelstrom of foam and spiteful currents that lurks halfway down the cantankerous flow of the Chattooga River in the north west of South Carolina. The water is palpably outraged at having to negotiate this Class IV rapid, and — in the three seconds it takes to make the right-angle swerve — our hard-rubber raft is no more at ease, jerking and twitching as it battles to remain afloat.Rec, however, is joyful — despite the fact that, with over 20 years of guiding experience on this river worked into his shoulder muscles, he has passed this way many times before.

I, meanwhile, am exhilarated. And the thrill is about more than adrenalin; there’s a film link too. Four decades ago, the Chattooga made its cinematic debut as the fictional River Cahulawassee, framing the struggles of Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight as out-of-town canoeists beset by murderous locals in the 1972 thrillerDeliverance. Bull Sluice had a starring role, as did two of its evocatively-titled colleagues, Surfing Rapid and Screaming Left Hand Turn. In braving all three, I feel I’ve shared in a piece of Hollywood history.

A famous connection such as this, though, is a rarity in a state that shuns the spotlight. Considering it was one of the first names written onto the US map — founded as the lower half of the British colony of Carolina in 1663 — you might expect South Carolina to be utterly documented. Instead, it’s an unknown, nestled between its larger sibling, North Carolina (divorced in a bout of in-fighting in 1729) and more celebrated Georgia, to the south and west. It’s the 11th-smallest US state; a sliver equivalent in area to Austria, where Texas is the size of Afghanistan. It’s the lost jigsaw piece under the US sofa; the ghost station by the railway track.

And it likes things this way. The hillbilly bogeyman portrayed in Deliverance may be a screen invention, but the movie is accurate on one score: the quiet beauty of the scenery.

 River deep, mountain high

The Chattooga River is special, an obvious boundary that, for much of its 57 miles, forms the state line with Georgia. Cocooned by corridors of forest on each side, it is also designated a ‘Wild and Scenic River’ — protecting its banks from any sort of development. Nor is it alone. South Carolina is laced with rivers of photogenic splendour — the Seneca, Tugaloo, Savannah, Congaree, Broad, Saluda. They meander through an enormously diverse landscape that’s loosely split into three sections: the easterly Lowcountry, with its sandscapes, marshes and 187 miles of Atlantic coast; the central Midlands, underpinned by the Piedmont Plateau; and the northwesterly Upcountry, where the Blue Ridge Mountains rise as precursors to the Appalachians. This is a slice of the US at its most natural; water catching the sun, hiking trails ebbing into the distance.

These contrasts are most visible when, leaving the Chattooga, I venture to the far north of the state, following the curls of US Route 276 to Caesars Head State Park. Here, the Blue Ridge Escarpment climbs to 3,208ft, taunting the plateau with 2,000ft of elevation — as if Appalachia, bored of the flat terrain, is throwing up a wall of rock as a territorial marker.

The view skirts over hills and into valleys — and I find myself retreating down the road towards another of South Carolina’s 47 state parks. At first glance, Table Rock State Park looks like a shard of horror-movie creepiness — a little lake, orange in the death of the day; a floating deck in the middle, bereft of swimmers; dark log cabins, semi-concealed in the trees, rocking chairs on their verandas; a total absence of phone signal. But morning brings out the glory of the setting — dawn flitting across the eponymous mountain, underscoring the whiteness of its bare crown, where, according to Cherokee myth, a huge Native American would eat dinner; mist on the lake; the chirp of birdsong; the chatter of walkers seeking the Foothills Trail, which begins in the park, and winds 76 miles south west, along ridges and past waterfalls, to Oconee State Park. I spend a second night here, amid more lakeside serenity, impressed by the sturdiness of my log cabin. A plaque by its door tells me it was built between 1933 and 1942 by the Civilian Conservation Corps — young men put to work as part of the New Deal, Franklin D Roosevelt’s plan to drag the US out of the Great Depression.

It’s a wholesome picture — domestic travel, gentle holidays, campfire evenings. But then, South Carolina revels in such imagery. Certainly in the Upcountry, which, in parts, is so far removed from metropolitan America — from New York and Los Angeles — it’s effectively another country: deeply traditional, big on family values, conservative in its politics, staunch in religion. So much is clear as I drive east along Highway 11. Walhalla does small-town piety — St John’s Lutheran Church, jabbing its pale steeple into the blue. Further on, orchards and peach groves well up by the road. Near Cleveland, Perdeaux Fruit Farm sells a staggering variety of apples — baskets of Red Delicious, Mutsu, Red Rome, Empire, Gala, Fuji. Aunt Sue’s Country Corner, in Pickens County, is as much community center and general store as eatery, although its kitchen does heaped plates of fried catfish and oysters.

Pausing here for coffee, my eye is drawn to a sign by the till. “A bible that’s falling apart often belongs to someone who isn’t,” it reads. God treads heavily in South Carolina — a Bible Belt buckle where churches are as common as petrol stations, and come in as many brands. Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Episcopal, Lutheran — they’re all here along Highway 11, competing to save my soul. Some try to do so with humor. “God wants full custody, not a weekend visit,” wisecracks the billboard outside one. Others are more direct. “Rapture Ready: Everyone Welcome,” shouts the arrow pointing to a corrugated temple. It’s Sunday, and the waitress at the Sagebrush Steakhouse mishears when I order a root beer with my sirloin. “Oh no, I can’t serve you any alcohol today,” she replies, shaking her head sadly.