As I sped southward down Interstate 81, the clouds were incising shadows on the rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley. Those hills must have looked much the same to Sheridan’s cavalrymen as they raced to round up Mosby’s Raiders and hang them without trial almost 150 years ago. In those hills, the Civil War had begun to get ugly.
Oddly, I was struck by the realization that I was doing much of the Civil War in fast forward during my winter-break drive from Baltimore to Charleston, S.C., and back. I had wound my way past Harper’s Ferry and then Charlestown, W. Va., where John Brown hung from the gallows; billboards advertise jackpots at the town’s racetrack and slots. After a night in Charlotte with relatives, I’d be in Charleston, albeit out of earshot of the cannon fire on Fort Sumter. A few days later, on the way home, I’d use the bathroom at a McDonald’s near Appomattox.
I was spending New Year’s with my girlfriend’s family in the low country south of the sprawl of condominiums on Seabrook Island. Though quite near the extravagant golf-course-and-beach-access living of the nouveau South, we could hardly have felt farther away. We had to motor a Boston Whaler a half-hour seaward on the North Edisto River to a timeshare on a large nature preserve covered with palmettos. There are only a handful of structures on over a hundred acres of undeveloped habitat; we used golf carts to get around.
Early in the trip, as the tide poured out of the marsh creeks, I noticed dolphins surfacing amid seagulls near a bend. I had lugged my fly rod from Baltimore and was eager to try out the new saltwater flies I had been given for Christmas. Later, on a falling tide, I motored one of the boats to that spot in the creek, throwing the anchor and letting the boat come around fast against the tug of the water. Neither my girlfriend nor I caught the striper that haunted my dreams, but we had a great time perched on the bow in the unseasonably warm weather.
Things got interesting, though, when we decided to call it a day and the outboard motor would not start or even turn over — the battery line must have corroded.
Paddling the boat to the near shore was no big deal, but the low tide left about six feet of dark marsh muck between the boat and hard ground. There was little choice; I took off my shoes and rolled my pants up above my knees (another Christmas present — sorry, Mom) and leapt from the relative safety of the Plexiglas bow into the mire. Muddy from head to toe, I plodded back to the dock for a tow.
In spite of our self-prescribed quarantine on that isolated property and the muck it deposited under my toenails, it turns out we weren’t the only people who knew it was one of the few undeveloped stretches of shoreline from Charleston to Savannah. A couple of years ago, Columbia Pictures arranged to use the place to shoot the memorable sequence of “The Patriot” in which freed and runaway slaves were living blissfully in a settlement on the dunes. They welcomed the benevolent abolitionist-planter (remember, this is supposed to be the Revolution, not the Rebellion) while he hatched his plan to hack the Redcoats to pieces.
When we visited, there was a lone thatch hut left on location as a memento from the production. Inside, a hammock had been bolted to the creosote-soaked wooden frame, and we swung in it for a while.
As we walked back down the beach from the stretch that had been used to film that disingenuous re-creation of our origins, I couldn’t help feeling implicated in its silliness myself. After all, I’d done my whirlwind tour of the Civil War to a soundtrack of “Forty-Minute Free Rides” and “Ninety-Minute Rock Blocks”, on a steady diet of Big Macs and soft drinks.
And no matter how many times I rig my fly rod and cast out into a spot I’m sure is teeming with fish, no matter how big the striper that glimmers in my dreams, I just can’t seem to catch a thing.