If you ever find yourself in Myrtle Beach for several days, and you’re not attracted to the touristy “attractions” and cheesy shows, consider going off the beaten path to find what the low country was like before commercialism invaded.
Down below Murrell’s Inlet there’s Brookgreen Gardens, which is nice, but so manicured that it bears little resemblance to what the land once was. Keep driving south and you’ll come upon Sandy Island Road, which can’t take you to Sandy Island, but it will take you to a small boat landing where island residents leave beat up cars and trucks for occasional trips to buy essential supplies.
Sandy Island is not what you’d think from the name — it’s not a barrier island or even a salt water island, but an inland island cut off from land by the Waccamaw River, the Great PeeDee River, and Bull Creek. The only access to the 9,000 acre expanse of overgrown prehistoric dunes and marsh is by boat: the only residents are a smattering of folk descended from slaves who’ve managed to hold on to a few scattered homes and prevent any sort of development: most of the island is a nature preserve. What children there are cross to the mainland in South Carolina’s only school boat.
Internet descriptions claim the population preserves Gullah traditions, but no one on the island speaks Gullah, according to Beulah, who runs the island’s one tiny store. There’s an “Open” sign in the window, but ordinarily no one in the store unless rare visitors happen to be hanging around, puzzling over the “Open” sign and the locked door.
Part of the island’s charm is that the folks who live there like their peace and quiet. Rommy Pyatt does have an old pontoon boat from which he operates “Tours de Sandy Island,” but not frequently. The Nature Conservancy has established three nature trails on the island, but the young man we found who was willing to ferry us over didn’t know where they were. When I showed him a map, he said he couldn’t get there. When we found a promised informational kiosk, it contained no information.
To get to the trail, we were told, “Go this way until you come to a tree in the middle of the road, then go left. At the next fork, go right. You’ll come to a few houses and old cars, then follow the power line to the trail – I think.”
So we didn’t reach the Red Cockaded Woodpecker Trail or the Little Bull Creek Trail or even the shorter Larry Paul Trail, but we saw hawks and lots of deer tracks and what may have been marks of a wild boar. We saw countless pine trees and scrub oaks and swampy inlets festooned with cypress knees. We saw a world decorated with Spanish moss that operates much differently than the one we normally occupy, a place where life moves along slowly, day by day, and interacts little with the outside unless the gas can or the refrigerator are empty.
We saw enough, I think, to go back. After all, we have Desmond’s phone number, and he promised to look it up on the web and find how to get us to the woodpecker trail next time. And if we don’t make it back, that’ll suit the island residents just fine.